There seems to be no bottom to Eddie Bracken's trunk of show-business experiences, only a lot of trapdoors leading to strange crannies and crawl spaces.
In the 1940s, he made four pictures with Betty Hutton and four with Dorothy Lamour. He worked with Judy Garland and George Abbott and Rogers and Hart. He introduced Lucille Ball to Desi Arnaz. He helped create "Our Miss Brooks" for radio and the "Francis the Talking Mule" series of movies. He was one of the "Three B's" -- Benny, Bergen and Bracken -- on NBC radio Sunday nights.
And here he is, three decades after all that, looking no worse for wear and striding nonstop from gig to gig with the zeal of a novice. His last role was as Horace Vandergelder in the Carol Channing revival of "Hello Dolly" -- first on Broadway, then on tour (a tour that included Washington and the National Theatre), and most recently in London. Now he is Cap'n Andy in "Show Boat," which opened last night at Wolf Trap and moves to the National next week.
With his powder-blue sports jacket, his pencil-thin mustache and his unmemorable, slightly crinkly face, Bracken could not look less like a performer.
Nor, lounging on the Wolf Trap lawn between rehearsal calls, does he look anything like 65 years old, his purported age. But he proudly claims that it would take 21 years without a night off to do all his stage appearances over again.
"I've been in the business since I was 3 years old," says Bracken, whose early career has the improbable contours of a Mickey Rooney movie. His parents worked for New York's Consolidated Edison Co. and lived in Astoria, Queens. Neither encouraged him into show business, he says, but when he was 8, an uncle he had gone to visit in California helped him get cast in four silent "Our Gang" comedies.
"I was really an extra," he says. "I wasn't one of the gang. I was the boy with the white satin clothes that the dog knocked in the mud. I was the rich kid."
Ironically, when he did finally strike it rich on Broadway and in Hollywood, he would be typecast as a stereotypical middle American. In "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," he would play a patsy who marries Betty Hutton to help her out of a jam and find himself the foster father of sextuplets. And in "Hail the Conquering Hero," he would be a marine who flunks out of boot camp only to be falsely promoted as a hero back in his hometown.
Both these movies were written and directed by Preston Sturges, whom Bracken describes as "my big brother or my father." "Only because of Sturges," he says. "I'm going to live for a long time."
Bracken broke back into movies courtesy of three straight stage successes in the late '30s -- "Brother Rat." "What a Life!" and "Too Many Girls." All were directed by George Abbott, whom Bracken has never been able to address except as "Mr. Abbott."
"Too Many Girls" had a score by Rodgers and Hart. Lorenz Hart gave Bracken a powerful push toward stardom by deciding that Bracken, hired for comic relief, should have a song to sing. The song was "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." "I owe my career to him," says Bracken.
That was 1939. Already, Hart and Richard Rodgers were having difficulties, and Hart could almost be counted on to make a drunken scene at openings. So when "Too Many Girls" opened in New Haven, Bracken recalls, "they took him to a Turkish bath and they paid the guy some money to keep him there so he wouldn't be at the theater for opening night.
"But when they got back to the theater, he was sitting in the back row, drunk. He had paid the guy more money to get out."
Bracken's first major movie was "Brother Rat," with a cast that included Ronald Reagan. He and Reagan have stayed friends ever since. "I love him," says Bracken. But when asked if that's an endorsement for November, he adds, "I'm not politically entrenched with anybody."
It is, in any case, a friendship that had to stand the test of three separate incidents in which Reagan was temporarily crippled. "When Ronny Reagan was married to Jane Wyman, he was trying to teach me how to ride a horse," says Bracken. "And in showing me, he fell down jumping over a hedge and broke some ribs.
A few years later, Reagan and Bracken were shooting a scene in "The Girls From Jones Beach" that called on them to (literally) chase after two girls. For a comic interlude, Bracken suggested that they get confused and start running after each other's girls, then wheel around and bump into each other trying to set things right. Reagan agreed, so they chased, they got confused, they wheeled, they bumped . . . and Reagan broke three vertebra plus his back, neck and collar bone, according to Bracken.
Two months later, Bracken was rounding up celebrities for a planned series of softball exhibitions in major league baseball parks. Reagan said he couldn't make it to the first of these "Nights of the Stars," but changed his mind under Bracken's chiding. The result was that Reagan, after smartly lining a Bob Hope pitch into the outfield, fell while rounding the base-paths and was carried off the field with a broken leg. (The major stars tended to stay away from subsequent games, Bracken recalls."The most famous name I had was Sonny Tufts.")
Bracken worked for Howard Hughes in "Two Tickets to Broadway," and remembers Hughes as a "gentle, quiet, unassuming man." And what about his eccentric later years? "I cannot believe this man was Howard Hughes," says Bracken. "As far as I'm concerned, Howard Hughes was kidnaped and salted away and someone else was put in his place -- and I'm not the only one that feels that way."
In addition to his visible work, Bracken has sustained a separate behind-the-scenes career as a writer, packager, producer, theater owner and advertising man. He conceived the radio series "Our Miss Brooks," which was designed as a vehicle for Celeste Holm until the network substituted Eve Arden. He created the first film TV series, "Willy Wonderful." And with screenwriter Robert Arthur, he helped conceive "Francis the Talking Mule" which "every studio rejected" before Universal finally was won over. Eventually, there would be 22 "Francis" movies in all.
His business interests have consumed more and more of his attention in recent years, but Bracken has always found it possible to fit stage appearances into his schedule. On Broadway, he has played in "The Odd Couple" and "The Seven Year Itch," and on tour in "Teahouse of the August Moon," "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and "Never Too Late" (co-starring his wife, actress Connie Nickerson, and his daughter Susan).
On the rare occasions when he can be found in one place, it is likely to be Houston, Tex., where he and a partner run an advertising agency. "Actually, he runs it," says Bracken. "I just open doors and get clients."
As a theater magnate in the '60s and '70s, Bracken operated as many as 11 theaters in such diverse spots as Miami, Fla., Falmouth, Mass., and Nyack, N.Y., before being forced to "cash in." One of his associates "wasn't exactly right," he says. "He had 38 bank accounts that I didn't know about."
Despite this and other adversities, Bracken says "I could never be just an actor. That would be like having the rest of the day to die in. I write, I produce. I'm in other businesses, most of them failures. Failures don't scare me. You make it or you don't."