It’s a good thing I can be somewhat entertaining through the written word, because my musical career was derailed when in an elementary school talent show I was overcome by nerves and played Donkey Trail instead of To a Wild Rose (“Nobody noticed,” my mother said. Riiiiight . . .). My acting career was short-lived after my 1963 debut as Mrs. Vandermere in It’s Cold in Them Thar Hills. I did have reason to hope, though, my family tree being populated with quite a number of people in show biz.
Why, just the other night I was watching a program about Marilyn Monroe. There she was in the iconic scene with her skirt blowing up in the air and right beside her, getting an eye full, was the actor Tom Ewell, my fifth cousin once removed. photo here
Born Samuel Yewell Tompkins, in Owensboro, Kentucky, he changed his name, studied with Montgomery Clift and Karl Malden in the Actors Studio, starred on Broadway and won a Tony Award in 1953. He made movies with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield and received an Emmy Award nomination for his continuing role on the TV series Baretta. His final acting performance was a 1986 episode of Murder, She Wrote.
But maybe you’re thinking that fifth cousin once removed doesn’t exactly sound like a close relation. Then I offer you this story of my talented grandparents, Louise Spelling and Ray Wild.
Louise was born in New Albin, Iowa, on August 18, 1879. Her father was a watchmaker and her mother was a very stern looking, sturdy German woman; but they must have had an appreciation for the arts, as their daughter Emma (or Auntie, as she was known in our family) was a talented pianist and artist and daughter Louise was a singer of some repute. In fact, Louise was performing in an operetta in about the year 1899 when she met her future husband, Ray. The operetta was Laila, by George W. Stratton, which was very popular in the country at that time. In fact, Louise and Ray named their first daughter Laila Louise.
Ray also enjoyed performing for an audience. He was born June 7, 1879, in DeWitt, Nebraska, where his father was a merchant. In contrast to Louise’s mother, Ray’s was a little bird-like woman. I don’t know about the other eight children in the family, but Ray was a cut-up ’til the end. Somewhere around the time that Louisa was singing in her operetta, Ray joined the circus to play in the clown band. He played a funky looking bass over-the-shoulder saxhorn, an instrument made popular by Civil War-era military bands.
Now, I don’t know whether Ray went to the operetta or Louise went to the circus, but they evidently found each other very entertaining, married and had three children. My aunts told stories of their home being filled with music and how the whole family would gather for an afternoon of singing, with Auntie at the piano. In fact, among my treasured possessions is much of the family’s original sheet music, including “The Professor at Home,” (1873) described as a “comical characteristic quartette,” which sounds as if it must have perfectly blended the talents of Ray and Louise.
They’re all making heavenly music now. I hope to join them some day, but for now I’ll just try to entertain you with some stories, jest among us.