Saturday, January 11, 2014

What's In A Name: Stars Who Lost Their Screen Names

The adoption of stage names among actors has long a history, dating back centuries. Today no one recognises the name of 17th Century playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, but they might well recognise his stage name, "Molière". With the advent of film the practice of adopting a stage name continued unabated, and it seems likely that the majority of stars of the Golden Age of Film acted under names other than their given names or legal names.

In the Golden Age of Film the reasons for adopting a stage name varied a great deal. Often it was a case of an actor's given name being difficult to remember, hard to pronounce or spell (or both), or simply not sounding very good. There can be little wonder that  Rodolfo Guglielmi  adopted the stage name "Rudolph Valentino". Quite simply, many Americans had difficulty pronouncing his given surname, let alone spelling it. Other times an actor might adopt a stage name to avoid discrimination due to their ethnicity.  Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Cansino.  Among other things, she adopted her mother's maiden name of Hayworth at the suggestion of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn to avoid being typecast in Latin roles.

Of course, not all actors voluntarily adopted stage names in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Often stage names were forced upon them by the studios. Actor Marion Morrison went by his more masculine sounding nickname, "Duke". Unfortunately, he would only be credited as "Duke Morrision" once, in the 1929 film Words and Music. It was director Raoul Walsh and Fox Film Corporation head Winfield Sheehan who decided Duke Morrison's stage name should be "John Wayne". Duke Morrison was not even present when they did so. Archibald Leach at least had some say in choosing his stage name. Mr. Leach had even appeared on Broadway under the name "Archie Leach", but when he signed to Paramount Pictures he was promptly told to change his name. Mr. Leach suggested "Cary Lockwood", the name of the character he had played in the 1931 Broadway production Nikki. An actor named Harry Lockwood was already under contract to the studio, however, so Paramount rejected that name. Archie Leach then chose the surname "Grant" from a list of suggestions the studio kept for actor's stage names. Archie Leach then forever became Cary Grant.

Not surprisingly given the fact that the studios sometimes forced stage names on actors, there have been a few cases in which actors have decided to revert back to their given or legal names. As a child Imogene Rogers was well known for her prowess at baseball. It is for that reason that she earned the nickname "Casey" (from the poem "Casey at the Bat"). She later changed the spelling of her nickname  to "Kasey". While the name "Kasey Rogers" would seem easy to remember, easy to pronounce, and easy to spell, she began her film career at Paramount Pictures as Laura Elliott. And she would have a relatively successful film career using that name. Indeed, it was as Laura Elliott that she played Miriam Joyce, the cheating wife of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) in the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train (1951).

It was in 1953, when she left Paramount Pictures, that she returned to the name "Kasey Rogers". The name change would have no real impact on her career and she remained a very busy actress, particularly in television. Indeed, she was a regular on the night time soap opera Peyton Place as well as a semi-regular on Bewitched (becoming the second actress to play Louise Tate on the show). Curiously, many people do not realise that Laura Elliott and Kasey Rogers are the same actress. This may simply be because most of her films were made under the name "Laura Elliott" while almost all of her television work she was billed as "Kasey Rogers".

While Kasey Rogers had only been "Laura Elliott" for a few years, there is one, very well known instance of an actress who started using her legal name after fifteen decades of using a stage name. Blossom MacDonald was the older sister of actress Jeanette MacDonald. She and her younger sister Jeanette performed on the vaudeville circuit. When she married actor Clarence Rock she took his surname and continued performing on vaudeville "Blossom Rock". Despite the fact that "Blossom Rock" is a very memorable name, when she started making films she was billed by the much more generic and forgettable name "Marie Blake". It was under the name "Marie Blake" that she played numerous bit parts in films. Indeed, it was as Marie Blake that she played what might be her second most famous role, that of Sally the Telephone Operator in MGM's series of "Dr. Kildare" films.

Despite being known as "Marie Blake" for fifteen years, in 1952 Blossom Rock decided to use her legal name professionally. Arguably, Blossom Rock would prove to be more famous than Marie Blake ever had been. While Marie Blake was best known for bit parts in films, Blossom Rock would go onto several guest appearances on television before achieving everlasting fame as Grandmama on the Sixties television show The Addams Family.

While Kasey Rogers and Blossom Rock started their film careers with stage names and then reverted to their given or legal names, there has been at least one instance of an actress who achieved success under her given name, then adopted a stage name, and then returned to her given name. In the Sixties Patricia Harty was an up and coming actress with a promising career. After stints as a dancer on The Perry Como Show, The Pat Boone Show, and The Garry Moore Show, she made her television acting debut on a 1963 episode of Route 66. It was only three years later that she became the star of her own sitcom, Occasional Wife.

Occasional Wife debuted on 13 September 1966 to strong ratings. Unfortunately the ratings would slip early in the 1966-1967 season and would drop even more at mid-season. In the end, NBC chose not to renew the show. Fortunately Patricia Harty would receive a starring role in another sitcom relatively quickly. Unfortunately it would be one of the biggest critical and ratings failures of the Sixties. Blondie, based on the famous comic strip of the same name, debuted on 26 September 1968. Lambasted by critics and avoided by audiences, the ratings for Blondie were so low that predictions of its cancellation were being made as early as November. Indeed, the show left the air on 9 January 1969.

After Blondie Patrica Harty guest starred on The Virginian, Bonanza, Alias Smith and Jones, Love American Style, Medical Centre, and The Odd Couple. She then took a break from acting. When she returned it was with a new stage name. She had two problems when she had used her given name of "Patricia Harty" professionally. One was that people would call her "Pat", a nickname she did not particularly like. Another was that people consistently mispronounced her name as "Hardy". She then adopted the stage name of "Trisha Hart". Of course, it probably didn't hurt that the new name would help distance her from the failures of both Occasional Wife and Blondie.

As it turned out, however, "Trisha Hart" would be no more successful than Patricia Harty had been. As Trisha Hart she did land a lead role in The Bob Crane Show in 1975. Unfortunately it performed badly in the ratings and was cancelled after 13 weeks Given the failure of The Bob Crane Show, it should be little wonder that when Patricia Harty resurfaced on television again in 1982 in a lead role in the sitcom Herbie the Love Bug, she was once more using her given name professionally. Sadly, Herbie the Love Bug would prove no more successful than her previous shows and only lasted five episodes. Afterwards she made guest appearances on several television shows.

Given the studio's habit of forcing actors to adopt stage names, it is surprising that more actors did not eventually revert to their given names. In case of better known actors the reasons for not doing so seem pretty clear. After achieving fame as "Cary Grant", would Archie Leach really want to lose possible box office revenue by insisting on being billed under his given name? Even if a famous actor absolutely hated his or her stage name, then, there would be considerable motivation to continue using it. Of course, today the studio system is long dead and actors are free to choose use a stage name if they wish to. What is more, they can choose a stage name they like.  It is then very doubtful that in years to come very many actors in the future will elect to change their stage names in mid-career.

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