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The Gentleman from Saint John
Charles Foster looks back on Walter Pidgeon's rise
from the city's North
End to Hollywood stardom
by Charles Foster
WALTER PIDGEON, always a hard worker, was the youngest
paper boy in Saint John. At 13, he was employed on weekends in his father's
store, located at the corner of Main and Bridge Streets in the area known as
Indiantown. He used every penny he earned to buy the fine quality clothing that
became his life-long trademark.
Did he buy
them from his father?
must say no," he said. "I have to admit his clothing, though good value, wasn't
the quality I wanted."
recalled that often when he was expecting a newspaper writer to visit him at
his Bel Air home he would peep out of an upstairs window to see who got out of
the car. "If the reporter was badly dressed or was untidy he often told me to
say that he had been called away and the interview had to be cancelled," she
himself said, "But if the reporter was neat and tidy I often invited him to
stay for dinner, and on more than one occasion to stay overnight to finish the
interview. Even lent him my pajamas."
when a suit returned from the cleaner pressed so that two side-by-side creases
could clearly be seen in the trousers, Pidgeon bought a professional pressing
table and from that day on no one ever ironed his trousers but his wife
staff would just stand by and watch," he said.
"But I never
let them touch the trousers," said Ruth. "Think of the money we saved over 50
I met Walter Pidgeon for the first time in
1943 while I was on leave from the Royal Air Force in Hollywood. He was on the
set at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios playing Pierre Curie in Madame Curie
with Greer Garson and Robert Walker.
years, after the war, when I worked in Hollywood, I was invited to his home on
many occasions for dinner or lunch, once even for breakfast. And at other times
when he just wanted to talk, especially about Saint John.
Pidgeon, born September 23, 1898, at 23 Cedar Street in Saint John, had every
reason to be satisfied with his life. He had succeeded beyond his wildest
dreams in the motion picture industry, and not once in the 59 years he had
called California his home had any suggestion of scandal ever been written
in eight successful films, Greer Garson, called him "Hollywood's only real
gentleman. I never heard him raise his voice in anger, I never heard him say a
bad word about anyone, nor did I hear anyone say a bad word about him. He was a
gentleman and a gentle man."
EIGHTY-NINE years ago, a trembling schoolboy, just 13
years old, stood on the stage of Saint John's Imperial Theatre to give his
debut performance. But not as an actor, as a singer. Some stories have
suggested he went on stage to substitute for his brother Charles who had lost
his voice with a bad cold. "Rubbish," said Pidgeon. "I was there because they
invited me. Charles couldn't sing a note."
Pidgeon, whose well-documented singing accomplishments have often been eclipsed
by his brilliant acting achievements, was a member of one of a number of school
choirs showcased on stage. The youthful Walter Pidgeon had such an outstanding
voice that he was given not one but two solos.
relaxing on the lawn of the beautiful mansion that film success had enabled him
to build at 230 Strada Corta Road in exclusive Bel Air, California, he recalled
his public debut 73 years earlier.
were shaking. I was so scared I wasn't sure my voice would come out at all, but
it must have been all right. I remember the applause to this day. It is
probably my most wonderful memory of the city in which I was born. You can
forget all the boos and catcalls in your life but you never forget the
when he was 17, he enrolled at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
"I didn't know what I wanted to be, if a pirate sailing the oceans doesn't
count," he said. "But the next year, at 18, 1 left the university and joined
the 65th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery. I was full of adventure and
was ready to face the trenches in France, but fate intervened. In training, I
became trapped between two rolling gun carriages and spent the next 16 months
in a Toronto military hospital."
After the war
was over, Pidgeon moved to Boston and found a job working nights in the mail
room of a stock broker. Using the money he earned, he entered the Boston
Conservatory of Music.
no thought of acting - unless you count the awkward movements I made on stage
in the various musicals I did in the early twenties acting but I did believe I
was going to find fame as a singer." Pidgeon married his first wife, Muriel,
also hoping to find fame as a singer, while training at the conservatory. "It
was tough at first, trying to keep both of us on one salary," he recalled. "But
we survived because Muriel took an evening job as a salesgirl."
can't have been really bad, because four years later, when he was 23, he
appeared in Canada again at both the Imperial Theatre in Saint John and the
Grand Theatre in Moncton. This time he was singing a small but important role
as a member of the Boston Light Opera Company.
critic for the Moncton Times singled him out, saying, "Mr. Pidgeon has a
robust baritone voice that is enhanced by his masculine appearance and
excellent stage presence. Mark my words, this young man will go far in the
world of the theatre."
Moncton writer, unnamed, was the first critic who ever noticed me," he said.
"Let me show you the clipping from my first scrapbook. You never want to lose
moments in time like that."
special memories of one singing role he won while he was still at the Boston
Conservatory. "I played the lead role as a Mountie in Rose Marie, and
after a month on the road, during which the producer often had me walk up and
down the main street of each town in which we were playing, wearing my Royal
Canadian Mounted Police uniform, I became so enthused with the red coat that I
actually applied to join the force. When they saw the record of my military
injuries they sent me a letter of regret. I often wonder what my life might
have been like had :hey accepted me."
Astaire, long before his own Hollywood fame, spotted Pidgeon singing with an
amateur company in Boston. He knew that the renowned singer and entertainer,
Elsie Janis, was then in search of a new partner and suggested Pidgeon. She
travelled to Boston to hear him and hired him on the spot.
was a delight to work with," he said. "I learned more stagecraft from her than
I had learned in the years before or have learned since. For more than two
years I toured the United States and Canada with her, although we never did
come to New Brunswick, but we went on to Broadway and London's West End."
Pidgeon's wife travelled with the company as understudy for Janis. "But just
her luck," said Pidgeon. "Elsie Janis had a constitution like an elephant. She
was never sick."
exactly a financial bonanza playing second fiddle to Miss Janis. "I think I got
about $100 when we were on Broadway in the revue Puzzles of 1925. Muriel
got about $20. But that was a lot of money in those days."
movies were still silent in 1925, and Pidgeon at that time was considered a
singer, not an actor, his good looks attracted the movie moguls. When the Elsie
Janis show ended its run on Broadway, early in 1926, he and his wife headed by
train to Hollywood to visit the different companies that had expressed interest
in his talents as an actor.
leaving the New York rail terminal as clearly as though it was yesterday," he
said. "As we waved good-bye to our friends my wife yelled out, 'I should tell
you all, I'm pregnant.' It was the first I'd heard of the news and I was quite
stunned. I guess I worried all the way across the United States wondering
whether I could succeed in motion pictures sufficiently to keep three people
alive. By the time we reached Chicago we were so uncertain that we were ready
to leave the train and return to New York where I knew stage work would be easy
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