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Bruce Yarnell: A Life Too Short

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Posted: Monday, December 20, 2010 12:00 am

The plane lifted off from a Los Angeles area airport early in the morning of November 30, 1973. At the controls of his private plane was a triple threat film and TV actor/singer, and Broadway and opera star, Bruce Yarnell. In the passenger seat was a friend from the Los Angeles Police Department.

Yarnell had completed his road show engagement of Bye Bye Birdie at the Santa Monica Auditorium and was on the way to the San Francisco Opera where he had been a leading baritone for the past two and a half years.

Nobody knows exactly what happened that November morning, but the headline in the Los Angeles Times stated, "Singer/Actor dies in plane crash". The article said that Yarnell's light plane had crashed into the Santa Monica Mountains, killing both the pilot and the passenger.

I first learned of Yarnell's death when my neighbor knocked on my door with a copy of the Times in his hand. The neighbor knew that I had been in the audience at the closing of Bye Bye Birdie the night before. He also knew that I had attended because Yarnell had called me earlier in the week to say that he was arranging for me to pick up a couple of comp tickets at the box office.

Reeling from the shock of my friend's death-he was only 38 years old-my mind flashed back to the day, in 1954, when I first heard that glorious baritone voice at an after-theater cocktail party in the Stanford Court Apartments atop San Francisco's storied Nob Hill. The astounding voice, I soon learned, belonged to a young man, all 6' 5" of him, who was playing a spear carrier in the chorus of Kismet, enjoying a lengthy run at the Curran Theater.

Bruce Yarnell, I soon learned, was getting started in show business after being discovered, while in high school, by Edwin Lester, famed impresario of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company.

It didn't take long for Bruce and I to discover we had many things in common, both philosophically and socially.

The day after our chance meeting, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to the home of a friend of mine who was a pianist and composer. Bruce was suddenly in music heaven, and spent the afternoon belting out song after song, accompanied by my bedazzled pianist friend, who told me later that he had never heard a more beautiful voice. Bruce simply had it all, looks, personality, acting ability and that astounding vocal instrument.

When next we met, I was living in Los Angeles and Bruce Yarnell's name was up in lights as the featured vocalist at the famous Earl Carroll's Theater, the nightclub on Sunset and Vine that announced in glowing neon, "Through these Portals pass the Most Beautiful Girls in the World". I always thought there should be an addendum, reading "And One Handsome Man".

During that period, Bruce would frequently camp out at my place or we would meet after his Earl Carroll's stint for coffee and early breakfast at the Brown Derby on Vine Street.

Yarnell's big break came in 1961 when he was given his own TV series Outlaws. Six episodes, with Bruce in the lead as Deputy Marshall Chalk Breeson, were filmed in 1961 and 1962. A whole series of Southern California stage roles kept him active, and in 1963 he starred in the TV movie The Wide Country. The great Billy Wilder put Bruce into his big screen adaptation of Irma la Douce, playing opposite Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. He played an uncharacteristic role as a pimp.

Yarnell became a regular fixture on TV during the 1960s. He starred in two episodes of Bonanza, as Muley Jones. His most distinctive attribute in that role centered around his voice. Every time he would sing, he would break glass, including windows, street lamps, and even crockery. Following the 1964-1965 Bonanza episodes, he played Capt. Jet Winslow in Hogan's Heroes in 1965, followed by appearances on the 1966 Smothers Brothers show, in the role of Ezra.

A full length TV movie, Good Old Days, followed in 1966. Meanwhile, he was a big hit in the 1966 Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, opposite Ethel Merman. His golden voice, as Frank Butler, was heard on the cast album and in the 1967 TV version of the Lincoln Center production.

Bruce was acclaimed for two revivals of great musicals, Oklahoma at the Lincoln Center in 1964, and Carousel at the City Center Stage, in 1966, as Billy Bigelow.

Earlier in that decade, Bruce had the role of Little John in the Legend of Robin Hood TV series, and he played the role of Matt Reedy in the big screen Road Hustlers. Much earlier, following his Earl Carroll's stint, his voice was heard in Reno, Las Vegas and the Hollywood Bowl, where he sang "An American Album" with the Mormon Choir. I was happily in the audience that night.

Prior to Annie Get Your Gun, Bruce debuted on Broadway in Frank Loesser's The Happiest Girl in the World, followed by a revival of Camelot. Bruce, who had a habit of injuring himself, broke his foot not long after Camelot opened. He spent the rest of the run with a cane that was shaped like a sword.

A rash of Broadway shows followed, opposite Ginger Rogers, Tammy Grimes and Jane Powell. His stage roles included West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate.

In his middle thirties, Bruce turned more and more to Grand Opera, making a huge name for himself in such productions as Aida and Girl of the Golden West, at the San Francisco Opera House and abroad.

He was a regular soloist on TV's Bell Telephone Hour and at one point, in 1966, played himself, as a singer, in Christmas Through the Ages, which was shown at Christmas for three seasons. In 1973, his burgeoning career ended in the wreckage of his own plane. His funeral was held at St. Charles Borremeo Catholic Church, in his home parish, in North Hollywood. His body was interred at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery.

Eighteen years after my friend's death, I received a present of a wonderful album, both records and tapes, produced by the Smithsonian. It was titled "The American Musical Theater Shows, Songs, Stars". The album featured America's greatest voices, from 1900 to 1975. Included was a duet from Annie Get Your Gun, with Ethel Merman, a haunting encore from my long lost friend.

Listening to his glorious voice, my mind swept back nearly 30 years, to the time when Bruce and I were still young and the whole world stretched ahead of us and all things seemed possible. Certainly, his dreams and hopes had come true, even more that I had anticipated. I have always wondered what other mountains he would have climbed, if he had lived a full life.

Bruce was one of the world's greatest raconteurs and loved to tell stories, especially about himself. The trouble is, you never knew if the stories were true or not. For instance, he once informed me that he and his mother had worked undercover for the FBI, but he never would tell me what he was spying on. A bit of mystery always surrounded him and that's the way I will always remember him.

Bruce Yarnell's tragic death was not the end of my association with this singular talent. By 1982, I was the CEO of an organization that I had started in 1977. My very first "Life" member was Gloria Swanson, who I had met in 1976 when she agreed to speak at a meeting on cancer that I had sponsored at the Airport Hilton in Los Angeles. Gloria enthusiastically endorsed the non-profit organization that I had named The Cancer Federation.

At some point, Gloria told Billy Wilder, who had directed her in Sunset Boulevard that I was a close friend of Bruce Yarnell who had worked with Wilder on Irma la Douce. Shortly thereafter, The Cancer Federation received a sizable check from Billy Wilder, in Bruce Yarnell's memory, a fitting tribute to my friend.

Bruce Yarnell Filmography Born: Dec. 28, 1935, Los Angeles, CA Died: Nov. 30, 1973, Los Angeles, CA

1. Outlaws TV Series Six episodes (1961 1962) Deputy Marshall Chalk Breeson 2. The Wide Country Film 1963 3. Irma la Douce Film 1963 Director Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Bruce Yarnell 4. Annie Get Your Gun at the Lincoln Center, with Ethel Merman. (Revival, 1965) 5. Carousel Center Theater, Broadway New York City (Revival 1966) 6. Oklahoma Center Theater, Broadway New York City (Revival 1967) 7. Bonanza Two episodes, "The Saga of Muley Jones" and "Hound Dogs". (1964 1965) 8. Hogan's Heroes One episode (1965) 9. Smothers Brothers Show One episode (1966) 10. Good Old Days TV film (1966) 11. Annie Get Your Gun TV (film of Lincoln Center production) as Frank Butler (1967) 12. The Road Hustlers Film, as Matt Reedy (1968) 13. The Legend of Robin Hood TV Series as Little John (1968) 14. The Bell Telephone Hour Soloist (19660 15. Christmas Through the Ages TV Soloist (1966 1967) 16. Hollywood Bowl Soloist with the Mormon Choir "An American Album". 17. San Francisco Opera Lead Baritone also sang with opera companies abroad (1971 1973) 18. Annie Get Your Gun Cast Album with Ethel Merman and Broadway cast (1966) 19. The Next Best Thing album, performs "They Say It's Wonderful". Reprise (2000) 20. Bye Bye Birdie National road show engagement (1973) 21. A Century of Shows, Songs & Stars. Album produced by the Smithsonian Institution. Great American performers from 1900 to 1970. Released in cassette and record forms. Bruce Yarnell as Frank Butler with Ethel Merman (1990)

San Francisco Opera Performances 1971"Lulu", by Alban Berg, in German. Yarnell sang four roles an animal trainer, Dr. Goll, Jack the Ripper and Rodrigo, an athlete. 1971 "Madame Butterfly", by Puccini, in Italian, Yarnell sang the role of Sharpless. 1972 "Aida" by Verdi, in Italian. Yarnell sang the role of Amonasro. 1972 "The Visit of the Old Lady" by Gottfried Einem, in English. Yarnell sang the role of the Priest. 1972 "Tosca", by Puccini, in Italian. Yarnell sang the role of Baron Scarpiov. 1973 "Boris Godunov" by Mussorgsky, in Russian. Yarnell sang the role of Rangoni. 1973 "Die Fliedermaus" by Strauss, in English. Yarnell sang the role of Dr. Falke. 1973 "La Boheme" by Puccini, in Italian. Yarnell sang the role of Marcello. 1973 "La Grande Duchess de Gerolstein" by Offenbach, in English. Yarnell sang the role of General Boom. This opera was staged at the Curran Theater, in San Francisco. Bruce also sang the lead in "The Girl of the Golden West", in America and abroad.