It is only fitting that A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN should return to the big screen in Hollywood seventy-one years after it premiered at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in January 1945. And it returns, at last, as the classic we all felt, deep down, we had had a cherished part in making. I can still remember that first night, the ride with my parents to the front of Grauman’s, all the people, and all our names high up in lights on the giant grid.
And like Neeley Nolan I, too, was born in Brooklyn, to Will and Josephine Donaldson, August 20th 1933. My full name, in fact, is Theodore Dreiser Donaldson, named after the great American novelist. (My father was an early admirer of his work and his collection of Dreiseriana is now at UCLA.) Tragically, Jo (as she was always called) fell incurably ill and died only four months later. She was only thirty-four. For the next four or five years I stayed with her sister Margie and her family—still in Brooklyn, with many weekend visits and outings with my father.
He was a pianist, songwriter, vocal arranger and coach, who was especially active in radio (for years he arranged for Manhattan-Merry-Go-Round) and in his early twenties was an accompanist to some superstar popular singers like Adele Rowland and Elsie Janis. He befriended an even younger George Gershwin and in 1916 they collaborated on a piano piece, Gershwin’s first instrumental, “Rialto Ripples,” which was revived by William Bolcom in the seventies and is still often heard worldwide. His ballad “I Can’t Resist You” is still heard and was recorded by Anna Maria Alberghetti and twice by Peggy Lee late in her career, but his most well-known piece is the Campbell soup jingle, “Hmm, Hmm, Good.” In 1938, he married Muriel Pollock, one of the most popular pianists and composers of the twenties and thirties, both solo and as a duo in her partnerships with Constance Mering and Vee Lawnhurst. She was also one of the top organists on radio, knew Gershwin well and once recorded a piano roll with him. And she was not just the only person I ever called “mother” — she legally adopted me as her own.
So, it was to a new place of constant music and art and books that I moved to. My first theatrical appearance was on experimental television at NBC in December 1937. My parents tried me out on the piano, the trumpet and the drums, with a singular lack of rhythm (no budding Gene Krupa in this family), all to no promise. I was a somewhat unexpectedly moody child and my mother hit on the notion of the two and three of us going to visit other people in our imaginations, especially other children, of all races, and I began to invite them over. When one day I took up the major part of a popular radio host’s program telling him a story, they thought maybe acting might be more congenial to me. For the next few years I did many commercials, appeared frequently on soap operas, (was Our Gal Sunday’s son for two years), and on many dramatic shows like Cavalcade of America and Armstrong Theatre of the Air. In 1941, I played Harlan, the youngest boy in Life with Father, at the old Empire Theatre with Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney, and was Tiny Tim to Edmund Gwen’s Scrooge on radio at Christmas time and we did a reading of it for the Braille Institute for Children. In early 1943 I appeared in Irwin Shaw’s Sons and Soldiers, one of his generational stories, as Gregory Peck’s brother. It had a splendid cast with Geraldine Fitzgerald as my mother, Stella Adler, Karl Malden and Millard Mitchell, and was the last play directed by Max Reinhardt. It closed in three weeks, but led to Harry Cohn of Columbia studios interviewing me on camera for the role of Pinky in Once Upon A Time (1944), starring Cary Grant. I count my relationship to Grant as the greatest professional/personal experience of my life (but there is no space for that story). I received a New York Film Critics Award, Columbia put me under contract, and we moved out here in 1944. Mr. Winkle Goes To War (1944) with Edward G. Robinson followed and then I was loaned to 20th Century-Fox for TREE.
By this time I was also a practicing magician and appeared twice with my act at the Hollywood Canteen, and for the next eight years performed many times at armed services camps and veteran’s hospitals, my mother usually playing solos and accompanying singers. (As one of the greatest pianistic sight-readers who ever lived, this for her was a breeze.) In 1945 I made the first of the Rusty dog series. TCM has shown all of them a few times for which I am very thankful. 1946 saw me with Jane Darwell in The Red Stallion and on a recording as Hansel (but no singing) to Jane Powell’s Gretel and Basil Rathbone’s narrator and witch. In 1947 I played the title role in The Decision Of Christopher Blake, based on Moss Hart’s play and later Natalie Wood’s brother in The Green Promise (1949), and Beatrice Straight’s son in Phone Call From A Stranger (1952). For five years on radio I was the original Bud Anderson of Father Knows Best with Robert Young.
I began to write poetry and plays, and keep at it, trying to visit and be visited by those other people. I was a member of Theatre East and ran the playwright’s lab for ten years. My play The Library Steps was performed there and Prol0gue To Cain was performed on KPFK. In 1990, I collaborated with Jack Colvin and Jack Breschard on Dead End At Sunset, a highly received adaptation of Gorky’s The Lower Depths, set in Hollywood in 1932, which won awards in all eight categories for which it was eligible (just no music, no dancing).
And now, circling back to A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, I look forward to once again visiting and being visited by those people of other (and my) imaginations, for isn’t that communion what this profession is, ultimately, all about?