As you may have gathered, I’m partial to artsy people – painters, writers, and especially performers. Consequently, I’m all hopped up about some of the folks I’ve recently added into the tree. I know we’ve had a few performers already in these pages – Kay Francis, Dina Merrill, Robert Redford – but I had to pursue those connections. This lot just dropped into my lap – and while they are much closer in generational terms, they’re in-laws – not blood relations. So – no common ancestors to boast about… but I can’t wait for the next family reunion!
MALCOLM DUNCAN had two sisters, both classical singers – Bessie, the contralto, and Victoria, the soprano.
Bessie married Wilford Watters, a 3rd cousin of my great-grandfather Adelbert S Watson. Watters was a dashing baritone-slash-conductor from Staten Island, and he also produced very fashionable, very popular morning musicales in Brooklyn in the 1890s – most featuring himself, his wife, and his sister-in-law.
He frequently left Bessie and their daughter for months or years at a time – conducting, performing, seeking out all manner of talent. He did a stint as director of the Atlanta Conservatory of Music, served with the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe in 1918, and eventually hoofed it to Havana. When he died of pneumonia in 1933, Bessie told Cuban officials they could see to the cremation and interment themselves. She remarried the following year.
Victoria, the soprano, married Henry Peckham, an actor/comic – and their son Henry Duncan Peckham married Gladys Hassell, Adelbert Watson’s 2nd cousin. Gladys and Duncan met on the Brooklyn stage and, according to the article in the Brooklyn Eagle about their 1914 wedding “[They] have been widely known in the dancing sets and amateur theatricals.” These are my people – and I presume they were adorable.
But back to Malcolm Duncan – he was the real thing. His early career warranted a mention in a 1905 publication called Brooklyn Life, noting his debut appearance with Richard Mansfield’s company, and the strong impressions he made in productions of Vanity Fair and the current Rip Van Winkle. He played Sylvia Sidney’s father in two separate flops during the 1929 Broadway season, but did some very well-regarded productions as well, such as Kaufman & Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along (1934), and Kaufman & Ferber’s Dinner At Eight (1932) – wherein he played the host of the titular event, Oliver Jordan – the role played by Lionel Barrymore in the 1935 MGM film version.
And thanks to Dinner At Eight, Malcolm Duncan is likely the only person in my tree (with the possible exception of Lucy) to have been Hirschfelded. He’s down at the bottom, left. (Many thanks to the New York Public Library and its fabulous Hirschfeld Collection.)
MAX FIGMAN AND LOLITA ROBERTSON.
Meanwhile, on a different branch of Dad’s tree were the Oatleys. Unlike 99% of my family, the Oatleys were quite well off. When their personal wealth and social standing hit a certain level, they left Schenectady for Great Neck, Long Island, when the town was at its absolute toniest. The elder Oatley son, Donald (yet another 2nd cousin of Adelbert Watson’s) went to Great Neck High with a lovely girl named Lolita Figman, and they married in 1937.
Lolita’s parents were stage and screen stars Max Figman and Lolita Robertson. Max was born in Vienna and began his notable stage career at age 17 in A Scrap of Paper (1883). He appeared in four plays with Mrs. Fiske in 1902, including A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, and did his first star turn in The Man On the Box, later filmed in 1914 by Cecil B. DeMille.
Lolita was from San Francisco, and the couple first met in a play called Fine Feathers (1913). Together, they did a handful of plays, and made a couple dozen silent films. The still is from What’s His Name (1914), another DeMille film. AND they were in the room in 1914 when Jesse Lasky formed the company that would eventually become Paramount Pictures.
I have this big old hardback book – my Story Book, as someone once dubbed it – A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860-1985… practically everything and everyone of note that appeared on Broadway… ever. Max and Lolita are in that book – and that is SERIOUSLY cool!
And finally – RENAULT RENALDO DUNCAN was the second husband of Audrey Madeline Leonard, a 3rd cousin of my mother’s on her Cochran line. Audrey died in 1993 in Santa Barbara, buried next to her husband, better known to the world as Duncan Renaldo, the Cisco Kid!
Now HE had a peculiar life. A dashing young actor, he appeared in The Bridge At San Luis Rey (1929) and got his first big role in MGM’s Trader Horn (1931). But right around the time of the premiere, he was arrested for making false statements in order to obtain a passport, and for entering the country illegally.
His story was that he’d been orphaned at a very young age and, consequently, didn’t know exactly where or when he was born – though he thought it was Spain, 1904. Or maybe Romania. He got in trouble for claiming Greek citizenship and entering the country on the crew of a tanker ship in 1917. Or 1921. He definitely was not from Camden, New Jersey – as was made very clear in the sensational trial that followed.
Whatever – the bottom line is that Renaldo served 18 months at the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington – and the kicker is that he was given a full, unconditional pardon by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt (7th Cousin, 5x Removed) near the end of his sentence (perhaps the day before it was to end). He was released and his record was wiped clean.
Renaldo resumed his film career, doing mostly B-Westerns and Cisco Kid serials at Republic and Monogram Studios until 1950 when he began work on the television version of The Cisco Kid, opposite Leo Carillo as Pancho.
The show ended in 1956 (the year of his marriage to Audrey), but he remained terrifically popular for the rest of his life, and did hundreds of personal appearances and autograph signings over the years.
Duncan Renaldo died in Goleta, California in 1980, at the age of 76.