In the fall of 1924 at the age of 17, Fred MacMurray entered Carroll College in Waukesha, WI on a football scholarship(see photo left). The scholarship only covered tuition and books leaving Fred with the prospect of finding a job in order to fund his room and board. He turned to what had proven successful in the past - his music. He would hook up with a local band named TOM JOY's GLOOM CHASERS. He would also head his own small group called MAC's MELODY BOYS. Playing five nights a week till 3 to 4 in the morning and then having to rise earling in the morning for football practice and school, It was clear something would have to give. A letter from Fred to childhood friend Randall McKinstry revealed what did give. Deep into the semester, in a letter dated October 1924, Fred writes:
We have a lot of fun in the house where I'm staying but I haven't done any studying yet. I haven't even any books yet. I'll have to get busy pretty soon.
It was soon obvious to all that Fred would not make it past the first semester.
THE WINDY CITY Fred MacMurray would leave Carroll College seeking fame and fortune in Chicago. An aunt was aware of a Big Band that was looking for musicians. The hotel band was headed by Morrie Sherman. At his interview, Fred's nervousness (a condition that although later somewhat controlled would always plague him) got the better of him. Morrie placed a sheet of music in front of him. Failing to properly impress with his sheet reading ability, Morrie asked Fred to play "hot". Fred played a swing interpretation of "Dinah". Although not enough to earn him a spot in the Sherman Big Band, Morrie would recommend him to a smaller band called the Jack Higgins' Royal Purples. The band was made up of Loyola University students. They would play spots around the Chicago area and spend one summer playing at resorts in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. He also was getting some work in Movie Theater orchestra pits. This work would dry up due to a growing trend of abandoning live musicians in favor of recorded music. After losing several of these jobs, Fred would abandon music for a time to accept a job as a vacuum cleaner salesman. He readily admitted "I couldn't get inside a house to demonstrate." He then tried his hand at inside sales taking a position selling sporting goods in a Chicago Department store. He also returned to one of his many talents by taking art classes at the Chicago Art Institue at night. Fred believed he may have a future as a commercial artist one day. It was just about this time that the orchestra business picked up once again. Sporting goods and art did not compare well with his love for music. After nearly four years in Chicago, Fred was becoming an accomplished musician even overcoming his stage fright by stepping out on occasion to sing a solo. But it was now 1929 and after four years in the THE WINDY CITY, Fred needed a change. A perfect opportunity arrived when his mother and aunt required a driver to travel to California to visit a sick relative.
GO WEST, YOUNG MAN!
1929 would prove to be a pivotal year for Fred MacMurray. But it was slow going to start. Hoping that he might break into pictures as a musician, Fred was disappointed to learn that a union rule required anyone from out of state to establish residency for six months before obtaining any work. He would bide his time sand blasting paint but lost that job when the owner ran off without paying his employees. He also attended classes at the University of Southern California. However, the slow six months preceded a rush of activity once Fred obtained his union card. With talkies becoming the rage, any musician was in great demand and received preferred status as an extra by Central Casting. Fred would appear in three Warner Bros. pictures in the second half of '29. They were TIGER ROSE, GIRLS GONE WILD and WHY LEAVE HOME? It was during the filming of these pictures that Fred almost lost his chance for a career in the movies. Being 6'3.5" tall, handsome Fred stood above his fellows extras and would often catch the eye of Directors. On one such occasion, the director of GIRLS GONE WILD espied Fred in the crowd and asked him if he would like to have some lines. Now of course such a request is one that all extras pray for. But Fred's insecurity once again got the better of him and he responded "NO!" Few get an opportunity like this and Fred could only believe his chance to advance in pictures had just been lost forever to shyness.
But on a brighter note, his work as a musician was flourishing gaining prestigious gigs as a saxophonist for Big Bands like THE GEORGE OLSEN BAND and THE GUS ARNHEIM ORCHESTRA. He was also developing into a fair vocalist with a style reminiscent of Rudy Vallee. He would record three vocals for Victor Records. They were: with GEORGE OLSEN - AFTER A MILLION DREAMS VICTOR #22248 and I'M IN THE MARKET FOR YOU VICTOR #22391 and for GUS ARNHEIM - ALL I WANT IS JUST ONE VICTOR #22384. To hear a sample of I'M IN THE MARKET FOR YOU click on the record icon below.
I'M IN THE MARKET FOR YOU
The big band gigs took him to such swank places as Movie Star Marion Davies Beach Home, The Cabrillo Ballroom and radio stations. While working in the "pit" of the Warner Bros. movie theater, Fred would become familiar with the band/vaudeville act known as THE CALIFORNIA COLLEGIANS. Not one was from California or had any of its current members attended college. They had just arrived having appeared recently on Broadway. The COLLEGIANS would always ask Fred to sit in on their practices. At first believing the group was taking a novice under their wing. He would soon discover that such an assumption could not be further from the truth. The reality was that the group had recently lost it's only collegian who had quit the group to return to graduate school. The departed was the only member who could read music. It seems that rather than being a tutored novice, Fred was actually the teacher to the group. Without his musical sheet reading ability the group was relegated to playing the same old tunes and were incapable of learning the newer releases. Fred would read the music, play the tune over and over again until the group picked the melody up by ear. The Collegians recognized the necessity of keeping Fred around and finally asked him to join the group. The group had just booked a vaudeville tour taking them cross country with the tour eventually ending in on the East Coast with the prospect of more Broadway appearances. Fred's mother Maleta had just broken her hip and Fred like so many other times would take the job in order to help pay his mother's medical bills. Fred would soon take center stage for the Collegians. He would be the star of vocal solos and comedy sketches. He later explained:
It was strange that I, the shy boy, should be picked to do the clowning and singing for the orchestra. I guess it was because I was so awkward and clumsy. But this started me on the road to self confidence.
But Fred's uneasiness for being center stage still plagued him. His hands would shake so severely that when he sang he would have to hold onto the piano with one hand and stick his other hand in his pocket. The tour was extremely successful and with their arrival in New York, they found demand for their act in several Broadway plays.
GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROADWAY
As the CALIFORNIA COLLEGIANS entered New York, they would find work immediately on Broadway in the Cole Porter hit FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN. But stage work for the group would prove to be either feast or famine. When working, the boys would live comfortably. But in between plays, the group would barely eat enough to provide the strength to play their instruments. The FRENCHMEN stint lasted only a few months and then one of those lulls set in.
The Collegians would once again find prosperity when cast in the long running Max Gordon play THREE's A CROWD starring Libby Holman, Clifton Webb and Fred Allen (see picture of Fred with Fred Allen at left). The group's vaudeville background proved beneficial as the play called for them to step out from behind their instruments and join the stars in the sketch format of the play. One such sketch required Fred to share the stage alone with Libby Holman during her solo of SOMETHING TO REMEMBER YOU BY. The scene called for Fred to be dressed as a sailor. At the end of the song, Libby throws her arms around Fred, he pulls an anchor out from under his uniform and says "see ya later, babe." As always, Fred was lucky to get through the scene without running off stage in fright. Finally, they had to pin the anchor to his uniform for fear that he would shake too much and drop it. THREE's A CROWD would last one year on Broadway and another year on the road then another downtime with only a brief appearance in THE THIRD LITTLE SHOW. It was about this time that Fred would make one of the few acquaintances on the MacMurray side of the family. His Uncle Wallace MacMurray lived in New York. Uncle Wallace was a singing and diction coach. He took Fred under his wing giving him lessons and forcing him to perform at private parties to overcome his stage fright. Fred would later acknowledge that these lessons "worked wonders" and played a significant role in allowing him to reach his full potential. Now, a huge lull set in. For an entire summer, the group saw little work playing a solitary fashion show in Magnolia, Massachusetts. But Bust turns into Boon when the group signs on for the Jerome Kern Broadway hit ROBERTA starring Bob Hope and George Murphy(see picture of THE CALIFORNIA COLLEGIANS in publicity still for ROBERTA below). Fred understudies the lead. Though scorned by the critics, the play is one of the biggest hits of the season and after its succesful run on Broadway the COLLEGIANS join the touring company. The show immediately bombs on the road and once again the group is out of work for a long stretch. Frustrated by the constant ups and downs of the business, Fred is resigned to the fact that he requires more stablity in his life. He announces that he is leaving the group to return to his hometown of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin where he has already arranged for a job at the local shoe factory. As fate would have it, just days before his scheduled departure while visiting the COLLEGIANS' agent, Fred runs into Dave Serlin, a Paramount talent scout in the hallway outside the agent's office. It seems the Paramount Pictures offices were in the same building. Serlin out of the blue decides Fred may be star material. He immediately schedules a screen test for Fred instructing him that the scene requires tuxedo and top hat. The tuxedo he has from performing with The CALIFORNIA COLLEGIANS but no top hat can be found. Fred turns to a friend he met in ROBERTA - Bob Hope. Bob lends Fred a top hat. The screen test goes well enough for Paramount to sign him to a standard contract. Bob Hope thereafter would take full credit for making Fred a star after all it was Bob's hat. And almost to the day that Fred MacMurray was to quit show business and return to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin to work in a shoe factory, he finds himself on a train heading for Hollywood to be a movie star. For the rest of the story check the movie star page below.
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