News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 20, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Family visits Skeets Gallagher in Hollywood

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — He was christened Anthony Richard Gallagher but, when he was a young boy, Cliff Hammerstein, a Terre Haute classmate, nicknamed him “Skeet.”

The name stuck and, in the 1920s, motion picture theaters throughout the world began to display a plural version of Hammerstein’s pseudonym for his buddy on marquees.

Skeets’ father, Anthony J. “Andy” Gallagher, was well-known in his home city. Before he married Lena Okalla Simmons on July 18, 1878, Andy was an outstanding baseball player. Some experts suggested that he was good enough to play for the Terre Haute Hottentots in 1883, perhaps the city’s first fully professional team.

Andy became a prominent Terre Haute plumbing contractor and raised four children: Charles, Margaret, Ruby and “Skeets,” the youngest who was born July 28, 1891.

Brother Charles was a musician and, for awhile, director of the Orpheum Theatre orchestra.

After Andy and Lena married, they resided in the block south of Poplar on S. Fifth St. By the time Skeets was born, the Gallaghers lived at 600 or 604 S. Center (Census records show 600 S. Center St. until 1910 and 604 S. Center St. thereafter).

Though Skeets did not follow his father’s footsteps on the baseball diamond, he was recognized for being small (5-feet-7 ? inches), agile and quick. While the boys attended St. Joseph’s Academy, Hammerstein likened Gallagher’s size and quickness to that of a mosquito.

Gallagher reportedly attended Wiley High School for three years but he is not listed as a graduate in published school records. However, he attended Rose Polytechnic for two years and Indiana University for about two months.

When asked why he chose theater as a profession, Skeets invariably responded: “It was easier than studying engineering at Rose Poly or pre-law at IU.”

The truth was that Gallagher was a showman as a child. He frequently entertained friends and neighbors with sophisticated productions in his backyard. He could sing, dance and create comedy stunts. Haberdasher Mike Heenan was his “press agent” and skit writer.

Skeets was attending college when he made his debut on the Lyric Theater stage on Wabash in downtown Terre Haute as part of a vaudeville duo with singer Will K. Rierden of Montezuma. They earned $50 a week.

About the time Gallagher and Rierden perfected a routine and joined the Keith Circuit, Rierden quit to manage an auto agency in Sioux Falls, S.D. Skeets returned to Terre Haute to form a vaudeville team with chorus girls Mary Anne Dentler and Anna Orr.

The trio was successful in several New York vaudeville houses. The next year, Skeets teamed with dancer Irene Martin and the pair played the “two-a-day circuit” for five seasons. They soon became husband and wife but the marriage did not last long.

On Dec. 5, 1919, the day his mother died, Skeets was appearing as Antoine Gallagher in a vaudeville house in Vancouver, British Columbia.

He made his Broadway debut as Richard Gallagher in “Above the Clouds” on Jan. 9, 1922. Later in the same year, he topped the marquee at New York’s 48th Street Playhouse in “Up She Goes,” a musical comedy which played 256 performances.

Gallagher’s first motion picture, “The Daring Wars,” a silent film with legendary comedian W. C. Fields, was released in 1923. Musical comedy, Skeets’ specialty, did not adapt well – for obvious reasons — to the silent screen. For the next four years, he played leads in theatrical hits such as “Marjorie,” “The Magnolia Lady,” “The City Chap,” “Lucky” and “No, No, Nanette.”

Paramount signed him to a long-term contract in 1926 and, on Jan. 26, 1927, he co-starred with Fields in “The Potters,” the first talkie to be presented at the Indiana Theatre in Terre Haute. In his first effort in the new medium, he overacted, a common fault.

He appeared in a half dozen mediocre films in 1927 and 1928 but earned exceptional reviews for “The Racket,” his last film of 1928. That performance earned Skeets top billing in two 1929 musical comedies with Jack Oakie, “Close Harmony,” and “Pointed Heels.”

Gallagher wed actress Pauline Mason in 1929 and the couple acquired a palatial residence on Sunset Plaza Drive in Los Angeles. They had two children: Pamela and Richard, Jr., who Skeets called “Duke.” The Gallaghers’ home was featured on virtually every Hollywood tour.

During the Thirties, Skeets made five to seven films each year, including several with Oakie and headliners with female stars like Clara Bow and Carol Lombard. In 1933, he was perfectly cast as the Rabbit in Paramount’s spectacular production of “Alice in Wonderland.”

In early March 1931, Skeets’ father and sister Ruby trekked to Beverly Hills for a rare west coast visit. It was the first time the Hoosier branch of the family got to see Pamela. They had a great time but Andy admitted later that he lost considerable sleep.

Before Andy Gallagher died Sept. 13, 1936 in Terre Haute, Skeets returned to the stage. In the early Forties, he starred in “Good Night, Ladies,” a musical that ran for two years in Chicago. He also made about one film each year until retiring after making “Duke of Chicago.”

At Gloria Swanson’s request, Skeets came out of retirement to appear in the film, “Three for Bedroom C,” in 1952. Internet Movie Database ( lists 58 Gallagher motion picture credits. He also appeared in a couple of early television theater specials.

Gallagher maintained hometown ties, contributing to the St. Ann Church building fund in 1953. He died May 22, 1955, at age 63, in Santa Monica, a week after suffering a heart attack. He is interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Hollywood.

His parents and brother are buried in Terre Haute’s St. Joseph Cemetery.