Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Duncan Sisters

Rosetta and Vivian Duncan

I guess we will stay on the sisters kick! I am the middle child with an older sister and a younger sister, so I consider myself an expert on the subject :)

These ladies were also a suggestion by a reader along with two other pairs of sisters: Katherine MacDonald and Mary MacLaren, who I covered in the previous entry, and Adamae and Alberta Vaughn, who I will get to as soon as I dig out the book I need that has some information about them in it. Give me a few thousand years to do that though...I am lazy.

Rosetta and Vivian Duncan

Rosetta Duncan was born on November 23, 1894 and sister Vivian was born June 17, 1897, both in Los Angeles, California. Their father, Samuel once performed as a violinist but then got a job in sales, and their mother, Locky, was at home with older brother, Alexander and older sister, Evelyn. The girls also had a younger brother named Harold. 

In 1911, the girls made their stage debut together in the Kiddie's Revue. It was during this time that the girls thought that they would have more opportunities as a sister act, so they worked on perfecting a routine where Rosetta was the loud comedian and Vivian was the dumb one. It didn't take long for their act to gain a reputation on the vaudeville circuit, and they soon added singing to their repertoire. 

In 1917, they had the amazing opportunity to appear at the Winter Garden Theatre starring alongside Ed Wynn. The girls were going somewhere quick, and the only place for them to go seemed to be up!

Vivian Duncan

The "up" came in 1923 when the girls starred in a play derived from the book Uncle Tom's Cabin,  called Topsy and Eva. Understandably, this musical comedy is not something you would see around these days due to some of the songs, content, and of course, the black face makeup worn by actors, including Rosetta, who played Topsy. During the early 1900s though, this was THE entertainment.

The girls' performance on stage led to movie producers wanting to put them on film! So, in 1927 the film version was released, also featuring Marjorie Daw, Mary Nolan, and Carla Laemmle.

While the girls were popular on stage, this popularity unfortunately did not translate the same way on the silver screen. They appeared in the 1929 early musical film, It's a Great Life, but the film didn't rake in the same cash as producers hoped so it seemed as if the stage is where the girls belonged. 

Rosetta Duncan

The stress of dealing with a movie career on top of a stage career finally caught up to Rosetta in 1928. The sisters had to cancel a few of their Topsy and Eva performances so that Rosetta could get some rest and clear her head. Vivian made a statement to the Pittsburgh Press on November 16, 1928 saying that her sister's breakdown was caused by "the efforts of 'certain American interests.'" Perhaps she was referring to the movie industry people they were now having to deal with. Who knows. 

The bright lights of Broadway and the movie sets of Hollywood were behind them, but the Duncan Sisters continued appearing at various night clubs and appearing on television shows.

Around 1931, the sisters began appearing in the news again, but not for rave performance reviews as it was before. It came to light that unfortunately, the sisters were broke. The explanation for their empty pockets? Vivien explained in a December 8, 1931 article in The Evening Independent: "Gold mines with no gold, worthless stock, the fickleness of Wall Street and signatures on too many dotted lines are responsible. Three years ago, we had more than a million and the money was rolling in. We were a big success and everyone with something to sell was plying us with propositions back stage. We signed up for almost anything they had to offer. We listened to everyone. Now we're penniless. We bought two gold mines...one in Arizona, and one in Mexico. We played margins in Wall Street and and you know what happened to actors who played margins in Wall Street a couple of years ago...And now, it's all gone and all we've done today is cry like a couple of babies. But we're starting all over again and we're going to do a comeback. We'll pay our debts if they'll just give us a chance - watch and see."

Rosetta Duncan

On November 30, 1959, Rosetta Duncan was out driving in Illinois when she struck a bridge post after swerving to avoid another vehicle. She ended up breaking both legs, 10 ribs, a fractured skull, and suffered numerous internal injuries. The driver of the other car was seen getting out of the vehicle, removing the plates and anything else that could be used to identify them, and fled the scene. Rosetta held on in the hospital for four days with her sister, Vivian by her side.

Rosetta Duncan passed away on December 4, 1959.

After her sister's death, Vivian continued performing on the night club circuit as a solo act.

Vivian Duncan

Vivian Duncan passed away on September 19, 1986 from Alzheimer's disease.

Both sisters are buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

Rosetta never married, but sister Vivian was married twice. Her first husband was actor Valentin Parera, who she married in 1930. I am not sure exactly when they divorced, but I know that it didn't come long after the wedding date because in 1931, he married actress and singer, Grace Moore. Vivian's second husband was another actor, this time it was Nils Asther, who appeared with the Duncan Sisters in their first film, Topsy and Eva. The couple married in 1930 (further proof her first marriage lasted for about a second) and ended up divorcing two years later. Her second marriage produced a daughter, Evelyn. 

Vivian and Rosetta Duncan

Vivien seems to have had quite the crush on movie actors, but she also did not have the best of luck with them (as evidenced by her two failed marriages). She had another negative outcome to a relationship with another actor in the 1930s. This is an excerpt from a July 30, 1970 newspaper article: 
"Rex Lease, 27, screen actor, was arrested early today when Vivian Duncan, member of the internationally famous Duncan Sisters dancing team, swore to a complaint that he knocked her down with his fist and kicked her during a seaside party at Malibu Beach outing place of the film colony...Miss Duncan exhibited a huge lump over her left eye to support her story."
Apparently the reason he hit Vivian was because he tried to kiss her and she denied his advances. What a douche. After her younger brother, Harold heard about what happened to his sister, he went on the war path looking for Lease. He found him at a Hollywood cafe and proceeded to beat the crap out of him. It was after this altercation that Lease went into hiding in the days leading up to his trial. It's a good thing because apparently Vivian's then husband, Nils Asther was telling people that he was out looking for Lease to seek his own revenge. 

 
Vivian and Rosetta Duncan

In 1946, Hollywood was planning on making a bio pic about the life and times of the Duncan Sisters but the project was plagued with rewrites and never got off the ground. I think this is probably a blessing in disguise considering how awful Hollywood is at getting the facts straight in their "biographical" pictures. 

Older sister, Evelyn, also appeared on stage with her sisters and also made a film in 1915. 

8 comments:

  1. DEAR JESSICA HELLO IT IS EUGENE.THANK YOU FOR THE DUNCAN SISTERS PROFILE!THE PHOTOS WERE LOVELY!I HAVE NOT SEEN ANY OF THEIR MOVIES OR TV SHOW APPEARANCES BUT I DO WANT TO."IT'S A GREAT LIFE"IS ON DVD.IN 1952 PARAMOUNT WANTED TO MAKE A MOVIE OF THE DUNCANS WITH BETTY HUTTON AND GINGER ROGERS BUT HUTTON SOON LEFT PARAMOUNT.IN THE 1960'S VIVIAN PITCHED THE MOVIE BIOGRAPHY AGAIN TO ADOLPH ZUKOR BUT HE WAS NOT INTERESTED.TOO BAD VIVIAN DID'NT PITCH THE IDEA TO A BROADWAY PRODUCER.A BROADWAY MUSICAL ABOUT THE DUNCAN SISTERS WOULD HAVE BEEN NEATO!LOOK AT "FUNNY GIRL" THAT WAS A SMASH BROADWAY SHOW ABOUT A STAGE COMEDIENNE BY THE NAME OF FANNY BRICE.TOO BAD NO ONE WRITES A BOOK ABOUT THE DUNCANS.

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    1. You are very welcome! And as long as we remember the Duncan Sisters, we can keep them alive :)

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  2. Whar a creep to hit Rosetta and then take off his plates and run-what an A#%^$ hole

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    1. Agreed. I don't get how there are people out there who could get into a car accident like that and just leave. How could you live with that? Beyond me...

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  3. DEAR JESSICA HELLO IT IS EUGENE.I JUST WANT TO LET YOU AND FANS OF YOUR WEBSITE KNOW OF TWO GREAT BOOKS THE DUNCAN SISTERS ARE PROFILED IN.ONE IS ENTITLED "ECCENTRICS OF COMEDY"BY ANTHONY SLIDE.THIS BOOK PROFILES COMICS WHO SPECIALIZED IN ECCENTRIC COMEDY.THE DUNCANS ARE IN HERE AS WELL AS FRANKLIN PANGBORN AND EDWARD EVERETT HORTON TWO OTHER MEN WHO WERE IN SILENT MOVIES.THE OTHER BOOK IS "STARS OF SILENTS" BY EDWARD WAGENKNECHT.THIS BOOK ALSO PROFILES;CLARA BOW,MARY PICKFORD,CHARLIE CHAPLIN,LILLIAN GISH,GERALDINE FARRAR,CLARINE SEYMOUR,AND MAY MCAVOY.BOTH BOOKS ARE GOOD GOOD READS!

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  4. Hello! I wonder if you know anything about Vivians grandchildren? I´m doing research for a book on Nils Asther and i would love to find descendants!

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  5. Hello. I currently have a treasure trove of Duncan Sisters memorabilia (photos, studio-copy 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm records, personal letters, Vivian Duncan's personal address book, movie and stage play scripts) to name a few. If interested please contact me.
    903-748-9793

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    1. Oh wow! Are you a relative or just a fan?

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