July 10, 1926 – Carleton Carpenter
Tall, gangly and preternaturally naïve, Carleton Carpenter appeared in dozens of films, television shows, commercials and stage productions for seven decades. But he’s probably best remembered for two musical numbers he performed with the late great Debbie Reynolds in the 1950 MGM films, Three Little Words and Two Weeks With Love.
Reynolds said to Carpenter in 2015:
You know, you and I are going to be singing Aba Daba Honeymoon when we’re both a hundred years old!
Reynolds was referring to her duet with Carpenter from Two Weeks With Love, the rather creaky MGM musical film directed by Roy Rowland, based on story by John Larkin who co-wrote the screenplay with Dorothy Kingsley, starring Jane Powell, Ann Harding, Ricardo Montalbán. It’s a rather charming tale of a family who leaves their home in New York City to stay at “Kissimee in the Catskills”.
Also from MGM,Three Little Words is a sort of biopic about the Tin Pan Alley songwriting partnership of Kalmar and Ruby. It stars Fred Astaire as lyricist Bert Kalmar, Red Skelton as composer Harry Ruby, along with Vera-Ellen and Arlene Dahl as their wives, with Reynolds in a small but important role as singer Helen Kane. It was the third in a series of MGM biopics about Broadway composers: Till The Clouds Roll By (1946) about Jerome Kern; Words And Music (1948) and Rodgers and Hart; Deep in My Heart (1954) about Sigmund Romberg.
In the Three Little Words, Carpenter plays the meek and mute romantic interest to Reynolds. They cavort and sing Helen Kane’s hit I Wanna Be Loved By You.
Aba Daba Honeymoon from Two Weeks With Love was written by Arthur Fields and Walter Donovan in 1914. It is a rapid-fire, tongue-twisting duet. The song went to Number Three on the Billboard charts in 1951 and was the biggest hit from a film soundtrack up to that time. The studio sent Reynolds and Carpenter on a multi-city personal appearance tour to capitalize on its success.
The song was inserted into the film by accident. Carpenter told Boy Culture:
Debbie and I were scheduled to perform a couple of numbers together, but in the rehearsal hall there was a huge pile of sheet music. I pulled out this sheet with monkeys on the cover and played it for Debbie. I was hatching a scheme in my head.
When Jack Cummings, the film’s producer, showed up on the set, Carpenter gave the sheet music to the rehearsal pianist and he and Reynolds performed the song at breakneck speed. Cummings decided that the number had to be in the film.
Carpenter was born in Bennington, Vermont. Before his acting career, he served in the U.S. Navy as a Seabee as part of the 38th Battalion that built the airstrip on the tiny Pacific island of Tinian where the Enola Gay took off on it mission to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
He took over the lead role of Michael in the original production of The Boys In The Band, and has long been open about his nonchalant bisexuality, especially in his tell-all memoir, The Absolute Joy Of Work: From Vermont to Broadway, Hollywood And Damn Near ‘Round The World (2016), where he writes: “I slept with as many women as I did men”. Among them was sexy Larry Kert, the original Tony from West Side Story (1957).
Carpenter began his performing career as a magician. His first appearance on Broadway was in famed producer David Merrick‘s first show, Bright Boy in 1944. His stage résumé includes a touring production of Hello, Dolly! opposite Mary Martin, which toured Vietnam during the war and was filmed as a NBC television special, Crazy For You (1992) on Broadway, and the City Center revival of Kander and Ebb‘s 70, Girls, 70 in 2006.
His films include Father Of The Bride (1950), Summer Stock (1950), and his personal favorite, the breezy western Sky Full Of Moon (1952), one of his few leading roles, playing a cowboy named Tumbleweed. But one of his craziest movies is the early gay themed Some Of My Best Friends Are… (1971), with a cast that includes lesbian writer Fannie Flagg, and Gay Icons Rue McClanahan and Candy Darling. It is about Christmas Eve in a New York gay bar called the Blue Jay, and I can best describe it as The Poseidon Adventure on land and with tinsel.
His first leading role was in MGM’s Fearless Fagan (1952). It is loosely based on a true story about a guy who was drafted into the army and tried to take his pet lion named Fagan with him. Carpenter:
I had a lion for a co-star! But it was my first star billing – you just go with it.
The posters promoted the film’s stars as: Janet Leigh, Carleton Carpenter, Keenan Wynn and introducing Fearless Fagan (himself), although the real Fagan makes only one brief appearance at the beginning of the film. Carpenter:
He had a double! Fagan and I worked on the MGM lot for a month getting used to each other, but he was old. By the time we started filming, his trainer was worried he might hurt someone. The studio brought in a young lion and he was like a pussy cat. I crawled into bed with him, we wrestled, and I did every scene with him. I had padding under my uniform and around my arms, but occasionally he would nip my rump.
Carpenter wrote a series of mystery novels in the 1970s and 1980s. Plus, he is a songwriter; he composed the song Christmas Eve, recorded by Billy Eckstine, and Cabin In the Woods and Ev’ry Other Day, which he recorded for MGM Records. He also wrote special nightclub material for Reynolds, Kaye Ballard, Marlene Dietrich and Hermione Gingold.
One of his best and closest friends was Reynolds, with whom he kept in touch through the decades. On her death, Carpenter said:
It was awful. I had over a hundred messages on my machine when I got home, and I was very sick.
Carpenter celebrates his 93rd birthday today. Abba dabba that!