A Way with Words
by Joe Collura
While Hollywood films have been blessed with many striking and unusual character actors, few have been more instantly recognizable than tall, blond, gaunt Sterling Holloway. In addition to his appearance, he had an amazing voice with high, whispery, cracked tones delived in a slow cadence that once was compared to the sound of a rusty nail being pulled slowly out of a piece of wood.
Holloway began his professional acting career on he stage in the mid 1920s and is still being imitated by voice actors today. This writer was lucky enough to interview him in 1988 when he returned for a second consecutive year to Knoxville, Tennessee for the Riders of the Silver Screen Film Caravan. Fans attending the festival were best acquainted with the comedy relief he provided in five of Gene Autry’s post World War II westerns, but they also remembered him for the voice work he had done in numerous Disney features and short subjects since 1941.
“Oh, that voice has made him,” said Kay Williams who accompanied Holloway to Knoxville and tried, sometimes with great effort, to keep up with the then 83-year-old actor. “He's in pretty good shape. He has great energy. And if I didn't limit the time he spends on certain things, he’d never take a break.”
Sterling Holloway, born on January 14, 1905 in Cedartown, Georgia, was the son of a wholesale grocer and cotton broker who was also the town mayor in 1912. Sterling would have been the first of his family to embark on an acting career, except for a distant relative named Lady Penelope Boothby. Immortalized on canvas by distinguished 18th century artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lady Penelope once graced the English stage.
Educated at the Georgia Military Academy, Holloway seems to have wanted to be an actor since childhood, and his participation in amateur theatricals at military school strengthened that resolve. Later, he tried to enroll at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Fearful he might be turned down, he tried to impress his interviewer by saying that he had produced and acted in a production of The Merchant of Venice at the Georgia Military Academy. To bolster this highly impressive claim, he added that he already had met quite a few theatrical people at his grandfather's famous Boothby's Restaurant in Philadelphia.
“I started in show business when I was 15 years old,”remembered the actor, “by enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. That was in 1920. Some of my classmates included Spencer Tracy, Allen Jenkins, and Pat O'Brien. You know what happened to them.”
In his late teens, Holloway toured with a stock company of The Shepherd of the Hills, performing in one-nighters across much of the American West before returning to New York where he accepted small walk-on parts from the Theatre Guild. Young Sterling was seen in The Failures and Fata Morgana but it was the Guild’s first musical venture, The Garrick Gaieties, which truly revealed his abilities to handle comedy, pantomime, singing, and dancing.
Prior to October 13, 1924 (when Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne opened in the Molnar comedy, The Guardsman, and enjoyed their first great triumph as a team) the Theatre Guild offered audiences a rich assortment of plays by the likes of Shaw, Ibsen and Strindberg, usually performed without big name stars or lavish sets. The Guild operated out of a small, shabby theater, the Garrick, on West 35th Street, and in the course of its initial six years—since changing its name from the Washington Square Players in 1918—most of the productions (sometimes five or six plays a season) had lost money.
The young players, including regular member Sterling Holloway, who helped put on these Guild presentations organized themselves into a group called the Theatre Guild Junior Players. And on May 17, 1925, in order to raise money for two tapestries for a future playhouse on 52nd Street, they staged a musical revue (the Guild's first), titled The Garrick Gaieties, which proved to be an enormous economic and critical success.
With songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (their first real assignment as a songwriting duo) and satirical sketches that poked fun at current plays and a variety of other topics by Ben Kaye and others, what started as a benefit event scheduled for two performances, grew into a hit show lasting half a year.
As for Sterling’s part in The Garrick Gaieties of 1925, he participated in the opening number, "Soliciting Subscriptions,”which kidded the artsy pretensions of the Theatre Guild, and was heard from again in Act Two, in a slang-filled historical routine, "The Three Musketeers." In addition, and most notably, Holloway and June Cochrane charmingly introduced the song, “Manhattan” (on a completely bare stage while scenery was being shifted behind the curtain), about the everyday pleasures to be found in New York, which emerged as a highly popular and durable city anthem of the 1920s and '30s.
“I've always loved the theater very much,” remarked Holloway. “I've always been in it. I hate being away from it. I'm very stubborn—I like to do what I want to do. And what I want to do most is theater.”
Because of its strong reception and long run (161 performances), and following in the tradition set by the Grand Street Follies and The Greenwich Village Follies, The Garrick Gaieties came back with a brand new program in May of 1926. Like the first one, the new edition (there would be a total of four) contained plenty of high-spirited, youthful spoofing as well as a fine musical score. And this time around, Sterling Holloway, along with Bobbie Perkins, introduced the Rodgers and Hart tune, “Mountain Greenery,” (which wistfully praises vacations in the country) something of a companion piece to "Manhattan," and every bit as successful.
The second Gaieties ran slightly longer (174 performances) than the original edition, until November of 1926, after which Sterling Holloway was lured into making his first silent feature, Casey at the Bat, for the Famous Players-Lasky film company. Based on the popular Ernest Lawrence Thayer poem (first printed on June 3, 1888 in the San Francisco Examiner) about a baseball hero's fall from glory, the movie retained some of the pathos and insight of the literary version, along with a much heavier dose of comedy. Wallace Beery, a former circus performer and Mack Sennett alumnus, played the central figure (succinctly described as an "idler six days a week and an idol on the seventh"), while Sterling Holloway, as "Putnam" became Mudville's chicken inspector and, next to Casey, the most persistent suitor of hometown sweetheart ZaSu Pitts.
"Not a smash and a picture that looks like limited box office," begins Variety's overall tepid review (April 6, 1927) of Casey at the Bat. "The plot's punch hangs on the scout (Ford Sterling) and Casey's self-appointed manager (Sterling Holloway) trying to frame the star of the Giants out of the World Series . . . (Ford) Sterling supplies his standard aid and Holloway is adequate. The latter is a screen recruit from Garrick Gaieties and as far as is known is in his first major production. Previously, he was playing in two-reelers, also comedy."
On screen, Holloway's thin figure (he stood 5-ft., 11-in. and weighed a mere 135 pounds) and surreptitious behavior nicely contrasted Beery's huge heft and swagger. Moreover, the two worked well together in the sequences they shared. Sterling, however, did not enjoy the long drawn out, piecemeal process of filmmaking.
“I didn't like making silent movies,” Holloway said to me, on his way to his room after a lengthy autograph session at Knoxville. “Perhaps, it was because I was from the stage and accustomed to a completely different routine.” Asked if Wallace Beery, sometimes known to be cantankerous, was difficult, he replied soberly, “They all were.”
It was a difficult period. “I came to Hollywood at a bad time. The movies were in a state of turmoil. Sound was coming in and silents were going out. I made a silent two-reel comedy, The Fighting Kangaroo. Then I did a silent feature, Casey at the Bat, with Wallace Beery, and all of a sudden I was a has been. Nobody thought I was suitable for talkies. I didn't feel so bad when I heard about John Gilbert [considered a victim of the transition to sound movies because of a supposedly inadequate voice]. So I returned to New York.”
Vowing to stay away from motion pictures (one jerk of a director had told him he looked "too repulsive" for the silver screen), Sterling Holloway made his way back to his old stomping grounds in New York City where he was recruited for yet another edition of The Garrick Gaieties—number three. The show ran briefly at the Guild Theatre on Broadway before going on a lengthy, cross-country tour.
Among those joining Holloway were Philip Loeb, and Imogene Coca. Also among the troupe was Rosalind Russell who helped burlesque Strange Interlude, and in another sketch played England's Queen Mary. “I was earning $300 a week, a fortune in 1930,” wrote an ailing Roz Russell in 1977. “We had our own train, and our own musicians traveled with us to Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, and we had the kind of fun you can only have when you're young and strong, and you think your luck is going to last forever.”
Unfortunately, the stock market crash of 1929 quickly caught up with Broadway and through most of 1931, 45% of New York's legitimate theaters were dark. That same year found Sterling Holloway on the west coast back in front of the movie cameras. Now that studios were frantically searching for stage actors to replace those silent luminaries whose voices were deemed unsuitable, he found steady work playing supporting roles in literally dozens of films. Asked what drew him to Hollywood, and made him change his mind about making movies, Holloway responded without much delay, “I guess, money.”
Despite his growing recognition from musical revues, vaudeville, night club engagements, and radio, Sterling suddenly became anxious about making it in films. “Everything in New York had already been done,” he once remarked. “The new things were happening in Hollywood in pictures.”
In addition to his east coast theatrical background, Sterling had an advantage in his association with the Pasadena Playhouse. Begun in 1920 under the financial guidance of Gilmor Brown, the Pasadena Playhouse prospered until shortly after World War II, during which time more than 1300 plays were produced. Its actors' school, built in the 1930s in the same Spanish architectural style as the theater and located adjacent to it on El Molino Avenue, was known for decades as one of the largest and best theatrical schools in the nation. Some of the students who took classes there included Robert Preston, David Niven, Tyrone Power, William Holden and Alan Ladd. Sterling Holloway managed to win a part in a Playhouse production of a musical comedy, Hullabaloo, and with that, his career in movies took off.
“Some film producers saw me at the Pasadena Playhouse and liked what I was doing,”recalled Holloway. “I got a lot of parts after that. In Blonde Venus, I played this student walking through the woods who finds Marlene Dietrich, in the nude, taking a bath. I wrote my mother about it, and she wanted to know what they were doing to me out here.”
Sterling's concern for financial security was not so strong that he cared to trade away all of his independence to achieve it. For a long time, the freedom to pick and choose the movies he wanted to make (when he wanted to make them) was more important to him than receiving a regular paycheck and blindly accepting every script that came his way. Concerned about being tied down, he resisted signing an exclusive, long-term commitment with any of several studios which approached him about becoming a contract player, including an offer made by the powerful head of MGM.
“Years ago,”recalled Holloway, “when I was a young actor and kind of cocky, Louis B. Mayer, who ran MGM, the largest film studio in Hollywood, summoned me to his Culver City office and said, ‘We want to sign you up and make you a star.’ To which I nonchalantly replied, ‘Perhaps, I don't want to be a star.’ Well, I don't think Mayer had ever heard anyone use these words before because he looked stunned by my response. Finally, after I had shown myself the door, this corporate chieftain yelled to a subordinate, ‘Get that guy back in here!’
“Mayer asked, upon my return to his private chamber, ‘Did I understand you to say that you don't want to be under the auspices of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio?’ ‘Yes,’ I shot back. ‘That's exactly what I said.’ ‘Okay,’ fumed Mayer, ‘we’ll see to it that you get your wish . . . forever.’”
Although he had worn out his welcome at MGM, Holloway worked at all of the other major studios in Hollywood, including Fox where he became acquainted with Will Rogers, who had had an on-again, off-again career in silent movies since 1917 and at times seemed better suited for the Ziegfeld Follies stage (a spot that for a long time spurred his fame). In 1929, Rogers had signed a contract with the Fox Film Corporation. The series of pictures that resulted—two of which (Life Begins at 40 and Doubting Thomas) featured Sterling Holloway-elevated the Oklahoman to the ranks of top ten box office favorites, a position he held onto for four straight years, until his death in 1935.
“Between camera takes,” Holloway related, “Rogers often worked on his syndicated newspaper column. And periodically he'd come to me and say, ‘This is going to be in the paper tomorrow. I wish you would read it and tell me what you think.’ So I would. Whether or not he ever used any of my suggestions I couldn't say . . . I didn't read the newspaper.
“As far as making movies, I don't think Rogers liked the regimen imposed by scripts and shooting schedules. He was always changing the original written lines to fit his own purposes. And everyday at four o'clock, he’d say, ‘This is the window shot for me. I'm quitting. Put the camera on the boy.’ Lucky for me, I was that boy.”
A Will Rogers set was a relaxed, happy set. But it was not necessarily a safe one at all times. Once, a shelf loaded with objects fell on Sterling Holloway's head after Rogers, who had been clowning with his rope, lassoed the wooden prop and pulled it out of place. On another occasion, a gun that Holloway was supposed to fire in a scene accidentally exploded in his hand, showering him with hot powder. Still, Sterling appears to have largely enjoyed his association with America's most popular humorist. “I didn't know Will Rogers very well,” he says. “Nevertheless, he threw me a lot of good scenes which I certainly enjoyed doing.”
Sterling had a prominent part in the Will Rogers film Doubting Thomas, portraying a character named “Mr. Spindler.” His character, a spectacled former scoutmaster who is studying the little theater movement in the U.S., is seen handling sound effects such as a doorbell that never works when needed. Yet in many other films, he was seen only fleetingly, in small roles that did little to advance his career. He's a delivery boy in Gold Diggers of 1933; a finalist in a dance marathon in Hard to Handle; and he holds the telephone for Bing Crosby so the latter can cut a record while getting dressed in Going Hollywood. Not only did such parts require little effort from Sterling, they helped stereotype him as an unsophisticated bumpkin good for a comic stare, or a simple running remark, as in American Madness, where he’s always saying, "You could have knocked me over with a pin," and not much else. “I delivered so many telegrams and jerked so many sodas I got tired of it,” Holloway told an interviewer years later.
Hoping to broaden his artistic horizons, Sterling fell back on the theater and worked—acting and directing—at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Los Angeles Light Opera. Movies, however, still remained a significant part of his career. Of the more than thirty films in which he appeared between 1940 and 1960, his favorite was A Walk in the Sun. Providing him with his biggest acting challenge, the film was a realistic portrait of World War II, following an American infantry platoon from the time the soldiers hit their Italian beachhead to the capture of a German-held farmhouse. As a medic “McWilliams,” Holloway made the most with this chance to do some serious dramatic acting that included an untypical (for him) death scene.
“I enjoyed making A Walk in the Sun,” said Holloway, whose speech pattern sometimes follows a rhythmic cadence. “I was good in it. I was glad I was in it. I was glad I was good in it.”
In real life, Sterling was a soldier too. Drafted by the Army in 1942, he completed two years in Special Services. There he helped to develop a military-themed show called Hey Rookie, which ran for nine months in Los Angeles, rolled up a profit of $350,000 for the Army Relief Fund, and was subsequently purchased for films by Columbia Pictures. Sterling, who wrote, produced and acted as a soldier in the show, toured with the production for a year through Africa and Italy, where much of the fiercest fighting of World War II was still taking place.
In the fall of 1946, following his discharge as flight officer from the Air Force, cowboy star Gene Autry was looking for somebody to provide light humor in what turned out to be his last five western features for Republic Pictures. Autry picked Sterling Holloway because, as he explained in his autobiography, “He had an ambling, loose-gaited look I liked.”
Unlike Gene's prior comic relief, Smiley Burnette (who had signed with Columbia while Autry was in the service), Sterling was not used as a musical buffoon (though he might get up on a table and dance) or as a regular sidekick (in Sioux City Sue, he plays a Hollywood representative out west to recruit a “cactus crooner;” whereas, in Robin Hood of Texas, he's a guest at a cattle ranch that Gene helps manage). Consequently, throughout the series, the importance of his presence and his affiliation with the hero varied from film to film.
Playing a continuing role was something Sterling Holloway would do often on television. After guest appearances on network shows such as Hollywood Premiere (1949), a short-lived variety program that showcased well-known performers in both comic and dramatic settings, and Your Story Theatre, an anthology series, Sterling became "Waldo Binney," eccentric amateur inventor on The Life of Riley (Holloway was also a befuddled scientist in a couple of episodes of TV's Superman). The Life of Riley was a weekly sitcom starring Jackie Gleason that had first come to the airwaves (without Holloway) in 1949, only to win an Emmy and die after 26 weeks. Four years later, Riley returned with an entirely new cast headed by William Bendix, who had created the title role of the bumbling, blue-collar, factory worker on radio in 1943. This time around, the show ran five years on NBC before going into syndication.
Sterling shakes his head when questioned about his working relationship with William Bendix. “We didn’t get along too well . . . and I really don’t know why. We’d speak to one another in the mornings, ‘Hello, how are you?’ that sort of thing, but otherwise we only conversed when they called us to do a scene. And we worked very well together. I mean really well together. Yet the minute the shot was finished, he’d go to his dressing room and I’d go to mine. Pretty stupid, but that’s the way it was.”
His next series, Willy, was not a hit. This lighthearted series was about a lady lawyer played by June Havoc who was counsel to an acting troupe managed by “Harvey Evelyn” (Sterling), and ran only eleven months, from September of 1954 through July of 1955.
Another series, The Baileys of Balboa, ran only from September of 1964 through April of 1965, even though it was an amusing sitcom featuring Paul Ford as a crusty charter boat skipper, with Sterling as “Buck Singleton” his forgetful first mate. The 30-minute program was the brainchild of actor Keefe Brasselle and was sold to CBS without a pilot, but soon encountered production problems due to the fact that filming on Balboa Island was permitted just two days a week.
In March of 1952, Sterling acted on Broadway in The Grass Harp, a whimsical fable by Truman Capote, which included as cast members, Mildred Natwick and Russell Collins. Albeit the play lasted only 36 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre, it was successfully revived the following spring at the Circle in the Square Theatre in Greenwich Village under the direction of Jose Quintero. Also, beginning in 1956, Holloway began doing a lot of summer stock. For years, he appeared annually in productions staged in Sacramento, California and Seattle, Washington.
After the mid-60s, Sterling was seen less and less on television or in feature films, though he still managed to make his presence felt through children's records and voice-over narrations for products advertised on TV both in this country and abroad. For one of his last jobs, he was heard extolling the merits of a brand of bathroom tissue.
Walt Disney, who is said to have had a great ear for accents and liked to imbue his cartoon characters with distinctive speech patterns, first thought of using Sterling’s voice as early as 1934 for the voice of "Sleepy" while they were still in the outline stages of Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Instead, the long and fruitful association between Disney and Holloway didn't officially begin until 1941 when Sterling was called on to supply the histrionics for a messenger stork in Dumbo. The character, which looks like it was modeled after the actor with shaggy hair, blue eyes and angular body, reads poetry and sings in the course of delivering a baby elephant before being unceremoniously yanked off his feet by a mail hook. Although the total length of his scenes equal less than four minutes, the stork became a standout figure of the film, and RKO Pictures which distributed the movie, even worked it into one of the company’s better publicity gimmicks. A large papier-mache stork was placed in New York City’s Grand Central Station to welcome and be photographed with Sterling who was coming in from California. The New York Times covered the story (January 4, 1942) and called his arrival a “minor commotion.”
After Dumbo, Holloway went on to do voices in many Disney feature length films playing “Flower” the skunk in Bambi; a narrator in The Three Caballeros; narrator of the Peter and the Wolf segment in Make Mine Music; the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland; “Amos,” the mouse in Ben and Me; “Kaa,” the snake in The Jungle Book; and “Roquefort” the mouse in The AristoCats. As good as some of these voice roles were, they all take a backseat to his “Winnie the Pooh”roles. To millions of children his voice became famous thanks to his work in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
“I suppose Winnie the Pooh is my favorite,” said Holloway before changing his mind a second later. “No, I think Flower, the skunk. It’s very strange, but I do all these voices and you know what? They all sound exactly alike.”
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the directing animators who worked on The Jungle Book, knew firsthand how truly valuable a voice talent like Sterling can be. As the artists remembered it, eight attempts had failed to produce a really interesting behavioral pattern for Kaa, the villainous snake in the piece, when Holloway came up with just the right sibilant tones “that sparked us all. He not only gave a reading that was the character, he was able to suggest lines that would fit better with this evolving personality . . . Suddenly, Kaa was alive!”
Independent and self-sufficient to the end, Sterling never married and was by his own description a bit of a recluse. He said that he seldom threw or attended Hollywood parties when he was young, and he was far less inclined to do so years later. His home, which he built decades ago, sits on a hill in South Laguna, California, and while he was alive, it contained a large and valuable art collection. Holloway passed away about four years after I interviewed him, on Sunday, November 22, 1992, at Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. He was 87 years old.
“Thank you very much for being here," Mr. Holloway told, a highly receptive film fest audience in Knoxville. “Thank you for asking me to be here. I’m glad that you can see me here. And I'm even more glad to be here to see you.”
Author's note: Thanks to Donnie Jarrell, who made available to me a number of clippings and was instrumental in getting a street named for the entertainer in his hometown of Cedartown, Georgia.