The Boneyard




Marilyn Miller - The Evansville Girl Who Became the Queen of Broadway



by Gary Brumburgh
The Evansville Boneyard - Septermber, 2006

"Look for the Silver Lining" became the appropriate signature song for one of Broadways's most popular musical stage stars of the 1920s, Marilyn Miller, for she embodied a vibrant, child-like optimism in her very best "happily ever after" showcases. However, such happiness would not extend into her personal life.

She was born Mary Ellen Reynolds in Evansville, Indiana, in 1898. Her father was a telephone lineman and her mother a theater aspirant. Her parents divorced when Marilyn was a child and she was raised by her mother and stepfather (last name Miller), who was an acrobat and song-and-dance man in vaudeville.

She joined her family (which included two sisters) in a family act billed as "The Five Columbians" which proved popular on the Midwest circuit. They also toured outside of the country when bookings were slim. When she went out on her own she abbreviated her first name to Marilyn and adopted her stepfather's last name of Miller. While performing in a London club in 1914, she caught the eye of Broadway producer Lee Shubert, who brought her to New York for his "Passing Show" revues of 1914, 1915 and 1917.

Marilyn became an instant hit with her vivid, yet delicate, beauty. However, it was her association with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. in 1918 that put her over the top. Seeing her great potential, he took her under his wing, expanded her repertoire, focused on her tap and ballet talents and provided her with singing and acting lessons. She became a top headliner in his Follies shows of 1918 and 1919. Her first full-out performance was in Ziegfeld's "Sally" in 1920, where she introduced the song "Look for the Silver Lining." The show was a monstrous hit. Their professional and personal relationship became badly intertwined, however, and she soon severed the union. Producer Charles B. Dillingham, Ziegfeld's rival, signed her on and handed her the title role in "Peter Pan," which received lukewarm reviews. Her second show with Dillingham was entitled "Sunny," which introduced the soon-to-be standards "Who?" and "D'Ye Love Me?". Marilyn became the toast of Broadway once again and her salary soared to $3,000, making her the highest-paid musical comedy performer in New York at the time.

She reconciled with Ziegfeld in 1928 and performed in the Gershwin musical "Rosalie" to enthusiastic audiences. Hollywood took an interest but Marilyn's venture into films would be very brief. She recreated two of her stage hits to film at the advent of sound. Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930) were warmly received, as was the musical Her Majesty, Love (1931), but that would be her third and final film.

Most of Marilyn's showcases were based on Cinderella-like stories such as poor-girl-meets-rich-boy romances. Unlike her sweet-natured stage characters, however, Marilyn had an extremely volatile nature and proved difficult to work with. Her three marriages were also immensely unhappy ones. Her first husband, stage actor Frank Carter, was killed in a car crash after only a year of marriage; second husband Jack Pickford, the brother of silent screen legend Mary Pickford, was a drug and alcohol abuser (they divorced); and third husband stage manager Chester "Chet" O'Brien was a ne'er-do-well and opportunist. She died before they were divorced.

Marilyn's last stage triumph was "As Thousands Cheer" in 1933. Her health began to deteriorate rapidly after that, aggravated by an increasing dependency on alcohol. Suffering from recurring sinus infections, she was in a severely weakened state by the time she died of complications following nasal surgery at the age of 37. A sad end to such a bright symbol of hope and youthful exuberance. A superficial, highly sanitized version of Marilyn's life was made in the form of the biopic Look for the Silver Lining (1949) with June Haver starring as Marilyn.


Mr. Brumburgh invites your comments





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