I often think how great it would have been to be Hoagy Carmichael -- to sing, play the piano, act in movies and hang out with Lauren Bacall, sometimes all at once:
The still's from To Have and Have Not (1944). You never come across scenes like that these days, of course, but, in the 40s, piano-led singalongs seem to have broken out spontaneously in any room in which more than two people were gathered. Certainly, no cinematic social gathering could call itself a party without a piano -- upright, cocktail or grand -- and a young man to play it. Preferably Hoagy Carmichael.
But what did they do when Hoagy was busy? Often, they got hold of Dick Winslow, who can be seen in this still from The Blue Dahlia (1946):
Alan Ladd's just come home from the war to find this wild party going on in his house. You can tell it's a wild party because someone's left their fur coat on the piano. Dick's playing "Accentuate the Positive" as all the guests sing along, but Alan Ladd's more in the mood to accentuate an unpleasant argument with his unfaithful wife, and Dick has to stop playing when everyone gets thrown out of the house.
It's a pretty typical role for Dick, who seems to have always been ready to fill out a scene with some inconsequential piano noodling whenever called on to do so. His filmography includes all the usual reporters, barmen and waiters that make up the bit-part actor's staple roles, but is noticeably heavy on musicians, particularly violinists, bandleaders, concertina players and accordionists. He'd been performing music for years, making an early appearance in the papers at the age of 10:
That was around the time he started work in the movies, a career chosen for him by his mother, according to a 1946 movie-gossip snippet, which says: "The late Mrs Winona Breazole Johnson landed her youngsters -- all seven of them -- in films by writing a scenario for Harry Carey with supporting parts tailored for her children. That was 25 years ago, and all are still in pictures."(2) It doesn't say what they're doing in pictures, of course, as that might rather spoil the story. The ones I can trace -- Kenneth, Cullen and Carmencita Johnson -- were all bit-part actors, like Dick, but without his musical specialism.
For decades, Dick was a resident pianist and entertainer at various Los Angeles restaurants and clubs. During the war, he entertained the troops overseas with the USO. Here he is, clowning around with Mickey Rooney as they serve dinner in an army canteen:
Dick spent some time in the late 1940s and 1950s touring supper-clubs with a singer called Carol Ann Beery, the daughter of Wallace Beery, and, towards the end of the 1950s, he scored this very special on-going gig:
A champagne tour by plane from Los Angeles to Las Vegas featuring Dick Winslow at the Sky Piano! What could be better? A newspaper interview that Dick gave after his 633rd flight is wonderfully evocative of a small, forgotten corner of the vanished pre-Beatles, pre-Vietnam, pre-Lee Harvey Oswald 1960s. After explaining how his piano is bolted on to the floor of the plane, Dick talks about loosening up the passengers with champagne and a bit of "community singing": "The first thing I do is pass song books to passengers as they get aboard. They don't even know when we take off and land. As soon as we can unfasten our seat belts, we get 18 or 20 people around the piano and we all start singing. Tonight, we had three people from Argentina aboard who couldn't speak English. So I played a tango for them. An Australian got 'Waltzing Matilda.' One girl started to do a strip tease in the aisle. We couldn't have that, though." On the way back from Vegas, after everyone had been robbed blind by the casino, Dick would often have to loan money to "guys who didn't have enough dough to get their car from the airport parking lot". None of it was ever paid back, but he didn't mind.(5)
Although he was primarily a pianist, Dick, like Hoagy Carmichael, was a multi-instrumentalist, and could play the marimba, the bag pipes, the saxophone and many other noise-making devices. In his later years, although he was still playing the piano in Hollywood restaurants and appearing in bit-parts on television, he decided to capitalise on his multi-instrumentalism in a way that Hoagy Carmichael never did. A small aside in an article from 1977 notes that Dick, at the age of 62, "delights in carrying 65 pounds on his back as a one-man band and making up lyrics for each charity event where he plays."(6)
His one-man band act seems to have enlivened cinema screens only once, in Do Not Disturb (1965), in which he serenaded Doris Day in a Parisian cafe:
His 10-year-old self would have been proud.
After I posted the first draft of this piece, I was contaced by a relative of Dick's, who had known him well in his later years. He described Dick as "a great actor, funny man, a most talented musician, songwriter ... and joke writer." He also wrote that Dick "loved nothing more than being in the limelight or spotlight and in later years had a hard time with not having reached the same level of stardom as his two close lifelong buddies he started in acting with, Mickey Rooney and Jackie Coogan."
That seems a shame. Dick was a very talented man, but not every talented person catches the necessary breaks to be able to translate that talent into fame and success, and Dick did a lot better than most. In other words, of course it would have been great to be Hoagy Carmichael, but, if you couldn't be him, it mustn't have been too bad to be Dick Winslow.
Dick died in 1991, at the age of 76.
Sources: (1)Constitution Tribune, 20 August, 1928; (2)Joplin Globe, 19 July, 1946; (3)Public domain, via Wikimedia; (4)Long Beach Press-Telegram, 4 February, 1960; (5)Kingsport Times, 30 Sept 1960; (6)Star News, 24 May, 1977