charlie-oscar2A weekly feature in which my four-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier.

Sometimes I think Charlie’s choices on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are based more on pity than merit. Not to imply that this week’s choice, comic actor Frank Fay, was lacking in the merit department — at one time he was one of the most successful vaudevillians in the country, earning over $17,000 per week — but my son’s resolve to choose this now obscure name seemed to speak to the actor’s plummeting fall from his once golden pedestal. If Frank Fay is remembered at all these days, it’s for being Barbara Stanwyck’s first husband. This fact would undoubtedly gall the guy, known for his once massive ego, along with the insistence by many historians that the Fay-Stanwyck marriage was the basis for the characters of Norman Maine and Esther Blodgett in the film versions of A Star Is Born, the story of a hugely famous movie star who marries an unknown actress only to see his career hit the skids as hers rises to stupendous heights. Ouch.

frankfay-stanwyckFrank Fay was born Francis Anthony Donner on November 17, 1891 in San Francisco. He changed his name for the stage at a young age and started getting a lot of attention as a comedian in vaudeville, enjoying huge success throughout the 1920s. When 37-year-old Frank Fay married 21-year-old Barbara Stanwyck on August 26,1928, he was one of the biggest stars in the country and she was just starting out. After appearing together on Broadway in Burlesque, the couple moved to Hollywood to try their luck in the movies. Warner Brothers cast Fay as the master of ceremonies in their 1929 Technicolor revue, The Show of Shows. That led to another musical comedy, Under a Texas Moon, in which Frank sang the title song. More films followed, including Bright Lights and Matrimonial Bed, but this was about the time when musicals were falling out of favor with the American public. So was Fay’s saucy comedy style. While his sex-tinged humor worked on the stage, Depression-era moviegoers, or at least the movie censors who were setting up the new Production Code, wanted more wholesome fare, and following his 1931 film, God’s Gift to Women, Fay’s fan base shrunk considerably.

fay-stanwyck-divorceheadlineFay and Stanwyck adoped a son in 1932, but as his career began to tank while Stanwyck’s fame was skyrocketing, the marriage began to sour. Many fans and reporters openly questioned why the talented actress opted to stay with her unpopular husband. After a series of reports about Fay’s drunken exploits including physical altercations with his young wife, the couple divorced in 1935 and went through an ugly custody battle. Fay was slow to accept his fall from grace. When asked what his profession was in court, he responded, “I’m the greatest comedian in the world.” Later, when his frustrated attorney questioned this move, Frank replied, “I was under oath, wasn’t I?” Soon after the divorce, Barbara Stanwyck began a relationship with heartthrob Robert Taylor, whom she would later marry. The public’s giddy delight over the attractive couple must have seemed like salt being rubbed in Fay’s wounds.

frankfay-harveyFrank Fay eventually found success again in nightclubs and on radio. He appeared in only a few more films including small roles in Nothing Sacred and They Knew What They Wanted with Carole Lombard. But Fay enjoyed a big comeback on the stage in 1944 when he was cast as Elwood P. Dowd in the original Broadway version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvey about a man who befriends an imaginary six-foot rabbit. Though several of the original cast members reprised their roles in the 1950 film, Fay lost out to Jimmy Stewart who played Elwood. Frank made his final movie appearance in the 1951 film Love Nest featuring a young Marilyn Monroe.

Following his death on September 25, 1961, Fay’s friends revealed that he had never gotten over his first wife. Earlier that summer, he had boarded a train to Chicago with no luggage and was found wandering aimlessly around that city. When he was brought back to his home in Los Angeles, he went straight to Barbara’s old room which he kept exactly the way she had left it 26 years earlier. He started talking to his housekeeper’s daughter as if she were his former wife and was so out of it during those last few weeks that he was unable to take the phone calls that came from a concerned former friend — Barbara Stanwyck.

Thanks, Charlie, for giving this forgotten star one last hurrah!