As we get ready to share the story of Mary Small with the world via iTunes and Amazon, I wanted to share a fictionalized story about my late discovery adoption that led to this production. Here is the story in its entirety. Enjoy!
The naiveté of the roaring twenties was fresh in the minds of most Americans in the first years of the Great Depression. That’s why the sudden slip into economic calamity following the stock market crash became such a transformational event in the evolution of our national character. It is juxtapositions like these on a grand scale that can force entire societies into circumspection, to question what is important in life and that journey has the power to define entire generations. This is the true story of how the character of one little girl was shaped by these uncertain times, how she matured into one of America’s biggest stars and ow time somehow forgot her… until a few years ago when I discovered that I was adopted and that she was my grandmother!
The secret of my adoption blew wide open one morning while my wife and I were at a prenatal center for an ultrasound and genetic testing. My parents had come along and as I sat between them, filling out family history paperwork I could sense something was bothering them. They realized that for the health of my unborn child they had to be honest about my birth and confessed that I was adopted. It came as a complete surprise. At 32, as I was just beginning to start a new family, I suddenly had to come to grips the revelation that I had never known my biological ancestors.
My research led me to Manhattan where I continued to hunt for the truth. Unfortunately, every road was a dead end. My biological mother had died and my father was a retired undercover officer in what amounted to witness protection. I was close to giving up. The one clue I had left was an address in midtown copied from an old phonebook in the public library. With my flight back to Los Angeles departing in a few hours, I had just enough time to check it out. After a few knocks, a nonagenarian once known as “the little girl with the big voice” answered her door and asked my name. I hesitated for some reason and said I was reporter. She kindly invited me in for a ginger ale and told me this story.
It was in 1931 that an adorable nine-year old named Mary Small won a singing contest on the us Gus Edwards’ radio program in Baltimore. Radio was king in those days and Baltimore was a major market. Gus Edwards was a vaudevillian known as the “Star Maker,” a moniker used by Paramount in their 1939 film about his life. The chance to impress Gus was to be Mary’s first big shot. It never materialized on account of her “stage-father” Jack’s uncultivated persistence. Mary won the contest, but Jack stubbornly demanded more than the opportunity was worth. Jack continued to drag her to open casting calls, but as the Depression sunk in and prospects looked bleakest, he took to the road like many men at that time and simply disappeared. This began an even more challenging time for Mary and her mother, Fannie, but they did what they had to do to survive.
Then, in 1933, when she was just eleven years old, Fannie had scraped together enough money to take Mary see her favorite group, the Three X Sisters at the Century Theatre on Lexington Street in Baltimore. She had fallen in love with them years before after seeing the trio perform at the memorial for president Herbert Hoover in D.C. After the show she waited in the alley with her mother for autographs and seized the moment by asking to audition for the group, right then and there. Halfway through her song they summoned their agent, Ed. Wolfe. He was reluctant at first, complaining he was weary of child singers, but within moments of hearing her voice he knew he was going make that kid a star.
Two months later while she was preparing for school, Mary’s mother received a telegram from Wolfe inviting them to WEAF, an NBC affiliate in New York City. A small sum was to be wired. Wolfe ad arranged to debut Mary’s talents on Rudy Vallee’s show, his biggest client, on a national broadcast. The performance she would give that night of “Louisville Lady” would change her life and propel her on a journey her father had only dreamed of. She lay in bed that night wondering if somewhere, somehow he had heard it.
National and local radio stations were scouting for new voices and they had plenty of talent to pick from. Much like Jackie Evancho in our day, Mary’s voice was unique for that of a child, almost freakish to some, and the audience disbelief as to her age captivated America. NBC quickly moved on the buzz. Within a month she had landed her own show which happened to lead into Frank Sinatra’s hour and they became fast friends. Along with a huge stable of stars, they were promoted across the country on matchbooks, bottle caps and subway cars.
The offers poured in. She was asked to sing at the Paramount Theatre between movies to draw in bigger crowds and then became a solo act. One day, Adolph Zukor himself came down to see what all the fuss was about. He is rumored to have asked, “Who is this little girl?” to which the stage manager replied “That’s Mary Small of course, the little girl with the big voice!” When Zukor returned to his office e phoned the Fleischer brothers at his studio in Hollywood and let them know that David Sarnoff at NBC was agreeable to a loan-out. He wanted to use Mary in their ScreenSongs series. These short films introduced the “bouncing ball” sing-a-long gimmick, or as Mary called it “Hollywood Karaoke.
On July 4th, 1934, accompanied by her mother, Mary boarded her first plane, a TWA Tin Goose, and they headed to Hollywood to sing in the film “Love They Neighbor,” written by Bing Crosby. She passed through the old Paramount gate on Marathon, where she could see the Hollywoodland sign up on the hills above it, and signed her contract in what is now the Ernst Lubitsch building. The next morning she met with Bing to rehearse and that afternoon the film was made.
Paramount’s “Love Thy Neighbor,” later made into two feature length films, was a hit with audiences. Mary was officially billed as “The Little Girl With The Big Voice” in the credits. She would return o New York City legitimized, nobody could question her age again and perhaps the slew of marriage proposals sent to the radio station would finally end. But the irony was she’d never be a real child again. She was a star now and there was only one direction for her, all the way up. She did manage to sneak away once in a while with “Baby” Rose Marie, a contemporary. They would skip down the streets of old New York, ducking into piano showrooms, pretending they were starring on Broadway. Yet aside from those moments, Mary was essentially now an adult at 13.
Her show continued to be tremendously successful throughout the 1930’s and led to a number of spin-offs. She performed with the biggest bands and orchestras of the day including Tommy Dorsey, Ray Bloch, Glenn Miller and with stars like Roy Rogers, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Gleason and of course the Chairman of the Board. She was employed by NBC, ABC and CBS and frequently asked to host and introduce songs for the first time on programs like “Your Hit Parade.” She was booked at every major venue in the country, Madison Square Garden, The Roxy in Los Angeles, The Sands in Vegas and the Palace Theater in Chicago. Along with everybody in the entertainment industry, these efforts helped lift the spirit of the nation as its struggle with poverty continued throughout the depression.
By 1941 she had been on the dial for seven straight years and was no longer a child. Her bone structure was delicate and refined, her arms toned and her emotional shell hardened. She was strong and confident but the future of the world hung in the balance as it tried to contain Hitler. As it happened, one of her programs had recently been shifted to the morning hour on December 7th 1941. That day as she entered the studio to broadcast she learned Pearl Harbor had been attacked. It would be news wires all day. She walked home alone to her midtown apartment, unlocked her door, sat down on her bed and tuned in to her call letters to hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt address the nation. America was at war.
Over the next few months as the United States prepared for combat it became apparent that
Roosevelt intended to use the technology of radio to not only equip the nation but to unite the country by carrying his famous fireside chats. Lee de Forest and Henry Armstrong suspended their patent litigation and patriotically handed over their inventions for the duration of the war. It was clear that David Sarnoff, who was later made an honorary General, would also be working with the President to keep the message consistent. NBC underwent a transformation and programming was built around the war effort. Mary’s love ballads were swapped out for torch songs and her spin-offs were replaced with US bond rallies, where she shared the stage doing spots with actors like Jimmy Stewart.
Six months later she bumped into Pearl Hamilton, one of The Three X Sisters, at Rockefeller Center. Pearl had come out of retirement to tour with the USO and had penned a few tunes. Mary agreed to join her and they started playing army bases, occasionally opening for Bob Hope. It was on one of these occasions that she met her husband, the composer Vic Mizzy, who would later go onto write the theme for “The Addams Family.” He was enlisted as an organist at a Navy school for chaplains and occasionally conducted her backup band.
Their courtship was quick. Soon the pair became inseparable and they eventually grew into a power couple. Mary was fiercely devoted to Vic, the only man she had ever been with. They continued to support the war effort and took advantage of every opportunity to perform. In 1942, at the March of Dimes event celebrating Roosevelt’s birthday, Mary performed her own song, “Thank you, Mr. President,” backed by the Glenn Miller orchestra and broadcast live from the Waldorf Astoria.
Throughout the war years Mary’s star continued to rise both on radio and Broadway. In the late 940’s she was hired to perform on The Milton Berle Show as well as Ed Sullivan’s Toast of The Town. The attention drove her jealous husband crazy. Throughout the early years it seemed their life was a playful competition but the contest grew darker. As time wore on, theirs was as much a business relationship as it was a love affair. At her husband’s misguided direction she shamelessly plugged his music which didn’t sit well with audiences. They were used to a different Mary Small and slowly she recognized how much she was truly sacrificing for him. She began to feel as if she had married her father and grew to resent him.
Once she started refusing to promote him their arguments grew more heated. Finally, he begged her to have a child and save their marriage. In 1950 a daughter named Patty Lou, my mother, was born and Mary dedicated herself to her. Yet only a few years later with her hunger to perform becoming insatiable, she accepted an offer by the London Palladium for a long engagement. Since Vic was barely getting by supplementing his songwriting income by teaching music at NYU, Mary was still the breadwinner and so they spent the next year overseas. When they returned to Gotham Mary became pregnant with their second daughter. Again, she was expected to give up her career for good. Again, she refused.
In 1954 the tension between the couple came to an impasse. She was playing a stretch at the Copacabana with Sammy Davis Jr., and Vic conducting her orchestra. One night Richard Nixon and his wife Pat stopped by. Afterwards the Vice President made his way to the dressing rooms and thanked them for the show. The papers noted Mary as saying “They applauded me as if I were a Republican!” and made no mention of Vic. His jealousy exploded. She knew she had to escape the relationship and in 1956 fled to Mexico for a divorce. Their drama was played out in Walter Winchell’s gossip column. He sided with Mary and humiliated Vic. His words were harsh but true as Vic fought Mary tooth and nail in order to avoid child and spousal support.
Once the divorce was final, Mary had hardly any time for performing and focused on raising her wo daughters in New York City. Her two girls flew out frequently to Los Angeles be with Vic. During these times she took the opportunity to record a number of Billboard hits with Epic, King and Apollo records, venturing deep into blues and rock ‘n roll. She even started a talent agency. Yet as much as she tried to balance her priorities, her relationship with her daughters eventually began deteriorating. The fact was that as much as Mary wanted to be a wonderful mother and wife, she was a performer first. Singing was her first calling. Her greatest calling and ultimately her biggest shortcoming.
Wherever she went in Manhattan in her later years, whether the Carlisle hotel or just a jazz parlor in Greenwich village, all the musicians knew and respected Mary. While her marriage had failed, her integrity could never be questioned. She could never be accused of selling out or not being true to her art s a vocalist and the art community respected that. Hers was always a life devoted to entertaining others, of shining light in the homes of those where it was darkest.
She returned to Broadway in 1966 and toured with a new Follies cast. She also expanded into drama playing the role of Lenny Bruce’s mother in a story about his life. Having never managed her finances well, her golden years were spent working, albeit as a very sought after and beloved vocal coach. But she was never in it for the money like her husband and work made her happy.
Mary and I got along famously that afternoon. I suppose that’s because we had the same genes but I also suspected she wanted me to tell her something. I wasn’t quite sure why I had lied about being a reporter. Maybe I was afraid of what she’d tell me, but we never got beyond her life story to talk about mine. That was probably for the best because I later learned the details of my adoption and they would have hurt her. After all, we were both abandoned by our fathers. Nevertheless, it troubled me that I had not told her the truth. It’s something I felt she was waiting a very long time to hear.
Some years later after our visit, my daughter had grown into a little girl with her own big voice. When showed her Mary’s archives, I could sense she somehow connected with her. A day after her seventh birthday I received a call from social services in New York City. They informed me that Mary as on her deathbed in a hospital in Harlem. I rushed to see her. When I checked in at the nurse’s station they told me that I was the only person who had come to say goodbye. She had spent her entire nest egg on health care in her final years and was too proud to let anybody see her so diminished, yet for some reason she had asked for me.
I walked in slowly and pulled up a chair next to her gurney. She was the only person I ever actually physically touched, that I was related to, beside my daughter. I leaned over and whispered into her ear and said, “Mary, it’s me, Patty’s son,” and kissed her cheek. She smiled with what I knew was the last of her strength and closed her eyes to rest. A day after I returned home from New York they told me she ha passed. I knew it would now be up to me remind the world about that little girl with the big voice, the woman who taught me a lesson about the value and strength of character while accepting her weaknesses. And I now knew something else, something more elementary and that was the importance of being a father. Unlike Mary’s father Jack, I knew that should my little girl ever decide to follow in her great-grandmother’s footsteps, her daddy would always be there to listen to that song deep inside of her.