If You Want to be Liked (Oct, 1932)
If You Want to be Liked-
You can’t do better than follow the advice of “Doctor” Shurr, discoverer of stage stars
By MILDRED HARRINGTON
SOME men sell groceries for a living; some sell bonds. Others sell | houses, airplanes, washing machines, or carpet tacks. Louis Shurr sells charm. Last year he sold more than a million dollars’ worth.
Broadway, New York’s Main Street, is the counter over which Shurr purveys his unusual commodity, and the chances are that at one time or another you have been one of his customers. Not directly, for “the Doctor,” as George White dubbed him years ago, deals on a wholesale scale. He sells charm to hard-boiled theatrical producers, who in turn sell it to you and me at so much per orchestra or gallery seat ticket.
The legend on “the Doctor’s” door reads: “Louis Shurr, Manager of Artists.” It might just as truthfully read: “Louis Shurr, Creator of Artists.” For fifteen years he has guided the destinies of scores of stars of musical comedy. And a surprising lot of them declare that but for his uncanny gift for picking out and developing the one angle of talent or facet of personality which sets them apart they would still be prancing on at the tag end of a chorus or doing a three-a-day on some obscure vaudeville circuit.
Among these are William Gaxton and Victor Moore, stars in 0} Thee I Sing; Bert Lahr and Lupe Velez, of Hot-Cha; Dennis King, of Show Boat, and Bet-tina Hall and George Metaxa, stars of The Cat and the Fiddle. Peggy Wood, Marilyn Miller, Ruth Etting, and dozens of other Broadway favorites swear by “the Doctor.”
TO AN equal degree, he enjoys the confidence of the big producers. When Sam Harris or George White decides to launch a new musical show, his first step is to get in touch with “the Doctor.” The late Florenz Ziegfeld followed the same practice.
“Doctor” Louis lives in a world bounded by the electric lights of the theatrical district. His office looks down upon the brilliant whirligig of Times Square. Here, flawless in grooming, agreeable in manner, lightning-quick in decision, he sits from noon to dusk, his working day. Barricaded be- hind a desk topped with affectionately inscribed photographs, he listens with friendly impartiality to hopes and pleas.
Here, day in and day out, come stage-struck boys and girls from your home town and mine; also stage-struck boys and girls born within a stone’s throw of Broadway. Girls with a Greta Garbo profile, or feet which they bravely believe are “as funny as Beatrice Lillie’s.” Boys who are certain they have something Will Rogers or Clark Gable would give a right hand to possess. Boys and girls who starred in the senior play in Abilene, Texas, or in last year’s biggest Broadway hit.
And here, “Doctor” Louis, head a little to one side, keen blue eyes appraising, is ruthless, encouraging, scolding, or comforting, as the facts seem to warrant. But always he is kind, as the truth is kind.
IN THE fifteen years he has spent picking stars, he has learned at first hand just what it takes to get on the stage—and to stay there. And, what is vastly more important to you and me, he has found out what a big part that elusive thing called charm plays in the destinies of all of us.
“There is probably no single thing more important in anybody’s life than charm,” Shurr told me. “All of us need it. Fortunately, every man and woman has some sort of charm, though it may be hidden by neglect. The trick is to search out your particular brand and develop it. Maybe your smile or your eyes offer a starting point. Perhaps you have an attractive speaking voice, or people may find you pleasing because you are an interested and sympathetic listener. Whatever your strong point is, play it up.
“How? That is something you must figure out for yourself. But I’ll give you a yardstick by which you may measure the results—and that is the reactions of the folks about you. They’ll tell you quickly enough whether or not you’re on the right track.
“So far as I know,” he added, “there is only one unfailing recipe for charm That is the one I have been giving to my actors for fifteen years. It is: Be your self—only a little better.”
NEVER, he warns, ape anybody else.
Naturalness is the keynote of charm. Imagine Will Rogers trying to be a Charlie Chaplin, or Lupe Velez attempting a Greta Garbo! Charm is the sum total of the individual at his best. The whole thing simmers down to a very simple formula: Make the most of what the good Lord gave you.
“Doctor” Louis told me about a woman who did just this. She was the sister of a beautiful and fascinating ac- tress who, eighteen years ago, was the toast of the town. This woman was as unlovely to look at as her sister was lovely; as lacking in color and charm as her sister was colorful and magnetic. To make matters worse, she had a slight impediment in speech which made her painfully sensitive and self-conscious. She was constantly imagining that people shunned and disliked her.
She was partly right. People did grow to shun and pity her.
When she was twenty-two or -three, she fell violently in love with a brilliant, handsome young man who came to the house in her sister’s train. From the first she never dreamed that he would look at her, but her love worked a strange and beautiful miracle. She determined to make herself worthy, not of his love, but of loving him.
She went to a singing teacher who helped her develop a clear, sweet speaking voice. She deliberately trained herself to forget that she was ugly. Over and over, she said to herself, ” It is not important. There are many lovely things in the world. I shall enjoy them.”
Presently she discovered she had a sense of humor. She could laugh at her old foolish sensitiveness. Pretty soon other people forgot that she had ever been morbidly self-conscious and disagreeable. They saw in her only the charming woman she had become.
Long before this, the young man who had inspired the miracle had disappeared from the scene. And the young woman found that his going did not greatly matter. She was a new person, living in a new world, and she was happy. Happier still, a few years later, when a hotheaded young Southerner fell in love with her and carried her off with him.
“Charm,” “Doctor” Louis reminded me, “is one thing in one person, and something quite different in another. But there is one thing you can count on its not being. I have seen something of life on both sides of the footlights, and I never knew a charming person who was deliberately unkind.”
‘”THE stage, its people and its life, has always drawn Louis Shurr as a magnet draws steel. But he has never had any desire to face the footlights. Sixteen years ago, when he journeyed from Brooklyn, where he was born, to get his first job as an assistant to a New York booking agent—he was barely eighteen at the time—he knew that what he wanted was a hand in the art of star-making. And as he watched the endless stream of actors, actual and would-be, who passed daily through his employer’s office, it struck him that many of them failed to get across because they had no clear notion of what specific qualities of charm they were trying to sell. At first timidly, and later more boldly, he offered a bit of advice here and there. Some took it, and some didn’t.
Those who did, never regretted it.
“You’re a born comedienne,” he said nearly fifteen years ago to a slip of a girl who yearned to be dramatic. “Folks don’t want to cry over you; they want to laugh with you.”
The young lady reluctantly accepted his diagnosis. Her name is Ina Claire, the comedy star.
As time went on, his genius for picking out an actor’s strong point and playing it to win brought him the attention of stage folk and the producers. At the end of seven years he was able to set up in business for himself. For eight years, now, he has been flying his own colors.
It was only four or five years ago that he discovered Bert Lahr, probably the homeliest young man in the world, doing a specialty in an unimportant vaudeville house. He was immediately taken with that engaging stupidity—that mirth- and sympathy-provoking willingness to be the butt of anybody’s joke—provided it’s a good joke—which today is the chief charm of one of our star comedians. He prevailed upon producers to star Bert in Hold Everything. After that, George White built Flying High about Lahr’s exuberant personality. And then Ziegfeld obtained him for Hot’Cha, in which he scored a tremendous hit.
One hot summer evening just a little over a year ago, Shurr dropped into a night club in Greenwich Village for a bite of supper. Among the entertainers was a lad who sang now and then. Shurr noticed that when the boy’s turn on the program came, refreshments were forgotten while men and women leaned forward and listened eagerly. There was something in the unknown singer’s voice that made people feel warm and friendly toward him and toward one another!
“H’m,” said “the Doctor,” “that boy’s a power house of charm.” And he promptly proceeded to get busy. Today, Walter O’Keefe is a featured radio singer at a large salary.
” Louis can take one look at a little girl on the end of a dance routine and tell whether she’ll be bringing down the house or still be bringing up the rear in the chorus three years from now,” one of the great producers told me.
“That’s stretching the truth considerably,” Shurr protested when I quoted this to him on my first visit to his office. But he admitted that he has picked a lot of winners.
” It’s my business,” he said. ” I have to be good at it, don’t I?”
A LONG with most other folks, I had always supposed that if a girl wants to be a musical comedy queen, or even a chorus girl, she must have more than her share of good looks. I said as much to “Doctor” Louis.
“Prettiness is a drug on the market,” he pointed out. “Most American girls are pretty. And if they’re not, they know how to make themselves look that way. We assume that any girl who has set her heart on the stage is reasonably good-looking, has a good figure, and is able to do something well—sing, dance, make funny faces, wear clothes, impersonate, act, play the piccolo. So, unless she can add charm to her good looks and her ability to do something stage-worthy, she’d better try some other field.”
As for a man on the stage, Shurr told me that conspicuous good looks can be a positive handicap to him. An actor may be the most modest fellow alive, but if his profile is too perfect, the women in the audience are as quick as the men to say, “Oh, he makes me sick. Just hates himself, doesn’t he?”
Reflect on your favorite male movie star and see how quickly “the Doctor’s” analysis of our taste is confirmed. Of the seven biggest in box-office drawing power in the past season, at least four would never be called handsome by their warmest admirers. They are George Arliss, Wallace Beery, E. G. Robinson, and Will Rogers.
THE youthful stage hero of today, said Shurr, is the clean-cut, well set-up, likable type. His features do not have to match, and his awkwardness, if any, will probably serve to endear him to his audience. One of the most popular figures in musical comedy today is William Gaxton, .who has starred in three successive hits, Fifty Million Frenchmen, Connecticut Yankee, and Of Thee I Sing. You can actually feel an audience responding to Gaxton’s charm, which, “the Doctor” emphasized, lies mainly in his amazingly spontaneous and friendly smile.
Several years ago when Shurr discovered Gaxton in vaudeville, he said to him, “Cut out the rough-housing. That stuff is poison to you. Just be yourself—only a little better!”
Gaxton followed “the Doctor’s” advice. Which may account for the fact that he seems to have started a vogue for the wholesome, natural type of stage hero.
It is the wholesome young man or young woman, other things being equal, “the Doctor” added, who stands the best chance, not only on the stage, but in almost any field of work.
” In order to get across in the theater, these days, a girl must be a lady,” said “Doctor” Louis. “Have class, I mean. Baby eyes and a lisp no longer have box-office appeal. Today a girl must have taste. Sophisticated, but not knowing. Smart, but never hard. The kind of girl you could take home to Sunday night supper.”
Nowadays, he told me, the majority of stage girls come from our best homes—not necessarily our richest homes, but homes where decent traditions of living and thinking are the rule.
Class has to come from the inside out, he said. No girl can put it on, along with a prop ermine coat, and get by. Not any more. The public demands the real thing. On the stage and off.
Of course, ” Doctor” Louis didn’t mean that a bright girl who happened to be born on the wrong side of the railroad track in her home town can’t learn to be a lady on the stage—or anywhere else. His point was this: She’s got to have the feelings and reactions of a lady.
Otherwise, as he bluntly put it, “Good night!”
Take one of the smartest little girls on the musical comedy stage today. She was born in a home where the background was not the best. Her father was a sorry sort. Her mother scrubbed bank floors at night to get enough food to go around. There were seven children, and as soon as one was big enough to evade the truant officers, he had to go out and earn his share of the living.
Margot—that isn’t her name, but it will do—was the oldest. When she was sixteen, she got a place as a waitress in a tea-room patronized largely by the teachers from a near-by girls’ school. Deep inside her, Margot always had a craving for something finer than she had ever known at home. Instinctively she picked out the most charming teacher in the lot and set out to copy her in every way she could. She watched her eat; marked her gentle way of speaking to her friends and to the waitresses who served her. She studied her simple, quiet way of dressing.
Six months later, when Margot went to New York to study singing and dancing, she got another job as waitress, this time in a smart restaurant. Again, she picked out a model—several of them this time. She studied them.
“A few years ago,” “Doctor” Louis told me, “I happened to be dining in the restaurant where Margot worked. You couldn’t miss her. She was charming, well-poised, gracious—and completely natural. I got her a chance on the stage. She was ready for it. Today she looks like a lady. She acts like a lady. She is a lady.
“But,” he warned, “you can have good looks, talent, and class, and still fall as flat as a pancake. Without charm, even beauty and genius would have a hard time holding the spotlight.”
“JUST what,” I interposed, “do you mean by charm? ”
“I’ll try to tell you,” he said. “It isn’t easy, but maybe you’ll get what I mean. Beauty is something you see, isn’t it? Well, charm is something you feel. And feeling is the important thing on the stage, as in everyday business. It is the electric current that flows between the player and the audience, or between a salesman and his customer, or between a clerk and his employer. The way the folks ‘out front’ feel about an actor decides whether he will be a star or a dud.
” When we come to charm as a business asset, anybody can cite a dozen examples. I know a man who’s a whale of a success as a salesman of factory equipment. He knows his product and he knows his job. But the truth is he’s so charming that everything he says and does seems a little better than it actually is.
“Right there lies the value of charm: It gives you a margin of advantage.
“The easiest way to have charm, of course,” he went on, “is to be born with it. Some folks can sweep others off their feet without half trying. They are the ‘naturals’—the lucky ones. Others have to work at the business of being charming. Haven’t you heard it said of a dozen acquaintances, ‘Oh, he can be charming if he exerts himself? ”
Thank heaven, there are almost as many varieties of charm as there are charming people in the world. It can be as disingenuous as Jackie Cooper; as sophisticated as John Barrymore. Greta Garbo is a languorous, slow-moving creature; Lupe Velez is a combination of a whirlwind and a Mexican pepper pot. Both ladies are noted for their charm. Will Rogers is rough, homely, homespun. Everybody will tell you he is a charming fellow. They will say the same thing of the Prince of Wales—in fact, Will and Wales say it of each other—and yet two men could not possibly be more unlike.
Among the women stars, Helen Hayes has a kind of wistful appeal. As a matter of fact, she is, I’m told, extremely competent and resourceful. But this doesn’t keep thousands of people from yearning over her and wanting to lend her a helping hand. And all because she happened to be born with eyes too big for the rest of her and a voice with a pathetic little quaver in it.
One of the best things about charm, said Louis Shurr, is its agelessness. Beauty fades and sometimes talent peters out. But charm is always fresh, always appealing. In fact, it often becomes more apparent with the years. Haven’t you seen mothers who were infinitely more attractive than their pretty daughters half their age?
” If, in addition to possessing talent, class, and charm, a would-be actor is stage-struck, and not self-struck, he has practically everything in his favor,” “Doctor” Louis went on. “If he’s genuinely stage-struck, he’s willing to work hard to get where he wants to go. But if he’s merely self-struck, he simply wants an audience to help him admire himself. In the latter case, he’d better stick to the family parlor.
“Of course,” he added, “that means girls, too.”
“SPEAKING of girls,” I said, “what type, blonde or brunette, big or little, is most popular today?”
” In keeping with the current taste for the wholesome, natural type, the present fancy seems to run to the girl of average height and weight,” he told me. ” We still use the very tall girl as a clotheshorse, to show off gorgeous clothes. The tiny girl has her place, too, but she no longer enjoys the vogue she did a few years ago when the pony ballet first came in.”
The color of the eyes, I learned, is not so important on the stage. But size, brilliance, warmth, liveliness, depth count tremendously. It may amuse you to know that nine out of ten pretty girls in a current musical comedy have a short upper lip. But the public fancy is fickle. Next year, a short upper lip may be a drug on the beauty market. A perfect complexion is an advantage anywhere.
“Feminine beauty,” observed “Doctor” Louis, “is a matter of personal opinion, anyway.”
“What type of beauty do you like best?”
I boldly asked. “Blonde, redhead, or brunette? ”
Mr. Shurr did not hedge: ” I prefer blondes. A really beautiful blonde is probably nature’s finest work of art. But a blonde has to be infinitely careful. The least suggestion of hardness in make-up or manner, and her charm is spoiled. I might add that you see more synthetic blondes in any given row of theater seats today than you will find in the dizziest revue in town.”
T WANTED to know what becomes of chorus girls.
As a rule, I learned, they last from the time they’re seventeen or eighteen to the time they’re twenty-two or -three. What becomes of them after that? Well, there are some pretty accurate figures: About ten per cent get tired, or lazy, or discouraged, and drift out of the picture, usually into work less exacting.
About ten per cent get ahead and become principals on the stage or screen. Marilyn Miller, June Walker, Marion Davies, and dozens of others got their start in the chorus.
The remaining eighty per cent get married and settle down.
Most stage girls, like most other girls, marry neither wealth nor position. “If they are in love,” said “Doctor” Louis, “they don’t care whether he plays the lead or shifts scenery, peddles groceries or clips coupons. Love is the thing!”
“H’m-m,” said I, “strange talk from a confirmed bachelor. You are a confirmed bachelor, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” admitted “Doctor” Louis a shade too cheerily.
“They tell me,” I went on, “that you are an inveterate first-nighter, and that you never appear in a theater or a restaurant without a beauty on your arm.”
“A man,” said Louis Shurr, “must protect himself.”
“Sounds like dangerous business for a man who plans to remain single,” I protested.
For the first time since I entered his office, “Doctor” Louis laughed aloud.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. “It’s the homely women who are dangerous, not the beauties. A man is armed against a beautiful woman. He is constantly on the alert. But with a woman who has no special claim to beauty, he feels safe, the poor boob! And that’s his undoing.
” My guess is Delilah was a homely girl with a lot of charm!”