Music Changed Me Completely
By Jennie Watters
Howard stared at his father writhing around in pain on the floor. His parents had been arguing when Homer Keel, a forty-five-year-old alcoholic, shouted, “I’m going to kill myself” and downed a bottle of carbolic acid front of his family. Coal-miner by trade, Homer may have acquired it through his work since the chemical (also known as Phenol) is extracted through coal-tar. As the agonizing seconds dragged by, Howard Keel, only eleven years old, started to run for help. On the way to his uncle’s house, he remembered that he had left his dog, Wiggles, behind. Afraid that his father might kill the little dog, he turned around and dashed back to his house. Scooping up Wiggles, he could hear cries and moans coming from the bedroom. Those were the last sounds he would ever hear his father make as by the time help came later, Homer Keel was dead.
“The father I needed, but never knew, was gone. It was June 26, 1930. I was beyond consolation, young, and lost. I crawled inside my anger, and locked the whole world out. I cried for days…it wasn’t until years later that I sat down and tried to figure out what had caused my father to do what he did.” Even as an adult, the exact reason why his father committed suicide remained a mystery. So was the man himself. Howard Keel didn’t see him much, and was fearful when he was around. So why did his strong religious mother marry this distant and abusive alcoholic? It appeared to have been a shotgun wedding (Howard’s older brother was born eight months later.) The two of them were as different as could be. Mrs. Keel was part of the temperance movement and was even against allowing root beer in the house. Meanwhile, her husband squandered his money on booze and cigarettes.
Needless to say, Howard Keel (born Herold Clifton Keel) did not have the sort of childhood one would imagine for the man who would grow up to play the leading man in many of MGM’s technicolor musicals. After his father’s death, he fell into a depression, became an apathetic student and started smoking and drinking at a very young age. When he was fifteen, he was cutting through a neighbor’s yard on his way to school when their teenage son befriended him. As they walked together, Chuck asked him, “What’s wrong with your teeth?” Confused, Keel asked what he meant. “Your teeth are green! Don’t you ever wash your teeth? You’ll never get a girl with teeth like that!” For the next year, Chuck became a mentor to the lonely youth, teaching him good grooming habits, encouraging him to stop slacking when it came to schoolwork and including him in his social circle.
Howard’s life changed again when his mother sold their four-room house, furnishings included, for $400 and decided to make the trip from Illinois to California. Driving through the Midwest during the dust bowl was a hellish experience, especially once they reached New Mexico. Chugging along at 20 miles of hour through the heat, wind and billowing dirt, Keel marveled that their poor old Ford didn’t fall apart. Once they reached their destination, his mother managed to buy a new house, found a job working as a cook and sent Howard to Fallbrook High School. Now sixteen, he was tall, skinny and awkward but at least now he knew to keep his teeth clean! Howard made a few friends in his new school but he had a bitter streak like his father and sometimes made the mistake of taking his pain out on others. “I was mean and rebellious and had a terrible temper…I would have stayed in that narrow kind of life if I hadn’t discovered art. Music changed me completely,” he later said.
One day after graduating High School, Keel was hanging out with a couple buddies, having some drinks and listening to the football game. Their landlady sat down at the piano and one of the fellows asked him to sing. Because he had some liquid courage in him, he wasn’t bashful about belting out ‘In the Still of the Night’ to the landlady’s accompaniment. When the song came to a close she complimented him on his fine voice. “You should study,” she said, “Where would I do that?” he wanted to know. Mom Ryder, as the boys called her, suggested a place for him to go, and he took his first lesson for 25 cents. Not long after, he landed a job as a singing busboy. He liked the job but not the head busboy who would boss him around. One day his temper got the best of him. When the head busboy told him to “get the lead out,” he threw two pitchers of water against the wall and said, “You can take the pitchers and this job and you know where you can put them!” Just like that he quit and never even went back for his last paycheck.
After that Howard became an airplane mechanic. When World War II started, he was unable to enlist, even though he wanted to. He felt that at least he was doing something useful working for the Douglas Aircraft Company. Keel continued his music lessons and used his operatic pipes to woo a certain young lady, a showgirl named
Rosemary Randall. It must have worked because she fell madly in love with him. Soon after they started dating, his company offered him a better paying position if he would agree to move to Detroit. When he told her he was leaving in a few days, she started crying. “I just found you and now you’re leaving me?” she sobbed. He impulsively proposed marriage. The young couple had to move a few different times that year, but they enjoyed attending shows together in their spare time. While he didn’t quit his day job quite yet, Howard had begun to perform and was quickly receiving recognition for his powerful voice. Once he signed with N.C.A.C., an opera concert management group, he was asked to audition for the great Oscar Hammerstein!
It must have been an impressive audition, because after that Keel became the understudy for John Raitt in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical ‘Carousel.’ Immediately he felt a sort of kinship with the troubled character of Billy Bigelow, and was thrilled when he got to perform when the lead actor was out on vacation. “I walked on air for three of the most exciting weeks of my life,” he said. After ‘Carousel,’ he went on to play the part of ‘Curly’ in another great Rogers and Hammerstein musical, ‘Oklahoma.’ When the cast was traveling to London, he decided to go too. His career took off but his marriage suffered. In his autobiography, ‘Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business,’ Howard Keel admits that the failure of his first marriage was due to his distance and unfaithfulness. Strangely, although he confessed his guilt, he also seemed to recount his many affairs and flirtations with nostalgia. His first love was always his love for music though, and when MGM offered him the opportunity to become a musical star, he didn’t hesitate!
His first starring role was in the musical, ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ which was originally supposed to be a vehicle for Judy Garland. Howard described Judy as “cute as a button and awesome to work with” but also incredibly anxious. After singing ‘Falling in Love is Wonderful’ for studio head Louis B. Mayer, Howard noticed Judy trembling and put his arm around her for support. He later acknowledged the irony of HIM reassuring someone as experienced and talented as Garland, but he also realized she was insecure and overworked. Judy’s workload increased when during filming a horse fell on Keel’s leg and they had to shoot around his scenes while he recovered. Judy could not keep up the energy level needed for the physically demanding part of Annie Oakley. It seemed unfair to Howard when the studio replaced her with another actress, a boisterous spitfire named Betty Hutton. In all his years at MGM, Keel had the opportunity to co-star with many incredible women, including Esther Williams, Jane Powell, Ava Gardner, Ann Blyth, Doris Day and Kathryn Grayson.
In fact, starting with the musical ‘Showboat,’ Kathryn Grayson was one of his most frequent co-stars. Her trembling, bird-like soprano perfectly complimented his masculine baritone. Their onscreen chemistry reflected a real-life affection that the two of them deeply felt, but could rarely express since by this time Keel had already married a second time, and even had children. Although there was a sadness that they could not be together, they still had a lot of fun on-set, and Keel would treasure many wonderful memories. In their third movie, ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ there was a scene where Kathryn was supposed to slap him, but he could tell that she kept holding back. Keel urged her to let loose, even when she warned him, “Howard, I can hit pretty hard. I had two big brothers, and they didn’t tangle with me.” When he reassured her that it would be all right, she slapped him across the face with so much force that “I saw stars! From then on, I ducked. God, she could hit – all five feet of her!” The two of them remained lifelong friends.
His next success was ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,’ which was a surprise hit. “Jane Powell, as Milly, was perfect,” Keel later reminisced, “and I loved working with her. She was cute and persnickety and a multi-talented pro.” This soundtrack is fabulous and includes many upbeat songs sung with great gusto by Keel. It’s a movie full of pure joy. One year later, 1955, he was eager to get started filming ‘Kismet,’ a comedy set in old Bagdad that featured some of the most exciting music of his career. But the atmosphere on set was stressful. Director Vincent Minelli was in a foul mood, he had lost two of the actors he wanted for the film and stopped caring about the finished product. Ever the professional, Keel fumed “I hate performers who quit performing, and directors who stop doing their job. The Play is the thing.” It upset him to see a project with so much potential go to waste. In my opinion, the film is still definitely worth seeing for Keel’s hilarious performance as the clever but destitute poet for hire and the stunning musical score.
Just as in real life, although the music was his first love, Keel’s career had a side-chick too: straight acting. He appeared in Westerns and even a Biblical epic called ‘The Big Fisherman.’ At first, the producer thought he would be too sophisticated for the role of apostle Peter, but through his audition, Keel captured their attention with his compelling acting and got the role. Although currently out of print, at the time the film was nominated for three Oscars: for cinematography, art direction, and costume design. They lost to a similarly religious film that also came out in 1959, ‘Ben Hur,’ and ‘The Big Fisherman’ faded into obscurity. In the years that followed, it became more and more difficult to find good movie roles. Like so many other unemployed former movie musical stars, Howard Keel returned to the stage. Audiences got to see him in plays like ‘Camelot’ and ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown,’ and over the years he also reprised roles from some of his best films.
Two things happened to change Howard’s life again. After over twenty years of staying in a marriage that he was never fully committed to, Keel left his wife and got married for a third and final time to Judy Magamoll. He became a father again when his fourth child, Leslie, was born. Then in 1981, he got an unexpected call asking him to meet with Leonard Katzman, the writer-producer-director of the hottest soap opera on television at the time: ‘Dallas.’ He had thought that his years of fame were over, but in his 60s, Howard Keel was once again a household name! Although surrounded by beautiful women, he finally gave up his womanizing ways and stayed true to his wife. He even began a recording career as a solo artist for the first time! He released records and gave concert tours. He also became involved in charity, raising money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
When Howard died of colon cancer in 2004, his wife, Judy, wrote this touching tribute: “Although there was a twenty-five-year age difference between us, I was the one who struggled to keep up with his energy and the fight he gave to everything he faced in life…he cared for his voice his entire life and that in itself was a tremendous burden to carry on one’s shoulder. As a perfectionist, he tried to never disappoint an audience. ‘Give ’em everything you’ve got,’ he’d say, and he meant it. I know how much his fans loved him, and he loved them just as much. I
met a wonderful man who loved me so much more the day he died than on that first blind date almost thirty-six years ago. And I was given the gift to love and care for him in the brilliant winter of his life.”
As heartwarming as Judy’s thoughts on her husband’s life were, I believe Howard said it best at the conclusion of his autobiography: “If you’re ever in the market for a trombone player, a pool shooter, dancing fool, a fighter, skin fitter, a mechanic, horseback rider, gun-handler, fast-draw artist, bullwhipper, airline or boat pilot, motorcyclist, actor or singer, call me. I’m available. The timing of my life has had some wild ups and downs, but the timing of my meeting Judy has been one of the constant joy and love. She is the love and joy of my life! What’s the best part of me? My singing. I can still peel the paint off the walls.”