The Good Witch

By | Aug 7, 2011

When the Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, first appeared in the movie The Wizard of Oz you could see and feel the glamour of the lady who played the part. What many may not have realized about Billie Burke was that at the time she was 53 years old.

Billie Burke was born Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke on August 7, 1885 in Washington DC. Her father, Billy Burke, was a Barnum and Baily circus clown. She feminizing his first name to Billie as her stage name. As a young girl he moved the family to England to start a troupe of clowns on his own. She was educated in England and France.

Billie Burke in 1909

She began her stage career at the turn of the 20th century first in England and then to New York. She was considered by famed Broadway Showman Florenz Ziegfeld as one of the 10 most beautiful women of all time. He married her in 1914 and they had a daughter Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson (1916-2008).

Shortly after her marriage she appeared in her first silent film in the title role of Peggy (1916). Even though she would make a number of silent films she also returned to her first love, the stage. In 1921 she retired from both the stage and films to live the life as Mrs. Ziegfeld.

1929 was a terrible year for the Zeigfelds. They lost their savings with the Wall Street crash. He was able to staged a revival of Show Boat and things were looking brighter until his death on July 22, 1932. This caused Billie Burke to return to films.

Since films were no longer silent she was able to speak on camera. She worked most often at MGM. There were some times when she was loaned to Hal Roach studios, where she appeared as Mrs. Topper in the three Topper fantasy films, played Oliver Hardy’s wife in Zenobia (1939) and earned an academy award nomination for her performance in Merrily We Live (1938).

She worked constantly throughout the 1940s and the 1950s retiring in 1959. Even though it was obvious she was having trouble remembering lines she said “Acting just wasn’t any fun anymore.” Her last film role was in John Ford’s 1960 film Sergeant Rutledge. Billie Burke died on May 14, 1970 at the age of 84.


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