by E.R. Strother (written 1954) I Work For My Daughters, "The Bell Sisters"
About a year ago, I received from an old friend a letter which read something like this:
He was referring, of course, to "THE BELL SISTERS," and he was perfectly right. I hadn't even dreamed of them!
Having been a professional baseball player, when I married, I'd counted on raising a group of outfielders and shortstops, and had envisioned myself, in my later years, as coaching and developing them into Big League ballplayers. But look what happened - I have six girls and only one boy, and have ended up coaching and managing a couple of girl singers! But I'm not complaining. Looking after "THE BELL SISTERS" and trying to guide their career is lots of fun.
Like many fathers, I'd gone to high school, played football and basketball, and then gone to Ohio State University for an advanced course in athletics. At the end of two yeas, in 1931, I quit college to meet a depression head on. I tried professional baseball for a while, and failed superbly, finding I was just one of the thousands of "good field - not hit" shortstops.
Then I married my high school sweetheart and started battling the world as a salesman, coal miner, steel-mill worker, electrician, etc. It's the same old story: the story of millions of Americans, in our free enterprise system, trying to earn a living. I even invented things and tried to promote them, always looking for the break to get ahead. To be honest, the only real success I achieved was in the happiness I found in having healthy children and a wonderful wife.
After losing my shirt on a rubber golf and baseball grip invention, I finally found myself in California in 1951, working as an electrician for an aircraft company.
Suddenly, two of my daughters - Cynthia, 15, and Kay, 11 - jerked me out of my job and placed me backstage in the entertainment world! And what an interesting transformation it has been, even though painful at times. Painful because I've had to learn so much in so little time. It's been a hard job to keep up with the fast moving developments in a business having more than its share of "sharpies." My life is not my own any more. It belongs to "The BELL SISTERS." But I have never been happier. I like it even better than baseball, and I plan to steer all my children into the entertainment field, if they have talent and like it. Also, Rex, my boy, may never play left field for the Yankees, as I'd planned.
From here, it looks as if Sharon, sixteen, and the beauty of the family, is headed for dramatics, as one major movie producer has promised her a spot in his next picture. Paula, our eight-year-old, seems to be a natural dancer. The only other talent, so far noted, is Judy, our eleven-year-old freckled-faced tomboy, who shows signs of developing into a lady wrestler, having roughed up all the boys on our block.
In the entertainment business, you don't have to be the biggest act in the world to make money - and spend it! Just a good top act draws from $1,000 to $3,000 for guest spots on national network TV or radio shows and $3,000 to $7,000 a week for personal appearances in night clubs, hotels, or theatres. The really big acts, like Martin & Lewis, Tallulah or Milton Berle, gross on up to $40,000 per week or more - as witness what the hotels in Las Vegas have been paying recently. Other income sources are movies, movie shorts for TV, fairs, rodeos and recordings (if the act sings). It's practically an unlimited field, but a very very highly competitive one.
In working for the BELLS, I discovered very quickly a sad aspect to their career that I hadn't counted on, namely the writing of checks. This is a very painful operation to me, since I've never written many before. Try as I may, I cannot ever seem to become completely objective or callous regarding the chore. My natural inclination has always been to try and keep money, not give it away! Gad! I pity Crosby and Hope if it hurts them to write checks like it does me! But I suppose they're so rich, they hire it done. Seems like all I do is wait for the morning mail, sort the bills and start writing checks. For instance, money must be expended for the following: wardrobe, transportation (car, train, air), cosmetics, donations, tips, lawyers' fees, booking agent (10%), publicity men, personal manager (10%), trips to court, demonstration recording fees, stationery, publicity pictures, more tips, record date costs, sample records, stamps, dry cleaning, etc., etc. It's an endless list, I could go on and on. Sometimes you should just peek at an income tax accountant's list of deductable [sic] items, as allowed by the government (Thank Heavens!) for entertainers, and you'll see what I mean. It's safe to say that an act such as THE BELL SISTERS must gross a minimum of $100,000 a year to clear any real money. As a top comedian once told me at breakfast one morning in Las Vegas, "Sure, you make good money, but the trick is to keep some of it. All I've gotten out of it," he said, "has been a good living. It's hard to put aside anything. And for God's sake, he added, "Pay your taxes as you go. If you ever get behind, you're sunk!"
Now, after a year and a half of handling the girls' finances, I'm beginning to think I understand what he meant.
But despite the unpleasantness attached to writing checks, I wouldn't trade my new sixteen-hour day for the old eight-hour one I formerly put in building airplanes, for anything. My life is too interesting now, too much fun. I even enjoy reading fan mail.
Can you possibly imagine all the different and wonderful letters entertainers receive? Children write for pictures and so do grandmothers, teenagers, bachelors and the men in the armed forces. We've made a lot of wonderful friends and met a lot of fine people through their letters. Especially do the girls receive a lot of mail from servicemen, but I imagine that's mostly on account of Cynthia, who is seventeen now and a beautiful redhead. Some of the letters, though, bring a tear to the eye, and these my wife, Cynthia, Kay, Sharon or I try to answer. Sometimes it's impossible, but we always send an autographed picture. Letters from Korea get special attention. The boys hear the girls over there on the armed service shows, such as Naval Reserve Radio Service and the Jubilee Show, made here in Hollywood, which has a ninety-million listening audience in the Far East. Some of the fan letters we receive, however, read like this,
or this one,
Then there are the people who phone or call. Insurance agents by the dozen and investment counselors by the groups, who will be very happy to help us invest the fortune they think the girls are piling up. Cynthia mentioned once in an Associated Press interview that she hoped someday to own a purple metallic Cadillac. So the Cad people sent out a representative.
"Mr. Bell (being addressed as 'Mr. Bell' is something I've gotten used to), all the big entertainers drive Cadillacs, and we'll be glad to get you one direct from the factory for Cynthia. General Motors," he added, "just love for show people to drive those smooth, smooth Cads."
Cynthia got her Cad, as we needed one for transportation, but as one of our neighbors told Ralph, our breadman, who told me, "it wasn't the very latest model."
But what a wonderful thought for an electrician with seven kids, a Cad to drive (even though my daughters own it), nice, fat, paid-up insurance policies (all for the BELLS, of course), investments in oil, and a home with a pool! It's a wonderful dream. But can it come true? I believe it can and will, because of a little six-letter word called "talent." Talent can make dreams come true for any family of Americans. It's all a part of our American way of life, and when I stand backstage and see Bob Hope or Bing Crosby introduce our kids and watch them step up to the mike and hear their beautiful harmony fill the theatre and see the happy smiles of enjoyment on the faces of the people down front, and then hear the wonderful applause of the audience, I know they're on their way. No longer, while mopping the cold sweat off my brow, do I turn, like I used to do, to our Manager, and ask, "Charles, do you think the kids will make it?"
And no longer does he have to turn to me, with that incredulous expression on his face, and say, "Gene! Are you kidding?"
Hollywood has thousands of talented people. You name it, they've got it! Wonderful singers, dancers, comedians; every kind of entertainer you could think of - and good! They're all working and waiting, hoping for a break. Getting the break is the hard thing. One of the easiest ways to climb out of the heap is to make a hit on records. One hit song can do it! Look at Johnnie Ray and his "Cry." Unknown until then. The same with "THE BELL SISTERS" and their "BERMUDA."
In fact, the fee which actors and singers can demand for personal appearances depends on the success of their most recent picture or their hit songs. How "hot" are they now, is the question, and their agency uses that as a sliding scale for what they can get them for personal appearances. In Hollywood, you never stand still. You're either going up or going down. There's an old, but true saying in the movie industry that hits the nail right on the head: You're only as good as your last picture. With recording artists, it's much the same. You're only as good as your latest hit record, although you can coast, probably two years, between "hits."
To you parents who hope someday to get your kids in show business, I'd like to tell you how "THE BELL SISTERS" got their start. Although our girls' success has been unique and unusual, it has followed, to a great extent, the usual Hollywood success pattern.
As almost everyone knows, the girls' break came by selling a song, written by Cynthia, called "Bermuda", but we were lucky in that there was also a place, nearby, to present that song for sale. Just writing a song isn't enough. In fact, that's the easy part. Selling it is the job!
In 1951, Peter Potter, Los Angeles' most well known Disk Jockey, had an Amateur Song TV Show on KNXT, here in Hollywood (since discontinued) where amateurs could take their songs for audition and, if accepted, be assigned a spot on his program, at a later date, to present the song. To aid the song-writer, Potter invited a few song publishers, each week, to come and judge his show. Thus, if the song was good, the amateur had a chance to sell it to a publisher, or at least have a publisher hear it. As a rule, publishers won't even list to an amateur's song. Mr. Potter, I understand, auditioned approximately 1500 amateur songs in two and a half years. Thirty-six of these were sold to publishers, of which twelve were recorded and only one, "Bermuda", was a hit. This should give amateur songwriters, if they don't already know, an idea of just what they're up against.
To make a long story sort, Cynthia and Kay presented "Bermuda" on Mr. Potter's show on Hallowe'en night in 1951, and it caused a sensation. We woke up the next day to find that Cynthia's song was not only gong to be recorded but that two of the top recording companies were bidding for the girls' voices, also. I was apprised of this happy turn of events over the telephone by the publisher.
"Hey, keed!" he said (he always calls me "kid", even though I'm 45), "We got something hot going! I been showing "Bermuda" around, and both these companies want your kids to record. Now you're in a good spot, keed," he added, "but you gotta get yourself an agent."
"Where'll I find one?" I asked.
"Know just the boy, keed," he told me.
The next day I met Mr. Charles Alpert, one of Hollywood's most capable and successful agents, successful in at least two ways, as he is married to a former Powers model. Mr. Alpert was and looked like just what a real Hollywood agent should be and look like. A lot on the ball, nice appearance, and a hustler. It takes a guy with lots of guts, brains, contacts and plenty of business know-how to be a good agent. Charles has these in abundance. In the hundreds of decisions he has made relative to the Bells and their career, and the thousands of words of advice he has given me, I've only found him wrong a few times, and then it was on little things. Having the right agent is often the difference between failure and success. Incidentally, agents don't like the word "agent". They speak of themselves as "personal managers". Much more dignified, they say. But still, everyone in the business calls them agents.
Charles, as well call Mr. Alpert, asked for a sixty-day option on the girls, in order to see what he could do. If an acceptable recording contract could be arranged, I agreed to let him manage the girls for five years. We signed a good contract with R.C.A., and three days later recorded "Bermuda." I must say here, for all the amateur song writers who will read this, that it was a terrific thrill to go to the recording session and hear the arrangement which Mr. Henri René and Jack Pleis, two of R.C.A.'s top men, had made of "Bermuda". And those musicians, Hollywood's finest, how they can play! These men and women, regular recording musicians, work out of the Hollywood Musicians' Union and record for all the various recording companies. They're busy and they're wonderful!
Mr. René, the Artist and Repertoire Director for R.C.A. on the West Coast at that time, took the kids to his heart. He seemed to love them, and they worshipped him. He is such a fine man and gentleman. The bell-shaped gold pins, engraved "Love, Henri René", which he gave them are their most cherished possessions. I, too, wanted to make friends with him, but I think he was afraid I might offer him a chew of tobacco.
After the recording session, Mr. René asked Mr. Alpert what we were going to call the girls. He had to have a name to put on the record label. We all knew "The Strother Sisters" just wasn't going to do. After a hurried conference of everyone concerned, somebody suggested my wife's maiden name of Bell, and that was it! It's a perfect professional name, easy to spell and remember. It also made the kids' grandparents, the O. E. Bells, back in Ashland, Kentucky, very happy.
As other companies were recording "Bermuda" too, it was a race to see who could get the record out first. R.C.A. won by almost two weeks. In the recording business, it seems that the first record out on a song usually has a big lead over the others on sales. Altogether, five [pencil correction to 16] companies recorded "Bermuda."
There were rumors that Les Paul and Mary Ford had made "Bermuda" but weren't releasing it. I hope so, and that it's somewhere on Capitol Records' shelves, waiting for a release date.
But Frankie Laine was the singer for whom "Bermuda" was written and we'd rather have heard him sing it than anyone. We all hope someday he will record it. We feel sure it would be one of his biggest hits, if he ever should.
Following the release of "Bermuda", everything seemed to be going our way in Hollywood, except that we weren't making any money and we were broke. I'd been making dozens of trips to Hollywood taking the girls in for pictures, music conferences, publicity interviews, etc., and it was costing me plenty, as we live forty miles out. My bosses, also, were casting jaundiced eyes of disapproval on me for missing so much work. I'd borrowed the limit from banks and friends, and Charles had advanced a few thousand to help meet expenses. I'd even mortgaged the home to help. We all knew our only hope of getting even was through the royalties which "Bermuda" was piling up at R.C.A. in sales.
Christmas was rolling around, and I was in debt so far I really didn't see how I'd ever get out. Looking back now, I realize this should have worried me, but it didn't. Guess I was too busy to think of it. I never even considered that the girls might fail. Not having money for Christmas is something my wife has never stood still for, but up until Christmas Eve, it looked like this year we just weren't going to have any.
However, our wonderful friend and next-door neighbor, Betty, was aware of the situation and proceed to play Santa Clause, personally, for all our kids. No one could stop her, and we didn't try very hard, because we knew she was enjoying it so much. At the last minute, however, late on Christmas Eve, the publisher came through with a $200 advance; then, shortly afterward, $300, and then $500, and so we began to breathe easier.
January, February and March of 1952 were the months when "Bermuda" was rolling at its peak. We'd buy "Variety" and "Billboard" each week to watch the song climb in popularity. These trade papers are the Bibles of the entertainment world and keep running accounts of songs and their place in the national popularity polls. "Bermuda" popped into the first fifty songs on the National Hit Poll at about the 35th position, and climbed steadily over the weeks to No. 2 spot, stayed there for two weeks, then started back down. Johnnie Ray's "Cry" was always ahead of her. "Bermuda" wasn't a great, great smash hit, but was a good, solid one.
The real reason "Bermuda" wasn't bigger was that it was so difficult to play and sing for the average orchestra and singer. It was also hard to remember. You never heard anyone on the streets humming or singing "Bermuda" as people did other hit songs. We even found many crack bands having trouble with it, and rehearsals were always a strain. We finally got so we hated to hear the girls sing it on shows, for this reason. Les Brown's band, however, really breezed through it, and also John Scott Trotter on Bing Crosby's show did a great job. But then, these people are tops. They and their bands can play anything. "Bermuda" went on to sell 750,000 copies. 200,000 is considered a "hit".
Things were now moving even faster, and we hired a publicity man to work with the girls, a Mr. "Red" Doff of Hollywood, who is one of the best.
Next was a call from Charles, saying Frank Sinatra wanted the girls on his TV show. Sinatra, contrary to what we'd been lead to believe, was a swell fellow. He graciously had pictures taken with the kids and was as courteous and kind as anyone could be. He called me "Pop." It was the kids' first big guest spot and it looked like they were starting at the top. My wife and I sat with the writers and Ava Gardner in the client's booth and watched the show.
Next was the Dinah Shore show, and we met another very wonderful person. If you've never heard Dinah sing in person, you haven't heard singing. After the TV show, she sang for a half hour just for the live audience and she "wowed" us. Her personality is wonderful. You just can't get her on records a she is.
It was also along about this time that the two real greats of show business, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby started to take an interest in the girls. The "Bells" and all of us can never thank Bing and Bob for what they've done. As everyone knows, in the entertainment business, a few Crosby or Hope shows can "make" you, for they have such a tremendous listening audience. It looked like Mr. Crosby and Mr. Hope, as the girls call them, tried to outdo each other in helping the "Bells." Counting charity shows, of which Bob and Bing do far more than their share, the kids appeared as their guests fourteen times in the last year and a half. Enough said!
Also, along with the big shows, the girls started making many local appearances on radio and TV. Almost every day there was something new. An offer even came from the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce of a two-week, all-expense tour of the Islands, which we were unable to accept. (We heard that the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce, as a publicity stunt, was giving all tourists, as they arrived by boat or plane, a record of "Bermuda.")
Interview after interview followed, by feature writers for magazines, Associated Press, United Press and International News Service, as the girls seemed to be "hot" copy. All these reporters and photographers were nice to us. They liked the "Bells" and liked our family. Nothing detrimental was every written about us or the kids. Later, in the thousands of clippings we received through the clipping service bureau, we did find two bad notices, from small newspapers, and we've framed both.
Most of the trips we were making to Hollywood were being done in the evenings and on Saturdays and Sundays, as the kids were in school, and I had a job to keep. We had, of course, long before, contacted the State Child Welfare Labor Board for work permits and we were being very careful to abide by all the rules and regulations. Let me say now that these people do a wonderful job in protecting children from overzealous parents, unreasonable exploitation or anything detrimental to a child's health or welfare. They rule with an iron hand, but, as soon as they know a child has the right kind of parents, they go overboard to be cooperative. Mr. Tranquada, the Director of the Los Angeles office, was very nice to us, and my wife and I felt complimented by the degree of cooperation we received. Lois, his secretary, handled most of our business, after the first few trips, and we felt the kids had really arrived when she asked for an autographed picture to frame and hang on the walls in her office, along with all the great entertainment children of the present and past.
Along about this time, LIFE Magazine became interested in the "Bells" and said they wanted to do a spread on the girls and family. We were really worried, for we'd seen some of the pictures LIFE had made and thought the big aim of all their photographs was to catch people at their worst. We worked frantically trying to get our little house in halfway decent shape to be photographed, and I warned Cynthia and Kay, for Goodness' sake not to pick their noses, or LIFE would be sure to catch them in the act and print a picture of it. But we were in for a pleasant surprise. They were wonderful people. They spent a couple of days at our house, taking pictures. They took them by the hundreds, of the "Bells", the rest of the family, and the neighbors, in every possible situation. In fact, they photographed everything in the house, even the hole in the rug on the bedroom floor. The only thing they missed was my wife's new muslin curtains, bought specially for the occasion.
As we were going to San Francisco, about this time, to do a Hope All-Star TV show, LIFE had another photographer and reporter meet our plane there and take pictures of us for two more days. The way they work is: the photographer follows you around, sixteen hours at a time, just taking shot after shot. They even took a picture of me photographing the chorus girls, in an unguarded moment. Incidentally, we've found all the reporters and photographers we've met, so far, fair and sincere people. Sure, they want their pictures and their story, and they want something different and unusual, but they're not out deliberately to hurt anyone. However, with their advantage of the power of the press, I'd hate to have them turn against me. It could be rough, as I understand some so-called uncooperative entertainers have found out from time to time in the past.
Naturally we looked forward to the LIFE story and its release. It came out in the June 16th issue of 1952. "Ike" was on the cover and we were in the middle, somewhere. ("Between 'Ike' and the insects," Kay says.) There were nine pictures of the "Bells" and the rest of us. We'd only hoped for two or three, at the most. Included was a darling shot of Cynthia "baby-sitting" for our neighbor's two children. Just think - LIFE's photographers took approximately 600 pictures and used only nine. It's no wonder their photography is terrific. The pictures of the "Bells," singing with Hope, are the best I've ever seen. I thought I was very handsome in my picture also, but my wife said I looked somewhat like a bear - a grizzly.
As the summer began to roll around, it became evident that the girls were in demand for personal appearances, so we signed with the William Morris Booking Agency. The courts, as required by law, stepped in then to protect the kids, and all the contracts radio, TV, movies and personal appearances were approved, by a judge. It happens that three or four of the big booking agencies, like William Morris, M.C.A. and General Artists Corporation handle most of the world's entertainers and entertainment business. They have offices and representatives all over the globe and furnish talent for the theatres, clubs, fairs, hotels, rodeos, TV, radio and movies. Without them, as an entertainer you can go nowhere. They even make up package deals and furnish talent for all the big network shows. They, of course, work on a 10%-of-gross deal. Our first booking with them was the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, for two weeks. Before that, the girls were to work the Long Beach Miss Universe Pageant, and the San Diego County Fair, for four days.
The "Bells" were to headline the shows. This was stepping up in class.
About the time we signed with William Morris, Charles called me to Hollywood, for a conference.
"What about?" I asked.
"To get the kids an "act," for the summer tour," he answered. This was news to me, and it shows how little I knew about show business. In order to give a good show, in a club, theatre or hotel, I learned, you just don't go out and sing a few songs. You must have an "act." It's how you sing, what you sing, and when. You must have timing, a little comedy, and an opening and closing bit, with bow-on and bow-off music, introduction, pacing and arranging of material. Also, the whole act is written to music and is continuous, from beginning to end. It seems that no matter how big or famous you are, or how good you sing or perform, if you don't have a good, well written act, you can "flop." (The nightmare of all entertainers.) Today, there are wonderful recording artists and movie stars who are flops in personal appearances, because they have no act.
Building an act is a creative thing, sometimes by one man, a specialist, or by a group of writers, or by the smart artist, alone. A real, fine creative act-builder is a scarce article. In Hollywood, there are only two or three, and they come high.
We contacted one of the few, a Mr. Ray Gilbert, who is a famous song and act writer. When I heard his fee, I fell out of the phone booth. I won't mention the amount, but a good electrician would have to work a year to earn what we paid. However, it was worth it. I know now Mr. Gilbert receives two or three times this amount for his acts and was really giving us newcomers a break. Said it was the first time he'd ever worked with children and considered the job a challenge.
After studying the girls for four or five days, winning their confidence, and in general getting acquainted with them, he started to work, there at his studio in his home, first with Cynthia, and then with Kay, then with both girls together as the act developed. Bert Pellish, his assistant, handled the music. It took six weeks of hard work and the kids enjoyed it thoroughly. Finally it was over and the William Morris representatives were called in to see what the girls had. They were very happy and "flipped," as they say in the business. Mr. Gilbert kissed the girls, when the audition was over, and had beautiful presents for them. The "Bells" were sorry to leave him; he was so wonderful to them. I'm sure if my wife and I died, they'd want Mr. Gilbert to adopt them. Mr. Gilbert probably didn't clear too much money on the "Bells", for he believed in children doing as they please (self-expression, he called it). If they wanted to clown or waterfight, it was all right with him; he'd stop rehearsals and enter into the fun. I can see him and the "Bells" now, with water pistols, chasing each other around his property. I'm sure he had to redecorate completely after we left. Mr. Gilbert is also a great entertainer and he convulsed us, no end, with anecdotes of show business. I'll never forget the story he told of the "Zoot Suit Song", which he wrote in the '40's, and how they promoted it publicity-wise by hiring a seven-foot colored boy to parade around Hollywood dressed in a specially tailored, ridiculous "zoot-suit." To everyone's surprise, people began to copy his clothes and wear "zoot-suits", if you remember. The craze became so bad in L.A. that riots and street fights developed between "zoot-suiters" and Army and Navy personnel. Other well-known songs he has written are "Bahia", "You Belong to My Heart," and his Oscar-winning picture song, "Zippity Do Da."
Finally the day arrived to go to the Fair at San Diego. This is really a big fair, and Les Paul and Mary Ford had played it the year before. Mr. Gilbert and Bert, the pianist, went along, also our publicity man plus our manager, my wife and I. Everyone wanted to help and see the kids off to a good start. Our worries, however, were for naught, as the girls broke the Fair's attendance record, singing to as many as 10,000 each day. On the program also was Nick Lucas, a chorus line, slack-wire artists, a dog act and a trampoline act. (I took our first 16mm movies of the "Bells" in action.) Next was Las Vegas - the big time!
At Las Vegas, as we drove into town, late in the afternoon, the big signs on the "Golden Strip" advertised the big hotels: "Andrew Sisters" at the Flamingo, "Frank Sinatra" at the Desert Inn, "Beatrice Kay" at El Rancho Vegas, and "THE BELL SISTERS" at the Last Frontier. This was a real thrill, I assure you. But it made me a little nervous. Were those two little girls of ours, only 16 and 12 years old, supposed to buck this kind of opposition?
Everyone connected with the girls also came along to Vegas for the first four days, to make sure the girls were okay and to give them confidence. But again our worries were for nothing, as the "Bells" were "socko", playing to standing room only. They more than held their own in that fast company. Eddie Fox, the show manager at the Last Frontier, was very happy, as he said he'd never seen so many families in the Ramona Room, people bringing their kids to watch our kids.
"A healthy atmosphere," he beamed.
Margaret Whiting and the Weir Brothers followed the "Bells" into the Last Frontier.
After we left Las Vegas, the girls came back to L.A., for an interesting week at the Paramount Theatre where they shared equal billing with Nat "King" Cole. During the week, the rest of our family, the younger children, came up for a day from Seal Beach, to see the show and to have some publicity pictures made. They weren't the least impressed by the name "BELL SISTERS" in bright lights, on the marquee in front of the show. The weather was warm and they wanted to get back home, take off their new shoes and go to the beach.
The girls finished at the Paramount Thursday night. We hurried home to pack and were off, Saturday morning, to New York City, by plane. When we checked in at the airport I found the girls had seventeen pieces of luggage and far more in weight than the allowed amount. It cost me a surprised $46.00 extra for weight overage and the kids say I grumbled about it all the way to New York. This was our first big air trip and we all had a wonderful time. Only incident marring the trip was when I snagged a big hole in the trousers of my only suit, en route, much to the enjoyment of Cynthia and Kay (six months later TWA sent me a check for another pair). Photographers met the plane, on arrival in New York, and they took pictures of the "Bells", after Rock Hudson, who was also on the plane, had his taken with the Stewardess. (We saw ours next day in the New York papers, captioned "Bells Ring Into Town".) Then, tired but very happy, we took a taxi to the Hotel Astor in Times Square. The "Bells" eyes were wide with wonder as they gazed at that tremendous city.
The girls did two Chesterfield TV shows in New York with Eddy Arnold. He is a very fine, kind, level-headed, down to earth fellow and we enjoyed meeting him very much. I showed him "Hopin' Till I Die," one of our songs, which we think would be a big hit for him. We hope some day he records it. During rehearsal, on the Chesterfield set, I saw the girls talking and laughing, and eating grapes from a bag held by a nice looking, unobtrusive young man who turned out to be Mel Tormé.
Between shows, we saw some of the big city, and made several radio appearances with Disk Jockeys around town, including Robert Q. Lewis' "Waxworks," where my wife and I made our radio debut. We were quite surprised when he pulled a switch and interviewed us instead of the "Bells". We visited R.C.A., and the girls were interviewed by several reporters and then were off by plane to Montreal, Canada, to do a week at the Seville Theatre. Four or five shows a day there left very little time for sightseeing, as we had to set up a schedule for rest periods and meals at the proper times, plus a few appearances on local Canadian radio stations. Charles, armed with French dictionary and ably assisted by some French-Canadian teenagers, on the plane, had taught the girls several phrases in French. Being interviewed for a French newspaper was quite an experience both for interviewer and interviewees. The week finally came to an end and on the closing night, Cynthia, as she always does on the last show, "bawled", hating to leave their wonderful, new-found friends, the other acts playing at the Seville. Eddie Bracken followed the "Bells" into the Seville.
We landed back in New York in the rain, and of course were still plagued with the seventeen pieces of luggage. The customs inspector gave us quite a shock! It seems you need passports to get back into the United States, and we'd failed to tend to this small, but important, matter. After a few thousand words of explanation of who we were, where we had been and why, he finally smiled and let us through, saying he recognized us from LIFE Magazine pictures and knew we were Americans. What a relief! I made a note to check passports, in the future.
Back in New York, the "Bells" did a summer All-Star Revue TV show, and after one more busy day of sightseeing, into which we crammed a bus tour, the Empire State Building, the Museum of Natural History and Radio City, all in the rain, they flew home, accompanied by my wife, since they had to be in Hollywood, immediately for a recording date.
Our neighbor, Betty, no doubt was glad to see them, as she had taken off from work to baby-sit the younger Strothers while we were in the East. I bought a car in New York, took most of the luggage and drove across country with it, picking up my mother in Kentucky, and bringing her out to the Coast to make her home with us.
When I arrived home a week later, the girls were ready for their next date, which was at the Riverside Hotel, in Reno, Nevada, for two weeks, after which they were scheduled for a nine months' engagement at their respective schools; Kay at Seal Beach Elementary, and Cynthia at Huntington Beach Union High. While in Reno they met the fabulous Beatrice Kay and spent an unforgettable afternoon visiting with her on her wonderful guest ranch.
The things I remember most about the summer were the $4.50 steaks, Cynthia falling down while coming up on stage one night in Las Vegas, Kay's being late for a show, and Cynthia having to sing the opening number by herself, the "Bells" introducing their middle sister, Sharon, on the stage in Las Vegas, and having her sing their final number with them, much to everyone's, including the band's surprise (they were originally a trio), the seventeen pieces of luggage, Kay (nature lover) going off mike by turning away to watch a small bird sail overhead at San Francisco, during an outdoor Hope TV show, the first two weeks' hotel bill at Las Vegas, $954.43, and a $1,756.00 check I wrote for airline tickets for the New York-Montreal trip.
With the fall, Cynthia became 17 and entered her senior year in high school. I can always remember her birthday because she was born during World Series time. We were living in Harlan, Kentucky, at the time, and I was playing baseball for a coal company. This year, at the Western Living and Home Show, in San Francisco, where the girls played October 3rd and 4th, she had her biggest and best birthday party. An audience of 5,000 or more sang "Happy Birthday" to her, while Mr. Jones, of the Meyberg Co. - R.C.A.'s West Coast distributors - presented her with a surprising four-tired cake, complete with seventeen candles.
Kay had become 12 the previous March and was starting into the seventh grade. I can always remember her birthday too, because she was born at Cynthiana, Kentucky, during the Kentucky State High School Basketball Tournament. I had wagered on the games and won $68.00, the afternoon before she was born and remember paying doctor and hospital bills with it. This was during the years that a good O.B. Doc. charged $25 instead of $125.00. Funny thing, I later sold this doc, a very good friend, an interest in one of my inventions, and got the money back. So, you can figure, Kay didn't really cost much except five years off the lives of my wife and me when she had pneumonia, at the age of two.
Child entertainers are really handicapped in their career for a number of reasons. Night clubs, the biggest money field, are automatically closed to them, because of liquor sales. No child can work in the United States on premises selling liquor except in the State of Nevada. Because of this, child entertainers must make it in TV, radio, fairs or rodeos, (where if you don't sing Western, you're out), and of course movies. There's the problem of school, also; tutors to be arranged for if traveling, and many restrictions regarding their working hours on studio lots, all to protect the child, of course, and a very fine thing, in my opinion. For the above reasons, agents and booking agents are dubious about taking children on as clients.
In California, also, there is the so-called "Coogan" law, wherein the courts of the county in which the child resides take a very active interest in the child entertainer. Even though the mother and father are the parents of the child, a strict accounting has to be made each year, regarding the child's welfare and finances. The courts set aside a percentage to be saved for the child and, in general supervise their career. In our case, the first year I was appointed legal guardian of my girls, a procedure that only naturally goes against the grain of any American parent, as it seems an invasion of family privacy. It seemed ridiculous, at first, to have to be appointed guardian of my own children, but, upon closer examination, it is found to be a good thing, and I no longer question the necessity or wisdom of it. You see, in the past some parents have abused their children's rights, and their earnings have been drunk up or gambled away. Sometimes bad investments of inexperienced parents have caused the child to reach the age of 21 only to find that the money he or she earned is gone. So the courts act as a watchdog. A list of operating expenditures and a complete financial set-up must be presented to the courts, for their approval. Any new or unforeseen expenses, arising from time to time and not included in the original set-up, necessitates a new trip to the courts for approval, and consequently entails extra expense, lawyers' fees, court recording stenographer fees, etc. It all adds up to another drain on the resources and earnings of the child, but is necessary. After my first year as legal guardian, I relinquished the guardianship of the "Bells" in favor of the Bank of America. It was in the best interests of the children, I felt. The Bank handles all bookkeeping now, which allows me more time to promote the girls' career. The Bank also meets all requirements as stipulated in the courts and the law. We have been very fortunate in that the judge handling the "Bells'" case is cooperative and understanding. He has the interests of the girls at heart and understands the problems involved. It would certainly be difficult to operate if the courts did not cooperate. In fact, if they refused to, they could absolutely put us out of business, in a hurry.
In arriving at salaries for my wife and me, the judge took testimony regarding salaries as paid in the industry for similar types of work, and allowed us a reasonable and comparable amount. I'm listed as Road Manager and my wife as Wardrobe Manager.
"THE BELL SISTERS" continued guest appearances all fall on radio and TV and Christmas found us having the best one we can remember. Adding not a little to the festivities was the news that two movie studios were interested in the girls. In January the girls went to Columbia Pictures to have parts in a technicolor musical called "Cruisin' Down the River." Jonie Tapps, the producer, had caught the girls' act in Las Vegas, during the summer, and became interested in them, so we were called in for an interview. "Cruisin' Down the River" is a nice show: lots of music and color, with a gay, happy story. It stars Dick Haymes, Audrey Totter, Cecil Kelloway, Connie Russell and Billy Daniels. The girls' billing was to read, "Introducing "THE BELL SISTERS," since it was their first picture.
The "Bells" had auditioned for Milt Lewis (Paramount's Chief Talent Scout) and various Paramount Studio executives during the summer, and we learned they had finally found a spot for the girls in a script called "Those Redheads from Seattle," a Pine-Thomas production. It was to be the industry's first three-dimensional technicolor musical, to be released this September. Shooting was to start March 15th. It has a great story and cast: Agnes Moorehead plays the motor of Rhonda Fleming, Teresa Brewer and the Bells, Cynthia and Kay. Gene plays the romantic lead opposite Rhonda, and Guy Mitchell is Cynthia's heart-throb. Kay plays the kid sister or the "Brat." Roscoe Ates and Jean Arthur also have good parts.
Making these two movies has been an enjoyable experience for all of us and we met some wonderful people. To get into the movies, it seems that, first, a producer must become interested in you. In the girls' case, it was probably because the "Bells" were known nationally, if not internationally, due to the publicity given them through the media of radio, TV, movie shorts and records.
Publicity is the reason you usually get into the movies. If the public knows you, the producers feel that, when they put your name up on a marquee as being in their picture, the public will pay to go in to hear and see you. Having a spot that fits you in the picture is important too, but if you are well enough advertised, they will make a spot for you.
Graduation time finally came for Cynthia. She got all A's and B's in her studies, played "Lizette" in the school operetta, "Naughty Marietta", and was runner-up in the May Queen Contest. Kay got excellent grades also and for the third consecutive year won honors in the American Legion Essay Contest on "Americanism". She also became a First Class Girl Scout.
I can't say that the "Bells'" career has hurt them in any way, and I know they have loved every minute of it.
We have received so many songs, in the mail, from amateur songwriters, asking for help, that a few words of advice to them would probably be in order at this time. Up until recently, we haven't been able to help these amateur writers much, due to legal reasons. But now that we have organized our own song publishing firm, we hope to give some other amateur songwriters a break by publishing their song, a break similar to the one we got through Peter Potter and his show. One tip to amateurs in mailing songs is: never register a song to a publisher, as they are afraid of lawsuits and will return it unopened. Also, if possible, send demonstration records of your music, so the publishers can actually hear your own interpretation of it. All publishers and all artists are constantly looking for good material. I know we are! If it's good, never fear, you'll hear from them. And don't worry about someone stealing your song. Publishers are only too glad to pay you your share. If you gave them a hit, they might want another one of your songs. Of course, be sure your song is copyrighted before mailing it to anybody.
As I've dictated this article to my wife, in our backyard patio, the pages, as they are finished, have been handed over ...
[Last pages are missing.]
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