How many all-star features did Hollywood do for charity over profit? One
such was Variety Girl, produced by Paramount
in 1947 and featuring virtually all of its on-lot talent. It took a giving
group with considerable weight to make this happen, and Variety Club
International was just such a force, being combined effort of showmen worldwide
to provide for children (and eventually others) in need. The group's formation
was the stuff of movies: an usher (said later to be a teenaged Gene Kelly)
finds a baby left in a seat at the Sheridan Square Theatre in Pittsburgh with a
note imploring management to care for an infant her parents could no longer
afford. A local group of exhibs then resolves to underwrite the child's rearing
and education from there, naming her Catherine Variety Sheridan. That was 1928,
and the adoption by showfolk was kept largely low-key until proper parents
could be chosen to raise Catherine. Once that was accomplished in 1933,
Catherine disappeared into normal life and only two Variety Club members would
know her whereabouts.
Curiosity about Catherine increased over two
decades as Variety International grew. They'd become a group Hollywood was eager to please, representing
very powerful exhibition forces. Annual conventions swelled to attendance of
1,500 by the time membership descended on LA for 1947's gather. This was special occasion because Paramount
hadmade a movie spun off Variety International's origin and fictionalized account of what had become
of Catherine now that she was grown. The big heart of show biz had never been
so celebrated. This was one venture where nobody said no. To do so would, at
the least, risk industry standing, if not livelihood. Variety Girl was to some extent a
vehicle to fund-raise in openings around the country, each sponsored by Variety
Variety International $50,000 for rights to Catherine's story, their
fantasy of her come-to-Hollywood adventure to be called Variety Girl.
A mid-August 1946 start date was set. Production
head Henry Ginsberg announced "formally" in July that nearly all Paramount name players would appear. If one didn't, there
would be a good reason (in Betty Hutton's case, it waswell-advanced pregnancy). By completion of
Variety Girl and VI convention time in May 1947, Ginsberghad his movie ready
for preview to attendees, their having converged on the Ambassador Hotel for a
week of high-life and hosting by an industry outdoing even itself for
hospitality. Notorious tight-fist Jack Warner sprung for a shindig that cost WB
"anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000," according to trade paper Variety.
Warner distribution and sales head Ben Kalmenson had sold Jack on "great
public relations" that would flow from the feed. Other companies
staged luncheons and parties nearly as lavish, money no object where it came to
keeping this group happy.
There was a dinner attended by VI execs and Paramount brass from the
east (including Barney Balaban) at which Variety Girl was shown. The two club
members who knew Catherine's present location wouldn't reveal it, not even forParamount publicists eager to tie her in with bally for
the pic. "Alive and well" was all they'd disclose. As to star
reception for VI guests, it was all stops out. Partying made it look like the
old Hollywood Canteen was back in business. Seldom had so much talent turned
out for strangers to look at and talk to. Even a most obtuse celebrity knew where
bread was buttered, and who at Paramount
would ignore a summons from Ginsberg and Balaban?
"Pre-premieres" were set for
twenty-four cities, proceeds from all opening nights going to VI-picked
charities. Stars off the Paramount lot were
spread among bows to encourage ticket selling, these at advanced price between
$5 and $12, depending on the venue. August was thus a busy month for Para talent, their toil not before cameras, but pumping
for a movie few could have thought had value beyondgather of coin for the org after
which it was named. There was a two-hour stage show at the Los Angeles
Paramount Theatre to raise proceeds for a local youth center, hosted by Bob
Hope and George Jessel. The live stuff crowds got was well worth cost of
ducats, as these were stage extravaganzas to put any screen fare in the shade.
So what of real-life Catherine Variety Sheridan?
She was portrayed by Para contractee Mary Hatcher, but refused herself to give
up private life to join in Variety Girl festivity, having got a name change
(now Joan) and anonymity since '33 with her Long Island
adoptive family. "I was afraid of publicitygimmicks," she told The
Los Angeles Times in 1980, a fear largely instilled by the "frightful
movie" Variety Girl turned out, in her opinion, to be. After turning down
an invite to the Hollywood premiere,
Catherine/Joan saw Variety Girl at a local run and deemed it "terrible,"
she being resolved never to have "any identity with my life as
Catherine Variety Sheridan." Paramount meanwhile put Variety Girl on release track for late summer/early fall dates, one of a so-called
"Fabulous Five" that also included Welcome, Stranger, Dear Ruth, The
Perils Of Pauline, and Desert Fury. 1947 was that decade's first for slippage
in overall industry receipts. Would star cameos mean as much to a public in
happy postwar embrace of suburbia and outdoor barbecuing?