Posted by Hannah Miller
My spring plays at school and church are over; my exams and SAT subject tests are winding down. So now’s the time to get back to Word of the Week.
This week’s theatre artist is CHARLES WINNINGER, born 124 years ago yesterday, on May 26, 1884. His name may be largely forgotten today, but in theatre history, he’s someone worth noting. His Word of the Week is SKYLARKING.
From the mid-1920s until the mid-50s, Charles Winninger was one of America’s favorite character actors, especially in musical theatre, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. He began his career as a lovable vaudeville comic, and became a star in 1927 when he originated the role of Cap’n Andy in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s landmark Broadway musical, Show Boat (pictured below and to the right). Winninger was so associated with that iconic role that he was asked to play the part again in the 1932 Broadway revival, the classic 1936 movie, and radio revivals in 1940 and 1944.
Show Boat is considered by many to be the first great American musical. Based on the 1926 best-selling novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat was the first Broadway musical to tell a dramatic rather than comic story. This took place at a time when most musicals were actually revues and didn’t tell stories at all. Show Boat’s story was epic, taking place over several decades, and its depiction of racism and interracial marriage broke new ground for American musical theatre.
In addition to his star-making role in Show Boat, Winninger appeared in 13 other Broadway musicals. The first was The Wall Street Girl in 1912, which he also directed. Co-starring in The Wall Street Girl was another newcomer named Will Rogers.
Winninger appeared in numerous revues produced by George M. Cohan and Florenz Ziegfeld. He starred in the original cast of the 1925 Broadway hit No, No, Nanette, and starred two years later in the follow-up trifle Yes, Yes, Yvette (I’m not kidding). Luckily for Winninger, Yvette closed after only one month, allowing him to move on to Show Boat, which opened seven short weeks after Yvette went dark. Winninger’s last appearance on Broadway was the 1951 revival of another Kern / Hammerstein musical, Music in the Air.
His major role in the film version of Show Boat helped Winninger became a star in Hollywood, and he eventually appeared in 75 movies and TV shows during his long career. His national popularity grew with standout roles in classic movies such as Babes in Arms with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Destry Rides Again with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and State Fair (pictured to the left) with Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews and Vivian Blaine. He also was a frequent TV guest star on I Love Lucy, playing Fred Mertz’s old vaudeville partner.
In the opening scene of Show Boat, Cap’n Andy introduces the show boat stars to the locals who have come down to the dock to see what’s going on. He encourages several of his performers to present short “samples” of their acts. When a fight breaks out between leading man Steve and a rowdy member of the crew, Cap’n Andy tries to convince the crowd that the fight is also only a “sample” of the exciting dramatics that will be performed on the show boat later that evening.
“Well, folks—that was jest a sample. The boys jest showed you a scene from one of our bills. That’s the way they are, folks, always SKYLARKING, always playing pranks. Jest one big happy family!”
A SKYLARK is a bird with brownish plumage. In Old World tradition, the feature that distinguished a SKYLARK from other larks was that a SKYLARK was known for its singing while in flight. In history, the French people referred to Joan of Arc as The Lark, and in 2006 Barksdale produced The Lark by Jean Anouilh, American adaptation by Lillian Hellman, starring Erin Thomas as Joan.
The French word for “lark” is “alouette.” In Old World tradition, a lark was a game bird. In the popular childhood song Alouette, a French housewife merrily sings to the recently bagged lark that will soon grace her dinner table, celebrating how she is about to pluck his head, and then, in subsequent verses, his neck, wings, back and tail.
Having said all that, the verb “to SKYLARK” has nothing to do with the bird.
Originally, SKYLARKING described the antics of young Navy men who climbed the masts and then slid down the rigging of their ships for fun. Since the ancient word “lac” means “to play,” and since these nautical acrobatics took place against a background of sky, the term “skylacing” (with a hard c) was coined to describe such airborne hijinks. Later, popular usage of the word changed it to SKYLARKING, which became a familiar term to most sailors. Over time, the term was generalized to include all types of playful and boisterous activity engaged in by the crew of a ship—even, it seems, a show boat.
Charles Winninger died in 1969 at the age of 84 in Palm Springs, CA. During his lifetime, he became one of the most beloved and “huggable” character actors in Broadway and Hollywood history. You can view a trailer for the movie musical Coney Island at http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1522467097/, featuring Winninger singing the first few lines of everyone’s favorite party song, Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder.