Former renter in Greenwich Village, waiting out the turnaround in Manhattan's midtown. Working on a blog-to-book project about my NYC/NJ ancestors. Everyday I'm amazed by what I find with Ancestry and in old newspapers.

July 18, 2020

In 1923 in Asbury Park, my Brooklyn grandmother's acting career gets sidetracked by a man

Remember our midnight swim? Love, Ralph

"Did you have to send me that postcard?"

"I thought it was romantic."

"My mother saw it!"

"Don't worry. We're getting married. Everything's alright now." 

It was a moonlit night in April as they drove down Ocean Avenue in his Haynes touring car. Exhilarating! but the racket of spring peepers made it impossible to have a conversation. Her thoughts drifted to talks with her sister Evelyn.

He's a good catch, MariaUndertakers always make a living.

He's not an undertaker! He sells pianos and he's musically inclined.

He's in music for now but he'll take over his father's business someday and you'll live in a mansion. He's your ticket out of Brooklyn. You can't be an actress forever.

At dinner, his parents and sister were jubilant. Their 30-year-old son was finally getting married, and she was pregnant with their first grandchild. The Burtises were a merry bunch and hardly mentioned undertaking at all. They talked about Maria's work in stock with Belasco, Myrkle-Harder Co. and, most recently, the Orpheum Players in Altoona. 

Link to the full review in the Altoona Tribune, 13 Mar 1923
(you'll need to enlarge it with the + icon)

Maria felt welcome in this family. The Burtises were singers and musicians themselves and owned music stores in town and in Freehold and Spring Lake.  They sold pianos and organs, phonographs, talking Sonoras and records.

Ralph and his family came to her plays and operettas and were very encouraging. She would live with Ralph and the baby in a spacious apartment above the piano store at 513 Bangs Avenue and after hours she could practice her singing on any piano she wanted.

513-515 Bangs Avenue

Burtis could have been her first boyfriend or someone she'd met at a dance. He wasn't my grandfather so she didn't talk about him much. Only after finding her engagement announcement and the birthdate of my dad's older sister did I figure it out. It's hard to imagine this happening to the grandmother I knew who was ladylike. When she married she was 22, but a smarter, more experienced twenty-something than I was or the women of today. She grew up fast. After a gym accident in eighth grade that injured her spine, she was forced to leave school and was homebound for three years with casts on both legs.  She credited her recovery to dancing and good doctors and played benefits for hospitals the rest of her life.

"I've always had good luck," she told me, and showed me the deep success line in her palm. "I had lots of lucky breaks and got parts." I wanted to be an actress when I was young. Everyone said I take after her.

In the 1910s she was in motion pictures with Maurice Costello for the Vitagraph Company in Midwood, near her family home in Homecrest. When brought to the attention of David Belasco, he sent her on scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the stage became her life's work. Her life was glamorous and fun. She met interesting people, and was friends with Dolores Costello, Shirley Booth and Ruth Gordon. Reading through the many clips I found about her, there were so many shows and actors then you really could make a living at it. I would have fit right in. I would have loved New York in her day.

I have no idea how she met Burtis. The newspaper clips don't say and for an actress working in Brooklyn and Manhattan, even a day trip to Asbury Park doesn't make sense. The circumstances must have thrown her, but she remained active as an actress during her marriage. Every week there were articles about her in local plays for women's groups and charities and the occasional show out of town. I haven't found a picture of her husband but I'll keep looking. I'm very curious. Maybe he was handsome. Maybe he was fun.

In the moonlight, anything is possible.

Ralph stopped the car. "Let's go swimming."

My grandmother loved swimming, even when I knew her. 

Contact: Debbie Carter, VillagerExpat@aol.com, (212) 925-3721

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