HOW TALULLAH BANKHEAD CHANGED TONY'S NAME ... AND HIS LIFE!
Little did I realize as a five-year old child that the promise I was making to my Italian grandfather, Nicholas Monaco, would be implemented by one of the most famous actresses on the Broadway stage, Tallulah Bankhead.
My childhood was really kind of crazy. I didn't quite know that, however, since I was part of the reason for the craziness. But it all had to do with my being born out of wedlock, which I really had nothing to do with. Dad's legal name was Thomas Edward Monaco. He was in a Catholic marriage, and had two or three children and a wife with his legal name, Monaco.
Dad and I had a lot of serious talks over the years, but I never asked him why somewhere along the line he changed his last name from Monaco to Morton. The mafia was pretty strong in the '20s and '30s and it wasn't that popular to be Italian; there was a musician quite popular at the time named 'Jelly Roll' Morton; and there was always Morton salt. The reason, I guess, was personal to Dad, and my birth certificate says I was Thomas Morton, Jr. No middle name. If you knew my mother, Sadie Beekman, whose mother was Katie O'Neill from County Claire, Ireland, and her father Noah Beekman, a German Jew, you would know how insistent Mom could be. Not a woman to be messed with, for sure! She evidently wanted to know why I couldn't have the name of Monaco. Grandpa Nick wanted to know, too.
As Grandpa Nick was glaring at me with bloodshot eyes (a result of the wine bottle over his shoulder) with his long, thin "gini" cigar waving in the air like an orchestra conductor's baton, I was mesmerized by the intensity and desperateness of his pleading, quietly and mysteriously. I was only five at the time and had never seen this man before, or even knew I had another grandfather. "Morrilton? Morrilton? What kind of name is a Morrilton?" Having no idea what he was talking about I replied, "I don't know, Grandpa." I learned later on that Grandpa was from the Piedmont region of Italy. But this being the first time we'd ever met, I was confused. I was living in the first apartment Mother and I had ever lived in and Dad didn't live with us. We were "together" only when we joined him on tour buses along with some of the orchestras he was managing.
But for years and years to come Grandpa Nick would ask me over and over again every time I saw him until I didn't see him anymore, "When a you grow up you promise me you changes your name to Monaco, Monaco, Monaco?" His plea echoed in my mind many times through the years. Then he would say with a high-pitched, childlike falsetto voice, "You know what a it means a d'name a Monaco?" "No Grandpa," I'd always say even though I knew the story by now. He continued, "Thes a two a monks. They a live a on a top a the mountain...and a they pray. And a they see a little a boy...and a he a cry a...and a they say, 'Little boy a...why you cry?' And a the little boy a he say, 'I got a no mommy...I got a no poppy.' And a the two a monks a they hug him and a they say, 'Little boy...you come a and a live a with us and you be a Monaco...a little monk!' "
So through all my years on Broadway including seven hit musicals, and while under contract in Hollywood to 20th Century Fox and then to Paramount Pictures, who bought my contract from 20th Century Fox, I was Tom Morton, the name Dad had changed Monaco to so I could have a legal name while he was still in his Catholic marriage.
Then in 1953 an opportunity God created made the change of my lifetime. I had won the lead role in a new movie, Main Street to Broadway, a light drama-comedy about an aspiring playwright (me!) who hopes to stage a Broadway production. The producers 'borrowed' me from Paramount for this MGM release to star opposite a long list of Broadway luminaries like Talullah Bankhead, all the Barrymores, Cornel Wilde, Shirley Booth, Mary Martin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rex Harrison, Agnes Moorehead and more and more. It took my breath away. They even asked, "Who would you like to have as your leading lady?" I suggested a young actress at Paramount by the name of Mary Murphy. All was fine until the first day of shooting...
My character, Anthony Fowler, was supposed to be a New York-born, Brooklyn-type character. But I was disturbed that his name sounded like an Englishman. I wanted to say something to the producers, but I thought I better just be quiet especially since the first day of shooting was to be with Tallulah Bankhead. There was a lot of gossip that she was very demanding and liked to take her young leading men for a 'rendezvous' in her dressing room.
Oh no! I was nervous enough already. When I had arrived on stage at the Goldwyn studios I saw a young actor I knew, Robert Horton, reading my lines in front of the camera. I rushed to the director, Tay Garnett, and asked what was going on. He was very calm and said, "Don't worry, Tom. Leonard and I only want you, but this actor is under contract to MGM and we had to give him a test." I still couldn't stop worrying while I sat quietly memorizing my lines.
The first scenes to be shot were with Agnes Moorehead, who played the role of my "agent," and Tallulah Bankhead, the "star" I was writing my play for, which wasn't the truth. My agent was trying to appease both of us. Since all the stars were donating their services with proceeds going to the support of New York actors, the plan was to release Miss Bankhead as quickly as possible.
When Miss Bankhead arrived she couldn't have been nicer. James Wong Howe was an Academy Award-winning cinematographer. Tallulah adored him...and he her. They were filming Tallulah's entrance into Miss Moorehead's office as Tallulah enters upset. We were only doing a walk thru for lighting and camera. When the scene finished, Tallulah calls out, "Jimmy, darling!" He leaves the camera quickly, "Yes, Missy Bankhead." "Jimmy, darling, you know I'm just an old hag; the audiences don't want to see an old hag like me." Jimmy attempts to protest but Tallulah continues, "No. No. No. Jimmy, you have all the key lighting on me, leaving this handsome young man in the dark. I know, darling, it's very nice of you, but I want this boy to have all the help we can give him. So, can you turn it back on this young man?" Jimmy starts to tell her how much time it will take. "Now, now, Jimmy, you take all the time you need. I just want this young man...what's your real name again, darling?" I say, "Tommy," with a gulp in my throat. Tallulah says, "Yes, Tommy. You come with me to my dressing room." She walks off the set, signaling me with her hands to follow her, while the cast and crew and extras are making fun comments.
A look towards the assistant directors as well as the director and producer, who were already behind time for the day, and I knew trouble was just starting. I followed Tallulah like a little puppy, trying to smile at all the guys who were ribbing me as I went by. Little did I know what was really about to happen.
Tallulah couldn't have been more courteous. As we entered her dressing room she called out to her maid that she wanted a scotch and soda. She asked me if I wanted one, too. It was 10 a.m. and I hated scotch. Even though I drank a lot back then - mostly beer - I was so relieved that someone else was in the dressing room that I blurted out, "Sure. That'll be fine!" Tallulah called out, "Have a seat, darling. I'm just going to change into something more comfortable. I'll be right out." I got goose pimples on my arms. I never did see the maid. I believe there was a television on, but it was all like a bad dream.
What was I going to talk about? I didn't have to worry about that. Tallulah came out in a light, flowery silk kimono carrying two scotch and sodas, gave me a quick toast with her glass and said, "Here's to great success, darling. You were great at the rehearsal and as soon as Jimmy gets those lights on you, darling, you're going to be maaaavelous! Here's to ya." She took a big swig of her drink, lit a cigarette and started talking about politics. I think she briefly asked me if I knew anything about politics and didn't even wait for my answer, but segued into what was going on in the Senate.
"Well, you probably know, darling, that my grandfather was a United States senator. Or maybe you don't. I keep thinking that everybody knows everything about me. Well, not exactly everything because so much is made up and then again I did get the Critics' Award for The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942. But you were probably just a baby then and sometimes I act a lot like some of the roles I played. But when I got the Screen Critics Award for the Alfred Hitchcock film, Lifeboat, I was really showing off with a flair for the dramatics. It was all out through all the Bankheads in Alabama. Did I tell you my uncle John H. Bankhead was a United States senator? Yes, darling. So how could I not be interested in what's going on?" And she proceeded to tell me all the functions of the United States Senate. While I was thinking what could I share with her, I knew what I wanted to talk about when she stopped and said, "Here I am, darling, going on and on and not asking how you're doing and how you got here." I briefly told her about the shows on Broadway as a dancer. "Really, darling? Well, do you know I became a star in The Dancers in 1930? But here I go again interrupting. Go ahead, darling."
"Miss Bankhead," I started. She blurted, "Call me Tallulah, darling." "Okay," I continued. "Have you noticed the name of my character?" "Anthony...something," she stumbles. "You have to excuse me. I haven't had much time. What is it?" We've had three more drinks by that time.
"It's Fowler," I explain. "Tallulah, don't you think that's a strange last name for a character living in Brooklyn or the Bronx? To me he sounds like he's an Englishman." Tallulah agrees, "You're absolutely right, darling. What do you think it should be?" I went on to explain that my dad's family name is Monaco and my Grandpa Nick used to tell me stories about what it meant. When I finished she said, "I think that's absolutely adorable, darling. You're right. Would you hand me the phone, darling, and get us another drink. Hello. Would you connect me with the director? By the way what's his name again? I haven't had much time to talk to him. Tay Garnett? I've got it. Yes. I'll hold."
I brought her the drink. She thanked me. I sat down. My heart was beating loudly. What had I done? She was actually trying to change the name. "Tay, darling, this is Tallulah. Thank you, darling. Oh, no. No. No. No complaints. Are they still lighting? Good, good, then there's still time. No, darling. I know how much time it takes. So there's still time for the name...the name of the writer...what is it again, Tommy....?" "Fowler," I choked. With the drinks obviously starting to affect her speech, Tallulah says, "Yes, Tay. It is Fowler. Thanks for looking it up. Tay, darling, that doesn't sound very much like a New York name from somebody in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Fowler...it's more like an Englishman, don't you think?" (There's a pause.) "Yes. That's what we thought, too. And Tommy has this sweet grandfather whose name is Monaco...his whole family on his father's side are Monacos. (There's another pause.) Well I don't know. Tommy, why isn't your name Monaco?" I explained, "My father changed it for his stage name. I never knew of the Monaco name until I was five years old and Grandpa told me." "Oh Tay, that's the sweetest thing. It's his father's stage name. So we have to change it for Grandpa Nick and all the family. They'll be so happy. It's not a big thing, Tay. We haven't used the name yet. I'm the first scene right? Of course, you have to run it by the producer. What's his name again? Cowan...Lester Cowan. That's right. I remember. Well, sure he'll like it...makes sense. It's more New York than Flowler...Fowleder...or whatever it was. And if you have any trouble just tell Lester he'll have to get another leading lady. Yes. If he doesn't change it...oh thank you, too, darling."
She hangs up and says, "There, Tommy...it's done. Don't you worry...the family's going to love it. Now I've got to lie down and take a little nap. There's time for one more drink. Will you join me?" "Sure, Miss...Tallulah," I said, wondering if I'd just ruined my career. This was a disaster. What was the matter with me? Too late now! We'll probably be getting rushed pages in blue color coming to Tallulah's door quicker than you could say, "Anthony Fowler."
But what was bothering me most was I really wasn't doing what Grandpa Nick had asked me to do. But how could I change my name at this time of my life? All the years on Broadway as Tom Morton, and my two films, Wait Till The Sun Shines Nellie and Rosemary Clooney's debut film, The Stars Are Singing, - with my solo dance number - were still playing in theatres. And now, if they don't fire me, I've caused all this inconvenience without even thinking about the author of this film, Robert Sherwood, who wrote the story, and Samson Raphelson, who wrote the screenplay, until over sixty years later. God is merciful and I had no ideas about it.
Well, God was watching out for me even if I didn't know it at the time. And the road he was sending me on was a Damascus Road. The blue pages arrived before we even finished our last drink, but it wasn't time enough for Tallulah's recovery.
We all were stunned when the lighting of the scene we had rehearsed was changed to focus on me. We went thru the scene once more and Tallulah blew up. "Where the hell is Jimmy Wong Howe," she yelled in her best stage voice. Jimmy came running and bowed to her saying, "Yes, Missy Bankhead!" Tallulah steamed, "Don't you Missy Bankhead me. What are you trying to do, ruin my career?" "What is the problem Mis...," Jimmy cowers. She explains, "The problem you should know from other pictures we've made together, James, is that I'm getting older and I have to be photographed in the best light. And everywhere I walk in that scene I'm in the dark and all the lights are on this handsome young man who doesn't have a damn wrinkle anywhere!" Jimmy says, "But Missy Bankhead, you ask me to change all lights..." "I don't give a damn what I said," Tallulah fires. "He doesn't need the lights. I do!!! Now, I don't care what you have to do or what you think I said. You know me better than that and know what I need...especially you. I don't care what you have to do, Jimmy, but do it!" "Yes. Yes...I will do best for you," Jimmy offers squeamishly. Everyone on stage was frozen. Mr. Wong Howe called his workers back to fix the lights the way they were the first time. The assistant director called lunch and I went to the men's room to vomit.
After lunch and a new rehearsal that pleased Tallulah so much she was an absolute angel, everything else went wonderfully except she couldn't say the name Monaco for thirty-two takes. But she smiled and said, "Who the hell thought of that damn name anyway?" And she dubbed it in later.
When I told my agents at the William Morris Agency the story of why I had to change my name legally, they couldn't understand and said I'd never work again. But God had a different road for me to travel, and I believe Grandpa Nicholas helped me find it. It's what has brought me right here to you today.
Oh, and the Tommy-to-Tony part? I heard Mom screaming it for so long it gave me chills up my back. So I took the name of a man named Anthony (Tony) Criado who married one of the girls in the Nelson family that took care of me most of my childhood. He died at 33. He was an inspiring Christian man who was very near and dear to my heart. Besides, it was also the name of my character in Main Street To Broadway. I might as well put all the pieces together. So, it was Tony Monaco I became.
In Revelation 2:17 (KJV) it says, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it."
It's something that anyone can look forward to. May you be one of them!
© 2014 Tony Monaco. All Rights Reserved.
All Music © Songs From The Lord Publishing, (BMI) Except As Noted
Designed by: PETER F. MULLER
Compiled and Edited by: DANA McELWAIN Photo Archivist: DAVID THEBERGE