The 100-Year-Old Who Taught Garbo to Waltz
By Matt WeinstockJune 4, 2014
IN Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake, there is a bewitching sequence in which Dolittle is granted audience with an ancient turtle who claims to have been a passenger on Noah’s Ark. Dolittle eagerly fills notebook after notebook with antediluvian gossip, but his critter associates are skeptical. “Meself, I don’t believe a word of the yarn,” mutters Cheapside the sparrow. As a child, I was in Cheapside’s camp. What turtle wouldn’t lie about having witnessed the flood that destroyed most of humanity? Similarly, what 99-year-old among us could resist the impulse to reshape his life into a Forrest Gumpian panorama that features most of the major figures of the 20th century?
The impulse to self-Gump is natural, I think. As your contemporaries fall away, one by one, they must seem to bequeath the era to you. Sure, you could take on the drab, thankless role of the debunker, but almost everyone chooses to mythologize. Being the last survivor of your generation is like heading off to college in your 90s — it’s the last opportunity for drastic reinvention. At 91, Fay Wray laughed, “Now I feel that whatever I say has to be accepted. No one can deny me anything. Anything!” In her 80s, Leni Riefenstahl liked to defend her fraudulent accounts of the Berlin Olympics by saying, “Ask anyone who was there” — knowing, of course, that there were very few such people left.
Shep Houghton, who turns 100 today, could shape his era if he wanted. As a Hollywood background player (a “non-talker,” as he put it), Houghton appeared in the margins of an extraordinary string of classics: Gold Diggers of 1935, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Shadow of a Doubt, The Big Sleep, Show Boat,and Spartacus. During a career that stretched from Josef von Sternberg silents to Streisand musicals, Houghton was propositioned by a Munchkin, blew off Lucille Ball, and taught Greta Garbo to waltz for the 1937 costume drama Conquest. “She’d never waltzed,” said Houghton, who at the time was in the skeleton dance crew of an MGM musical that had suspended production. “The studio hated to have you on salary and not work,” he said, “so I spent a couple of days with her, showing her how to make a pivot, putting her leg in back, and turning. She learned quite rapidly. She was kind of a standoffish person — but every time I saw her subsequently, she’d say, ‘Hi, Shep!’ I’d say, ‘Hi, Greta!’”
It all sounds like a darling hoax, devised to exploit our culture’s fetishization (from Zelig to The Butler) of the unknown witness, the all-seeing Nobody. But Houghton is exceedingly credible; in fact, during a three-hour conversation at his lakeside Washington home this March, his memories seemed so modest, authentic, and potato-sack plain that I sometimes became frustrated with him for not delivering more. Did he not know that he was history’s piggy bank, built solely to collect gossip about Ginger Rogers, built in order to be smashed open by a journalist 80 years hence?
As Houghton semi-apologetically told me, he spent most of his spare time on soundstages engrossed in Book-of-the-Month Club selections. “I just got bored with the same chatter,” he said. “[The other extras] used to call me the Professor, because I was always reading.” The most Gumpian thing about Shep Houghton was his ignorance that so many of his movies were headed for immortality. “They all ran together, into a big ball of string,” he said.
You usually only stayed on a show for three days, so I worked on a good dozen movies a month. Half the time you’d see a clipboard with a number, not the name of the picture — cause they hadn’t settled on a name yet. I’d learn from the crew whether a picture was good or bad. Electricians were my best critics, cause they watched the scenes from the day it was first rolling. If they said the picture was good, I’d go to the movie. If they said it was a turkey, I’d leave it alone.
So he skipped seeing Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and caught The Wizard of Oz.
Shep Houghton was born on June fourth, 1914, and his earliest memories are being forced to wear velvet knickers on his first day of school and being struck so hard by his father that he lost consciousness. “He hated me,” he said. “My father and I never got along.” More happily, he remembers the Portland kiddie matinees of his youth: Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, live performances by John Philip Sousa, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — the last of which “impressed me so much I went through it three times. I went in the morning, and got home in the dark.” When Houghton was 13 his family moved to Hollywood, to a little Spanish Colonial two blocks from Paramount Studios’ front gate. As Houghton writes in Cast of Thousands, a slender, unpublished memoir, one Saturday he noticed a two-reel comedy being filmed on his block and “became fascinated by a mock-up car, the phony type with a man under the hood to steer it.” While Houghton was gawking, a man emerged from the nearby Edwin Carewe studio and asked him, “Kid, you want to work for a while?”
He began doing extra work on Saturdays while still attending high school, playing a Russian in von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928) and a serape-wearing Mexican in Ramona (1928). Houghton can remember shooting in glass-roofed sets, where orchestras played between takes and hand-cranked cameras could be heard “whirling, whirling, whirling” during takes. The transition to talkies pissed him off, he explains in Cast of Thousands,because “studios began filming at night to avoid city sounds. Still in school, I was left out.” (During this lull Houghton worked in a bingo parlor, where he gave Mickey Rooney’s mother her winnings in the form of cigarette cartons and kept an eye on Mickey, who spent the games napping on the ladies’ room couch. Show people in their late 90s love to brag about having seen baby Mickey Rooney; it is a sort of claim to prehistory.)
After graduating from Fairfax High in 1932, Houghton continued in background work; older extras shared little tips for surviving in Prohibition-era Hollywood, directing him to “an Italian restaurant outside of Paramount that would serve you red wine in a coffee cup.” Anthony Slide’s book-length history of the extra, Hollywood Unknowns, delineates the Joadlike plight of the thousands of extras who were unable to find regular work: men built a small shantytown near Universal, women were coerced into sleeping with assistant directors, and one mother drunkenly tried to raffle off her baby to Central Casting for $500. Houghton told me that he was an “outsider” himself until he bought a house using one of the earliest Federal Housing Administration loans. (The loan number was 154.) He clued in his Central Casting superiors, who “all went out and bought houses,” and continually gave Houghton “the greatest assignments” in return — starting with Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934), in which he dodged rubber-tipped arrows as a Roman soldier.
In 1940 the Hollywood Citizen News noted, “The caste system among extras is incredibly strict.” Apparel defined one’s position, and as a full-dress extra (or “stuffed dummy,” in industry slang), Houghton was almost always at the top. In accordance with 1934’s Motion Picture Code Provisions Governing Extras, he maintained his own tuxedo, boulevard clothes, and riding habits, and earned $15 a day. $10 extras were simply required to have “smart” business suits, bathing suits, and lounging pajamas; $7.50 extras needed only “ordinary street clothes”; and $5-a-day “vags” (short for vagabonds) were used for mob scenes. (Studios provided the wardrobe for period and military films, for which the daily rate was $7.50.) In order to book full-dress jobs, some male extras lived five or six to an apartment and pooled their garments; Houghton’s clothes were scattered among the houses of various family members, and he sometimes lost jobs because it took an hour of driving to put together a coherent tuxedo.
When he showed up tuxedo-less — as in the 1937 screwball comedy Topper, where he played a nightclub waiter — Houghton’s status plummeted. “I got on the set, where all my friends were in tuxedoes, and they wouldn’t even talk to me,” he said. “They got very haughty — a waiter.” (Non-speaking waiters, as well as silent butlers, ministers, and gangsters, were paid only $10 a day.) “I was just standing there [during the take],” said Houghton, “because I hadn’t been told what to do. Constance Bennett said, ‘For chrissakes, the head waiter’s gotta saysomething!’” The first assistant director balked — giving dialogue to an extra meant that his salary shot to $25 — but Bennett won out. “When I came back [to the other extras], I was the king of the mob,” said Houghton. “I was an ac-tor.”
Most movie stars were too preoccupied to gab with background players, but Houghton said that Clark Gable “loved to talk about fishing and guns. He’d throw the goddamn script under the director’s seat, and come over and talk to us.” Houghton first worked with Gable on Cain and Mabel (1936), which costarred Marion Davies, who still toted around a personal orchestra to play mood music between camera setups. “As soon as they said cut, she’d say, ‘Orchestra!’” explained Houghton. “They’d play away, and she’d bring in a five-gallon tub of ice cream, and cookies. She was a very pleasant girl, but you would never dare talk to her. Hearst was too goddamned powerful; he had two bodyguards standing close by.”
Although Houghton played a soldier in Mary of Scotland (1936) and fired cannons in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), he preferred working in musicals. Partly this was because of the genuine danger involved in war pictures — on Light Brigade, three extras died in a single day due to horse-related accidents — but mostly it was “because I got so tired of diving in and getting a new job every day.” Musicals were steady work: they rehearsed for months, dancers were put on weekly salaries, and once you’d learned the steps it was harder to be replaced. Records of movie music were given to performers to take home and memorize in the weeks before shooting, so Houghton had the scoopish thrill of hearing new songs by Cole Porter, Harry Warren, and Harold Arlen months before they burrowed into the national consciousness.
Houghton became a fixture in Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic dance routines; in “The Words Are in My Heart,”he was one of 56 dancers who hid in the shells of white grand pianos and propelled them, Flintstones-style, with his feet. “They had lines on the floor, and there were little places you could peek out and see,” Houghton said. In Berkeley’s dark, fascistic “Lullaby of Broadway” number, Houghton was one of 120 dancers who gave little Heil Hitlers and pushed the singer Wini Shaw off a balcony. John Waters once called it “the most aggressive tap-dancing I’ve ever seen in my life. It is an army — it’s like a cult, really, like Jim Jones or the Manson family. Zombie tappers.”
Though Houghton had never tapped before, he was tucked away in the “attics” of the soundstage and managed to get away with two-stepping the entire “Lullaby” routine. Today he is somewhat dismissive of Busby Berkeley. “He was really a better cameraman than he was a choreographer,” he said. “He was always way up in the ceiling; a lot of boom shots [on the camera crane]. I never saw him dance. When we worked for Berkeley, we did more formations.” Houghton danced in the first Astaire-Rogers movies, Flying Down to Rio (1933) and The Gay Divorcee (1934), and those too consisted of formation work. “What they were buying was appearance,” he said. “They weren’t buying my dancing feet.” Because of that, dance extras eventually “learned how to dance and not perspire. You’d turn very carefully and smoothly.”
Fred Astaire had no such luxury. “I always laughed at things like this: he wore woolen underwear underneath his suit, so he wouldn’t sweat through his suit,” Houghton said. “He sweated so much that his stand-in had to go in at lunchtime while Fred was having lunch, and launder it and dry it and get it to him so he could put it on for the afternoon.” Houghton never interacted with Astaire — “He didn’t talk to many people, wherever he went” — but he remained a personal hero, as the rare balletic dancer who could “still be masculine. That was the trick. They had a lot of dancers from New York that they’d get rid of before a picture was finished, because they just had too much flame in them.”
According to Houghton, an ensemble dancer’s homosexuality was accepted as long as he could perform strapping masculinity on screen. If anyone camped it up too much, the dance director would make a note of it, and “they just wouldn’t come back the next day.” (In 1943, Warner Bros. produced a film of This Is the Army, the jingoistic stage show that had featured a cast of 300 soldiers, and had functioned as a sort of clandestine mecca for homosexuals in the armed forces. “They had signed all the soldiers and moved the show out to Hollywood,” Houghton said, “but they were too limp-wristed for the dance director, LeRoy Prinz.” Houghton was one of several Hollywood dancers Prinz called to appear in the foregrounds of shots. “He said, ‘Get some guys with balls in the front; let the butterflies fly in the back.’”)
This is the sort of talk you’d expect from someone who predates women’s suffrage, the Scopes trial, and bubble gum. I was reminded of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s remark, in his essay on the 92-year-old writer Andrew Lytle, that battling Lytle’s “racism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, class snobbery, and what I can only describe as medieval nostalgia, seemed as absurd as debating these things with a caveman. Shut up and ask him what the cave art means.” But Houghton is no caveman. Although he clings to the lingo of a casually bigoted era, he was always a social progressive. It struck him as “ridiculous” when censors demanded that the navels in “Lullaby of Broadway” be covered with little flesh-toned patches, or when Paramount called him to reshoot an entire airplane sequence because the lady pilot had been wearing slacks. “It tells you how corny they were in those days,” he said. Houghton’s social circles were fluid: he went out for fried chicken with the Mills Brothers and invited gay dancer friends to his house parties. “They came with their boyfriends, and would flounce around,” he said fondly. “This is my friend, they’d say — not This is my boyfriend. We didn’t make it our business, we didn’t insult them. Many of them were so clever.”
The one marginalized group for which Houghton reserves bile is the Munchkins. “The Munchkins were bastards, hard to get along with,” he said. “You’d come in and a little Munchkin girl about this high would flirt, and [her husband] would see her flirting with me, and he’d get so goddamn mad and want to fight. I’d say, ‘Relax, relax.’” Houghton also recalled an incident wherein a Munchkin “slipped and fell in the toilet. The next morning they put a toitie in there — a trainer for little girls and boys. He got so goddamn mad he smashed that thing on the set. I was back there dying laughing.” (In her indispensible The Making of The Wizard of Oz, Aljean Harmetz confirms the toilet anecdote, but argues that a handful of rotten, lecherous Munchkins ruined the reputations of the rest; most, she says, were well-mannered professionals.)
Houghton only worked on Oz for 10 days, while production on another film was held up. “I’d be an Emerald City townsperson one day and Soldier of the West another day,” he said. “The body was there, and they’d just change uniforms. They didn’t want to get me too established in anything, because I had to go back to this other set.” That “other set” may have been Gone With the Wind, for which Houghton filmed at least two scenes: he waltzed in the charity bazaar where Rhett bids on a widowed Scarlett, and was one of the rowdy Southerners who hightailed it out of the Twelve Oaks barbecue when war was declared.
Houghton’s own feelings on war were more complicated — “To be a good soldier, you’ve got to be completely brainless,” he told me — so it came as a relief when he received a paternity deferment from World War II. (He had married in 1935, and his daughter, Terrie, was born in 1939.) For the duration of the war, Houghton marched on Burbank soundstages: in This Is the Army, Objective, Burma!, and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. For Lubitsch, Houghton played one of the Nazis escorting Jack Benny through occupied Warsaw; the scene was shot on the Goldwyn backlot, which had been covered with “cornflakes that were bleached” to simulate snow. One afternoon the tiny Goldwyn commissary was full, so Houghton and a handful of other extras went out for lunch on Hollywood Boulevard in their Nazi uniforms. “Soon a police car arrived and escorted us back to the studio as an ounce of prevention,” Houghton writes in Cast of Thousands. “The very next day Goldwyn began having our lunches catered.” After a few similar incidents, studios ordered that any actor in uniform “remove their jacket and carry it over their arm when outside the studio. This was done for the entire four-year period of the war.”
Actors also had to check in their guns with the prop department when production broke for lunch. “They were very conscious about that stuff,” said Houghton, recalling that Ronald Reagan once forgot to retrieve his gun after lunch and blamed the property man, whom he tried to have fired. “When he’s got to check in a hundred guys with guns, he’s gonna worry about one little jackass like Ronald Reagan, who was just a player?” asked an incredulous Houghton. “He never got anywhere. I think his monkey picture was the biggest thing he ever made.”
I considered pointing out that he’d become the leader of the free world, but it seemed irrelevant. The near-comic absence of historical context in Houghton’s anecdotes is what makes them so precious. Reagan was just a “little jackass” in the 1940s, and Garbo was merely “standoffish” in 1937, so that’s how Houghton leaves them — his encounters with stars haven’t ballooned into My Week with Marilyn–style myth. He was terse, for example, on the subject of Lucille Ball, who “was after my baby-white body” in the early 1930s, when they posed for a cruise ad. “I burst off and took her girlfriend,” he said. “She scared the hell out of me, with all that red hair and makeup. I was only 21. She was four, five years older — and tough. I was used to little quiet high school girls.” Later, Houghton briefly dated Judy Garland’s sister Virginia Gumm (“She’d have barbecues at her home,” he said, “but Judy never came down”) and flirted with Ava Gardner. In 1951, when the MGM backlot became fogbound during the filming of Show Boat, production halted and the cast spent a few hours around a piano, singing songs from the score. Houghton danced with Gardner, he said, “and we made a date for that night, but she got a cold from being out in the cold weather” and cancelled. “She was a gorgeous creature,” he added. “I read her book, and MGM was a bastard to her.”
The studios were bastards to everyone then. Houghton remembered Louis B. Mayer bursting onto one set, “almost crying,” asking a horde of extras to work till 10 p.m. without overtime. “He said, ‘I’ll put you on the preferred list; you’ll work on the best sets we have.’ Never did a thing for the extras.” In late 1942, Houghton spent a grueling eight hours doing a “staged waltz scene” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. (The footage, set to the “Merry Widow Waltz,” recurs throughout the film as a canary-like harbinger of doom.) The dance director rehearsed them for six hours, then Hitchcock “came over from shooting the actual picture,” and they filmed for an additional two hours under his supervision. “Nobody had eaten except Hitchcock,” who enjoyed “a fine steak dinner,” Houghton writes in Cast of Thousands. “The very next day the State Labor Board stepped in. Hitchcock’s studio was fined $10,000 and a newly modified code ordered that all industry workers be either released or fed every five and a half hours of work.”
“Unions did a lot for people in the business,” Houghton told me. When extras left the Screen Actors Guild to form their own union in 1945, he said, “I was vice president.” (The SAG-AFTRA historian Valerie Yaros confirmed in an email that Houghton joined the Screen Extras Guild on April 4, 1946, but said that their SEG records did not list him as a board member or officer. Houghton had misremembered, it seems.) Extra work remained scarce — according to Anthony Slide, 90 percent of SEG members were unemployed in January 1948 — but Houghton continued to appear in choice projects.He was a sulky roulette player in The Big Sleep (1946), a topless drummer in a headscarf and Genie cuffs in Night and Day (1946), and a French soldier in Joan of Arc (1948). The Fred Astaire–Judy Garland musical Easter Parade was one of many films in which Houghton played a nightclub patron. “They wanted you to laugh and talk and never say a word,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’d make a track of [the extras talking], so they could put it in as loud or as soft as they wanted.”
In the 1950s Houghton branched into television (he appeared in episodes of I Love Lucy, Dragnet, and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet), while still finding time to do crowd work in The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Julius Caesar (1953), and Jailhouse Rock (1957). “He was a strange guy,” Houghton said of Elvis Presley.
In our group we were all conscious of politics, and conscious of studio business, so we got pretty glib when the camera wasn’t rolling. And he came over like a little kid, and stood in the group, looking at us, as we were talking. He didn’t say a word. Then he got on that stage, and they turned the music on, and he was — to me — great.
As Houghton’s extra cronies rose in the business, they sometimes slipped him dialogue, which he recited obsessively in the days leading up to the shoot. In 1961’s Back Street he tells an airline attendant, “I have to be in Chicago by tomorrow”; in 1964’s Send Me No Flowers, he slaps Rock Hudson and Tony Randall on the back, says, “Good morning Arnold, George,” and immediately ducks out of the frame — as if rendered bashful by the attention.
By the 1960s, Houghton felt that the town of Hollywood, once “a little village,” had grown vast, unsavory, and prostitute-riddled. “The whole picture business was changing,” he explained. “The big moguls were gone, and so many second assistants and first assistants who had done the selecting [of extras] were retiring. After going in and out of the pearly gates for thirty years, the studio guards didn’t know your name, even. And the directors were all bearded and strange.” Houghton had worked on Gene Kelly’s first film in 1942, and Kelly threw Houghton a bone by flying him to upstate New York for the crowd scenes in Hello, Dolly! (1969). (He can be seen descending the Harmonia Gardens staircase and nodding to the head waiter.) Houghton stuck it out for a few more movies —Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Mongo’s Back in Town (1971) — before retiring in 1976. His name had never appeared in the credits of a film.
The oblivion-bound Hollywood extra was seen as a figure of pathos as far back as 1917, when Motion Picture Magazine reported that a female background player had died while filming the war picture Civilization. Her husband had no photograph of her, so when the movie was released in Los Angeles, he “haunted the theater […] night after night,” hoping to glimpse her face among the mob. (He never did.) My efforts to find Shep Houghton on screen were similarly frustrating. Sometimes I recognized the Yorick skull of a head I’d seen in Washington, but Houghton’s large, beautiful, slightly hooded blue eyes don’t quite read on film. In black and white, they are so pale that they fuse with his skin; even in his most prominent bits — catching a drunken Lana Turner in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), watching Maximilian Schell browbeat Montgomery Clift in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) — Houghton’s emotions remain unreadable. He is a perfect paper doll, with nothing in his face but deference for the gods in the foreground. I watched dozens of his movies, and even after I’d picked him out from the crowd, Waldo-style, it was a struggle to keep my eye from drifting.
Houghton doesn’t watch his movies much today. “It’s so disappointing,” he said. “When you work in a picture, you’re so much in it, you know — and then when the picture comes out you’re not even in the damn shot.” He has no Baby Jane allegiance to the culture of his youth; the man who appeared in Gone with the Wind got Django Unchained from Netflix and loved it. He’s also fond of Clint Eastwood movies, “even the one with the girl fighter,” and recently finished the first season of Heroes, which he thought was “strange and stupid.” When I visited, a scheme was afoot in Houghton’s extended family to photograph him for The Today Show, which honors centenarians by displaying their faces on jam labels.
“Strawberry jam, or something?” asked Houghton when the subject came up.
“I don’t know what kind of jam you’ll be,” said his daughter, Terrie. “They don’t say the jam. They just put you on a Smucker’s jar.” She paused. “Probably strawberry.”
Terrie moved from Oklahoma to live with Houghton after his third wife died in 2004. He has weathered a few strokes, which have left him with a slight speech impediment. “I have to be careful now,” he told me. “I lose words.” Houghton still trades stocks online and drives his stick-shift Honda on grocery runs — though he’s “a little worried” that he won’t be able to get his license renewed; apparently it gets harder after you hit 100. He griped briefly about “the clowns that want to do 55 in 30-mile zones, with 16 tons of timber on the truck. I just pull over, let them go by. I’m in no hurry. I’ve got all the time in the world!”
I hope he does. Talking to Shep Houghton was like having a tin can through which I could talk to 1933 — it had been dangling for years, waiting for someone to pick it up. And now I’m reluctant to put that tin can down. No matter how tinny, no matter the gaps or inconsistencies, it is a beautiful sound. After leaving Houghton’s house, I headed down winding, incestuous roads that seemed designed to weed out 99-year-old drivers, unable to get the song “Lonesome Polecat” out of my head. It’s a mopey he-man ballad from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a 1954 MGM musical so bland that everyone in it seems like a Houghtonian extra, milling around with their Books-of-the-Month and waiting for the real stars to emerge. I turned on the car radio. I have an almost evangelical belief that a station somewhere will always be playing my songs, my hermetic little obsessions — the voices of my dead — and that if I can’t find it on a given radio dial, it’s just a failure on the part of my thumbs. “Lonesome Polecat” would be playing somewhere; I was sure of it.
 Sheridan-Bickers, H. “Extra Ladies and Gentlemen,” Motion Picture Magazine Sept. 1917: 85.
Matt Weinstock lives in Brooklyn. He has contributed to the New Yorker Page-Turner, the Paris Review Daily, and The Rumpus.
LARB Staff Recommendations
WHEN THE ÉMIGRÉ FILMMAKER Edgar G. Ulmer passed away on the last day of September 1972 at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, the prevailing...
Reviewing the attempts to put Saul Bellow’s novels on film
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!