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Our History: Comedian W.C. Fields once called Bayside home

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In January the American Museum of the Moving Image presented a retrospective celebrating the career of a master comedian, W.C. Fields. A genius at screen comedy, Fields began his career as a variety hall entertainer and became known for his acerbic humor as well as his bulbous nose and drawling voice. Accounts of the Museum event did not mention, however, that Fields was once a resident of the village of Bayside and that some of his early silent films were made here. One was filmed on Bell Avenue (the former name for today’s Bell Boulevard) in front of my husband’s boyhood home near 48th Avenue, which was used as a backdrop and he was present, sitting on the picket fence in front of which the cameras were poised.

W.C. Fields was born Claude William Dunkenfield in April 1879 in Philadelphia. At a young age he ran away from home, had some encounters with the law for petty thievery, and somehow drifted into vaudeville. Often billed as “The Greatest Comedian in the World,” he preferred to be known as the “greatest juggler on earth” and it was as a comedic juggler that he made his early reputation. He joined the Ziegfield Follies in 1915 and later appeared in the Scandals of 1922 before he made “Sally of the Sawdust,” directed by the famed D.W. Griffith.

During filming Fields improvised much of his material. However, he did write the screenplays for many of his films using various pseudonyms. He appeared with Baby Leroy in “It’s a Gift,” one of his child-hating vehicles, and played such varied roles as Zazu Pitts’ mail-order husband in “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.” As the “Great McGonigle” he played a self-styled turn-of-the-century actor-manager of a melodrama theater.

Field’s misanthropic view of the world which was reflected in his films is said by some to stem from his youthful experiences on the seedier streets of Philadelphia.

At 21 Fields was an international juggling star. After he had starred in Ziegfield’s Follies in 1914, he made his first film, “Pool Shark,” which was based on one of his most famous acts.

Fields had an erratic career in silent films but was able to rise to stardom with the arrival of sound. His comic personality and observations on life blended well with his bulbous nose and bleary eyes as some bizarre calamity loomed ahead.

His best films, “Million Dollar Legs” (1936), “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” (1939), “My Little Chickadee” (1940), “The Bank Dick” (1940) and “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” (1941), made him one of the most popular stars of his time.

One of the most inspired casting choices was MGM’s decision to borrow Fields from Paramount to play Micawber in “David Copperfield,” though director George Cukor had great difficulty persuading Fields that juggling could not be worked into the script. Even so, this great actor left the unique imprint of his personality on the film.

In the early 20th century Bayside, with its prize position close to the nerve center of New York City and situated in a fashionable location on Little Neck Bay, beckoned a group of wealthy stars and executives from the expanding motion picture industry. Long before Malibu, this village literally became a movie colony. Among the nouveau riche was Fields who lived around the corner from Joseph Schenk, the movie producer, and his movie actress wife, Norma Talmadge. Fields’ house still stands but it no longer goes down to the beach as it once did, for the property was separated from the shoreline when the Cross Island Parkway was built.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian, free-lance writer and a member of the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee. Reach her by e-mail at JBBAY@aol.com or visit her on the Web at member.aol.com/tmpnyc/bayside.htm.

Updated 7:01 pm, October 10, 2011
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