Lulu Belle and Scotty ranked among the biggest country music stars of the late 1930s. Both launched their careers on WLS’s “National Barn Dance,” broadcast out of Chicago. Myrtle Eleanor Cooper started appearing on the Barn Dance as the comic character “Lulu Belle” at age 20, alongside Rambling Red Foley. When Foley got married, program director George Biggar needed a new straight-man to pair with Lulu Belle, and found one in recent college graduate Scott Wiseman.
According to folklorist William E. Lightman, Lulu Belle’s first impression of Scotty was that he was “stuck-up:” “He had a white shirt on, and a necktie, and his hair neat. I hadn’t seen anybody like that at the Barn Dance.” Nevertheless, she asked him join her road show beginning in the summer of 1934, and married him in December of the same year.
The pairing worked professionally, as well. Lulu Belle was arguably the bigger star, while Scotty was more famous for his songwriting. In 1936, she won Radio Guide’s National Radio Queen–something of a coup for a comedic country performer. He wrote many of the pair’s biggest hits, including the standard “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”, reportedly penned whilst he was recovering from colitis in a Chicago hospital.
Family life was not only vitally important to Lulu Belle and Scotty personally, it was also a cornerstone of their shared star image. They were, after all, both a real and a performed couple. Lulu Belle attributed her 1936 crown to the birth of their daughter Linda in January that year, just hours before a Barn Dance broadcast. Naturally, Scotty announced the happy event on the air.
Yet, the demands of Lulu Belle’s professional life presented very real obstacles to more domestic pursuits. In an interview with Lightman, she said it was difficult to set limits at the Barn Dance: “When I was expecting Linda, … the way they had me coming on stage was to come running in and fall over a chair. I’d been doing that all the time: falling over chairs! I was doing it when I was pregnant! They finally put a stop to it. They said, ‘You can’t have her doing that!’ But they were letting me do that, and I thought I had to.”
After the baby was born, the couple’s touring commitments remained grueling. In a typical week, Scotty and Lulu Belle would appear on “Barn Dance” on Saturday, and then “run like mad to get on a train.” According to Lulu Belle, “In the summers we were out on the road Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and usually Friday, and we’d come in late on Friday night and do the Barn Dance and go back out on Sunday. … I may have gotten mean or ornery once in awhile, having to be away from the baby; that’s what really got me: having to be away from Linda.”
The home movies in the Lula Belle and Scotty Wiseman collection are fascinating documents of the not-quite-public home lives of this far-from-private couple. At moments, these films could easily be mistaken for the home movies of any other Chicago family in the late 1930s or early 1940s (or at least, any other Chicago family that could afford to make home movies). At other moments, it’s possible to see glimpses of Lulu Belle the performer, as when she sticks her tongue out, curtsies, and laughs while pulling her Thanksgiving turkey out of the oven.
On the other hand, the collection also includes ample footage of planes, trains, stages, and performers. This week’s feature video was made while Lulu Belle and Scotty were shooting a movie at Republic Studios in Hollywood, probably the 1938 Roy Rogers feature SHINE ON HARVEST MOON. Lulu Belle and Scotty played themselves in the film, which was, like the majority of Roy Rogers’s films, a western with songs.
The couple’s home movie footage is a lovely, color, moving-image document of low-budget Western production. Idle horses swish their tails between bounce boards. Lulu Belle’s hair is retouched under the shade of a tree while a palomino rides by in the background. Scotty rides alongside Roy Rogers on horseback. Roy Rogers and Trigger show off their iconic pose. Scotty and Lulu Belle pilot a fire truck down a backlot main street set.
One of my favorite moments in the film, though, is a rather bewildering insert of young Linda, towing what appears to be a toy horse. It has a kind of resonance: her appearance in this particular home movie–about Hollywood filmmaking rather than family life–seems strange and out of place. On closer inspection, though, this image also conforms to a home movie trope. The preceding shot ends with Scotty leading his Hollywood steed toward the camera, so there is a sort of graphic match created between the two shots. Like father, like daughter?
You can watch the video here: http://library.sc.edu/mirc/playVideo.html?i=155
– Heather Heckman