Tuesday, October 6, 2015
I love me some Buster Crabbe!!!
He was born February 7, 1908, in Oakland, California, to Edward and Lucy (née McNamara) Crabbe. His father was a real estate agent, and he had one brother, Edward (born 1909). When he was 18 months old, his father's business partner absconded with the firm's funds. Destitute, Edward Crabbe turned to his home state -- Hawaii -- for work. He got a job as overseer at a pineapple plantation, and the Crabbe family moved to Oahua and took up residence with Edward's parents. Called Buster from an early age, he learned to swim at the age of 5 by standing on a sandbar and allowing the water to lift him. When Buster was three, his father got anothe real estate job and moved the family to Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. When Edward enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I, Buster began attending Honolulu Military Academy. (He did not start the first grade until he was eight years old.) In 1920, the Crabbe's moved back to Honolulu, where Buster's parents divorced after his mother began an affair with another man. Buster didn't start sports until he was 15, as his father felt organized sports to be too strenuous for his eldest son. Buster attended Puna Hou High School in Honolulu, where he lettered every year in football, basketball, track, and swimming. He was such a brainy kid, he graduated on time despite having started elementary school three years later than his peers.
Buster's skill at swimming had earned him three trips to Japan, and even pitted him against future Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller (the then-world record holder). Buster entered the University of Hawaii, but then received an offer for a full-ride tuition scholarship from Yale University and appointment to West Point. He qualified for the U.S. Swim Team at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He didn't do well there, having fallen ill with influenza during the trip over and losing 10 pounds. By the time he entered Yale the next fall, Buster Crabbe was 20 years old. But just two weeks into the semester, he learned that his beloved grandmother (who had helped raise him after his parents' divorce) was dying. Buster left for Hawaii, but his grandmother did not die until March. During this time, Buster attended the University of Hawaii again. In the spring, Yale told Buster he could re-enroll the following autumn, but as a freshman again. His UH credits didn't count.
In the summer of 1929, the University of Southern California agreed to transfer his credits, and enroll Buster on a full-ride tuition scholarship. While at USC, Buster answered a call for an MGM musical, Good News, in which he had a background role as a pipe-smoking student-athlete. While setting school and national swimming records, Buster appeared in a speaking role in Columbia Picture's 1931 motion picture, The Maker of Men. (An assistant director told him to stand as close as possible to the stars. That way, if reshoots were needed, they'd have to call Buster back as well.)
Buster Crabbe received his Bachelor of Science degree from USC in the spring of 1931. The father of his long-time girlfriend, Adah Virginia Held, was a film editor at MGM, and he encouraged Buster to try out for the part of Tarzan -- then being cast. Buster reluctantly did so, but lost the role to Johnny Weissmuller. (He wouldn't have taken the role had he won, as he wanted to qualify for the Olympics again). At the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Buster competed in the 400 meter freestyle, winning gold. He set an Olympic record, winning gold -- the only gold medal the men's swim team won that year.
In October of 1932, Buster got his big break: Paramount wanted him for a Tarzan knock-off. The role was Kaspa the Lion King in King of the Jungle. Crabbe had tested for the role several times over the past few months, but had discouraged any attempt to cast him because he was still training for the Olympics. Buster had long wanted to attend law school, and the $100 a week salary for making the film would more than pay for it.
As soon as filming on King of the Jungle ended, Buster was hired to play Tarzan in Tarzan the Fearless. Although MGM owned the rights to most of the Tarzan novels and stores, an independent producer held an option on five of them. With MGM's Tarzan doing gangbuster business, Principal Distributing decided to move ahead with production on the five films. Tarzan the Fearless was to be the first, released as a 12-chapter serial. Buster never went to law school; he remained an actor for the next 30 years.
Crabbe's role in Tarzan the Fearless led to a career in which he starred in more than one hundred films and serials. Buster would later reprise his Lion King role in 1941's Jungle Man and 1952's King of the Congo. But he also starred in popular teen romance films, including The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (wooing Betty Grable) and Search for Beauty (smooching Ida Lupino).
In 1936, Buster was cast in Flash Gordon -- one of his most iconic roles. The serial proved wildly popular, and he starred in two sequels: Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). Along the way, Buster filmed another science fiction great, Buck Rogers, in 1939. All four serials would find life on television in the 1950s, edited into half-hour chapters and earning Buster a significant income.
Buster starred in a Western, Billy the Kid: Wanted, in 1941. Billy the Kid/Billy Carson became his most lucrative role, even if the films were B-movies. He made a whopping 36 Billy the Kid movies over the next five years.
By the 1950s, Buster was in his 40s and beginning to show his age. He could no longer do the really physical activity required of his earlier Flash Gordon, Lion King, or Billy the Kid roles. So he made the move to television. From March 1951 to October 1952, he hosted The Buster Crabbe Show on WOR-TV in New York City. The five-nights-a-week show depicted Buster hanging out at a ranch bunk house telling stories, playing games with children, doing arts-and-cafts, making safety tips, and interviewing old movie stars. These segments appedared before, during, and after reruns of old movie serials, Westerns, and comedies. The show was revived on WJZ-TV in September 1953, retitled Buster's Buddies! This time, it had a studio audience and was more of a variety show. It ran until March 1954.
But Buster hadn't lost his good looks. In 1955 he began starring for two seasons in Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion. The show was a hit, but the high cost of filming on location in French Morocco and (for the second season) in Italy led to its cancellation. Buster earned significant income from royalties, however, as the show aired extensively in reruns in the 1960s under the title Foreign Legionnaire.
Buster made just six films between 1957 and 1965. With his Hollywood career ending, Crabbe became a stockbroker and owned a swimming pool installation company in California. He later became vice president of swimming pool company Cascade Industries, promoting their swimming pools. A line of vinyl in-ground pools was named after him, and sold by "Buster Crabbe Dealers" throughout the eastern and southern states from 1952 until 1990. He made an occasional film, and appeared in television commercials, and returned to competitive swimming. During his senior swimming career, Buster set 16 world and 35 national records. In 1971, he set a world record in his age group.
In 1933, Buster married his long-time sweetheart, Adah Virginia Held. The couple had three children: Caren Lynn "Sande" Crabbe (born July 1936); Susan Ann Crabbe (born April 1938), and Cullen Held Crabbe (born September 1944). Sande died of anorexia in 1957; the other children still live.
Buster Crabbe died on April 23, 1983, of a heart attack sustained after a fall in his Scottsdale, Arizona, home. He was interred at Green Acres Memorial Park in Scottsdale.