June 8, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The actor Robert Preston was born 102 years ago today. His name has snuck his way into a number of the columns I’ve been writing for the past four years due to my ample admiration and affection for him, serving as he did for my inspiration to become an actor. I wrote extensively of the effect his performance in The Music Man had on me in my book Up in the Cheap Seats, when as a five-year old I first saw him in the 1962 film version of the fabled Broadway production. I was awestruck at how the intense energy of his “Professor” Harold Hill leaped off the screen of the Radio City Music Hall and how I wished that he would have come to my hometown of Great Neck, Long Island to start a band. Believe me, this five-year-old would surely have followed him to the ends of the earth.
Robert Preston (at the start and at his zenith).
He was born Robert Preston Meservey in Newton, Massachusetts, June 8, 1918, a city that has been the birthplace of some other pretty talented actors over the years such as Jack Lemmon, Robert Morse, Matt Damon, Amy Poehler, B.J. Novak and Matt LeBlanc. His parents moved across the country to East Los Angeles when Preston was two-years-old to live with his maternal grandparents in a home they had purchased in Lincoln Heights, one of the poorest sections of town. It was there that Preston was raised in a house that totaled eleven people, consisting of cousins and uncles and aunts. The neighbors were largely Mexican immigrants, and when it was time for Preston to enroll in school, he was the only white kid in the class. “I was also younger than the other children,” Preston said. “I felt strongly that I was a member of a minority group. It made a listener out of me. I hung around bashfully, listening to what everybody else said, and I’ve been a very careful listener ever since.”
It’s interesting to discover that someone who would grow up to exemplify such overbrimming confidence and brashness on stage and screen began as a shy child. But any actor worth their salt will tell you that listening is one of the key skills to being as good at the game as you can. Preston’s practice extended to the records that his mother would bring home. “I heard John Barrymore doing passages from Shakespeare long before I could appreciate them. Still, I always liked to listen and play them on the family Victrola — one of the early models, with the big horn and the picture of a white puppy dog on it”.
His Master’s Voice, as the advertisements for the RCA Victrola once declared.
Being taken to plays at a young age, and even falling under the spell of a school janitor who was once a Shakespearean actor, led Preston to seeking ways to express himself through the spoken word. When the Depression hit, leaving his father to fend for whatever work he could get, Preston’s abilities as a young actor gained him employment that helped the family survive, such as when the fledgling Pasadena Playhouse (still standing and in operation today), gave him his first job at age sixteen. It was there he met his future wife, the actress Catherine Craig (née Feltus).
Preston and his wife Catherine at the Brown Derby, 1941.
While still a teenager, he managed to get a part in a B-film titled King of Alcatraz, playing a crewman on a tanker, at a salary of $100 a week. Two other negligible films followed, but while playing the starring role in Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight at the Pasadena Playhouse, he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout which led to a long-term contract and his first big part under his first big director. And at that studio, they didn’t come any bigger than Cecil B. DeMille — and Preston was ready for his close-up. At age twenty (he always looked older), he was cast as Barbara Stanwyck’s husband in Union Pacific, and from there on in was a steady and reliable player for the next twenty years, mostly at Paramount.
But the majority of the parts Preston was assigned didn’t satisfy him, tapping only a small portion of his talents as they did. There is a famous story that he liked to tell of how he thumbed his nose at The Great Man, DeMille, balking when ordered by the dictatorial director not to mention his previous three films in order that DeMille could lay claim to discovering Preston as an unknown. “It’s not like you ever did any real work before I gave you your chance,” h