He overcame crushing poverty and a harsh family life to become one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
This week, after learning of the death of Howard Keel, Gillespie residents and former residents recalled Keel’s life with a peculiar mix of affection and acrimony. Keel, who starred in such Hollywood musicals as Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat, and Kiss Me Kate (and was once cut from the Gillespie High School choir because he “couldn’t carry a tune”) died Sunday in Los Angeles of colon cancer.
Keel was born Harold Clifford Leek on April 13, 1919 in Gillespie. He later reversed the letters of his last name for his stage name. When he made his film debut in 1949 in England (he played the villain in a film called The Small Voice), Keel billed himself as Harold Keel. By the time he was brought back to Hollywood to film Annie Get Your Gun a year later, he had changed his first name to Howard.
Keel’s father, once a naval captain, worked as a coal miner in Gillespie. As an adult, Keel characterized his father as an embittered drunk who beat his children during drunken rages. His mother, a strict Methodist, forbade Keel and his brother William, from having any entertainment in the home.
“I had a terrible, rotten childhood,” Keel said in a 1995 interview. “My father made away with himself when I was 11. I had no guidance, and Mom was six feet tall, bucktoothed and very tough. I was mean and rebellious and had a terrible, bitter temper. I got a job as an auto mechanic and I would have stayed in that narrow kind of life if I hadn’t discovered art. Music changed me completely.”
Former Gillespie resident Henry Wirbel, who was five years Keel’s senior, suggests that Keel’s public recollection of his childhood may have been somewhat embellished.
“I grew up with him and his older brother,” said Wirbel, 90. “They lived in a small white bungalow on Madison Street that had a small empty lot at the side. All the kids used to play on that lot--baseball and whatever.
Wirbel was the same age as Keel’s brother and the three of them used to walk to school together. Wirbel said he often sat in the kitchen of the Leek home waiting for the boys to get ready for school while Mrs. Leek ironed clothes or worked in the kitchen.
“We hung around that house an awful lot and I never saw anything like that (the abuse Keel described),” Wirbel commented. Wirbel also disagreed with Keel’s characterization of himself.
“The paper said he was kind of a wise guy,” Wirbel said after Keel’s death. “I didn’t perceive him that way. He was very shy, not much of a mixer. Perhaps later on, he may have become that way, but that wasn’t the case when I knew him. He always seemed like a pretty nice guy as far as I can remember.”
Keel’s father reportedly committed suicide by ingesting carbolic acid, leaving his wife to provide for their two sons. To make ends meet, Keel’s mother took in washing and worked as a wallpaper hanger. Their existence was apparently meager and marked by poverty.
In Gillespie, Keel attended Big Brick School, now the site of Big Brick Park, where a music teacher famously told Keel he could not sing and cut him from the choir. “She told me I sang too loud,” Keel told reporters in 1957. “Not only that….She hinted that I need not look for a future as a vocalist. I was afraid she was right. I was all lungs and no tone in those days and when I sang with the school choir…well, it was pretty bad.”
But even that well known story about Keel may be apocryphal.
According to Lillian Keupper, it may not have been Keel’s singing voice but rather his clothes that kept him from performing with the choir. “She didn’t criticize his singing so much,” Keupper said. But the choir members were expected to wear dress slacks and nice shoes, and Keel’s mother could not afford such luxuries.
Gillespie school teacher Rosa Burke was among those who took Keel under her wing, Kuepper noted. It was Burke who noticed that Keel often came to school with no lunch to eat, and started packing an extra lunch for him when she came to school. It was a kindness Keel never forgot.
When Keel was scheduled to appear at the Muny Opera in St. Louis, Mo., he always made arrangements for Burke to see the show. “He had her come down as his guest,’ Keupper said, “and she had the best seat in the house.”
Keel did not return to Gillespie for Burke’s 100th birthday, however. In fact, he rarely came back to the coal mining town where he was born. For Burke’s birthday, he sent a bouquet and a note instructing Keupper “to give her a big hug for me.”
By some accounts, Keel’s bitterness about the hardships he endured as a child extended to the community itself. Some residents recall that he viciously rejected an invitation to participate in the city’s centennial celebration in 1953 when Keel was at the height of his career. Keel reportedly wrote back that he had “shaken the dust of Gillespie off his heels when he left” and had no intention of returning.
But Keupper Says Keel did return to the city on occasion, but without fanfare and without prior announcement. He occasionally visited his paternal uncle and family friends, she said, and he visited his mother’s grave in Edwardsville. But he steadfastly declined invitations to come home for class reunions and other public functions.
His purported bitterness about the community was in stark contrast to the way he treated Gillespie residents he encountered in theatrical venues. The files of the Gillespie news are rife with accounts of city residents who had chance meetings and were treated warmly. In one story, three local servicemen saw Keel perform in a club in England in the late 1940’s. During the performance, Keel paused to talk about growing up in Gillespie, “a little town in the Midwest that none of you have probably ever heard of.” The three young men called from the audience that they were from Gillespie, prompting Keel to call then up to the stage and later invite them back stage for a chat.
Gillespie residents who saw Keel perform in Las Vegas could count on being treated like royalty, Keupper remembered. “Anytime anyone from Gillespie went out there, if he knew they were coming, he would have complimentary tickets for them, they could have the best seat in the house and he would invite them backstage,” she said. “He was always very warm.”
Bonnie Easton, widow of the late William Easton, remembered that her husband used to speak occasionally of his childhood relationship with Keel.
“They used to ride their bikes up and down the street in front of his house on Madison Street,” she recalled. “That was a big thing.”
Keel’s family moved from Gillespie to California before Keel finished high school. He was 20 and living in Los Angeles when he was befriended by a woman who took him to a Hollywood Bowl concert featuring famed baritone Lawrence Tibbett. Keel reportedly was inspired by the experience to start taking vocal lessons, a career move that landed him a job as a singling waiter at the Paris Inn Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles for $15 a week and two meals a day.
He worked briefly as a “manufacturing representative” for Douglas Aircraft in California before being summoned for a audition with Oscar Hammerstein II, who was looking for young singers to play the part of Curly in a growing number of touring companies performing Oklahoma.
The audition landed Keel on the Broadway stage, where he appeared in Oklahoma and occasionally understudied for John Raitt in Carousel. He went to London where he performed in Carousel for 18 months.
In London he met and married his first wife, Rosemary Cooper, whom he divorced in 1948. According to Wirbel , Cooper was a favorite of Keel’s mother and she continued to pursue a friendship with the young woman long after she and Keel had gone their separate ways.
He later married Helen Anderson, with whom he had three children. They divorced in 1970. That same year he married Judy Magamoll, a woman 25 years younger than he, and fathered a fourth child.
He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1958 to 1959.
At the height of his career, Keel’s large frame and deep voice made him a natural choice for leading man in several MGM musicals. He starred in Showboat, Kismet and Kiss Me Kate, as well as several non-musical films. His personal favorite was the lusty Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
When MGM closed down its production of musicals, Keel returned to the stage. He toured with theatrical companies performing in productions of the Man of La Mancha, South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun and a stage version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Keel was 66 and presumably nearing the end of his career when he was introduced to a new generation of fans as Clayton Farlow on the CBS television series, Dallas. Jim Davis, who had played the role of Jock Ewing, had died in 1981, and producers needed a replacement to play a role as “Miss Ellie’s” husband. He remained on the show until the series ended in 1991.
But it was his voice that made Keel a star and his voice is the thing for which he will be most remembered.
“When I found out that I could carry a tune, well, I came to realize that I had a gift, that is kind of a blessing,” he once mused. “And I think if you are given something special, you ought to try to give that something back. If you don’t, it’s a sin. No question.”
In Gillespie, where Keel was born in a small house on Madison Street, residents will remember him as a local boy who overcame the odds to find success.
“He overcame it all and did very well for himself,” Keupper said.
This article appeared in the November 1, 2004 edition of the South County News and is used with the permission of the Editor.
DONATED BY ANNE STINNETT