Friday, November 30, 2012

Book review corner: "The Entertainer"

When people talk about Lyle Talbot these days...well, they really don't talk about Lyle Talbot all that often.

You remember him if a) you've been around a while and b) you like B-movies and 50's sitcoms such as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," in which Lyle played that annoying neighbor who always borrow your hedge clippers.

His career ended in many years ago; his life ended in 1996.

And yet, there is renewed interest in ol' Lyle these days because he and his fifth wife Paula gave the world four outstanding children.  Steven Talbot played Beaver's troublemaking buddy Gilbert on "Leave It To Beaver," and is today a well-known director of documentary films.  David, his other son, is an author and the founder of the great website  There were two daughters: Cindy, who is a family physician and medical school professor, and Margaret, who is a writer for the greatest magazine of all time, The New Yorker.

Margaret has written a book, just out, about her father - and as she weaves his tale, she also does a simply splendid job interweaving the history of American entertainment in the 20th Century. Lyle was born Lisle Hollywood Henderson (not to be confused with Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson of the Dallas Cowboys) in 1902.  His middle name came from his grandmother's maiden name, and the Henderson was lost when his mother died shortly after he was born.  His grandmother took the infant in and gave him her married surname, Talbot. 

From an early age, young Lisle (he changed that later too!) was involved with magic shows and traveling tent shows that played the midwestern circuit around his native Nebraska, finally hooking on with a theater troupe as a teenager.  From there, it was a few magic steps to winding up in Hollywood at the beginning of the talking pictures era, being a founder of the Screen Actors Guild and settling down after four failed marriages and a significant alcohol habit.

His Wikipedia page will give you the details about the hundreds of shows - movies, TV, Broadway theater - in which Lyle Talbot was involved.  The book is fascinating, as it carries his story through the development of the movie, TV and theater industry.  Lyle was there for everything, and while he never became a big star, and is certainly not all that well-known as compared to guys like Bogart and Gable and Cagney, his story is every bit as interesting. 

The title of the book, "The Entertainer," says a lot about the man.  Toward the end of his life, long after he retired, he went with his son to a revival showing of one of his 30's pictures, and as the lights came up at the end, the audience recognized him and the old showman in him enjoyed every second of the adulation.  How gratifying that must have been!

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