Saturday, September 22, 2012

My Home Town -- Birthplace of the Stars

Hollywood Boulevard

Dear George,
I first got the idea of becoming a pro basketball player when I was twelve.  My grandfather, V.A. Sr., had forced me to join the Washington Grade School basketball team.  Even though I was the shortest kid in my class and terrified of the idea of actually getting into a game, I must have spent 10,000 hours in the next few years practicing.  I figured that if I could perfect a long-range shot that was 100% accurate I could be one of the best players in the world.  (This was literally true though impossible to do.)  Then, in eleventh grade, my English teacher, Mr. Biller, forced me to try out for the Junior class play.  I was initially terrified, but, as a shy person, I discovered that the scripted predictability of the theater offered a degree of safety that was personally liberating.  I decided that, if my basketball plans fell through (as was becoming a likely possibility), being a movie star was a great second option. 

Needless to say, neither my basketball nor my movie actor fantasies worked out.  I was ruminating about these lost possibilities the other day and decided to check the Internet to see how many people from my hometown of Menominee, Mich., (and its sister city, Marinette, Wisc.) actually went on to pro basketball or movie careers.  I tried basketball first, since these communities are strongly oriented to sports.  Much to my surprise, despite all those great local players over the years, there wasn’t a single player in the history of the National Basketball Association or the American Basketball Association who was born in Menominee or Marinette.  Then I checked out the Internet Movie Database ( which gives the birthplace and birthdate of people employed in the movies over the years.  Given the lack of pro basketball players, it didn’t seem to likely that I’d find any movie stars.  Much to my surprise, however, my search turned up enough Twin City natives over the years to populate a good-sized repertory company.  Here’s a sampling of some of the most accomplished (in chronological order):  

Malcolm Waite (1892 – 1949), Actor

Malcolm Ivan Waite was born in Menominee on May 7, 1892, one of six children of Byran S. and Ismene Waite.  Byran Waite was law partners with Alvah Littlefield Sawyer (grandfather of my dad’s law partner, Dick Sawyer), was involved in lumber and mining in the U.P., and represented Menominee County in the state legislature in 1889 and 1895.  The Waite family moved to Detroit in 1895.  Malcolm Waite went on to appear in 31 movie dramas, westerns, and comedies between 1924 and 1942.  His best known role was as Jack Cameron in The Gold Rush with Charlie Chaplin (1925).  Jack Cameron was a ladies’ man who was the Little Tramp’s rival for the affections of dance hall beauty Georgia.  Malcolm Waite also appeared in films with Gary Cooper, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Clara Bow, George O’Brien, Jean Arthur, Basil Rathbone, Rudy Vallee, Jane Wyatt, and many other stars of the day.  He died at age 56 in Van Nuys, CA.

Kathleen Kirkham (1895 – 1961), Actress

Kathleen Kirkham was the most glamorous movie star to come from Menominee.  She was born on April 15, 1895, and was educated at the Cummock School in Menominee.  Her artist father Richard owned the Kirkham Photographic Studio, and her mother Lena was the daughter of Captain Jacob Leisen, president of the Leisen & Henes Brewery in Menominee.   According to Wikipedia, Kathleen “began her stage career at the age of nine in Menominee. She was the leading lady, playwright, producer, and manager.”  After her family moved to Los Angeles in 1908, Kirkham acted in numerous plays in Burbank, a theatrical center at the time.  Her breakthrough in the silent movies occurred with the release of The Eyes of the World in 1915, one of the most highly regarded films of the year.  Kirkham often played the man-eating vamp popularized by Theda Bara.  She was considered one of the best-dressed actresses in Hollywood, and she did 15 to 18 costume changes in most of her films.  Kirkham appeared in 55 films between 1916 and 1926.  Her best-known role was that of Lady Greystoke, Tarzan’s mother, in the original version of Tarzan of the Apes (1918), and she reprised the role in The Romance of Tarzan (1918) and The Adventures of Tarzan (1921).  She also co-starred with Rudolph Valentino in The Married Virgin (1918).  Tiring of playing the mother of actresses who were older than herself, Kirkham retired at age 31.  She was working as cook in a private residence in Santa Barbara at the time of her death in 1961.  

Ralph Ceder (1897 – 1951), Director

Ralph Ceder (a.k.a. Ralph Cedar) was born on Feb. 2, 1897, in Marinette, the fifth of ten children of carpenter and Swedish immigrant Eugenius and his wife Petrea Ceder.  Ceder directed 91 films between 1922 and 1940, specializing in comedies for the Hal Roach Studios in the 1920s and RKO in the 1930s.  He's best known for his work with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, producing short films such as A Lucky Dog (1921), Roughest Africa (1923) and The Soilers (1923). Ceder also worked as a director for several W.C. Fields comedies; was a screenwriter for 22 movies; and acted in A Small Town Idol (1921).  He died of pneumonia on Nov. 29, 1951, at age 53 in Hollywood. 

Mitchell Leisen (1898 – 1974), Director, Producer, Art Director, Costume Designer

Mitchell Leisen (birth name: James Leisen) was born on Oct. 6, 1898, in Menominee, the grandson of Captain Jacob Leisen, president of the Henes-Leisen Brewery.  His parents divorced when he was five, and he left with his mother to live in St. Louis.  A sickly child who was operated on for a club foot, Leisen spent much of his time alone, building sets for his toy theater.  Trained as an architect, Leisen worked for a design firm in Chicago, then headed west to try his luck as an actor in 1918.  Only managing to obtain one bit part, he began working for Cecil B. DeMille in the latter’s art and costume departments.  He directed his first film in 1933 and soon became known for glossy Hollywood melodramas and screwball comedies.  His best known films include Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Murder at the Vanities (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), Midnight (1939), Remember the Night (1940), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), and To Each His Own (1946). Leisen worked with many stars of the day: e.g., Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard, Frederic March, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, John Barrymore, Barbara Stanwyck,  Charles Boyer, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard.  The Mating Season (1951), with Gene Tierney, was his last big hit.  In all he directed 40 films, was Art Director for 22, Costume Designer for 14, and an actor in 3.  After his movie career Leisen directed episodes of The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., and other TV series.  His film, Hold Back the Dawn, was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 1941.  He also did interior design and ran a fashionable men’s shop in Beverly Hills.  He died on Oct. 29, 1972, in Motion Picture and Television Country House, CA. 

Doris Packer (1904 – 1979), Actress

Doris Packer was born in Menominee on May 30, 1904.  Her family moved to California when she was a child, and she became interested in acting while in high school.  After going to UCLA, she moved to New York to study drama, appeared in Broadway shows, was a popular radio performer (Henry Aldrich, Mr. & Mrs. North), and began her TV career in 1954.  Over the years she appeared in The Burns and Allen Show, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Perry Mason, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and many other shows.  She was best known as Mrs. Cornelia Rayburn, Theodore Cleaver’s strict school principal in Leave It to Beaver.  Packer also had occasional movie  roles in films such as Meet Me at the Fair (1953), Bon Voyage! (Disney, 1962), The Perils of Pauline (1967), and Shampoo (1975).  She died in Glendale, CA, at age 74.  

Arthur Gardner (1910 - ), Producer, Actor

Arthur Gardner (birth name: Arthur Goldberg) was born in Marinette on June 7, 1910.   His family lived at 1336 Elizabeth Ave.  (He was two years younger than my dad, and I think he was probably the brother of family friend and Marinette men’s clothier Charlie Goldberg, though I haven’t been able to confirm this.)  A couple of years after graduating from Marinette High, Gardner left for Hollywood to seek a career.   His first role was in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) for which he earned $75.  He appeared in various films with James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Lana Turner, Jackie Gleason, Jimmy Durante, Ann Sheridan, Ray Milland, William Holden, and others.    In World War II Gardner served in a motion picture unit in the Army Air Force where he met Jules Levy and Arnold Laven, the three of them forming a production company in 1951.  Gardner's 25 movie credits as a producer include McQ (1974) and Brannigan (1975), both starring John Wayne.  His final film, Safari 3000 (1972) starred David Carridine.   He was then a producer for various TV series including The Rifleman, The Detectives, and The Big Valley.  Gardner's son recently created the Arthur Gardner MHS Drama Scholarship at Marinette High School.  As of June 2012 Arthur Gardner was living in Beverly Hills at age 102. 

John Hubley (1914 - 1977), Animation Film Maker

John Hubley, the grandson of Richard and Lena Kirkham,  was born in Marinette on May 21, 1914.  With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, he was sent to LA to live with an uncle, and he completed high school and college there.  In 1935 he got a job as an artist at Disney Studios where he worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, and Fantasia.  He left Disney in 1941 during a strike.  In 1949 he created the Mr. Magoo cartoon character, based on one of his uncles, and directed the first Magoo cartoon with Jim Backus doing the voice.  His filmography includes 50 animated titles.  In 1952 Hubley was forced to leave his production firm when he refused to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  He moved to New York and was the original director of Watership Down until he died in 1977 during heart surgery.  

Billy Wells (1931 – 2001), Actor, producer

Billy Wells was born in Menominee on Dec. 7, 1931, the adopted son of my parents’ friends, John and Tilly Wells.  After an eminently successful football career at Menominee High, Michigan State University, and with the Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Boston Patriots, Wells pursued TV acting, playing roles on Colt .45 (1959), Bat Masterson (1961), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1961), and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962).  Later he produced movie shorts.  He died in an L.A. suburb at age 70.     

Dean Andre (1953 - ), Sound designer, musical director, composer

Dean Andre (a.k.a. Dean Andre Wallschlaeger) was born in Marinette on April 29, 1953, to Wayne and Yvonne Wallschlaeger of Coleman, Wisc., and grew up on a dairy farm outside Marinette.  He describes his life mission as "to accomplish the impossible."  He started in the music industry at age 16 as a singer and dancer with Doc Severinsen and Mike Douglas.   He is a Hollywood sound designer, musical director, producer, recording artist, and composer.  He plays the drums, bass guitar, and piano and is also a professional magician.    Andre has created musical scores for over 60 movies and 450 television shows, receiving two Emmy nominations for his compositions.  He's worked with recording artists Dweizel Zappa, Nikka Costa, Liberace, and many others, and he's acted in three movies.  His nickname on the set is "The Wizard".    

Gregory Paul Smith (1981 - ), Actor

Lest we think that all these Twin City natives failed to contribute to the horror movie genre, Gregory Paul Smith was born on March 6, 1981, in Menominee.  According to his IMDb bio, he’s been an avid horror fan since childhood.  He attended both Menominee and Marinette high schools.  He now lives in Los Angeles and has appeared in 17 movies and videos from 2006 to the present, including Mega Piranha (2010), Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus (2010), Horrorween (2011), and Super Shark (2011).  His favorite role was as a dead zombie in Poultrygeist: Night of the Dead Chicken (2006).

I guess it would be an exaggeration to claim that Hollywood has been mostly populated over the years by émigrés from Menominee and Marinette.  Nonetheless, according to my fiddling around on the IMDb web-site, it appears that the Twin Cities have had a greater share of movie people than most similarly sized communities in the U.P. and northeastern Wisconsin.  Why that might be is a mystery.  Menominee and Marinette were thriving boom towns at the turn of the last century, and it could be that some of the families who amassed fortunes had the resources to support their offspring’s dreams and send them off to Hollywood.  In any case, running across all these local Tinseltown celebrities leaves me with a warm, fuzzy feeling.  It just shows that people can pursue their dreams, however risky, and meet with success (at least some of the time).

Sources:, Internet Movie Database (“Most popular people born in Menominee Michigan”, “…Marinette, Wisconsin”) (“Malcolm Waite,” etc.) (”Mitchell Leisen: Notes on an Exploding Star”) ("Dean Andre Productions"), 1/29/11, "Cinematic centenarian".  


  1. Distinct family resemblance between Arthur Gardner and Charlie Goldberg.

  2. Gemma K Murray. Author also lives in Menominee Mi

    1. Thanks for the info. I learned that Gemma K. Murray is the author of the Cedar River Series which is published by Leap of Faith Publishing, including "Keeper of the Golden Dragon's Heart" and "Natural Born Enemies".