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Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Real and Reel Variety Girl --- Part One

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 had made 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 "tents." Paramount paid 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 was  well-advanced pregnancy). By completion of Variety Girl and VI convention time in May 1947, Ginsberg had 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 for Paramount 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 beyond gather 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 publicity gimmicks," 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?


Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

Gee, who's left from VARIETY GIRL? Lizbeth Scott? Imprressive group shot.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Wow. Wonderful top shot of the star cast. I've never seen Variety Girl. Must watch out for it.
Wish I could say that I could identify everybody, but I can't!

My blog,Vienna's Classic Hollywood at

3:06 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

John, another all-star feature that was produced for charity over profit was the RKO-distributed "Forever and a Day" (1943), a very pro-English movie looking at 140 years of inhabitants of an English house. I just happened to blog about it this week, if you or any of your readers are interested.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

The group cast shot has an extra charge for us boomers, for there, side-by-side in the second row center, are George Reeves and Richard Webb, blissfully unaware that, in a short few years, Superman and Captain Midnight would beckon.

1:28 PM  

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