Ed here: Bill Peschel is always good but he's especially so with this review of the book about Lyle Talbot, a man who had a fascinating if dogged LONG showbiz career..
In his long lifetime that spanned the history of popular entertainment, Lyle Talbot believed he was lucky. The former carnie hustler and stage actor on the Midwestern circuit never became a star despite a contract at Warners playing opposite Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Mae West. A fading career and drink threatened to ruin him like it did many other actors, but a successful marriage and fatherhood rescued him, television revived his career and playing Ozzie Nelson’s neighbor gave him a modicum of immortality. Luck? If that meant working steadily in a chaotic profession, then the former Lisle Henderson had it in spades.
Even now, forgotten by all but movie buffs, his luck holds. His daughter, “New Yorker” reporter Margaret Talbot, has written “The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century,” an engaging, anecdote-stuffed and affectionate portrait of a sweet man and the culture that shaped and fed him. For sheer entertainment value, it’s one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time.
Talbot grew up in Nebraska, after his mother died in childbirth and his father was chased off by Lyle’s flinty grandmother. He was raised in her hotel that catered to traveling salesmen of the kind seen in “The Music Man.”It was a childhood that left peculiar marks. His grandmother would mourn her dead daughter by pinching young Lyle until he cried with her. He would be allowed to spend the night — chaste — with the young maids, who didn’t find it peculiar to accept a boy into their warm beds.
It was there, in the back-of-beyond Midwest, that he discovered a love of entertaining and the traveling troupes that provided it. This leads into one of Margaret Talbot’s many digressions. Digging into obscure memoirs and histories, she revives the long-lost stories of the colorful, eccentric characters who struggled to pursue their dreams. In an era before radio and movies, carneys, circuses and companies of actors would ride the rails, rivers and roads from small town to small town. During winter, the ice-bound waterways acted as interstates with horses pulling the boats on runners. One playful group used a castle backdrop as a sail and held mock swordfights in front of it, to break the monotony and entertain anyone on shore.