Althea Young was a little-known vaudeville performer who was getting started near the end of period when vaudeville was entirely on the stage and was starting to move into radio and film. She wasn’t a massive star. She wasn’t even the kind of person who was likely to get a radio or movie deal. But she was the kind of girl who would get a write up in the paper on May 14, 1920, in the “Dainty Exhibition” show review, far right column. Which is nothing to sneeze at.
She was beautiful, charming, and destined for other things. Entertainment is never easy for women, and in spite of good reviews and a beautiful voice, she started having kids, and soon it made more sense to settle down, even if she was settling in the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles.
Even as her life was changing, she was still connected to the entertainment world. Her son, George Johnson, told stories of swimming in Rochester’s pool (actor Eddie Anderson, from the Benny Hill show). He delighted in the time he got to visit the Disney studios and watch the animators work on Donald Duck cartoons. Below are photos of George, his brother, his mother Althea, and Laurel & Hardy, on vacation on Catalina Island. George loved his mother, found her voice to be incredible, and remembered her as the only person more beautiful than Betty, his wife. It was Althea’s connection to the entertainment world that put her family at the center of this town where you just ran into celebrities because it was the 30s and LA wasn’t “LA” as we know it now.
I never got to know Althea, in spite of the research I tried to do on her career. But I took care of her son, George, just before he passed. (Seen as I knew him in the last photo.) He would tell stories about his life and remember his mom, and he seemed happy. I think he liked those memories the most.
George was a simple guy, and didn’t take much to school, in spite of being an avid reader. He joined the Coast Guard, but was soon called upon to serve in the Pacific Theater of WWII, and his stories of this period are hilarious, harrowing, and in many ways, mundane. As he put it, he sent and received coded messages, he cooked his own meals because he hated the food, and he was on two different boats that sank. (I believe the story he told was that he woke up to find the boat taking on water.) He loved to drink and he loved John Wayne movies, and we spent a lot of time watching westerns and wishing he could still drink, as he was no longer allowed.
The funniest thing he ever asked me was if I could put on, “a strip tease movie.” He hit me and laughed about that. I told him he couldn’t even imagine what those movies are like now. He said, “I don’t doubt that.”
But mostly he just drank decaf and watched TV, and he never complained much. Occasionally I would put on old 20s jazz and try to get him to talk about his life, but he wasn’t all that interested. The part about getting back from the war, meeting Betty, working for the state, his kids, his grandkids… he didn’t talk about that stuff much. I mean, I have hours of tape of him talking about his life. At some point, he talked about everything. We even talked about pot.
(And I’m paraphrasing): “When I was single, before the war, I would date all sorts of girls, white and colored, you met all kinds of people. But there were usually two types of women: those who drank, and those that smoked reefer. Both were fun, but I never liked that reefer stuff. I never stayed with those women.”
George was inappropriate. (I’m sure his version of that story was more colorful.) His favorite word was “Horseshit!” and he would use it to finish any sentence where he couldn’t remember a word. “Could you bring me the… uhm… horseshit!” That was how he talked. But for all his gruffness I remember him asking that we fill out his ballot to vote for, “anyone but that man,” and for a 90 year old Republican, that’s a pretty progressive move. But he hated politics, and really had no stomach for it. He would talk about almost anything, but even still, he preferred the story about partying with Spike Jones & His City Slickers to almost anything else. (Something that was the only good thing he got to do in the service.)
I think about George a lot. My office is his old room, and there’s little mementos all over the house. He was difficult and amazing and a treat to know, and I miss him every day. I think about his stories, and I worry I’ll be the last to remember some of them.
There’s more – so much more – but what I remember the most is how reverently he would talk about his mother. He talked about her the most, I think, and when I found the promo photo of her from her vaudeville days (the first image below), he was delighted. He had never seen it before.
But it was this bit from the review of her performance that made him cry. When I think about George, I think of him, a grown 90 year old man, crying when I read him the following. I miss you George. You were awesome.
“(From The review below): “Swanee River,” by Althea Young, beggars description. A most beautiful picture of crinoline and pantalettes floated before us in stately grace, to the measures of the old Southern melody. By this time the audience had begun to realize that a master hand was behind the blending of colors, the arranging of the dances and the exquisite charm of the whole program. It had reached a point where adjectives failed to express your real feelings and “ohs” and “ahs” were all that could be heard.”