Former hoofer recalls vaudeville, old Hollywood

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORERose Parade grand marshal Rita Moreno talks New Year’s Day outfit and ‘West Side Story’ remake On a movie set, she met Ronald Reagan during his acting days, and their children played together. The Canyon Country grandmother, whose remarkable life story spills out with the down-home honesty of a country song, shrugs it all off. “A lot of people think I’ve had an interesting life,” she said. “I don’t know. I guess so.” At 15, she was dancing, singing and acting in vaudeville acts in the late 1920s across Florida, where she grew up. The troupe moved from city to city each night, charging 15 cents admission for an evening of entertainment. Before joining the troupe, she had never so much as tapped her foot to a song. But her sister had. So when word hit town that there were interviews for girl dancers, White’s sister was ready to rehearse. She told Matilda to grab her bathing suit and try out, too. Matilda got the job. Her sister didn’t. The job brought in some steady money and some fun during the bleak days of the Depression after the stock market crash of 1929. Just three dresses hung in her closet, but for 10 cents, a person could buy some decent groceries and survive. One time, she and her family bought a chicken to eat and were so excited to have a real meal that they invited neighbors over to share it. That was the way people did it back then, White said. “The Depression was terrible, but we all helped each other out,” she said. “But we were happier then than we are now. Everyone today is out for themselves.” One day during rehearsal, White walked into the practice hall and heard a man playing the piano. She began to sing along to his music and then the two worked on an act together. Little did she know how important that encounter was. White later married the piano player, and together they had a son. They performed together in shows and raised their son while they traveled with the troupe. But a few years later, the piano player left. The marriage was over. White kept on singing on the vaudeville stage until the curtains closed on the final act. Vaudeville was losing popularity while movies and radio were gaining, and with little money even for food, people spent less and less on stage entertainment. Her vaudeville company went out of business, but she later managed to get a job on the stage again. This time an actor named Dan White caught her eye. They married and moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s for him to pursue his career in show business. She focused on family. The couple made a home on Virginia Boulevard, a block north of Santa Monica Boulevard and east of Western Avenue. They made a life for their family at a time when a person could walk outside under clear skies in Los Angeles. Kids played where the Hollywood Freeway now runs, and she shopped at quiet boutiques on Hollywood Boulevard. Dan White got some bit roles in some major pictures, such as “Gone With the Wind” and “The Yearling.” Reagan’s then-wife, Jane Wyman, got an Academy Award nomination for her role in “The Yearling,” and the Whites met Reagan on location. Matilda White insisted that her own show-biz days were over, so she went to work as an operator on a night shift at the Knickerbocker Hotel, where celebrities such as Joe DiMaggio lived. DiMaggio often didn’t want to be disturbed – even by taking phone calls, said White, remembering how one woman called over and over for him. With each call, the bell boy had to walk the phone message up to his room. But late one night, Monroe came to the hotel, innocently asked a clerk to use the phone, then slipped past the sleeping bell boy and walked 10 flights to DiMaggio’s room, White said. “I had a lot of fun at that hotel,” White said. “A lot of show people lived there.” Matilda and Dan White later divorced. And the former dancer-singer returned in 1967 to Florida, where she worked as a hospital operator and had more interesting experiences. Now she lives in Canyon Country with her cat, whose personality delights her. And she remains active. She takes an exercise class for seniors three times a week, and she’s looking for a water aerobics class as well. Sometimes the 5-foot-tall, 120-pound woman goes dirt biking with her son and his children. And, yes, the feisty, blue-eyed woman gets on the bike and rides right along with them. She just doesn’t want to break her neck, so she doesn’t do any of the jumps. Sitting on a chair inside the exercise room at the Santa Clarita Athletic Club, she lifts a barbell above her head. About 10 others in class sit in chairs and do the same. “She’s our inspiration,” said the club’s fitness and program director, Jackie Field. “She’s a very good role model for people in their 60s who feel old.” Arthritis of her knees has ended her dancing days, but nothing else seems to slow her down. As class ends, White takes a ball she exercised with and chucks it across the room, aiming for a box. Meanwhile, friends in class put away the rest of their popular classmate’s equipment. “It’s good to be 92,” she said with a smile as she watched friend Shirley Turansky put her chair away. “People wait on you.” — Sue Doyle,(661) 257-5254 [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! CANYON COUNTRY – Matilda White doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. Yes, she’s 92 and takes an exercise class at the gym. And, of course, she still drives. Oh, the time she saw Marilyn Monroe sneak into the Knickerbocker Hotel to see Joe DiMaggio? That was part of living in Hollywood in the 1940s, White said.last_img read more