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Age doesn’t stop actors from showin’ their stuff

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image Jeanne has been performing on stage since she was three-years-old and doesn't intend to stop now. Photo Penny Fletcher

Actors like Jeanne Naish must smile or cry on demand, no matter what else might be going on in their lives.

When they say “The show must go on,” real actors mean it.

Like the U.S. Mail, actors across the world appear in their scenes, through rain or sleet, scorching heat or snow, no matter what else is going on in their lives.

Sometimes, becoming the character is what can keep a person going through even the worst of times, said Jeanne Naish in an interview in her Sun City Center home Nov. 26.

“The day my husband died, I called and told Ed [Ed Brown, who was in charge of the production she was working on at the time] I would be there the next day. Of course, he said that wasn’t necessary, but it was to me. I had to do it to keep going,” she said.

That was during the rendition of the radio show with George Burns and Gracie Allen in October 2012.

Jeanne’s husband Richard — known locally as Dick — was a highway engineer and traveled all over the world, so Jeanne got to act in Europe and Asia as well as in the States.

But she had been doing variety shows, singing, acting and doing skits long before they met.

Growing up in New York City, a woman she knew had two daughters who were concert pianists. The girl’s mother felt Jeanne had talent and took her to an audition, where she sang, and got a part.

“It was so funny, my mother really didn’t know or expect anything. I sang ‘When I Grow too Old to Dream’ at three.”

So Jeanne began performing on variety shows all over New York, starting with Milton Cross and Madge Tucker’s Coast to Coast on a Bus, and the Kate Smith Hour. Following those, the parts were many and after awhile, she began to have trouble keeping up her attendance in school.

“They were nice about it until junior high, when a math teacher would say ‘oh, there’s our visitor’ when I would go to class. I always thought that was mean.”

So she began to attend Mrs. Murray’s home school program where the children were often absent because of acting and other-type commitments.

“I loved the small group setting and went there from about 7th grade through high school,” she said. 

It was during those years that she met the great stars of the day. Those that made a special impression on her were Tallulah Bankhead, Al Jolson, and especially Don Ameche, who she said was as down-to-earth and “regular person” as if he was not a movie star.

But when asked “what do you remember as a ‘grand moment,’ she said, “I was doing ‘Old Kentucky Home’ on the Kate Smith Hour with Don Ameche and Al Jolson and Don brought me out in front of the audience and we took a bow together. I was only about 6 or 7. It was such a sweet thing to do.”

Another ‘grand moment’ came when she was crossing the street at the corner of Madison Avenue from CBS to NBC — yes, she worked for both — and Helen Hayes rolled down the window of her chauffeured car and asked if she wanted a ride.

Later in life, while traveling, she did “film dubbing” in Spain and in New York, which meant she worked behind the scenes working with transferring the lines from another language to English.

“That was really fun,” she said. “It was funny, because the mouths didn’t always match when an English word was substituted for another language, but we did the best we could.”

Another thing she was accomplished at was doing two duplicate shows. In the 1930s through the 1950s they didn’t tape shows, so they had to be performed twice, once for the Eastern audience and again for the West.

While in Ecuador much later in life,  she did Mary-Mary, taking the part of Mary.

“Oh, I was Mary,” she said, laughing brightly. “I realized while doing the part that Mary in the play always did or said things she shouldn’t, and that’s what I did in life. I told myself, ‘you have to learn to keep that big mouth shut!’ Playing Mary-Mary taught me a lot about myself.”

During her years in New York, she also did “movie shorts,” which were moving pictures that lasted about 30 minutes, sort of like many television shows do now.

After her husband retired, they moved to Sun City Center in 1999. One day, she was in the Sun City Center Laundromat in the plaza and saw an advertisement about Rosa Rio playing locally.

“I wondered if it was the Rosa Rio I knew from New York,” she said.

She called her, and after a long conversation, the two recalled particular things — like the day they had a malted milk together as teenagers.

Since moving to Florida she has been involved with the Performing Arts Company and with other productions, working with Ed Brown, John Bowker and Lew Ressiguie.

Now 81, she is preparing for Happy Holidays with George and Gracie Dec. 12, 13 and 14 at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church on E. Del Webb Boulevard in Sun City Center. Tickets are available in advance at the church and at the door, if there are any left, she said.

Acting has given her a wonderful life, she said.

“In hard times, like after my husband died, I told Ed, I’ll be there. And I want you to make me laugh.”

Then there are times when she has to cry on demand.

“I found that was easy,” she said. “The first time I did it though, it was accidental. But now I can do it when I am asked.”

Jeanne has one daughter, Kathy, who lives in New Jersey, and four grandchildren. Her smile is bright, her memories seem perfectly intact down to the smallest detail. And her life, she says, is still full of happiness and promise.

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