Our History: Australian-born character actress lived in Queens

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One evening last week, in desperation (I was too tired to read) I turned by chance to a classic movie station on my T.V. and had one of the most enjoyable movie experiences in years. The star was one of the most talented supporting actresses Hollywood ever turned out and this time she was the playing the role of the “Apple Annie” in Frank Capra’s classic production of “Lady for a Day.” Produced in 1933, it far outshone the movies of our time in its humanity and sensitivity as well as in acting skill.

As I followed the intriguing story line, I remembered that May Robson, its star (sometimes known as Mae), had been a Queens resident during her long career. She owned a home in Bayside until, like many stars of her era, she traveled westward to Hollywood when the movie studios settled there. My recollection is that she at one time had a home in Douglaston, but I cannot confirm that.

Though she was born Mary Jeanette Robison in Melbourne, Australia on April 18, 1856, she left there for the United States as a teenager with no intent of pursuing a career in acting. However, she was widowed twice and had three children to support by the time she was 30. In 1884 she turned to acting.

For a number of years Robson played leads and supporting roles on the road and on Broadway. Over several decades she became highly respected as a character actress. Sometimes billed as Mrs. Stuart Robson, she appeared in silent films between 1914 and 1919.

It was in 1926 that she made her return to the screen and continued to play in a number of films, at least 60, the last of which was released the year of her death in 1942. She was especially successful as a character actress of the sound era, often cast as a grandmother or a gruff and domineering society matron.

In 1933 her portrayal of Apple Annie in Frank Capra’s production of “Lady for a Day” was one of her starring roles. It was for this performance that she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, at the time the oldest born actress to receive an Oscar nomination.

Robson appeared with a number of famous leading men of her time, including John Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Robert Montgomery, Frederic March, Cary Grant and Otto Kruger. The films she played in covered every genre, including “Tom Sawyer” with Walter Brennan; “Alice in Wonderland” with Edward Everett Horton; “Dinner at Eight” with Lionel Barrymore; “Broadway to Hollywood” with Nelson Eddy; “Dancing Lady” with Franchot Tone; and even “Playmates” Kay Kyser in 1941.

It is said that Robson lived at 42-34 209th St. in Bayside, while across the street lived Duncan Renaldo “The Cisco Kid,” who was in residence there at 43-25 209th St. until his death in 1980.

Other stars lived nearby, including Nancy Carroll, who in the late 1920s lived in a Dutch Colonial home at 42-46 209th St., and John Barrymore, for a time, on 208th Street in the 1930s.

By the mid 1930s, however, an era came to an end and most of the stars, who lived in Queens because of its proximity to Broadway and the nearby Astoria and Brooklyn studios, were bound for Hollywood, and Bayside and its surrounding area ended its period as a movie colony.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer and can be reached by e-mail at

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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