Hedda's Hollywood heyday

One-woman show brings Hopper to the OP library

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By Doug Deuchler

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Let's cut to the chase: Folks in this community have a wonderful free theatrical opportunity coming up on Sunday, Sept. 15.

Longtime Oak Park-area resident, singer and actress Jillanne Gabrielle has written the book, music, and lyrics for a new one-woman show called "Hedda! Queen of Hollywood." Gabrielle will be performing in the role of highly energized, hat-crazed gossip columnist and ruthless political pundit Hedda Hopper in a workshop performance of her entire new work in the Veterans Room of the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., at 3 p.m.

The music and script are completely finished but the playwright/performer is now in the "fine-tuning" process where she needs to evaluate how it all works with a live audience. So this is where we come in. The only "admission fee" is that everyone will be asked to fill out a form providing feedback. Each audience member will be asked to give an opinion on the script, music, and lyrics, as well as Gabrielle's performance.

Though she was a major presence in the film industry over a half-century ago, Hedda Hopper (1885-1966) is no longer a "household word." But she was a powerful and much-feared personality in Hollywood during what's now called the Golden Age of the Studio System. Some of us may remember her appearances on TV shows like I Love Lucy or in films like Sunset Boulevard.

"I've worked professionally in musicals, plays, and cabaret shows from Los Angeles to New York City," said Gabrielle, but this material is so much fun. Hedda Hopper was a truly remarkable woman, pushing herself into a position of power and influence in an era when most women had few opportunities."

One of the best-known gossip columnists of 1930s through the early '60s, she was the daughter of a butcher in Altoona, Penn. Hedda, whose real name was Elda Furry, ran away from her strict Quaker family as a teenager to become an actress in New York City. But the young woman had little luck finding work on Broadway at the turn of the 20th century. Impresario Florenz Ziegfeld called the aspiring actress a "clumsy cow" and refused to cast her in his Follies.

She joined the theater company of DeWolf Hopper, a former matinee idol 30 years her senior. "Wolfie," as she called him, was then a theatrical producer best known for popularizing "Casey at the Bat," a baseball poem he allegedly performed on the vaudeville circuit 10,000 times.

In her 20s, the young would-be actress became 55-year-old Hopper's fifth (of six) wives. His previous spouses were named Ella, Ida, Edna, and Nella. So he dropped Elda's real name and renamed her Hedda. The man was such an irresponsible womanizer, however, that the couple eventually split.

"Hedda really wanted to be a serious actress like Ethel Barrymore," explains Gabrielle, "but she clearly did not have the talent." Though Hopper played a number of screen roles, usually as best friends or vamps, after her minor acting career flopped, she launched her career as a gossip columnist.

Hats galore

"You gotta have a gimmick," advises a show tune from the musical Gypsy. Hedda Hopper's gimmick was her vast array of attention-grabbing, outrageous hats. People loved to see the photos of her flamboyant millinery accompanying her daily "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood" newspaper columns or in the Sunday supplements.

Hopper was lively, highly energized, and fun. But she was also often vicious and unforgiving. "She was a moralizing policeman," Gabrielle says, "who felt justified in what she did because she felt she was looking out for and protecting the American public. Hedda was blowing the whistle on what she thought was bad behavior exhibited by the stars, or ferreting out what she thought were Communist sympathies."

Hopper's frequent attacks on Charlie Chaplin for everything from his politics to his love life contributed to his being denied permission to re-enter the United States after his trip to Europe in 1952. She "named names" of suspected Communists during the Hollywood blacklist period of the "Red Scare" 1950s. The conservative, right-wing columnist had unlimited sources of "dirt" in the film industry through her close relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI. She strongly supported the HUAC (House Un-American Committee) hearings that ruined many careers.

But her readers and radio audiences loved to hear Hedda's scoops about the stars. She christened her home in Beverly Hills, "The House That Fear Built." But the acting community did not always turn the other cheek. Spencer Tracy kicked Hopper in her hind end at Ciro's, a West Hollywood nightclub on Sunset Boulevard, after she publicized rumors about his relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Joseph Cotten once pulled her chair out from under her. Gene Tierney sent her a live piglet with a name tag that said, "You stink."

Hopper was also notorious for feuding with her arch-rival, Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Gabrielle has a song about this in her show, too.

"Their rivalry was self-serving, of course," Gabrielle says. "Hedda was the better columnist. But people were always thrilled to read more about these two competitive old broads.

"She was driven, over-the-top, and the great love of her life was really her career and the film industry," Gabrielle adds. "She carried long and vicious grudges. Hedda loved a good fight. She fought everyone from moguls to movie stars. But she was a genius at what she did. Her spectacular rise as a gossip columnist is remarkable even now."

She even changed her birth date to reduce her age by five years.

"Creating this one-woman piece has been such a good time," Gabrielle says. "It's been incredibly hard work the past couple of years developing the music and script, but I believe it's going to be a lot of fun for my audiences. There are 15 very engaging songs in a variety of styles and rhythms that accurately reflect the period of the heyday of old Hollywood."

Gabrielle has been a vocal instructor in the Chicago area for 30 years. Her creative partner, Howard Pfeifer, a former Los Angeles music producer and composer, is her arranger and musical collaborator on several of the songs. But the majority were written by Gabrielle herself. Frank Roberts is her director.

"Hedda! Queen of Hollywood" takes place in Hopper's living room in her Beverly Hills home where she interviewed many Hollywood stars. She is delighted to find a captive audience (that's us!) who have dropped by. Gabrielle will wear several different costumes and Hopper-style hats, plus many other examples of her ornate millinery will be on display.

"A major theatre company in L.A., the Reprise Series, is expressing interest in mounting this production once I'm through tweaking and fine-tuning it," Gabrielle says. "Jason Alexander from Seinfeld is very excited about the show. And the National Arts Club in Manhattan may produce a staged reading, too."

"This is delicious, dark fun. The whole show runs 90 minutes with one intermission for my costume change. I think people will come away with an appreciation for Hopper's wit and drive. She was such an amazing personality in the Golden Age of Hollywood."

The workshop performance of this new musical takes place at the Oak Park Public Library at 3 p. m. this Sunday, Sept. 15. Audience members are advised to arrive early as seating may be tight.

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