Saint John, New Brunswick

Walter Pidgeon
The Gentleman from Saint John
Charles Foster looks back on Walter Pidgeon's rise
from the city's North End to Hollywood stardom

by Charles Foster

   WALTER PIDGEON, always a hard worker, was the youngest paper boy in Saint John. At 13, he was employed on weekends in his father's store, located at the corner of Main and Bridge Streets in the area known as Indiantown. He used every penny he earned to buy the fine quality clothing that became his life-long trademark.

    Did he buy them from his father?

    "Sadly, I must say no," he said. "I have to admit his clothing, though good value, wasn't the quality I wanted."

    His wife recalled that often when he was expecting a newspaper writer to visit him at his Bel Air home he would peep out of an upstairs window to see who got out of the car. "If the reporter was badly dressed or was untidy he often told me to say that he had been called away and the interview had to be cancelled," she said.

    Pidgeon himself said, "But if the reporter was neat and tidy I often invited him to stay for dinner, and on more than one occasion to stay overnight to finish the interview. Even lent him my pajamas."

    In 1932, when a suit returned from the cleaner pressed so that two side-by-side creases could clearly be seen in the trousers, Pidgeon bought a professional pressing table and from that day on no one ever ironed his trousers but his wife Ruth.

    "Our house staff would just stand by and watch," he said.

    "But I never let them touch the trousers," said Ruth. "Think of the money we saved over 50 years."

His fathers story in Saint John    I met Walter Pidgeon for the first time in 1943 while I was on leave from the Royal Air Force in Hollywood. He was on the set at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios playing Pierre Curie in Madame Curie with Greer Garson and Robert Walker.

    Over the years, after the war, when I worked in Hollywood, I was invited to his home on many occasions for dinner or lunch, once even for breakfast. And at other times when he just wanted to talk, especially about Saint John.

    Walter Pidgeon, born September 23, 1898, at 23 Cedar Street in Saint John, had every reason to be satisfied with his life. He had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in the motion picture industry, and not once in the 59 years he had called California his home had any suggestion of scandal ever been written about him.

    His co-star in eight successful films, Greer Garson, called him "Hollywood's only real gentleman. I never heard him raise his voice in anger, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone, nor did I hear anyone say a bad word about him. He was a gentleman and a gentle man."

   EIGHTY-NINE years ago, a trembling schoolboy, just 13 years old, stood on the stage of Saint John's Imperial Theatre to give his debut performance. But not as an actor, as a singer. Some stories have suggested he went on stage to substitute for his brother Charles who had lost his voice with a bad cold. "Rubbish," said Pidgeon. "I was there because they invited me. Charles couldn't sing a note."

    Walter Pidgeon, whose well-documented singing accomplishments have often been eclipsed by his brilliant acting achievements, was a member of one of a number of school choirs showcased on stage. The youthful Walter Pidgeon had such an outstanding voice that he was given not one but two solos.

    In 1983, relaxing on the lawn of the beautiful mansion that film success had enabled him to build at 230 Strada Corta Road in exclusive Bel Air, California, he recalled his public debut 73 years earlier.

    "My knees were shaking. I was so scared I wasn't sure my voice would come out at all, but it must have been all right. I remember the applause to this day. It is probably my most wonderful memory of the city in which I was born. You can forget all the boos and catcalls in your life but you never forget the applause."

    In 1915, when he was 17, he enrolled at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. "I didn't know what I wanted to be, if a pirate sailing the oceans doesn't count," he said. "But the next year, at 18, 1 left the university and joined the 65th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery. I was full of adventure and was ready to face the trenches in France, but fate intervened. In training, I became trapped between two rolling gun carriages and spent the next 16 months in a Toronto military hospital."

   After the war was over, Pidgeon moved to Boston and found a job working nights in the mail room of a stock broker. Using the money he earned, he entered the Boston Conservatory of Music.

    "There was no thought of acting - unless you count the awkward movements I made on stage in the various musicals I did in the early twenties acting but I did believe I was going to find fame as a singer." Pidgeon married his first wife, Muriel, also hoping to find fame as a singer, while training at the conservatory. "It was tough at first, trying to keep both of us on one salary," he recalled. "But we survived because Muriel took an evening job as a salesgirl."

    His acting can't have been really bad, because four years later, when he was 23, he appeared in Canada again at both the Imperial Theatre in Saint John and the Grand Theatre in Moncton. This time he was singing a small but important role as a member of the Boston Light Opera Company.

    The theatre critic for the Moncton Times singled him out, saying, "Mr. Pidgeon has a robust baritone voice that is enhanced by his masculine appearance and excellent stage presence. Mark my words, this young man will go far in the world of the theatre."

    "That Moncton writer, unnamed, was the first critic who ever noticed me," he said. "Let me show you the clipping from my first scrapbook. You never want to lose moments in time like that."

   Pidgeon had special memories of one singing role he won while he was still at the Boston Conservatory. "I played the lead role as a Mountie in Rose Marie, and after a month on the road, during which the producer often had me walk up and down the main street of each town in which we were playing, wearing my Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform, I became so enthused with the red coat that I actually applied to join the force. When they saw the record of my military injuries they sent me a letter of regret. I often wonder what my life might have been like had :hey accepted me."

   Dancer Fred Astaire, long before his own Hollywood fame, spotted Pidgeon singing with an amateur company in Boston. He knew that the renowned singer and entertainer, Elsie Janis, was then in search of a new partner and suggested Pidgeon. She travelled to Boston to hear him and hired him on the spot.

    "Miss Janis was a delight to work with," he said. "I learned more stagecraft from her than I had learned in the years before or have learned since. For more than two years I toured the United States and Canada with her, although we never did come to New Brunswick, but we went on to Broadway and London's West End." Pidgeon's wife travelled with the company as understudy for Janis. "But just her luck," said Pidgeon. "Elsie Janis had a constitution like an elephant. She was never sick."

    It wasn't exactly a financial bonanza playing second fiddle to Miss Janis. "I think I got about $100 when we were on Broadway in the revue Puzzles of 1925. Muriel got about $20. But that was a lot of money in those days."

   Although movies were still silent in 1925, and Pidgeon at that time was considered a singer, not an actor, his good looks attracted the movie moguls. When the Elsie Janis show ended its run on Broadway, early in 1926, he and his wife headed by train to Hollywood to visit the different companies that had expressed interest in his talents as an actor.

    "I recall leaving the New York rail terminal as clearly as though it was yesterday," he said. "As we waved good-bye to our friends my wife yelled out, 'I should tell you all, I'm pregnant.' It was the first I'd heard of the news and I was quite stunned. I guess I worried all the way across the United States wondering whether I could succeed in motion pictures sufficiently to keep three people alive. By the time we reached Chicago we were so uncertain that we were ready to leave the train and return to New York where I knew stage work would be easy to get."