Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Smile, Baby"

She was on the vaudeville stage by the age of two, and appeared in several silent film shorts before she could talk; if she was required to cry on camera, it's reported that her mother told her the dog had died. Though she created a solid acting career on stage and film during her adult years, a fictionalized account of her childhood overshadowed her actual accomplishments.

June Havoc

1912 (or 1913)-2010

She never really knew how old she was, as her mother carried five different birth certificates with five different birth dates, in order to satisfy child labor laws. During her early life in vaudeville, she was bringing in a whopping $1500 a week, a fact overlooked in her sister's memoir which became the basis for the musical which is most closely linked to her public identity. If you are a musical theatre fan, these facts are starting to sound familiar. She first hit the stage as Baby June, graduated to Dainty June, then, at the age of 13 or so, abandoned her domineering mother and a sister she later called "beautiful and clever...and ruthless," eloping with chorus boy Bobby Reed.

This is the plot of the first act of Gypsy, and it haunted Havoc throughout her career. She remained bitter that the musical based on the memoir of her sister, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, left the impression that sister June sank into obscurity after taking off with that dancing boy ("Tulsa" in the musical). In fact, though her teen years were spent in poverty (she and her young husband entered dance marathons in order to share in the free meals afforded the contestants), she eventually carved out a stage career which included the original production of Pal Joey, and a film career which included costarring with Gregory Peck in Gentlemen's Agreement. She was a playwright and director as well as an actress, winning a Tony nomination for directing Julie Harris in her own play Marathon '33, at a time (1963) when female stage directors were few and far between.

Major Broadway appearances included her portrayal of Miss Hannigan late in the run of the original Annie, and an acclaimed performance in the 1975 sex farce Habeas Corpus (I actually saw that production, and wrote about it here). She replaced Ethel Merman in the original production of Panama Hattie, and decades later, headlined the second national tour of Sweeney Todd.

Here's a quickie clip of Havoc's work on an original musical called Happy Birthday Aunt Sarah, which ran on the Omnibus series during the early days of television. I remember seeing her sister Gypsy Rose Lee (at right) on various talk and game shows during my childhood; there is an undeniable family resemblance. This clip confirms that Gypsy's Baby June grew into a performer of charm and comic talent:

In 2003, a small Off-Off-Broadway space was christened the June Havoc Theatre; her final performances were in 1990 on the daytime soap General Hospital. She died a few days ago, at the approximate age of 97.

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