In the song “Bookends,” Paul Simon encourages us to “preserve your memories – they’re all that’s left you.”
We at Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory completely agree with this sentiment. As time goes by, family narratives, events that seem of small importance but later turn out to be more relevant, tend to fade. It’s easier these days with video equipment to tape interviews with loved ones to preserve these memories: those of us of an older generation have to rely on lore and legend which is passed down from generation to generation – and this lore and legend is sometimes not very accurate.
We were reminded of this on August 28th, the birthday of Donald O’Connor (pictured above with fellow Danville, Illinois natives Bobby Short, Jerry Van Dyke, –O’Conner–, Dick Van Dyke, and Gene Hackman; also pictured below).
O’Connor, who is most famous for his role in “Singing in the Rain,” was an entertainer from a different era. His parents were vaudevillians who spent most of their time on the road; even though he was born in Chicago, Illinois, the closest thing he had to a permanent home was where his relatives lived in Danville. He was quoted in the Danville Commercial News in 1994 saying, “I always had a sense of peace when I went there. It was home because I never had a home.”
O’Connor’s career was marked by both spectacular success and bitter heartbreak. As a child, he witnessed his own father’s death of a heart attack while dancing on stage in Massachusetts. Also, he and his sister were in a car crash outside a theater in Connecticut – he survived, but his sister was killed. Talk about childhood trauma!
At the age of 12, he was performing both on vaudeville and in movies, including an appearance with Bing Crosby in “Sing You Sinners.” By the early 1940’s, he found a home in musicals at Universal Pictures.
Following a stint in the Army, O’Connor returned to Hollywood with a brand new partner: Francis the Talking Mule. In a series of six films, O’Connor played Peter Stirling, a soldier who befriends a talking mule (voiceover by Chill Wills). The films made money and brought O’Connor international fame.
Ironically, his work with Francis actually cost him a huge, iconic Hollywood role. Because of contracting Q-Fever from the mule, O’Connor was unable to play opposite Bing Crosby in “White Christmas.” Q-Fever is a relatively rare infection that usually is transmitted from an animal to a veterinarian or farmer – the odds of an actor, even one in close proximity to a mule, catching this illness are extremely slim.
There is no question that O’Connor’s signature role was that of Cosmo Brown in “Singing in the Rain,” a performance which earned him a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. Unbelievably, he was smoking over four packs of cigarettes a day while performing this extremely physically demanding role.
Many film scholars consider “Singing in the Rain” the finest musical ever made. “It’s wonderful,” O’Connor said of Singing’s enduring popularity. “If your whole day is rotten, once they start the music, it seems to melt away.”
While continuing to make films, O’Connor increasingly turned to television work. For a time, he had his own show, but his appearances on everything from “The Colgate Comedy Hour” to “The Judy Garland Show,” made him an extremely familiar figure on the small screen.
O’Connor had other demons to fight as well, including alcoholism. He went into recovery in the late 1970’s and made a number of memorable appearances after that, including hosting the Academy Awards and performing in the 1981 movie, “Ragtime.”
He passed away at the age of 78 in 2003.
In spite of his major success, O’Connor often sought solace from his hectic schedule by returning to the relatively quiet streets of Danville. He stayed with relatives, including his cousin, Katie Connor (her side of the family dropped the “O”). Above is a photo of Katie Connor taken in my home in the 1950’s. Not only was she a friend of my parents, but she was my baptismal Godmother. My memory of Katie is that she was a sophisticated, warmhearted person who was much beloved by friends and family. Katie passed away in April of 1979.
Going back to the theme of family narratives, I do wish that I had an opportunity to spend some more time with her. My one distinct memory concerning Donald O’Connor is that my mother, father, and I had dinner at Katie’s house just hours after O’Connor had left to return to his home in California.
RIP Donald O’Connor and Katie Connor.
Special thanks to Melody Williams, reference and archives, Danville Public Library.