Babcock Theatre, Billings, MT – May 17-18, 1924 – Donna Darling & Company

Donna Darling and Boys
Billings Gazette, 18 May 1924
Courtesy: Newspapers.Com

I’m still looking to find more about Donna’s time in the Spring of 1924. I know she was in Bridgeport, CT in early February but have nothing on her whereabouts until she appears in Billings, Montana, at the Babcock Theater on May 17th and 18th. There is a lot of time and there are many places between the two shows. More to research.

I know very little (yet) about Donna’s “Novel Song and Dance Romance.” We do know that the Babcock Theater advertised it as a headline act within its vaudeville offering for the day Featuring “Donna Darling” in their “Five Big Acts” for the day. [i]

The Billings Gazette of May 18th shows a photo of “Donna and the Boys” on Page 16. [ii]

Unfortunately, all the copies I could find of the paper, both Newspapers.Com and Newspaper Archive.Com, have really poor quality images of the paper. If anyone has access to the original papers and would do a photo image of the paper I’d really love it. In the meantime, I’ll put trying to find a copy of it on my “want to do list.”
I also know on June 2nd she is in Oakland, California. Although it is only two weeks later, I doubt she went that distance without a few shows along the way. So much more to research.

Babcock Theatre

Babcock Theater c. 1913
Courtesy: Puget Sound Pipeline

In 1896, A. L. Babcock opened the Billings Opera House. Mr. Babcock operated that theater until September 22, 1906 when the building burned. Mr. Babcock built a new theater, the Babcock, a few blocks away and opened it just over a year later, on December 23, 1907.[iii]

At the time it was built, at the time was considered the largest theater between Minneapolis and Seattle.

The Julius Cahn Gus Hill Theatrical Guide, 1922 Supplement, reports that the Babcock Theatre seated 1200 people and the stage was 36×32 feet.

On February 21, 1935, the Babcock Theatre was rented out for a prize fight. It was a real “smoker.” The fire chief ask there be no smoking in the theatre, however, the patrons didn’t listen and a fire broke out under the boxing ring. The theatre entrance lobby and 13 rows of seating under the balcony were all that survived. The roof collapsed during the night, the proscenium

Babcock Theater Today
Photo: By Sara goth [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
arch failed, the stage was ruined and the amazing pipe organ demolished. The owner at the time considered rebuilding as entirely apartments or hotel, but decided to rebuild as a theatre. Within six months it was rebuilt. The reopening was a huge affair with the street being closed to handle the crowds, bands playing, and telegrams from Hollywood celebrities including Katherine Hepburn, W.C. Fields, Mae West, and Bette Davis [iv].

Today, after extensive renovations from 2008 through 2012, it houses 14 apartment units, retail shopping, and again operates a theatre for live performances.[v] The next live show scheduled at the Babcock is D. L. Hughley[vi], stand-up comedian, the original host of “Comic View”, and the eponymous character of The Hughleys.

Ninety years after Donna Darling and Company performed, comedy is still alive at the Babcock.

Further Research

Find a better quality image of The Billings
, 18 May  1924, Page 16.


Note: This post was reformatted on 27 April 2018. 

[i] The Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana) 17 May 1924, Sat • Page 3 – Advertisement: Babcock Theatre – “Donna Darling and Company “ Source: Newspapers.Com, et al.
[ii] The Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana) 18 May 1924, Sun • Page 16 – Feature Vaudeville_Act. Source: Newspapers.Com, et al.
[iii] United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Registration Form – Babcock Theatre Building – Page 13:
[iv] United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Registration Form – Babcock Theatre Building – Page 22:
[v] Wikipedia: Billings, Montana; the historic Babcock Theater,_Montana
[vi] Babcock Theater website –

Madonna Mae Montran (1893-1976)

52 Ancestors #7 — Madonna Mae Montran (1893-1976)

Madonna’s Early Life

Madonna’s life is defined by her names.  Every part of her incredible life is defined by the name she used.  
Only known photo of
Madonna as a child.
Madonna was born 20 Feb 1893 in Albion, Calhoun County, Michigan, to Ida Barber and John Montran. There is no evidence that Ida and John were ever married.  Although there are indexes that indicate Madonna has a birth certificate in Calhoun county, the County was unable to fine a copy of the certificate.  Sometime later in 1893, Donna’s mother married Max Fisher.  Max, Ida, and Madonna were living in Manistee, Michigan, in 1900 and Madonna was using the last name of Fisher.  
We know that Max died and in 1904, Ida married Jos. Holdsworth.  Jos. was from Minneapolis, which is our first connection with Minneapolis.  We don’t know where they lived, however, by 1910, Ida and Madonna, now Holdsworth, were living in Detroit, Michigan. Living with them was Ida’s mother, Sarah (Blackhurst) Barber, and Harvey Knight who was a “boarder.”
Oral history indicates that Madonna attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada where she learned piano and singing. There is a family story about Madonna getting a job because she went to a music store and sat in the window playing a piano.  Her highly skilled playing helped sell pianos so they let her do so.  From that exposure, she got a job playing the music at silent films in Rochester, New York.
Interestingly enough, neither of her children knew that Madonna married Chester Fenyvessey on 1 Oct 1911 in Lake Erie, Welland, Ontario, Canada. Chester Fenyvessey was a theatrical manager at the Rochester Hippodrome. When Madonna and Chester separated isn’t clear, but by 1914 Madonna had changed her name to “Donna” and left for California.
Donna is standing, fourth from left with cap on.

The Show Business Years

In California Madonna became one of Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties, and activity that would serve her later on in her career.  She also had an uncredited part in “Birth of a Nation,” D.W Griffith’s silent classic.  In the film she was one of the “Dancers of 1862.”  The film released in February, 1915. 

In July, 1915, Donna (Montran) was in Boston and was involved in a publicity stunt where she dropped flyers from a biplane onto spectators. 
In 1916, Donna won a bathing beauty competition at Madison Square Garden.  This was four years before the “Fall Frolic” began which would become the basis of the Miss America competition which began in 1921. In some respects, Donna was a Miss America five years before the pageants began.   Also in 1916, Donna applied to represent Boston at at New York’s Crystal Palace Preparedness Bazaar. She didn’t get the job, but it is clear that she was a considerable beauty for her time. 
In 1919, Donna modeled for the cover of sheet music of the song, “In the Heart of a Fool.”  She also appears to have recorded the music, however, I have been unable to find a copy of the recording. Also, in 1919 Donna began her live stage career. She was in the show “Bonnets” by Charles Smith and Abel Green.  Able Green would go on to be the editor of “Variety” magazine for forty years. 
Also, in 1919 Donna joined the cast of the road version of “Chin Chin” and tour the United States from the east to Oregon and Washington and back. The show continued into 1920.
In September, 1920, Donna began as the headliner for a vaudeville show, “California Bathing Girls.”  Obstensively, it was a review of bathing suits from the 1860s to modern (1920s) times.  As one reviewer said, “it offered nothing more than a leg show.” The show continued well into 1921.
In December, 1921, Donna began a new song and dance review with Murray Walker and Walter Davis who in later billings would be known as “the boys.”  I have a lot more research to do to follow Donna through the 1920, what shows she was in, and who she was with. In most every case, she was the headliner.  Later in the 1920’s she changed her stage name to “Donna Darling.”
I am not quite sure when she met Sammy Clark (aka Samson Amsterdam), probably in 1925 or 1926. They were married and in 1928 they had a son, Russell.  
The depression hit in 1929 and it hit the vaudeville industry hard.  In March of 1930 Donna and Sammy went to Panama.  While in Panama City, Panama, Donna met a US soldier named  Clifford Brown. It appears that Donna was smitten by Clifford and Sammy wasn’t pleased. When they returned in April of 1930, Donna and Sammy were clearly estranged. They had separate cabins on the ship and each identified their address as their individual parent’s homes.  About a year later Donna became pregnant with Clifford’s child. Sammy stayed married to Donna, to “give the child a name” and then quietly divorced her after the birth.
Donna’s second child was born in January, 1932 and they lived in Chicago, right down town.  Donna didn’t want to marry Clifford and there was a lot of stress about that. Apparently Clifford wasn’t happy about the way Donna was raising their child and in April of 1935 Clifford child-napped the daughter and brought her to Minnesota. Donna brought the police to bear and Clifford was arrested and returned to Illinois. Proper extradition wasn’t followed and there are many newspaper articles regarding the illegal arrest by Illinois police in Minnesota. Clifford went to prison in Illinois. When he came out of prison, he changed his name to Richard. Why will always remain a mystery. 

Later Life

Donna moved from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan, about the time Richard was released from prison. In Grand Rapids Donna was living with a Russell Kees.  It is unclear if Donna and Russell were ever legally married, however Donna did take his name, the name she would keep for the rest of her life.  About 1942, Donna, Russell, and the kids moved to Detroit and lived in a house on Olivet. 
Where both Donna and her daughter worked in 1952
Photo from 1920s; however, building was not 
renovated until 1983
Thanks to Hennepin County Library
The Minneapolis Photo Collection
In 1950, Donna’s daughter had a son, named Donald, after Donna. In 1952, Donna and her daughter were living at 1221-1/2 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis and both were working at N

even’s Company, Donna as a seamstress, her daughter as a presser.  Her daughter left Minnesota late in 1953 to have a second child, this time a girl, who was also named “Donna.” When the elder Donna was called and told the news, that it was a girl and was named “Donna,” her daughter asked if she could keep the baby.  The elder Donna said to keep with the plan and put the baby up for adoption. Little Donna’s adoptive parents renamed her Glennis.  During the 1950s Donna was the housekeeper for the family as little Donald’s mother worked to support the family. 

Donna’s Final Years

In 1962, Donna’s daughter married Edgar Matson.  Extreme friction developed between Donna, who had a quick wit and piercing words and Edgar who was very abusive to her daughter and her grandson. Donna was forced to move out into an apartment by herself.  The animosity between Donna and Edgar was so virulent that Edgar promised he would “piss on her grave.”

In the late 1960s, I visited Donna fairly often. I am sad to say it was with ulterior motives. Near where she lived a liquor store would deliver “adult beverages.”  My best friend and I would visit her.  While there, we would order booze. When it arrived, Donna would go to the door and pay for it with money we gave her.  Sometimes we would order some for her as well. But, shortly after the booze arrived, my friend and I would leave, giving Donna our love and appreciation. Sometimes she would show us her scrapbooks, which were filled with clippings from the 1920s and her many show business activities.
Donna died on 14 September 1976. To thwart Edgar’s promise, Donna willed her body to the University of Minnesota to their cadaver program.  Donna was cremated in 1979. Her cremains were buried in a mass grave for University of Minnesota donors at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Sadly, her photos and clippings were lost as Edgar wouldn’t allow anything of Donna’s into his house. 
I am sad to say that I was in the navy when she died and hadn’t seen her for several years.  I never had the opportunity to truly thank her for all she did to raise me for the first twelve years of my life.

Madonna/Donna was an amazing woman, who, while young, lived on the edge. She traveled the country from coast to coast several times, she was in show business and lived life in the fast lane. And in later life she was, in many ways, cast aside and forgotten. 

Madonna’s many names included:

Madonna Montran
Madonna Fisher
Madonna Holdsworth
Madonna Fenyvessey
Donna Montran
Donna Amsterdam
Donna Clark
Donna Darling
Donna Kees

I miss Donna and will celebrate her life, on this the 121st anniversary of her birth.  I’ll give her a four-finger toast tonight, I think she’d like that, and I vow that I will never forget her.

Donna Darling – 1925 – Alton, Illinois

Alton Evening
26 & 28 Sep 1925
(Thanks to
Newspaper Archive)

On September 26th 1925, The Alton Evening Telegraph advertised a Vaudeville show at the Grand Opera House (Grand Theatre), “Donna Darling and Girls: Singing and Dancing Review.”
In the paper on the 28th, they reported,

“The new vaudeville act at the Grand which opened yesterday is one of the best and was received with great appreciation.

“Donna Darling and Girls” have an offering of song and dance also giving a display of bathing beauties from the year 1860 to 1925 also showing the designs of the French, German, American Hawaiian and other bathing girls and suits.”

Also on the bill was the movie “The Knockout” with Milton Sills and other vaudeville shows including Dippy Diers and Bennett in “Inimitable rantominists” and Lew Rose & Brownie in “Gloom Destroyers”.

The Grand Theatre (Opera House) was built in 1920, so it was only five years old when Donna played there. The theater closed in 1977.

The Grand Theatre
year unknown
Thanks to The Telegraph, Alton, IL 

Beautiful Mother of Mine – By Donna Darling

As I mentioned at Christmas, I was really impressed with the material I found on the Fulton History website.  I’m still not done going through all 60 articles/images, and fully organizing them, but I did find some real gems.  One of the best was a never-before-seen front-on photo of Donna from 1925.  It is amazing how much mom looked like her when she was young.  Anyway, the article indicates that Donna was playing at the Palace in Hamilton, OH as a headliner. 

The other big find was the New York Clipper had a service where you could register your act, song, etc., with them. They did it as a service to the vaudeville community.  I found references to Donna having registered a song with them.  Her name shows in several different issues of the Clipper that she registered a song and was issued a certificate of registration.  

A New York Clipper ad to Register Your Act with them to insure your material against theft.

Interesting…. I wondered what she had registered with them. Was it the song I knew about or was it something entirely different?  What was certificate 1767 issued for?  

I found out that the New York Clipper began in 1854 and was absorbed by Variety in 1924 (1). That is why I quit seeing Clipper articles about Donna and started seeing Variety articles.  I also learned that Variety is still in publication.  

I then began searching for references to the registry. I quickly found that Emerson College has a document, The New York Clipper Vaudeville Registry Collection which listed her certificate and her name and they have the collection.  Amazing. 

Apparently, the Registry was located in two file cabinets at the Variety offices in Los Angeles. An archivist from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came across the documents that were about to be thrown out.  Although it wasn’t something that fit within their archival scope, they thought it best to save the collection and find a permanent home for it.  They finally found a home for the collection at Emerson College and they were transfered there in 2011.

I understand that four interns went through the material and catalogued that collection. Apparently, the task was complicated because many of the items were “protected” by being wrapped in another layer of paper that was highly acidic.  They published a finding aid about the collection in May 2012.  The collection was saved and, most thankfully, Donna’s submission was there.  
After talking with the director, I was able to get a copy of the music and the forms that Donna Submitted in February 15, 1923.

It is reproduced below.

Hear the song – Performed by Russell, Donna’s Son. 

Thank you to the old New York Clipper for providing the original service, Variety for keeping the material for so many years, the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for saving the material from destruction, Emerson College for accepting the material into their collection, and archivist Christina Zamon for making the material available.


Reference Credit:

Box 20, The New York Clipper Registry Collection, Emerson College Archives, Emerson College, Boston, MA.