Note: This is an encore post from 2018. Diana Serra Cary died Feb. 24 at the age of 101.
Film studios often employed gimmicks as ways to build word of mouth, increase box office, and promote movie stars throughout the golden age of Hollywood. Pennants, dolls, photos, dishes, and even sheet music produced in conjunction with sponsors or major companies cost the studios virtually nothing but added bonus revenues to their coffers, a cheap form of advertising and promotion.
At the same time, sheet music publishers rushed to create songs around the newest craze, one-hit wonder, and popular novelty, anything to make a sale. These companies sometimes developed material that the studios either purchased or joined forces with in order to create synergy, and thereby sell more products for both. Selig Polyscope Co. employed a song titled “The Kathlyn Waltz” to help promote their action serial “The Adventures of Kathlyln” in 1914, while other sheet music companies also devised songs to play off the popular title.
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In 1923, Century Comedies and Universal would promote a piece of sheet music called “That’s My Baby” to promote current child wonder Baby Peggy as they prepared to move her into feature films. Born Peggy-Jean Montgomery October 29,1918, to cowboy Jack Montgomery and his wife in Merced, the little girl found herself swept up into the movies through an accidental meeting, and soared to the top.
Mother Marian Montgomery, good looking but shy, accompanied a friend to the Century Comedies studio to watch filmmaking. While there, she became separated from her well-behaved child. On his way to the set, director Fred Fischback found little Peggy Jean sitting alone, quietly and calmly minding her business, and recognized that her sweet, self-deprecating look could be a hit on film. The next day, Fischback signed the toddler to a movie contract, and the doe-eyed girl quickly caught on with audiences.
Proud Jack Montgomery, cowboy star Tom Mix’s stunt double, dreamed of movie stardom for himself but instead found his baby daughter becoming a household name and quickly one of the most popular child stars in the country, appearing in comedy two-reelers churned out as quickly as sausage. The studio first paired up the wide-eyed youngster with comic hams such as Harry Gribbon and Bud Jamison in slapstick two-reelers before discovering the great chemistry between her and a cute dog named Brownie. The two soon became a potent comedy team, particularly in the short “Pals.”
Under her stage name Baby Peggy, the cute as a button child star stole hearts and laughs with her expressive face, quizzical looks, and touching action over the next two years, whether stealing scenes from comic veterans or sharing adventures with the sweet Brownie. Per the trades, immigrant audiences were attracted to her films because of sentimental family appeal. Century took to calling her the “two-year-old Bernhardt” in advertising.
Hoping to spread Baby Peggy’s name far and wide before moving the popular star into features, Century planned a stunt to make her everyone’s baby. The July 17, 1923, Film Daily reported that Jack Keegan, a long time publicity man and Century plugger, had acquired the title to the hit Eddie Cantor song “That’s My Baby” from his huge stage success “Kid Boots” for a song promoting the little actress.
Exhibitors Trade Review in its July 21, 1923, issue noted that the new piece of sheet music would feature Baby Peggy’s likeness on the cover in a song dedicated to her, all devised by the work of the ingenious Century Studios exploitation department. Moving Picture World declared, “This will get the comedies a display that may be denied the feature, and some of those Peggy stories are features above the five-reelers they are supposed to support.”
Veteran composer/performer Maurice Abrahams of “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” fame, who had recently formed his own publishing company, would print 50,000 copies of sheet music and 20,000 title pages for windows and store displays selling the tiny star. Helping to put the song over on stage, songstress Belle Baker, Abrahams’ wife, plugged it in stage appearances, even singing it from a front row seat to surprised audiences at the world famous Palace Theatre, following Cantor’s act on stage.
Abrahams hired three songwriters looking to score a comic hit. Owen Murphy, best known for his song “Kathleen Mavourneen,” joined forces with Sidney Clark, a journeyman comedian/writer, and Cliff Friend, Al Jolson protege and songwriter, to devise a catchy ditty.
The song took off that summer, staying in the top five for several weeks, appealing to families, immigrants, and Peggy fans. Not only did it sell well in sheet form, but 78s were also released by Victor, Columbia, and Vocalion. Abrahams also created orchestra parts for use by theatre orchestras and bands. Vaudeville artists performed it across the country and it was a hit at theatre shows preceding the screening of her films.
Even today, “That’s My Baby” has been ringing out, as Diana Serra Cary, Baby Peggy, celebrates her 100th birthday. Still going strong, author Cary still possesses piercing eyes and a sweet smile, just as cute as she was when she dominated screens as one of the world’s most popular kid stars. Here’s to many more birthdays for a sweet lady!