The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century [NOOK Book]


Using the life and career of her father, an early Hollywood actor, New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot tells the thrilling story of the rise of popular culture through a transfixing personal lens. The arc of Lyle Talbot’s career is in fact the story of American entertainment. Born in 1902, Lyle left his home in small-town Nebraska in 1918 to join a traveling carnival. From there he became a magician’s assistant, an actor in a traveling theater troupe, a romantic lead in early talkies, then an actor in major Warner ...
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The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century

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Using the life and career of her father, an early Hollywood actor, New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot tells the thrilling story of the rise of popular culture through a transfixing personal lens. The arc of Lyle Talbot’s career is in fact the story of American entertainment. Born in 1902, Lyle left his home in small-town Nebraska in 1918 to join a traveling carnival. From there he became a magician’s assistant, an actor in a traveling theater troupe, a romantic lead in early talkies, then an actor in major Warner Bros. pictures with stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Carole Lombard, then an actor in cult B movies, and finally a part of the advent of television, with regular roles on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. Ultimately, his career spanned the entire trajectory of the industry.

In her captivating, impeccably researched narrative—a charmed combination of Hollywood history, social history, and family memoir—Margaret Talbot conjures warmth and nostalgia for those earlier eras of ’10s and ’20s small-town America, ’30s and ’40s Hollywood. She transports us to an alluring time, simpler but also exciting, and illustrates the changing face of her father’s America, all while telling the story of mass entertainment across the first half of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Margaret Talbot grew up in thrall to her father's storytelling, typically about his career, which stretched from carnivals and circuses to traveling theater troupes to Hollywood in the 1930s and television in the 1950s and even to acting for the touchingly inept, cross-dressing indie filmmaker Ed Wood. The Entertainer is not so much a life of Lyle as a showcase for his tales, which combine with Margaret's research to form a charming and informative panorama of 20th-century American popular culture…The Entertainer does indeed entertain…
—Dennis Drabelle
Publishers Weekly
A staff writer with the New Yorker, the author remembers her father, the actor Lyle Talbot (1902–1996), with much fondness in this combination biography and autobiography. As she traces his life and career, a huge tapestry of American mass entertainment and popular culture is unfurled as a backdrop: “Zelig-like, he’d been present at so many of its transformative moments.” Thus, she detours into such areas as sideshows, dance marathons, tent shows in Tornado Alley, the hypnotism craze of the 1890s to the early 1920s, the 1939 World’s Fair, Production Code censorship, and the “vinegary put-downs” of the “brassily vulgar” pre-Code movies. Lyle left smalltown Nebraska in 1918 to join a carnival, was a magician’s assistant, traveled with a theater troupe, and launched his own theater company, the Talbot Players, in Memphis before his 1932 arrival in Hollywood. He rarely turned down a job, so he did everything: romantic leads, elegant gangsters, and cowboys, appearing on Broadway (Separate Rooms) and in movie serials (Atom Man vs. Superman), exploitation films (Glen or Glenda), radio (Hollywood Footlights), TV (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet), and Lincoln Center (South Pacific). Talbot’s life provides a springboard for an evocative “magic lantern of memory” by his daughter: “Stories were the soft golden net that enmeshed us. My father’s stories.” In the end, Talbot has created a fluid time-travel flight on the wings of cinema. (Nov.)
David Grann
"The real life of consummate entertainer Lyle Talbot turns out to be his most unforgettable role. He seems to have been part of every stage of the rise of the modern entertainment industry, yet perhaps his greatest fortune was to have his story so beautifully rendered by his daughter. Weaving together cultural history, biography, and delightful backstage accounts, Margaret Talbot has created a classic of narrative nonfiction-one that would have enthralled even the great man himself."
--David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
Library Journal
A New Yorker staff writer, Talbot takes a personal approach to telling the story of popular culture in early 20th-century America. She memorializes her father, Lyle Talbot, born in Nebraska in 1902, who became a magician's assistant, actor with a traveling theater troupe, romantic lead in early talkies, character actor in big Warner films, and, finally, a TV regular. Lots of in-house excitement for this one.
Library Journal
It would be easy to say that New Yorker staff writer Talbot’s book is a journey that travels from the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, through the world of stage hypnotists and magicians of the early 1920s, and into legendary Hollywood of the 1930s. But Talbot’s book is more a tapestry than a journey, and its language weaves a vibrant portrait of a life that has passed, a world that has vanished, and a simplicity that is rarely reclaimed. Talbot’s father, minor movie star Lyle Talbot, never reached the epoch of stardom, yet remained a working actor all his adult life. Somehow, though, that isn’t very important. What is important about this book is the gift of storytelling that was passed from father to daughter.

Verdict This is simply one of the best books ever written about this era of show business and the people who populated that world. It is essential for anyone interested in film and theater history, in the social history of the 20thcentury, or simply in a fascinating story remarkably told.—Teri Shiel, Westfield State Univ. Lib., MA

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
New Yorker staff writer Talbot debuts with an affectionate biography of her father, stage, screen and TV actor Lyle Talbot (1902–1996). Mingling memoir and relevant social and cultural history, the author shows how her father's career in many ways paralleled the changes in the 20th-century entertainment industry. Born in Brainard, Neb., Lyle Talbot was raised by his grandmother in a rooming house/hotel catering to traveling salesmen. Stage-struck, the talented young man began as a magician's assistant, then joined traveling troupes of actors who played in the opera houses of the Midwest. In 1932, he was off to Hollywood, where he soon became a contract player, then a budding star who socialized with many notables of the era (the Mae West stories are amusing), hung out at San Simeon with Hearst and other stars, married several times (none of the early marriages lasted long) and battled alcoholism. Author Talbot pauses continually to fill us in on such things as the history of gangster films, the rise of the talkies, Hollywood scandals, Hollywood actors on Broadway and wartime moviemaking. She also--perhaps excessively so--summarizes some films her father appeared in, a decision that manifests her great affection rather than her sense of narrative balance. When TV began to emerge, Lyle Talbot was right there, appearing on numerous shows, including a gig with Ozzie and Harriet. Talbot also includes an interesting section about fan clubs (her father had one) and about her father's late, stable marriage to a far younger woman (it produced the author and her siblings). A thorough, lovingly researched paean to a father and a way of life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101597057
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 11/8/2012
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 454,799
  • File size: 6 MB

Meet the Author

Margaret Talbot has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2003. Previously, she was a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and an editor at The New Republic. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Chapter 1 Learning to Cry 1

Chapter 2 The Hypnotist's Boy 34

Chapter 3 Footlights on the Prairie 82

Chapter 4 Hooray for Hollywood 121

Chapter 5 Gangsters, Grifters, and Gold Diggers 149

Chapter 6 Man About Town 202

Chapter 7 Empty Bottles 236

Chapter 8 Unionizing Actors, Uniting Fans 266

Chapter 9 Broadway and B Movies 314

Chapter 10 From Ed Wood to Ozzie and Harriet 347

Acknowledgments 405

A Note on Sources 411

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The Entertainer¿ covers a large swatch of twentieth century ente

    The Entertainer… covers a large swatch of twentieth century entertainment as history and also a biography of the author’s father, Lyle Talbot.  It’s quite obvious that Margaret was deeply fond of her father, although her grandmother didn’t quite like the influence he had on his daughter.  But the tales she heard from her Dad clearly fascinated her and made her realize that the history of entertaining was one to share with the world because of its unique evolution over time and with the additional development of new technologies so rapidly occurring during the 20th Century.
    To begin with the reader is introduced to the world of the “story” as her father shared events and characters galore in his long career; he was already sixty when his daughter was born.  This is the world we learn began with side shows, circuses, traveling stage shows, hypnotists with real and criminal skills, silent screen movies, “talkies,” big screen movies, and so much more until one gets the full picture that just also includes America’s development.  An interesting part that is sometimes unrecognized is how much small rural towns contributed to the spread of entertainment, whether it was good or bad.  The monotony of life led to a demand for such entertainment which also served as morality plays, stories in which common people could identify with similar characters, and just downright plain silliness to lighten the financial and work burdens of most Americans. At times the entertainment was quite bawdy and probably should have been banned but wasn’t as there was little preoccupation with ratings in the 1920s and 1930s and even later.
    Then we read about Lyle Talbot’s career which spanned every type of possible acting from gangsters and romance stories to cowboy tales and more.  Lyle Talbot never really made it big in the sense of his own performance but certainly worked with the “big” names in the industry, from Mae West to Clark Gable and more.  He also acted in well-known TV serials and actually performed in Hollywood and New York great shows, including Lincoln Center. A multitude of famous and not so well-known films are listed with leading and minor actors and actresses. 
    Margaret Talbot prefers to focus more on the varying talents of her father and other actors and actresses.  While she glosses over the difficulties of such a lifestyle, including her father’s weakness for less than savory women and absence because of constant traveling that goes with the job, she does create in the reader the sense that acting skills had to change as well as the means by which entertainment was offered.  She tells some funny stories about how her father flubbed certain performances such as when he was supposed to feign a punch on another character but wound up knocking him out and more like this account.
    This is a book for any person with even the faintest interest in entertainment, whether that be in pre-movie entertainment, movies, TV movies and serial shows, and the theater.  All in all, Margaret Talbot has offered a panoramic history and depiction that should be required reading for everyone in the industry and those who love the same for all the reasons so obvious in Margaret Talbot’s tribute to one of the greatest industries in the world!

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  • Posted January 28, 2013

    If you love anything about old Hollywood, read this book. Not

    If you love anything about old Hollywood, read this book. Not only do you find out about Lyle Talbot, but you get a glimpse at the other star of the Talbot family. A surprise to me and extremely interesting. Margaret Talbot gives little if any dirt about Hollywood, which I found refreshing. Hollywood in the 30's was interesting enough without that. First book I read on my Nook.

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  • Posted January 17, 2013

    While the former carnie hustler and stage actor on the Midwester

    While the former carnie hustler and stage actor on the Midwestern circuit never became a star despite a contract at Warners playing opposite Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Mae West, he worked steadily in a chaotic profession. Now, forgotten by all but movie buffs his daughter, “New Yorker” reporter Margaret Talbot, has written “The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century,” an anecdote-stuffed, affectionate portrait of a sweet man and the culture that shaped and fed him. I borrowed a copy from the library, and for sheer entertainment value, it’s one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time.

    On screen, his best work was in gritty pre-censorship melodramas such as “20,000 Years in Sing Sing.” After he lost his contract in the mid-‘30s, he survived by taking every job. After the war, it was exploitation movies that warned of juvenile delinquency and the menace of marijuana. He appeared in no less than three Ed Wood movies, including “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” But television suited his talents the best. With his jowly boxer’s face and daddy’s pot belly, he looked like everyone’s friendly neighbor, and he played that role for a decade opposite Ozzie Nelson.

    His successful late marriage and the arrival of his children shifts “The Entertainer” from history to memoir. We learn about his grooming habits, that he loved circuses, gadgets, carnies and sharp clothes. He even learn something of his character; when his wife sued for divorce and took the kids, he stopped drinking and won her back. They stayed married for nearly 40 years, until her death.

    This makes for a wonderful life, but a dull biography, so Margaret wisely cast her father in an ensemble that includes Hollywood producers, strippers, mobsters, and the aforementioned Wood. Their lives and stories dominate the picture. All Lyle has to do is be himself and be charming. The result is a vivid portrait of a common actor and the exciting, wonderful, weird times he lived in.

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  • Posted October 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Entertainer, Husband, Father

    Margaret Talbot writes a fine tribute to her father, Lyle Talbot and Hollywood as seen through his eyes. Lyle never attained star status, but he was a very competent actor who enthusiastically took every acting job he was offered and played it with skill and professionalism. He had cut his teeth during the 1920's traveling in small theater shows that crisscrossed the Midwest. In the 1930's Lyle was an experienced stage actor, but a novice in the films being made in Hollywood. His stage credits came in handy, however, as the films were just beginning to talk. Lyle and Hollywood grew together. He got progressively better roles and a contract with Warner Brothers. He became close friends and drinking buddies with many of the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The book also recounts Lyle's fight to win more rights and benefits for actors as he helps establish the Screen Actor's Guild. He also battled with alcohol, finally winning with the help of his fourth wife, Margaret Epple. They would be married for over forty years and be blessed with four children, before death separated them. Margaret Talbot writes a loving memoir, at times very warm and intimate, while at other times very scholarly. Highly recommended for any devotee of the silver screen and its mystique. This book provided for review by Library Thing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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