Elsie Janis’ real name was Elsie Bierbower (or Elsie Beerbower), so if you are a Helbling or Bierbower cousin, you may be related to this very-famous-in-her-time comedienne, actress, singer, mimic, and entertainer of our troops in World War I. Those troops gave her the nickname, “Sweetheart of the A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Forces)” and she truly earned the accolade.
Why is this a “Wishful Wednesday” post? It is because Elsie’s 1st cousin once removed, Mary Theresa Helbling, wanted so much to be a singer like Elsie. Mary’s mother, Anna May Bierbower Helbling, was Elsie’s cousin, and talked about her often as Mary grew up. Mary also loved the movie magazines and cut paper dolls from them, when she was allowed to have such expensive and scandalous magazines. By that time Elsie was mostly a writer for the movies- she never transitioned well from the stage to talkies as an actress. Elsie led a glamorous life though, and was often pictured in the magazines. Mary, when young, wished she had a life like that too.
Mary also loved to sing- she had a very beautiful voice. She loved listening to light opera and singing along to it and all the wonderful old movies with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and the fabulous musicals of the 1950s and 60s. Her voice was good enough to have sung on the radio back in the late 1930s or 1940s- wish I could remember more about that. Later, Mary and the love of her life, Edward A. McMurray, Jr., would sing together around the house, with a beautiful harmony and sometimes mooney-eyed in-love looks at each other even when they knew the kids were watching.
This is also “Wishful Wednesday” because I wished for so many years to be able to hear Elsie’s voice. There was a university in Idaho, IIRC, that had old recordings, including those of Elsie. Back then, I wrote a letter on paper (!) and sent it to them, asking if there was any way they could record Elsie’s voice on reel-to-reel tapes (!!) for me. No answer, despite repeated requests, even once the internet started up and I sent an email. (Maybe because I was not a scholarly researcher?) Many years later, there are now digital recordings of her music available to the public- even on iTunes. Wonder what Elsie would make of that???
Downloading Elsie’s music was my first time for music with ‘Explicit’ material. I was sort of shocked- why would Elsie’s music be labeled as such? I then realized that some of the material was racist, such as that from minstrel shows or musicals that showed the races in the context of their times, the late 1800s-early 1900s, not our times. (Still hard to listen to some of those songs because of that.) I have also been able to buy one of her records on eBay, but no longer have a turntable so have not been able to listen to it.
The internet sure has made the amazing world of the past available to us all in seconds, and even while in our pajamas! It is wonderful to have my wish to hear Elsie come true; sure wish Mary would have had that opportunity.
More to come about Elsie’s interesting life!
Notes, Sources, and References:
1) See the International Movie Database at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0006059/ for details about the stage musical and movie, “The Slim Princess.”
2) Elsie Janis Find a Grave Memorial # 10334. The bio is inaccurate although I have contacted the person many times. The family links were finally changed but it still erroneously states that she was the daughter of Lou Bierbauer. See also the memorials for her family members on Find a Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=10334. A Bierbower researcher had also added a memorial for her: Memorial # 33617289 at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSvcid=186286&GRid=33617289&.
3) “Sweetheart of the A.E.F.” is the title of the audio CD that contains 20 of her most popular songs. It is available on smile.Amazon.com and iTunes.
4) Remember Mitch Miller and Sing Along with Mitch? It ran from 1961-1966 on NBC. Mitch had a male chorale and also featured other excellent singers, like Leslie Uggmans, on the show. (Bob McGrath was one of those in the chorale; he later went on to be a long-time host of Sesame Street.) Mitch is regarded as the inventor of today’s karaoke, as the program featured the words shown on the screen, so the whole family could sing along. (There was no bouncing ball though.) For more information, see the Archive of American Television– http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/shows/sing-along-with-mitch. YouTube has videos of some performances: Sing Along with Mitch, Part 1 of 4– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dY9gtYeHhk. (The commercials are wonderful- frozen foods were just becoming popular. I remember the whole family eating frozen TV dinners on the folding metal TV trays while watching Mitch!)
5) Sheet music and photo of Mary Helbling in personal collection of the author.
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