A word portrait of the boy from St. Thomas who became one of Hollywood's ace comedians
NED SPARKS is an exception to the rule that sex appeal is essential to Hollywood success. Never once classified as a romantic figure, the dead-pan Canadian comedian has probably stolen more pictures than any other individual in the industry. He also has the reputation, substantiated by the records, of saving more pictures from box-office oblivion than any other film player; so much so, that he now enjoys the enviable distinction of being called in to bolster stars whose popularity is «waning but whose, fabulous contracts still have some time to run.
Incidentally, in answering these emergency calls, the Sparks salary figure usually tops the stipend of the stars. What continues to amaze the movie moguls is that the dourfaced comedian works when he feels like it; and that is not as often as they would wish.
Commanding greater res|x*ct than any of the current crop of profiles, he is that rarity in 1 lollywood. an individual who will say “No” to a producer; not that Spyarks is churlish, he just won’t be worked to death.
He has all the money in the world he needs, thanks to level-headed management oí his personal affairs plus shrewd investments in Canadian industrials and in three of the Northland's leading gold mines; but, because of commendable professional pride and the knowledge that certain film directors are his friends, he will periodically saunter to the rescue. He does insist, however, that he write or supervise his own lines.
He hasn t been in a mot ion-picture theatre for four years; by his own admission, once the film has been completed, he has no interest in seeing it again. Candidly, the gentleman is an acknowledged Hollywood phenomenon, but the truth is that his sour expression, coupled with a voice that sounds like a concrete-mixer in action, sends picture audiences into hectic convulsions.
He came to his present high position by means of a dress suit and fifteen years of what is jocularly known as playing the game the hard way. After extended research, it has been determined that he is the only actor who was ever
stranded five times in the same city in the same season and survived to tell the tale.
He was born in Guelph, Ontario, but moved with his family to the neighboring city of St. Thomas when he was one year old. This migration was the one and only in many years when he had no interest in the cost of railway transportation. Ultimately, he was to hop, skip and jump across the continent from the Maritimes to the Yukon, not to mention sundry points below the border.
Dress Suit Saga
O PARKS had the theory, the merits of which there is no ^ need to examine here, that there was no opportunity for making money in St. Thomas. He wanted to enjoy the tangible values which the possession of money would give him, a little earlier in life than seemed possible to a normal St. Thomas youth. Hence an itch to see far places.
He went to public school and the Collegiate Institute in St. Thomas. Among his contemporaries were Mitchell Hepburn, later to be political stormy petrel and subsequently Premier of Ontario; John Robertson, who became a great Hollywood director and is now devoting much of his time to leisurely civilized living; and Harry Hindmarsh who was to become managing editor of the Toronto Star.
Sparks’ closest companion, swimming-hole pal in the summer and hockey teammate in the winter, was George Metcalfe, who later became a reporter on the St. Thomas daily, went overseas as a private in the 1st Division, became colonel of the 25th and was killed on the Marne in his first engagement.
Not until he was seventeen did Sparks stop scratching that itch for far places. During school vacations, he had taken a hand in the furniture factory his father ran, had served behind a counter, and worked in the railway dispatcher’s office. He felt that there was no future in any of these fields.
Unsettled and unsatisfied, he told his people he was leaving home. They shook their heads in sorrow, but there were no recriminations and no arguments. His father and
mother accepted the declaration quietly; so did his brother and sister, who are still living irr St. Thomas. His home would always be there, and he could come back whenever he wanted to. He has been doing that on and off for years, but never in the role of the prodigal son.
Sparks’ assets included a full-dress suit and a clear tenor voice. Both possessions were to stand him in good stead. He became a singer of illustrated songs at Euclid Beach Park in Cleveland. The lyrics were thrown on the screen by a lantern projector; sartorial in tails, Sparks would sing the verses and the audience would come m on the chorus.
It was a pleasant if prosaic way of making a living, but suddenly the cry of “Gold!” thunderclapped across a continent and the second Yukon rush was under way.
O PARKS threw his job to the winds and his dress suit into ^ a valise, hurriedly bought a one-way ticket to Seattle and boarded the train, to discover that he had ninety-five cents in his pocket on which to subsist before reaching his destination. He still shudders at the memory of his meagre rations.
Seattle was wide open and tough, but Sparks had little time or inclination to observe the civic scene of this jumpyoff to the Yukon. He wanted a job that would guarantee three square meals a day, and he wanted to get to Dawson City before the gold Ml petered out.
The dress suit was the sesame. He was taken on as a steward by the captain of the City oj Seattle, the principal coastwise steamer on the Seattle-Skagway run. This would get him to Alaska. His first order was to help get the ship’s stores aboard. Eagerly, he trotted down the gangplank just as a quarter of beef dropped upon him from above. Beef and boy went into the Pacific, and Sparks recalls the beef was rescued first.
He jumped ship at Skagway, but still didn’t have enough money to get to Dawson City. For two months he sang in a honky-tonk where the guns of Soapy Smith, defunct outlaw, hung over the bar. Night after night. Sparks sang the cardiac ballads of the period, while husky, bearded miners wept into their beer and made the youngster the target of their gratitude by throwing money at him. His only task was finding it in the sawdust.
He made the trek to Dawson City, but by this time he had evolved a new philosophy. Why dig for gold when he could sing for it? The wise boys who were making fortunes Continued on page 28
Continued jrom page 12
weren’t wielding picks and shovels or freezing over sluices.
Sparks was given an audition and began singing in another honky-tonk. His fame spread throughout the diggings. Miners came in from miles around to hear his ballads and to gaze upon his dress suit, the closest link to civilization they had seen in many months.
It was a lush and halcyon era. Dawson City was an all-night town of madness and confusion. There were brawls and shootings; fitting into the picture were the dance-hall girls, the suave and cold-eyed gamblers, the grizzled miners and adventurers from the four corners of the earth.
Working as a waiter in the same honkytonk as Sparks was Alexander Pantages, who was to save his money, open his first vaudeville house in Seattle and his second in Vancouver, and ultimately own a chain of theatres that spread across the United States and Canada.
Tex Rickard was running a saloon and gambling joint. Jack London and Rex Beach were gathering the first-hand material for the fictionized facts that were to make them famous. Sid Grauman, who was to build, two decades later, Los Angeles’ most elaborate motion-picture theatre, was one of Dawson City’s leading citizens. Robert W. Service had left the ’Canadian Bank of Commerce to write his lusty “Songs of a Sourdough,” and John Considine was laying the foundation for another chain of theatres that would later rival Pantages’.
In white tie and tails, young Sparks sang and saved his money. He was no roundabout-towner. He neither drank nor smoked, had no entanglements, and spent most of his leisure time in catching up on his reading.
The Duff de Forrest Players came to town. The drama dispensers were bad, according to present-day standards, but
tlie Dawson City populace took their entertainment literally. Sparks joined the company and the first act nearly proved his last.
As a bad man, he was heartily hated and hissed by the audience and admonished to “leave that gal alone.” He met his just deserts and was cheered while being hanged. Unfortunately, on the opening night, the rivets in the hanging harness broke. The scene still stands as the most realistic performance in the Sparks career. When they lowered the curtain and the strangling youngster, it was thought that he would go back to singing. He stayed on with the troupe for forty-six weeks. The one continuous show started at eight at night and continued till four in the morning. Between the acts. Sparks sang.
At eighteen, he was getting $200 a week; you could live comfortably in Dawson City for $20 a day. Sparks was saving money. Because of transportation difficulties, acting talent was at a premium and competition was slim. But he wanted to get somewhere; his experience with the Duff de Forrest Players had opened up new
Ned S1arks' first home at St. Thomas, Ontario.
horizons, and the wings of destiny were whirring.
C PARKS returned to Seattle and joined ^ a travelling troupe which toured Montana, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. The star was Frank Fanning, later to be leading man to Modjeska. The show was a “turkey,” meaning it was terrible, and the citizenry finally concurred with Sparks’ opinion. The company found itself stranded in Helena, Montana.
He packed his dress suit and trekked back to Seattle. There he sang in Moe Goldsmith’s Theatre Comique because there was nothing else to do. Two months later, he joined the Clara Mathis Stock Company, a famous troupe which, for twenty-five years, toured from Saint John, N.B., to Southern California. Sparks stayed with them for five months.
With $25 and a firm conviction that he was destined for New York, Sparks left the troupe at Chicago. A carload of horses was also destined for New York. To save railway fare, Sparks paid over $10 for the privilege of escorting the equines, this leaving him a narrow margin of needed capital. Arriving in New York, he tossed a kiss to the horses and walked off the train.
Sparks knew no one in New York. For weeks, he eked out a bare existence and the experience still gives him nightmares. There were something like 25,000 actors patrolling the pavements of Broadway, and not a soul seemed to care about him.
So one day, as Sparks was disconsolately and hungrily meandering down the Great White Way, a mustached individual accosted him and asked excitedly, “Are you an actor?” Sparks wearily confessed, “The jury hasn’t come in yet.”
“You’re just the type!” cried the agent. “You’re perfect. You play a consumptive in a wheel chair and you get $40 a week.” Sparks took the job and, in his starved condition, hardly required a make-up on opening night. The show went on the road and met with consistent success, but salaries were hard to garner. Sparks’ frail appearance, however, belied his inherent character.
He grew tired of promises, strategically held the curtain at Chicago, demanded his fifteen weeks back salary, and refused to go on the stage until he got it. The audience fidgeted impatiently for thirty minutes, but Sparks capitulated when the manager of the Chicago Opera House paid him his $600 and took the amount out of the company’s share of the night’s receipts. At the close of the performance. Sparks pulled his trunk and the show closed.
He joined another number three road company out of Chicago and was stranded in Boone, Iowa, where the memory of “The Dice of Death” still remains the worst drama in the minds of the surviving pioneers. Sparks wanted to return to Chicago, and tried to hawk his suitcase to the hotel proprietor. Unfortunately, that gentleman admitted that he never travelled but Sparks could have room and board and train fare by singing in the bar for a couple of weeks. Sparks sang and the hotel man kept his bargain.
Sparks joined another Chicago company presenting “The James Boys.” Once again he was a bad man. playing Frank, the brother of the notorious Jesse James, and the troupe stranded in Boone, Iowa. He sang again in his old hotel stand and earned enough money to get to Roanoke, Virginia. He walked into an agent’s office on the day of his arrival and walked out with a job. A few weeks later, he was stranded in Boone, Iowa!
By this time, he was beginning to know every crease in every leather seat in the smoking cars to Boone, and the conductors were beginning to look at Sparks suspi-
ciously. He went out again, this time in “The Parish Priest,” a pastoral play of sweetness and light which soothed the savage citizenry of the Middle West until the company arrived at Boone, Iowa. These more discriminating theatre-goers registered the thumbs-down sign, and Sparks went back to singing for his old hotel-proprietor friend.
To make a long story monotonous, he came out of Chicago again, playing a good part in “Faust.” And the show folded up in Boone, Iowa ! Sparks still had his convictions and his suitcase, and a strong determination never to set foot in Iowa again.
The Dead-pan Idea
TN NEW YORK once more, he joined L the Blany Brothers Company where, with his slow smile and charm-distilling manner, he jumped into juvenile leads. His first major offering was in “Mr. Blarney from Ireland,” an Irish musical comedy starring Fiske O’Hara.
Sparks began appearing in the better road shows such as “Brown of Harvard,” a college play; and “Gentlemen from Mississippi,” which dealt with political life in Washington.
Sparks was now getting $75 a week. He still had his tenor voice and people liked it. He also held the staunch belief that he had served his apprenticeship and ought to be on Broadway.
William A. Brady was producing “Little Miss Brown,” with Madge Kennedy, at the 44th Street Theatre. Sparks was given a part, but committed the unpardonable sin. He was playing a hotel clerk and, throughout rehearsals, had followed the instructions of the stage director in playing this in the usual affable manner.
On opening night, the thought suddenly struck him that the part could be made riotously funny if played without expression. He introduced the dead-pan characterization that was to make him famous, and nobody could stop him. Watching the show from the back of the house, Brady muttered curses and gnawed his fingernails. Sparks stole the show and, as the audience rocked with laughter, Brady forgave him.
The critics raved, Sparks was made overnight, his salary was jumped from $75 a week to $200, and the play ran for three years. After that, parts were written for him or he wrote them himself.
His salary shot up to $1,000 a week, and he appeared in such nostalgia-invoking productions as “The Family Cupboard,” with Alice Brady; “A Perfect Lady,” with Rose Stahl; “The Younger Son,” with Effie Shannon; “The Show Shop,” with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
The first show in which he starred was “My Golden Girl,” which was Victor Herbert’s last opus. It ran at the Casino Theatre in New York for seventy-five weeks. Sparks was signed up by Ziegfeld to star in “Going South,” which had just been written by Ring Lardner and Gene Buck. During this span, Sparks had also authored two plays, “Twilight,” to be
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produced by Belasco. and “The Coldpan," which was on the Larry Webber schedule.
A Strike and Its Aftermath
SPARKS was now a leading figure in the theatre. Forgotten were the heartaches of Boone, Iowa. His jaded sophistication behind the footlights was just an act the audience liked; off stage, he was quiet and unobtrusive. His charities were wide and many times anonymous; he gave away a lot of money, and asked only that the matter be considered private and off the record.
There had been managerial abuses for many years and conditions were coming to a head. Too many actors were being stranded by entrepreneurs who seemed to have no conscience. Even the lowly chorus girls were putting in long weeks of rehearsal without pay in the hope that the production would prove a success.
The actors’ strike broke one July day in 1919, and some 10,000 players walked out and stayed out for ten weeks. Sparks was petitioned for his support, and took an active part in the negotiations. He organized strike headquarters and directed an office force of 140 people. The actors won the fight, this leading to the founding of Equity, but Sparks' stage career was ended.
He was blacklisted by the managers, his contracts for that season were repudiated, and one excuse after another was made for the non-opening of Ziegfeld’s production, “Going South.” The two plays which Sparks had written, and which had been scheduled for production, never even went into rehearsal.
Sparks sat in the Lambs’ Club for three years, and drew glares from the managers and admiring commiseration from his fellow players. Fortunately, he was never short of funds. Tired of inactivity, he finally signed a Hollywood contract. This was a year or so before the advent of sound, and he met with indifferent success. When sound bombshelled the film industry out of its lethargy, Sparks skyrocketed to fame again. Kings’ ransoms were being paid to trained actors who could speak properly and not suffer from the influence of Brooklyn or the Bronx.
Home In Canada
SINCE that time, Sparks has never been out of work. He has appeared in some forty films, but refuses to sign a long-term contract. He has seen too many quicklyfading stars whose names are on the marquees of three theatres in the same city in one week. Early he learned to whet the public’s appetite and then leave this unsatisfied.
He has become a specialist, and now has the enviable distinction of being hired to save pictures. He also has become an actorauthor, and either writes his own lines or adds to or embellishes what others have written. He stole the acting honors in “Lady for a Day,” which won the Academy award in 1934. He stole “Going Hollywood” from Marion Davies, and “Hi, Nellie” from Paul Muni. He was the comedy relief in “One in a Million,” which was Sonja Henie’s first film, and he bolstered Walter Winchell and Ben Bernie in “Wake Up and Live.”
He is the first to admit that a lot of his forty pictures have been junk, as he succinctly expresses it; others have made screen history. His next assignment will be a Warner Brothers picture based on the life of O. O. McIntyre. Prior to McIntyre’s recent death, Sparks was repeatedly mistaken for the famous newspaper columnist.
In private life, Sparks rarely associates with the pretty boys and girls of the screen. He is a well-liked figure among the members of the Canadian Club of Los Angeles, and entertains many of his countrymen. He is fundamentally Canadian and has never filed an American citizenship application.
He has two homes in St. Thomas, and returns to Canada at least once a year for a fortnight of fishing or shooting in Ontario or British Columbia. He refuses to shoot
bear, and will only draw a bead on a deer if the larder in the hunting lodge is running low. He will shoot partridge, quail or duck, and fish for salmon or black bass, but only to that degree which fills the need for food. He loathes hunters who slaughter, and will not speak to any grinning nimrod who has his picture taken with one foot uplifted on the flank of some dead denizen of the forest.
His boon companions on these hunting or fishing forays are Mitchell Hepburn, the Premier of Ontario; Joseph Errington, mining magnate; and E. G. Odette, the chairman of the Ontario Liquor Control Board. He once made a campaign speech for Hepburn but modestly insists that this carried little weight.
His closest friends in Hollywood are Raoul Walsh, E. H. Griffith and Frank Capra, all top-ranking film directors. The cronies play poker and Sparks wins; they never learn, he says sadly.
Sparks is genial off screen, and sounds brisk and British on the telephone and in private conversation. Possessed of a punctilious dandyism, he looks like a solid businessman who has a flair for neatness.
His wardrobe is extensive and expensive; he likes English suitings, fine linen and sturdy British shoes.
Ontario remains his home and, by the time you read this, he will have bought a country estate in Elgin County. He will go in for fish culture, dogs and birds. Fortune’s gift to the warehouse owners of Toronto, he is steadily shipping his effects from California. The other day, 1,400 of his books arrived.
As he puts it, he set himself a goal and it took him fifteen years to score. You find something, he says, that offers a future and security. You are prepared to spend a lot of time working toward that goal, and sometimes the rewards during that period of preparation seem inadequate. But you learn to stop wishing and really work out each successive step in the plan that has been formulated; and ten years later you remember that you are a better equipped person than you were ten years bef re. In time, your perseverance wins and certain dreams of pleasant living are fulfilled.
Substantiated as it has been, the Sparks formula for success sounds like swell advice in any language.