by Peggy Chong
From the Editor: Peggy Chong is affectionately known to many of us as the Blind History Lady. Her obsessive hobby and sometimes vocation is to track down little-known blind people from the thousands of sources she reviews and to put their stories into places where they can be appreciated for the pioneers they were.
It is clear from the articles we have run this year that the Braille Monitor believes blind people should be seen more in television and movies, but what Peggy makes clear in this article is that a number have already appeared who have mostly been unsung in their own time and forgotten in the world of today. Here is how she takes a major step in putting things right for those who early on appeared on stage and in film:
In the January 2017 Braille Monitor, several articles were highlighted regarding the lack of people with disabilities in Hollywood, the lack of opportunities for them, and the lack of characters that portray people with disabilities in a normal, positive light. As was amply observed, it is not for lack of trying on the part of the blind or others with disabilities.
Through my research and stories presented by The Blind History Lady, I have found several blind men and women who worked hard to fulfill their dream to become movie or television stars. Most did not succeed, not for lack of talent or drive, but because their opportunities were tied to the era in which they lived and its attitudes about the blind. How they dealt with their blindness varies, and we can only guess how things would have worked out for them if they had handled it differently. Although there has never been a disabled actor on the "A-list,” there have been some who have made a good living in the movie/entertainment industry.
We should remember that the people I am highlighting rarely had an opportunity for blindness training. It just was not available for most of them. Talking about any disability was taboo. Yet we do have a legacy in the films if we know where to look.
Sammy Brooks, a silent film actor who began his career at the age of fifteen after leaving New York to chase a dream in Hollywood, would today be considered disabled. He was featured in over two hundred films, working with stars such as Will Rogers, Vic McLaglen, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. By 1920 he was actually credited for his small roles in the films and according to a few websites, may have been taking home over $1,000 a week during the late 1910s and 1920s. Sammy was sighted for most of his comedic acting career. Depending on what one reads, Sammy stood between three-foot-one-inch or as tall as four-feet-five inches.
Many of the silent film stars did not transition well into talkies, yet Sammy got many small parts in many films during his twenty-four-year career. When Laurel and Hardy cast for their 1936 film The Bohemian Girl, they remembered their friends from the silent film days and asked Sammy to take a role in their film. The newspapers called Sammy and the others, "Comedy Stars of Yesteryear.”
Sometime during the early 1930's Sammy began to lose his sight. Still, Laurel and Hardy wanted Sammy and his comedic talent for their film. Hal Roach, who Sammy worked for on many films, kept him in the studio extra crew, knowing he was blind. While filming Captain Fury, Sammy got better acquainted with the lead actor, Vic McLaglen. Mr. McLaglen was so moved by the blind actor that he bought him a seeing eye dog and presented it to him in the spring of 1939.
Don Mahoney was also a child who had dreams from age four of being a cowboy movie star. In his lower-middle class family, several of his siblings began to lose substantial vision in their early teens. Don was no exception. You can read his life's story in my eBook, The Blind History Lady Presents; Don Mahoney, Television Star available through www.smashwords.com.
When Don finally got some small parts in Hollywood, most of his vision was gone, and it was quite noticeable. When Don was honest with the studios about his blindness, the parts he was offered were slapstick roles such as in the proposed film, Blind Cowboy and his Seeing-Eye Horse. He wanted to be a serious entertainer, not a comedian.
Don went back to Texas in 1949 and reinvented himself. This time he decided to keep his blindness to himself. That would not be part of the Don Mahoney brand. For almost ten years he kept his blindness a secret from the television stations he contracted with while he rose to be one of the biggest kiddie show hosts in the state of Texas. He built up a photography business, restaurant chain, and a small recording studio. Don Mahoney toys and products were licensed under his name. Acting was not where the money was, but acting was what marketed the other ventures. For a time, he relaxed on his 8,000-acre ranch.
When Paul Lees, a blinded World War II soldier was recovering in the military hospitals, he was sent to Hollywood to an eye specialist. While out there, the military asked Paul to appear in some military-sponsored films. When he was well enough, before his discharge he traveled the country promoting the military films. He now had the Hollywood bug.
After his discharge he thought he would have an easy time getting into the movies as a war hero. Approaching influential people, he often did get a referral, but as he quickly found out, more often than not he was the butt of a joke.
Paul kept on trying and honing the blindness training skills he learned while in the military as well as creating a few of his own. He found that making friends with the set crew made life for him much easier. The set crew often came up with ideas for scenes for markers on the floor or within the scene itself to mark where Paul needed to come in, stop, or the direction to walk off.
In 1946 he was uncredited in the film O.S.S. In 1947 he finally got a credited role in Smooth Sailing. Paul worked with many stars such as Peggy Lee, Richard Webb, Marlene Dietrich, Alan Ladd, Donna Reed, and many more. The next four years were good to Paul in Hollywood. But by the early 1950s his war hero edge had worn off. America had put the Second World War behind it. Although Paul continued to act in Hollywood films through the 1970s and local New Mexico theaters, his attentions turned elsewhere. With his brother-in-law he became wealthy, building new homes for the growing post-war population in the southwest—Texas and New Mexico.
Paul taught filmography classes at the Albuquerque YMCA for underprivileged children. He taught university classes on several subjects relating to filmography and had his own freelance film company that did well making documentaries.
Elena Zelayeta already was famous in the western part of the United States in the 1950s when she began her fifteen-minute weekly television cooking show, It's Fun to Eat with Elena on Channel 5 in the Bay Area in California. Elena had been blind for many years by this time. Her cookbooks were a way for her to support her two sons after the death of her husband. No one would hire the blind widow, so she hired herself.
Before the death of her husband, she had gone to the San Francisco Institute for the Blind where she learned some Braille and soon became a volunteer instructor. After the first cookbook was published, she spent hours and hours on the telephone reaching out to the women's clubs, merchants, libraries, churches, Lions Clubs—anyone who would give her a chance to come and promote her books. Her will-do attitude gave little opportunity to refuse the short Hispanic woman with the big smile.
She too worked with the set crews to develop a way for her to know what camera was on her by tying a string to her ankles. A slight tug on the appropriate string would tell Elena the direction to face. She went on to begin a Mexican frozen food company that her sons ran for decades after her death.
We can all think of a few other blind actors in more recent years who have tried to break the Hollywood glass ceiling. Yet we need to have a better, more diverse voice on the small and big screens, representing real America. We need to be shown doing not only the heroic or the dastardly; we need to be shown taking our place as children in schools, adults making a living and raising our children, and as people who take life’s ups and downs, blindness not being the focal point of our existence.