An Address by Mr. Walter Huston
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 25 Apr 1935, p. 361-373

Huston, Walter, Speaker
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The speaker's personal reminiscences, interspersed with many anecdotes pertaining to vaudeville. Memories from the speaker's childhood. Mr. Huston's family. Some words about Miss May Irwin, one of the Canadians who was a great help to the speaker during his vaudeville experience. Stories about George M. Cohan. Some words on the critics. Reactions from audiences. Hollywood. A story about another Canadian, Aimee Semploy MacPherson. Life for a star in Hollywood. Some comments on the radio. The speaker's pleasant experience playing "Dodsworth." The speaker concludes with a story about the President speaking to him after a play in Washington, and then he performs a speech from Othello.
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25 Apr 1935
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Full Text
Thursday, April 25, 1935

MR. DANA PORTER: In the last few days we have read in the newspapers much about changes in the educational system in the schools of this Province. If education had been improved in the manner that they are now suggesting and if it had been made as attractive as they hope to make it, possibly we would not be introducing Mr. Huston today as the leading actor in the United States. We should be introducing him, perhaps, as some eminent representative of some profession or business in the City of Toronto because Mr. Huston, at an early age in life, decided that the lure of the stage was greater than the lure of the class room. And so he left Toronto to seek his fortune in New York City, where after a good many years of very hard work and not always at the outset the brilliant success, perhaps, that he dreamed of, Mr. Huston eventually attained the position which George M. Cohan and Mary Pickford both agree to be that of the leading actor in the United States. (Applause.)

I have very great pleasure in introducing Mr. Walter Huston. (Applause.)

MR. WALTER HUSTON - Gentlemen: It is a great pleasure to be here today and I understand a great honour to speak before The Empire Club of Canada. I want to say how pleased I have been with the most marvellous reception I have received since I came back to the town of my birth. I assure you that I have never done anything of importance enough to warrant it, but if I have fooled you into thinking I have, then I am satisfied.

I want to pay my respects, first of all to a Toronto girl who has been very kind and very wonderful to me - Mary Pickford. While I am on the subject of Mary, I would like to tell you of a little thing that happened last year in New York. She came back stage to see me when I was playing "Dodsworth," and of course the autograph seekers were around. After they left I heard an argument going on between some of the autograph seekers and one said, "I will give you three Walter Hustons for one Mary Pickford." (Laughter.)

I have been asked several times why I went to so many schools in Toronto. Bill Wright, a friend of mine, after I had named about four, called me up and said, "What's the matter? You forgot about Victoria School." I want to tell you about that. The first school I went to, I didn't like the teacher; the second school I went to, the teacher didn't like me; and the third school, we didn't like each other, and so forth. I decided that the best thing to do was to quit.

My father who was a contractor then, had a shop on the corner of Bay and Richmond Streets in Toronto and he thought perhaps it would be a good idea if his son followed in his footsteps. So, I started at the bottom of the ladder, carrying shingles. I got to the roof the second day and I was carrying scantlings and lumber. It was hot and I decided after two days of that that the stage teas a better occupation.

My first experience on the stage was here in Toronto with the Saint Simon's Church. We got up a Minstrel Show. We played at the Massey Hall. I was about sixteen years old at the time and I remember an old gentleman who came back to see me the other night-Mr. Kidner. He is eighty years old now. I remember the kind words of encouragement he gave me at that time.

I sang a song called "Lindy, Ma Black Belle." I will sing the chorus for you. (Chorus sung by Mr. Huston.) After we played Massey Hall we were engaged to play some clubs-we were rather good. The next day there was a smoker; the men went and I was included with the men. I went and sung my song, did a cake walk and told some funny jokes and the next morning I remember getting my gloves in my overcoat pocket and when I took them out they smelled of smoke. That was the first time I realized I was with the men and I was a man.

After that I joined a dramatic school; the Toronto College of Music had a dramatic school. I went to the school and attended about a month. We gave three plays at the Grand Opera House. A man by the name of H. M. Shaw was the Director. Two years ago in Hollywood, when I was out there making a picture he came in to see me-that was about thirty-four years after. I had him come in and I said, "What can I do for you?" He said, "Can you get me a job, as a butler or anything at all around here?" That is what the show business is.

I left Toronto. This is going to be kind of a history of me. I left Toronto and went out on the road with a little company. We were engaged for fifteen dollars a week. We never got the fifteen dollars a week, for in going with a company like that we played from one town to another, and finally the sheriff caught up. I think I still have a trunk in Onondaga, New York. There is a story about the theatrical company that got stranded and finally the manager of the hotel took the company over. He was a man with a long beard. They had played in a little rural place and the leading man came to the old gentleman and said, "How did you like my performance last night?" He replied, "O, pretty good." The leading man then said, "Do you think I could get a little advance?" They hadn't had any advances until the old gentleman joined the show. He said, "Yes, I think so", and he pushed his whiskers aside and reached into what we called the "Grouch bag", and gave him ten dollars." The next to the leading man heard of it and did the same thing and the story is that at the end of the season the old gentleman's whiskers were all growing out this way. (to one side)

I remember my first return to Toronto. We went to

New York and had a rather tough time. Things didn't go so well but finally I got a job and I remember returning to Toronto with a brand new suit and forty dollars--a great accomplishment. Much more than it is now. I played in a stock company here, and I want to tell a little incident about my mother. I was playing "The Two Orphans" at the Majestic Theatre. I wore a square cut costume, and my legs were rather thin. Not wanting to display such spindles, I found a way of padding my legs and my mother fixed it up for me. When I was returning to New York, two girls were on the train and they recognized me. One of them said to my mother, "I saw him in the stock company. I want to tell you how much I think of the stock company and what beautifully shaped legs he had. My mother said, "Yes, I fixed them for him."

After several years of struggling along, I went into vaudeville. I always say and feel about vaudeville that it is the university of the theatre. Vaudeville is something in which everybody has to stand on their own. With a play like "Dodsworth", you learn your part and go out and it is all very simple. Vaudeville was a great experience and a great school. We had to get up our own acts. We had no advice; no one told us anything. I had to make good. Every afternoon was an opening night. That is why New York opening nights have always held little fear for me, because every afternoon in vaudeville seems to be an opening night. You have to depend on yourself in the competition you have from other people. I managed to make a fairly good living at vaudeville and I wrote some songs. The first time I played here in Toronto with my vaudeville act, I had a song called, "I Haven't Got The Do-Re-Me". I will sing one of the verses I made up while here in Toronto. This was in 1914, around there somewhere. I won't sing the whole song but I will give you an idea. The chorus ended with, "I Haven't got the do-re-me". I wrote a special verse:

They're going to build a depot here some day,
A depot that will cost ten million, so they say;
They've been too long in building, it really is a joke,
They've built a fence around it and now I think they're broke,
They haven't got the do-re-me
It will never be on time,
It's something like the Grand Trunk Line,
Because thy haven't got the do-re-me.
That was twenty years ago, at least.

There are several stories I would like to tell you pertaining to vaudeville. I think perhaps vaudeville is pretty rich in the field of stories. I was playing a little town in Pennsylvania, one act, and my partner came to me and said that the manager wanted some photographs. I didn't have any photographs and I didn't have any money. I knew that there might be photographs that looked like me or my partner and I advised him to go to the town's leading photographer to see if he could get some photographs. He went down and selected some, came back and the manager of the theatre .said, "How about the photographs? Have you got them?" He said, "Yes, here they are." The Manager looked at them and said, "What's this?" My partner said, "That's me." "You," said the manager, "That's a picture of the Mayor." They tell a story about two vaudeville actors who went to London, two American actors. They arrived and one said, "I think I will go down stairs and take a look at the acts that we have to follow and see what they want here. I don't know whether they want the kind of material we have or not." One of them went downstairs and found the man he was to follow made up with a high green hat, a -long red nose, a purple vest, a red coat and long shoes. He said, "If they want that in London, if that is the kind of material they want, we might as well go home." And he said to his partner, "You go down stairs and see what you think." The partner returned and said, "You saw the street man."

My experience toward the end of vaudeville was a little sad. I had struggled twelve years to get somewhere. I had put on a big act. After I had done this I thought I had a very good act but the Keith office said, "We don't want to pay that money," so the last time I played in Toronto was in the Princess Theatre when the Schubert units were playing there. After that season was over there was no place to go. I went to the Keith office and said that I would like to come back and work there. They said, "No, you have played opposition, you can't work for us any more." There was no place to go and it looked very sad. I found some letters of introduction-I have found they are never any good - and I went to many managers. Finally, Mr. Brock Pemberton produced a play called "Mr. Pitt" in New York. I played with "Mr. Pitt" and over night the play, while not a success, put me over. I went along from therewith O'Neill's "Desire Under The Elms." My grandfather helped me a great deal, not knowing it, being dead a long time, but his picture was typical of the kind of a man he was. He came from the north of Ireland and settled on a farm near Orangeville and I think the picture of the kind of man he was-he was a very religious man - helped me with that part. It seemed perfectly natural to do this part. He was a man of 78 years of age.

And I should like to mention another Canadian who, through all my vaudeville experience, was a great help to me - Miss May Irwin. She came, I think, from Whitby, and through all of my vaudeville experience May would come back to me, every year or so, wherever I was playing in New York. She would come back-stage to encourage me, not knowing I was a Canadian, and I not knowing she was a Canadian. It was a wonderful encouragement through all those years to have a woman as important as she come back and be so friendly. She would always send a telegram on the opening night of "Mr. Pitt." The first night she said that she felt like coming back and saying, "I told you so," I think that the finest encouragement I ever got from anyone in the early days was from May Irwin.

After you have reached a certain place of importance in the theatre, I think that you enjoy most when you first begin is to meet people of importance, people who really mean something in the theatre and out of the theatre - men like Jeffie Lasky, Eugene O'Neill, George M. Cohan. And I want to say about Mr. Cohan that he has said some very nice things. When I found out what he said in Toronto, I wired him that I wanted him to stop talking about me, going around the country like that. He was a great influence so far as acting was concerned. I will tell you of one instance: I was practicing the play one day. He said, "Will you say this line here? Will you pause as long as you think you ought to pause before you say the next line?" I said, "All right." He said, "Now; do that for yourself. I want you to do something for me." I said, "All right, what is it, George?" He said, "After you have paused as long as you think you ought to pause, then will you count ten slowly?" I said, "George, they won't stand for that. The audience would stand up and walk out." Well, I did that and I found I could have waited even until now, the audience was so patient. George Cohan is a master of the theatre. He knows' pauses; he knows the theatre as nobody else does. Many actors have quite a bit of criticism in regard to the critics. I have usually found the critics in New York to be perfectly all right. You wake up the next morning and you read the papers. You have appeared in the play and you are hoping„ of course, that they will say, the right thing, and the nice thing. They always tell the truth. They may be prejudiced here or there, but I have found that the critics are usually right. After you have played in a play, take your notices, put them in a scrap book and put them away and look at the scrap book five years later, when your perspective is a little different on the thing and you find they are entirely right.

A very amazing thing, I think, is the reaction we get from an audience while we are playing, in a play. "Dodsworth" is an illustration. It means very much to the audience; the audience will become very much excited. They pay their money to see the play and they become very excited. They lose themselves in looking at the play and they speak up sometimes. The other night in New York, in the scene where Miss Bainton is telling me she is going to marry the young German boy and the audience is very much upset, a gentleman, in the back of the theatre spoke up very loudly and said, "Throttle her." Those things happen, where they forget entirely what they are doing and saying.

I played in a play in which I had to sign a paper that the audience didn't want me to sign and they very often spoke up and said, "Don't sign, Sam." I remember once, looking down at the audience and in the front row was a little old, gay haired lady. I was playing it up, of course, and I looked down; she shook her head, "No, no.”

I would like to say a few words about Hollywood. I think Hollywood is a pretty good place. My first experience was when I went to do "The Virginian." I was out on vacation and I was asked if I could ride a horse.

I hadn't ridden a horse for years. However, they gave me the horse and I managed to ride it. Then they gave me the lines to study and I went and studied them beside a little brook. I heard something rattling in the bushes and it was a rattle snake. When a actor comes from New York to Hollywood and is up 'against such things as that it makes it a little difficult sometimes. I find that you don't have a chance to do as really good a job as you can do. The salaries are very good - nothing to complain about. You miss your contact with the audience. After you have been out there playing for a while just before the camera you mss the personal contact with the audience. After I had arrived there and played in two or three pictures I signed some contracts and I received a telegram from my son. He said, "I see you have signed a contract to do twelve pictures a year for ten years. If this is so,, when are you going to get a chance to practice acting?" The one objection I find is that you jump around so much in the making of a picture. In a play you start with the first act; you rehearse the first scene, then the second and the third act and we know what we are going to do in the end. We know what we are going to do in the last act. In making pictures, they start in the middle of the picture, perhaps jump to the fore part or possibly to the last part and you jump around on it.

I made a picture with Miss Dunn - I forget the name of the picture. I had never met her and I was called down from our place up in the mountains to make the scene. We hadn't rehearsed it; we just go in and do it. In the scene she was telling me that she was expecting a little stranger. After the scene was over she said, "We have never been properly introduced; I have never met you before." We got the Director to introduce us. (Laughter).

I would like to speak of another Canadian who seems to have gotten along pretty well in the world - Aimee Semple MacPherson. I will have to tell of a little experience I had with Aimee in Hollywood. I had made a picture called "The Wet Parade." They needed a little added publicity and they said it would be a very good idea if they could have a debate on the liquor question with somebody of importance, and they found Aimee. Aimee said, "Yes, I will do that, providing I win." So it was agreed that Aimee would win and we were to hold the debate in the Temple. I was against Prohibition and she was for it. I will never forget the night. There was 'a long room toward the amphitheatre of the Temple and we walked down, arm in arm, she had lillies on, and we went on to the debate. The place was filled, outside and inside. Finally, the returns came in, 22,000 in favour of me, and 10,000 for Aimee, but it was reversed and so Aimee won.

The life in Hollywood for an actor is not very long. They get tremendous salaries but the life of the average star in Hollywood is about three or four years. After that they sink. The life of the average feature player is about six or seven years.

I want to tell you a little .story about the people of importance who come to Hollywood. Lord Burleigh came to Hollywood and being a very important person he was being shown around the studios. He was being taken around by Bill Hughberry, who never knew who they were but always introduced them by saying, "I don't know who he is but he is somebody. When he was told that the person was Lord Burleigh, there was a very sudden change in his attitude. He took Lord Burleigh around the studio and everybody was very glad to see him.

This little speech of mine has been a sort of a rambling affair. I have touched on the legitimate and the motion picture, and vaudeville, and the radio is the fourth point of amusement. The radio is becoming a very' important asset to the actor. About three or four months ago I played on one of the first hours of a dramatic play. At the time we thought it wouldn't be very good but since it has developed into the Lux Hour, a very important hour on the radio. The salaries are good and it is rather good work; we rather enjoy it. One of the last broadcasts I made was for the Imperial Tobacco Company of Canada. The way they did it was rather interesting. I spoke about a minute. They fitted up a radio in the dressing room and they had me timed exactly and I had to get off at just such a time and get up and make the little speech. We were connected with Montreal, Nova Scotia, with a gold mine in Northern Canada, with Vancouver and with Hollywood, and with ear phones we rehearsed that and played it the next night. I think it is a rather interesting thing how they handle those things. I would like to get back to the legitimate again and say what a pleasant time I have had in playing "Dodsworth." Some two months ago we were playing in Washington and the President came to the play. He sent word back-stage, inviting Mrs. Huston and Miss Bainton and myself to come to the White House. He spoke about the play and he spoke of one line, where Miss Bainton is complaining that I do not understand civilization in Europe, and of a line which says, "Well, maybe I don't care about civilization in Europe; maybe clean hospitals, concrete high-roads and no Canadian soldiers along the Canadian border come nearer to my idea of civilization." The President said, "I would like to tell you a little story in connection with that. A short time ago we had the idea of patrolling the Canadian border and of having the Canadian pilot and the American pilot in the same ship, and just as we had the idea, Canada had the same idea. So, today, the Canadian border is patrolled with one officer who is a Canadian and one officer who is an American. If an arrest is to be made on the Canadian side the ship lands and the Canadian officer makes the arrest; and if it is on the American side the American officer makes the arrest and they split the expenses." (Applause).

Last summer I had a rather nice experience. We went to Central City, which is a small town on the coast. We did Othello there. Robert Edward Jones, who is now my brother-in-law was there and also Barry Jones and his wife. Jones was working on Hamlet and he and his wife helped me tremendously. We worked on Othello. It was a rather nice experience to go up to the old town, where some 180 billion dollars had been taken out in gold. All the gold had gone and there was nothing there but the beautiful old theatre. We went up and really had a marvellous experience. It was most thrilling doing Shakespeare. It was the first time I had ever done Shakespeare. We worked rather hard on it and when you get on the subject of Othello, I would be very glad to do the whole play for you if I could. I think I will finish this little speech this afternoon by reading one of Othello's speeches if you would like to hear it:


Her father lov'd me; oft invited me,' Still questioned me the story of my life, From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes, That I have pass'd.

I ran it through, even from my boyish days To the very moment that he bade me tell it Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents by flood and field;

Of hairbreadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach; Of being taken by the insolent foe,

And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence, And portance in my travel's history: Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,

It was my hint to speak, - such was the process; And of the Cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear Would Desdemona seriously incline

But still the house affairs would draw her thence; Which ever as she could with haste despatch, She'd come again;, and with a greedy ear Devour up my discourse; which I observing, Took once a plaint hour; and found good means To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,

Whereof by parcels she had something heard, But not intentively: I did consent;

And often did beguile her of her tears, When I did speak of some distressful stroke That my youth suffer'd. My story being done She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:

She swore,-in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange; 'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful

She wish'd she had not heard it; yet she wish'd

That heaven had made her such a man: she thank'd me;

And bade me, if I had a friend that lov'd her, I should but teach him how to tell my story, And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd;

And I lov'd her that she did pity them.

This only is the witchcraft I have us'd. (Applause). Mr. Porter, the retiring President of The Empire Club asked Mr. J. H. Brace, the President-Elect to express to Mr. Huston the thanks of the Club for his address.

MR. J. H. BRACE: Mr. Huston and Gentlemen: It is very kind of Mr. Porter to call upon me at this time. As he said, this is the last meeting of the Empire Club for this year. I think it has been one of the most successful years in the Club's history. I believe I am expressing the thought of all of the members of the Club in saying that for the accomplishments of this year we are truly grateful to Mr. Porter and to all who have assisted him.

Mr. Huston, may I say on behalf of the Club that we appreciate very much your coming and talking to us today. The intimate stories of on the stage and off the stage, I know have been appreciated by all and we will follow your career in the future, possibly to a greater extent than we have in the past. On behalf of the Club, Mr. Huston, I wish to extend to you our very deep thanks.

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An Address by Mr. Walter Huston

The speaker's personal reminiscences, interspersed with many anecdotes pertaining to vaudeville. Memories from the speaker's childhood. Mr. Huston's family. Some words about Miss May Irwin, one of the Canadians who was a great help to the speaker during his vaudeville experience. Stories about George M. Cohan. Some words on the critics. Reactions from audiences. Hollywood. A story about another Canadian, Aimee Semploy MacPherson. Life for a star in Hollywood. Some comments on the radio. The speaker's pleasant experience playing "Dodsworth." The speaker concludes with a story about the President speaking to him after a play in Washington, and then he performs a speech from Othello.