Buffalo’s Historical Hollywood Connections


With the Academy Awards airing this Sunday, there is alot of Oscar buzz.  Take a break from today’s award news and read about some of Buffalo’s historical Hollywood figures!

Lucille “Babe” Brown Barlow (abt. 1918 – 1992) was a child actor.  She appeared as both Farina and Baby Lucille (where she got her nickname Babe) in the Our Gang movies in the 1920s.  The Our Gang movies were the silent precursors to The Little Rascals movies.  She led a colorful life as a young child when she traveled with her mother who was a hula dancer in a carnival.  She was placed in an orphanage in California when she was 7, when her mother remarried.  It was there that Babe was discovered by producer Hal Roach, who put her in the Our Gang Comedies.  The directors of these films had a unique approach to making them.  They would film the children after they let them run loose on locations such as department stores and a house with floating sheets which was supposedly haunted.  Barlow’s Our Gang job ended after two years. 

Later on, Barlow appeared in a handful all-African American films, and performed for many years in various venues such as night clubs and USO camps.  She even followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined a circus where she learned to ride the elephants.  Babe moved to Buffalo in 1956 where her husband had family.   In Buffalo, she became a Blues radio show host for Buffalo’s WBFO.

Harold Arlen (1905-1986) was an American composer, pianist and singer.  He was born in Buffalo, NY on February 15, 1905 and lived here until 1924.  Arlen was one of the major song composers of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  He contributed to 15 Broadway stage shows and 33 feature films between 1930 and 1963.  Among his best-remembered film scores are those for The Wizard of Oz, Cabin in the Sky, and A Star is Born.  He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song nine times, winning for “Over the Rainbow.” 

Among his other major hits drawn from films are “That Old Black Magic” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”  Many of his most popular songs originated in the five nightclub revues he wrote for the Cotton Club from 1930 to 1934 with Ted Koehler, including “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Stormy Weather.”  His other major collaborators were Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer.

Tony DeMarco (1898-1965) was a top ballroom dancer of his time.  He appeared in Broadway productions for Ziegfield and the Marx brothers, and in films such as The Gang’s All Here, Greenwich Village, and In Caliente.  Originally from Fredonia, NY, Tony’s family moved to Buffalo where at one time he was a bootblack and copyboy for the Buffalo Evening News.  DeMarco began winning dance competitions in his youth after his sister pulled him onto a dance floor for a waltz competition in Fredonia, which they won. 

Of his beginnings in dance and of Buffalo’s part in his success he said “…I was born to dance.  Never had a lesson.  Never suffered for my art.  Never had the slightest thespic talent or ambition.  When was I established and set for a career?  You know I don’t think I had the slightest doubts from age 16 and the amateur contests of Buffalo.  So I just danced and danced, with the greatest of ease and no strain, and all the rest came naturally.  Buffalo was the springboard.  Buffalo staked me to whatever I had in my feet the public at large paid for…my allegiance and gratitude are eternal.”

Irene Rich (1891- 1988)  was a vaudeville performer, radio star, and screen actress.  Ms. Rich appeared in 180 films including Lady Windemere’s Fan, Angel and the Badman, Fort Apache, and The Champ.  Irene was born in Buffalo as Irene Luther.  Her father was William Luther, a Buffalo building and mason contractor who built Lafayette Theater and several Buffalo apartment houses.  Irene was educated at St. Margaret’s Seminary.  Her family moved West when she was a teenager. 

Irene Rich

After a failed marriage to an army captain, Ms. Rich moved to San Francisco where she had difficulty supporting her two children.  She travelled to Hollywood to seek work as a movie extra.  The casting director turned her down and told her to come back the next week.  She responded to his rejection by saying “But I may not be here next week.  I came all the way from San Francisco and I must work now.”  The director liked her response and offered her work.  Eventually she got some small speaking roles which led to work as a headliner.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  Irene retired from her 32 year acting career in 1950, after she wed her fourth husband, George Clifford, a utilities executive.

Winfield Sheehan (1883-1945) was a prominent film producer in the 1930s.  He is known for films including Curly Top, Marie Galante, Stand Up and Cheer!, and Cavalcade which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1932/1933.  He helped propel the careers of many famous actors including Theda Bara, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Rita Hayworth, and Will Rogers.

Sheehan was born in Buffalo and lived at 496 Pearl Street.  He attended college at Canisius and at one time was a reporter for the Buffalo Times and Buffalo Courier newspapers.  In 1914, he became the general manager of Fox Films in New York City.  Mr. Winfield was an enterprising businessman. He is credited with expanding Fox to Los Angeles, and to many foreign locations including Western Europe, South America, Africa, and Australia.  He is also attributed with organizing Fox News. 

Mr. Sheehan was vice president of production at Fox Films for 21 years. He parted with the company in 1935 when it merged with Twentieth Century. Shortly after his resignation he married famed opera singer, Maria Jeritza.

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