Joker of all trades remembered in display of his comedy career

NEIGHBORS

April 13, 1994|By PAT BRODOWSKI

Back in the 1920s, "The World's Worst Golfer" made people laugh around the world. Horton Spurr and his slapstick golf routine played the stage of major theaters throughout Europe and the United States.

He appeared with the spectacular song and variety show called Ziegfeld Follies. His was an opening act for first-run movies featuring Abbott and Costello. And when he wasn't chasing a golf ball glued to the head of his club, he was in the eye of the movie camera.

In Hollywood, Horton Spurr doubled for movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He played secondary parts with the stars.

Eddie Cantor became his best friend. Horton Spurr thought himself a hit in "Kid Boots," Cantor's first film. His autographed photo says so.

These were the years of wealth and fame for Horton Spurr and his wife, Bernice, an actress and ballerina who taught at her own school of dance.

In the lobby of the North Carroll Public Library this month, you can glimpse the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Spurr, thanks to their great-niece, Bonnie Yarnell of Hampstead. She has sifted through family memorabilia acquired last July to assemble a fascinating display about her famous kin.

"They kept everything," she said, fondly shifting stacks of publicity photographs, scrapbooks bursting with news clippings, and even two exquisite, and noticeably short-length, wedding dresses from 1925.

"They were flappers," laughed Mrs. Yarnell.

When Horton Mordecai Spurrier (he shortened his name for the stage) married Bernice Magdelene Snyder, her sister, Evelyn Snyder, was maid of honor. Their dresses, both of taupe silk with borders of lace, are in the case.

Eddie Cantor was best man for Horton Spurr. Cantor's wife, Ida, joined the wedding party for a photograph, and it's on display too.

Next to it you'll see the newlyweds' new home, a two-story French-style mansion in Great Neck, Long Island.

"They were not poor," said Mrs. Yarnell, placing one cut-glass necklace of her great aunt's near a rose-colored felt hat. The hat was worn for a publicity photo. The engraved printer's block of Mrs. Spurr in the hat is on display, too.

"I got a real kick out of this," said Mrs. Yarnell, holding up a box. Inside lay a flat swatch of human hair. "This is the toupee Uncle Horton wore when he doubled for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He wore it to get enough height."

She dug out a tarnished brass horn that had a rubber bulb. Each morning, she said, Uncle Horton would beep Aunt Bernice to his bedside. "It got to be a daily joke," she said. Why a horn? "He had been in the Marine Corps," she said.

She slid open a two-part leather purse. Inside was a plastic envelope containing a curl of dark hair.

"He went traveling all over the world. He kept a lock of her hair with him when he traveled. Oh, that's so romantic!" she said. "And I found a whole bag of love letters."

Fluttering through the exhibit are suitcase stickers collected from hotels in places as diverse as Norway, Switzerland, Italy, Netherlands, Greece, Warsaw, London and Chicago.

Throughout the world, Horton Spurr donned plaid knickers to clown in a game of slow-motion golf. For would-be golf comedians, his personal club reveals a secret. The wooden shaft comes apart in thirds. It's held together with toothpick pegs. Perhaps a take-apart golf club would fit inside a suitcase. Perhaps a collapsing shaft was a guaranteed laugh on stage.

Bonnie Yarnell discovered these family treasures last July at the Spurrs' final residence in Pine Plains, N.Y., near Rochester.

"I pulled open a vanity drawer," said Mrs. Yarnell, "and I came across all these bags of hair. My mom said, 'Oh, it's Aunt Bernice's.' She used to sell her hair to a woman in New York who made wigs."

Mrs. Yarnell discovered photographs of her great-aunt taken at ages 1, 3, 21 and 24. There were photographs of her great-aunt's parents, taken in the 1840s. There was a velvet hatband from Bernice's grandmother's wedding in the 1800s.

Predominant in the display are publicity photographs of Horton Spurr. He autographed some of these with devil-may-care exuberance. Photos show his acrobatic golfing, with eyes and mouth agape in exaggerated comedy.

There's a pose in a sombrero from the movie "Ramblers," in which he played a Mexican.

There are two photos of two pirates. One is his movie twin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. On his own he wrote: "I'd rather be cute than handsome, but I missed both."

"When I was 18, I was given a graduation trip to visit them for a week," recalls Mrs. Yarnell. That was many years after their glory days on stage.

Even with their house displaying hundreds of trinkets saved from their lives as entertainers, she knew very little of their past.

"As a child I thought, 'Oh, they're famous.' Now I wish I'd known more about them."

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