Born in 1925, Donald O’Connor’s life spanned the 20th Century with its depressions, wars and social upheavals. Unfortunately for the O’Connor family, world events often coincided with terrible personal losses, requiring Donald to assume adult responsibilities at a very young age. Perhaps the flip side of being so responsible was the sheer joy of being ridiculous on stage. Bob Hope described the high of performing as “you kind of bubble inside” [Pioneers of Primetime, PBS]. O’Connor must have lived most of his life close to a boil.
I loved those years on the road. I loved fooling around in front of the audience. I worked very hard. I knew the harder I worked, the more laughs and the more applause I got…and that was my thing. That’s what I was there for. And I really lived to do just that.
– – Donald O’Connor [Frank 152]
He made it look so easy. Gene Kelly dubbed him “The O’Connor” for the casual blend of comedy, song and dance that made him a popular entertainer in the most reciprocal sense of the word. He treated audiences like family and identified so strongly with them that during World War II he refused a commission rather than outrank his audience. Whether on stage or on screen, his ability to connect with people defined his success.
With a mother lode of natural talent and a versatility that wowed his fellow performers, he accepted and adapted to the vicissitudes of the entertainment industry without compromising his values or his style. The following pages attempt to put his notable career in the context of his times.
A Genuine Triple Threat
O’Connor was ultimate “Un-Lena” (of Singin’ in the Rain fame) – he really could sing, act and dance. Add to that physical comedy and musicianship, and he’s among a very short list of truly multi-talented performers who never needed to be dubbed. From all accounts, he knocked ’em dead debuting in Cincinnati with a pint-sized rendition of the “Black Bottom.” At only 13 months, he adored the audience just beyond the footlights.
A natural mimic, he picked up more bits of business by watching other acts from the wings and learned new steps from tap challenges on street corners. He spoke with fondness of the other acts, who if he was quiet and respectful, would teach him stage tricks or a maybe little math.
…That’s where I took my schooling, in the dressing room in between shows…some of my teachers were chorus girls and magicians and acrobats, anybody that was around that wanted to come in and knew anything, they imparted their information to me. Backstage where I spent most of my youth, most of the people we worked with were just great. I hear the music, I can see the proscenium very clearly.
– – Donald O’Connor [Pioneers of Primetime, PBS]
He must have been a most respectful child. By the age of 12, he had developed his own off-hand style of acting, acrobatics, singing, comedy, and tap. Most important, his unaffected delivery was honest and engaging.
Acknowledgments and Disclaimer
While researching for this project, people the author has contacted have invariably said, “Donald O’Connor? He’s one of my favorites! What can I do to help?” So thanks to all those people I’ve met in museums, libraries, on the ‘net and especially to Tim Fowlar, Gloria Jean and Teresa Murray for their invaluable assistance.
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This essay is not affiliated with or sanctioned by the O’Connor family or Mr. O’Connor’s Estate. The opinions expressed on these pages are that of the author who is a fan of musical performance in general, and Mr. O’Connor’s style in particular. Quotes, images and clips have been collected over many years, taken from the Internet, film and print sources. In the spirit of “a picture (or video) is worth a thousand words” the author has added links to video and audio clips that demonstrate the text. Email the webmaster with comments.