THE BRIAN SISTERS
By Doris and Betty
This is the story of three little girls and their mother. Several components came together to form this small group which is unique in Nichols family history. Circumstances of family dynamics beyond their control certainly thrust these girls into the drama. The Great Depression of 1929 - 39 was a backdrop to the tale, as was World War II. The state of California figures almost as a character in the play. The incredible strength of the mother and her resolution are major parts of the narrative. But the irrefutable fact of their own talent, their inherited genes and pervasive ears for and love of music of these three children cannot be denied as the major driving force of the plot of this story.
One must understand the pressures of those times to comprehend the adversities they faced. First, women were not generally regarded as having the abilities of individual thought or action. The rights of women to own or inherit property or to vote were fresh ideas, which had not yet been tested. Society looked askance at women who dared to stretch their attitudes and behavior beyond the bounds of male domination and restrictions. The battles this little army of four females fought were against formidable foes - financial, familial, societal and personal. Second, because they were essentially alone in their struggle, they were often in physical and moral danger. That they survived at all is impressive, but that they achieved what they did on this difficult journey borders on the miraculous.
To set the scene, we will start before the beginning of the 1900s at the A. W. Nichols family homestead farm east of Rexburg, Idaho. Lovina Almeda Nichols, the eighth child of Eve Susannah and Alvin Willard Nichols was born there on the first of August, 1893. There are many stories of these stalwart Nichols parents and other previous ancestors who accomplished much to add to this account of energy and perseverance, but "Meda" and her four brothers and nine sisters (two of whom unfortunately died early) embodied the kind of indomitable spirit upon which so many others of us in this family depend for our inherent identities. The "Illustrious Fourteen" (actually twelve made it to adulthood) were bright, resourceful, independent, strong-willed, funny and musically talented people (and Meda sometimes added rebelliousness to the mix). Their parents stressed education in their development, so they all stretched a great deal beyond farming. The fifty-nine first cousins of this family were also extremely close, and the surviving group forms a strong union to this day.
Nineteen-year-old Meda determined early that farming was not in her future, so she was intrigued by the tall and handsome red-haired fellow she met in Rexburg who played semi-professional baseball by day and played rag-time piano in the dance band by night. These were activities as far removed from farming as she could imagine. Frank Leslie Brian was a genius; a self-taught musician, master electrician, mathematician, telephone and telegraph technology inventor, civil engineer, railroader, champion golfer, baseball pitcher, bowler, pool player, all-around athlete and track star, shooting marksman, fisherman and hunting guide. Outstanding in all these pursuits, he considered the latter activities equally as important in his life as the former. Meda married Frank in 1912 and began the incredible trek, which took her through indescribable lows and soaring highs.
Five daughters were born to this couple: Bernice in Rexburg in 1913, Norma in Twin Falls in 1918, Betty in Rexburg in 1923, Doris in Pocatello in 1926, and Owen in Pocatello in 1928. Bernice and Norma were reared mostly in a home with both parents, but the younger three, close in age and reared as a unit, barely knew their father.
The indications that these girls - all five of them - were richly endowed with musical talent were obvious from their births. From infancy they all could sing in tune and in perfect time. Willingly, but with little encouragement from their father and without any lessons, each girl performed alone and/or together at church meetings, parties, banquets, variety shows, at school and on the radio.
Bernice and Norma, absorbed with growing up and finishing their education, did not pursue further musical efforts, but the professional Brian Sisters trio was begun when Gwen, barely four years old, sang the melody while Doris, six years old, and Betty, eight years old, formed the harmony parts. Soon they were in demand singing the popular songs of the time, Bye, Bye, Blackbird and When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along, among many others. They learned these tunes by listening carefully to the radio.
After 1929, the Great Depression settled over the nation and dragged the economy to a deadening and soul-numbing end. When Frank, always employable, left good-paying jobs to enjoy his pastime sports, Meda was forced to take in boarders to keep food on the table. Frank, inexorably following his own star, finally separated himself one last time from the family in Salt Lake City in 1934, and Meda was left to finish the job of parenting alone.
The Brian Sisters' first paying job was on Amateur Night in a smoky, below-street-level speakeasy called the Brass Rail in Salt Lake City on Fourth South and State Street. The patrons, delighted at seeing this very young trio of performers belting out the popular songs of the day, tossed quarters, dimes and nickels onto the floor, and the girls gathered up their pay. That night they counted about eight dollars - an impressive sum for those desperate days. The rent was due, and food was scarce. At that moment, a brighter (if more dangerous) future was defined for them and, young though they were, they knew it. Meda, a fine cook, seamstress and homemaker but with no career opportunities, soon figured that she had the dubious choice of leaving the girls alone to find work for herself or putting her talented youngsters to work and staying with them.
The Shirley Temple phenomenon was beginning to impress movie audiences and there were other children-oriented films being made, the Our Gang Comedies (later released for television as The Little Rascals) among them. Sunny California beckoned, with its radio, recording, theater, and movie industries, so, with only twenty dollars in her pocket but determination in her heart, Meda packed up the 1929 Model A Ford with whatever household goods she could fit in, gave the rest of their belongings to her sisters, and headed southwest with her brood. She was heard to say, "We can starve as easily there as here, and it will be a whole lot warmer."
Without benefit of professional management, the Brian Sisters auditioned for radio shows, films, theater and night club engagements. Meda herself would present the girls - in their attractive homemade costumes - who would always enthusiastically and unselfconsciously perform, mostly without accompaniment. Almost immediately, they won small jobs and started to earn their way.
They quickly learned the importance of promptness. On their own they learned how to enter and leave a stage, how to bow graciously for applause, how to dance, how to stand quietly before an open microphone, how to read a dramatic script, and, most importantly, how to act as professionals, not as children. They learned early and well that producers, theater managers, and musical directors detested child performers and would not tolerate any extra noise, taciturn or temperamental outbursts, or other childish conduct. They learned that there are no excuses. And they learned not to cry. Their immaturity did not protect them from the realities and responsibilities of a tough life.
Because their very existence depended upon the mastering of these lessons; they knew that, sick or well, tired or rested, early morning or late night, like it or not, they must put smiles on their faces, stand up and sing out, and never, never lapse into youthful behaviors. They learned the hard way that if they misused their shoes, there were no new shoes. There were few toys, amusements or other trifles. They learned that if they wasted food, the next meal would be meager. They learned to forgo any but the barest necessities because the rent must be paid first. After they had been cheated by or imposed upon by ruthless adults, they learned to depend upon and trust one another exclusively. They learned very early to face disappointment, discrimination and discouragement, then come back smiling. They learned that The Show Must Go On.
The girls supported themselves entirely, with no help from their father. They bought a used car, paid the rent on various small apartments in Hollywood, bought food and clothes. They went without health insurance or other financial safeguards. They even managed to pay tuition to private school when the state of California took a dim view of their many absences from public school in order to rehearse, audition or perform and threatened to take them away from their mother and put them into orphanage care. Their income was sporadic and often had to last through dry times, but Meda's amazing ability to manage their assets kept them going until their next job. They were, by any standards, very poor, but they were happy together, grateful to be in warm California and for their freedom, and proud of their ability to sustain themselves.
One day in the late summer of 1935, Meda took the girls to the Hal Roach studios in Culver City. Their auditions started with assistant-assistant musical directors, proceeded to assistant musical directors, then full directors and finally wound up in the offices of Hal Roach himself, who offered them an appearance in a musical episode of the Our Gang Comedies series. They were offered the princely sum of one hundred dollars a day for two days' work, and they were ecstatic! That film, Our Gang Follies of 1936, started a movie career, which ultimately included thirteen screen credits.
It must be noted, however, that radio, night clubs and theater were the primary sources of their activity and income. Of course, those countless radio shows have faded forever into the air, as have their many personal appearances, but some of the films and recordings have been restored. There are eight movies and two records, which have been collected, but they represent little of the actual career of the Brian Sisters.
They were featured next in a couple of forgettable musicals: New Faces of 1937 for RKO Radio Pictures and Swing While You're Able produced by Melody Pictures. Neither of these films was considered important enough to be restored, so they lie undisturbed to this day in some film vault.
Late in 1937, they were hired to appear in a Twentieth-Century Fox film entitled, Sally, Irene and Mary starring Alice Faye, Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen and Tony Martin. This film, including a charming dancing scene with the female stars, was probably the best musical they made, but, unfortunately, it too was never restored.
Connie Boswell, of the famous singing trio the Boswell Sisters, took an interest in the girls and assigned her brother-in-law to be their agent/personal manager. Meda, then, was released from the responsibility of finding jobs for them, and they were considered truly professionals. Their new manager procured appearances for them at the famous Giro's nightclub, as well as The Mocambo and The Trocadero. Miss Boswell arranged for a short musical film to be produced called Sunday Night at the Trocadero, which starred the Brian Sisters as the focus of the script. This movie was restored to tape but is not listed in any current catalog.
Their manager also scheduled many benefit appearances - very important to a career - including the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio Club and the Motion Picture Relief Fund. These benefits included such famous stars as Milton Berle, Fannie Brice, Mickey Rooney, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby and many others on their rosters.
On the basis of the Brian Sisters' success in Sally, Irene and Mary, the Twentieth Century Fox producers next asked for their appearance in a new Shirley Temple film, but Shirley Temple's mother balked at allowing little Gwen to be seen in the same movie with Shirley. "Too cute" was her reason. When told that Gwen would not be used but Betty and Doris would sing with Shirley in their trio, Betty and Doris balked. However, when faced with the promise that Gwen would be paid for not appearing, and knowing the rent was due, Betty and Doris reluctantly sang with Shirley Temple in Little Miss Broadway. That film is included in the many collections of Shirley Temple releases.
At this time the sisters recorded the voices for cartoon characters - little ducks, monkeys and such. They first recorded the songs, then were placed in front of a black and white camera and lip-synched to the music, their lips covered with white paint and filmed while singing the songs. Watching these clips, the animation artists were then able to impose life-like lip movements on the animals.
There were several appearances in short subject musical films known as "Soundies," which featured specialty acts and were shown in movie theaters as fillers to the main attraction.
The next big movie, in 1938, also at Twentieth Century Fox, was Kentucky Moonshine starring Tony Martin and the Ritz Brothers. It has been released in restored form and is available from certain rare movies catalogs.
In early 1939, negotiations were completed at Twentieth Century Fox for the girls' appearance in Second Fiddle starring the Norwegian ice skating Olympic gold medalist, Sonya Henie, Tyrone Power and Rudy Vallee. It is available from rare films catalogs.
Their next film was Tin Pan Alley, a lively musical from Twentieth Century Fox starring Alice Faye, Betty Grable and John Payne. It has been restored and is available from certain film catalogs.
They next appeared in a Columbia Pictures film called Music in My Heart, starring Rita Hayworth and Tony Martin. The young and very dark-haired Miss Hayworth was just starting her illustrious career. This movie is also available from rare films catalogs.
In 1939, the Brian Sisters' final movie appearance was in Love Affair at RKO, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Often referred to as "the terrific weepy," the script was reworked in 1957 and released under the title An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. It was rewritten loosely in 1993 and presented as Sleepless in Seattle starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, then again, written more faithfully to the original in 1994 as Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. It seems as though movie goers never tire of a good cry. It is ironic that Betty and Doris were considered too old for the orphanage scene in which Miss Dunne teaches the song Wishing Will Make It So to the children residents there. Although all three Brian Sisters recorded that song for the sound track, only Gwen appeared on screen. It was clearly payback for her non-appearance in Little Miss Broadway. As a result of the success of this movie, the Brian Sisters adopted the song Wishing and used it as a theme song for their weekly coast-to-coast radio broadcasts on NBC, accompanied by pianist Skitch Henderson.
While the little trio was growing up and gaining popularity, they were considered for the immensely successful radio show called Camel Caravan, but then were dropped because the sponsor, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, decided that children were not suitable for their product. They were again disappointed when they were chosen to appear as regulars on The Kraft Music Hall starring Bing Crosby, but at the last minute were told that the Mills Brothers had been selected because a black audience was important to the sponsors. In spite of these letdowns, they did appear on many famous radio shows including Lux Radio Theater, the Eddie Cantor weekly called Texaco Town, and for two years on the very popular coast to coast Eddie Lowry Show. They continued with nightclub and theater appearances and sang on background sound tracks of several movies.
In 1941, war clouds in Europe were getting heavy, and activity in Los Angeles was gearing up. There were several radio shows which were devoted to young military servicemen and war-goods industries workers, including Your Blind Date and Hollywood Victory Committee and the Brian Sisters, who were by now teen-agers, were perfect for these types of entertainments. It was at a radio performance on CBS on Sunday, December 7th, when the girls were performing with a big swing band that an announcer interrupted the show to state that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
In late 1943, they were delighted to work with the talented songwriter/producer Johnny Mercer at Capitol Records and were asked to record the Jimmy VanHeusen/Johnny Burke song, Swingin ' on a Star. This recording was listed number one on the charts for several weeks.
Throughout the war years they sang often at the Hollywood Canteen and traveled with USO Camp Shows. They were regulars with the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope North Hollywood Marching and Chowder Club Clambake Follies which performed at many military bases around the Southern California area. They flew with this group in military aircraft (including B-17's, B-24's, B-25's, and C-47's) throughout the western United States. They appeared with the zany Spike Jones Orchestra promoting the sale of War Stamps and Bonds.
In December of 1945, Betty left the group to be married, so Gwen and Doris joined up with two young men to form a quartet. They sang with the Jan Garber Orchestra on the road throughout the U.S., made several recordings with that band, and appeared at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles for over two years. It is interesting that during that time, the Biltmore Bowl was the site of the annual Warner Brothers publicity bash. Photographers from movie magazines, newsreels and advertising firms were there to take pictures of the many famous stars and celebrities who attended, including Ronald Reagan and his then-wife, Jane Wyman.
When Gwen married in 1946, Doris carried the ball alone and joined with another girl and three young men to form a five-part harmony group. Considered "studio musicians," they recorded vocal background music for films and recordings. They also appeared in early television shows including Ed Sullivan's Your Show of Shows (later named Toast of the Town) when it was broadcast from Los Angeles. In 1952, Doris left California to live in Ogden, Utah, but she continued to sing with a radio- advertising group in Salt Lake City called Notable Ads.
Meda, finally able to turn her attention to herself, became an accomplished representative for a beautiful linens firm and retired in 1975. She lived with Betty until her death in 1995 at age one hundred and two. Throughout this remarkable journey, the Brian Sisters and their mother kept trust with the teachings of the gospel. It is clear that faith and reliance on prayer kept them safe in unsafe surroundings. Their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as their membership in the extended Nichols family, were always foremost in their minds as responsibilities to be taken seriously. They devoted many hours of benefit performances to Hollywood Ward, Los Angeles Stake and other church programs. Their lives after their careers were successful, with bright and beautiful children of their own. There are at this time, the year 2001, two surviving sisters - Betty, in Torrance, California, and Doris in Ogden, Utah.