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Stage Names: Would You Change Your Name for Fame?

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Guest blogger JILL BARNETT ponders the reinvented names that work magic on our lives….or do they?

I stood in front of the mirror backstage, proudly inspecting my makeup and blue and white gingham costume. Granted, I was in the midst of the most unfortunate awkward phase in the history of adolescence (my parents truly should have kept me indoors as a public service), but on that night, opening night of our middle school musical, The Wizard of Oz, I was too excited about my debut as Dorothy to notice that my skinny body and giant hair made me resemble a human Q-Tip. As I saw my gangly13-year-old reflection staring back at me, only one thing entered my mind: stardom!

I couldn’t deny that dress rehearsals hadn’t been pretty–the Stryofoam rainbow prop had a habit of crashing to the ground as I sang about troubles melting like lemon drops, and then there was that pesky issue of my ruby slippers shedding chunks of red glitter with every step I took, but in my mind, this elite middle school production of The Wizard of Oz (complete with an orchestra consisting of a pianist, a flatulent flautist, and a drummer who smelled like Velveeta cheese) was my launching pad to certain fame. Who cared that many of the Munchkins were taller than I was, that our Toto was missing in action, or that the stage crew had never gotten around to actually building a set? Not I! I was too busy daydreaming about seeing my name in lights.

WAIT! My name in lights? Jill Barnett in lights? I didn’t even like my given name for everyday use, and certainly had no desire to see it on the marquis of the Gershwin Theatre or to hear it read aloud upon the win of my first Tony Award. Nope, Jill Barnett simply wouldn’t do, and in my opinion, it had even less star quality than a name like Frances Ethel Gumm, who happened to be my favorite actress and singer.

I knew that Ms. Gumm would have empathized with my plight, as she had surely once known the pain of being saddled with a name that felt more Frumpsville than glamorous icon; after all, why else would she have changed her name to Judy Garland? And if Frances Gumm, the original Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz, could give herself a new name, why couldn’t I do the same? Then and there, I adopted my stage name: Victoria Collins.

Victoria Collins came to me out of the blue, and was everything the name Jill Barnett wasn’t: elegant, dramatic, flowery, and longer than three syllables. Sure, Jill Barnett was an awkward teen in need of braces and a palate expander, but Victoria Collins was sophisticated, graceful, and mature. As I took the stage that night and imagined myself as Victoria Collins, I understood firsthand the transformative power of names.

Hollywood understands it, too, and has artfully transformed many an ugly duckling moniker into a melodic name befitting a sophisticated swan, genteel girl next door, or manly matinee idol. Gloomy Frances Gumm wasn’t right for the role of Dorothy Gale, but vibrant Judy Garland? She was perfect for the part! Alexandra Zuck didn’t feel perky and warm like the character of Gidget, but Sandra Dee? How wholesome! Merle Johnson, Jr. didn’t project the image of a big screen heartthrob, but Troy Donahue? Cue the screaming girls! In the world of Hollywood, stage names clearly play a crucial role in defining a performer’s image, making it possible for mere mortals to travel somewhere over the rainbow into the magical world of fame and fortune.

Here’s a look at some of my favorite Hollywood transformations:

Actresses:

JOYCE FRANKENBERG: Known for her guides to romantic living, Joyce spent a large chunk of the 1990s gracing our TV screens as Michaela Quinn, M.D. in the television series Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, using little more than string and a smile to operate on frontier folk. You know her better as Jane Seymour.

BETTY JOAN PERSKE: Betty starred in classic films such as To Have and Have Not and Key Largo, but her husband, Humphrey Bogart, knew her better as Lauren Bacall.

EDNA GILHOOLEY: “And the Academy Award goes to…Edna Gilhooley?” Apparently, she didn’t like the sound of it, either, because this Academy Award winning actress known for roles in films such as Alice Doesn’t Sleep Here Anymore and The Last Picture Show is better known as Ellen Burstyn.

CONSTANCE OCKLEMAN: The personification of Old Hollywood glamour and the star of films including Sullivan’s Travels and This Gun for Hire, you probably recognize Ms. Ockleman by her stage name, Veronica Lake.

TULA FINKLEA: A dancer and actress you may have seen in movies such as Singing in the Rain and The Harvey Girls, Tula Finklea chose the stage name Cyd Cherise.

LUCILLE LE SUEUR: This Old Hollywood star of films such as The Women and Mildred Pierce (I hear she was quite the Mommie Dearest), apparently was going for a less glamorous name, preferring the no-nonsense Joan Crawford to her alliterative given name.

VERA JAYNE PALMER: This iconic actress and pinup girl was killed in a tragic accident. Better known to you and me as Jayne Mansfield, her daughter, Mariska Hargitay, has followed in her acting footsteps.

DORIS VON KAPPELHOFF: This perky star of films such as Pillow Talk and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies obviously liked her first name, but wasn’t the biggest fan of her last name, which she traded in for the cheerier (and less clunky) Day.

DIANE HALL: She grew up to star in a film named after her childhood nickname, Annie Hall, and you may have seen her in movies such as Baby Boom and Father of the Bride. Because there was already a Diane Hall in the Actors Guild, she chose to use her mother’s maiden name instead of Hall, becoming Diane Keaton.

Actors:

ARCHIBALD LEACH: Archibald, the handsome star of films such as Bringing Up Baby, An Affair to Remember, and To Catch a Thief chose to become the suave Cary Grant.

MARION MORRISON: An iconic star of many a manly Western, Marion must have had issues with his less than masculine name, preferring the more macho John Wayne.

EUGENE OROWITZ: Eugene starred in one of my favorite television shows of all time, Little House on the Prairie, as well as in the long-running Bonanza, and entered our hearts as Michael Landon.

LEONARD SLYE: Leonard, an actor who made his mark in Westerns, must have been a fan of alliteration, because he traded in his given name for the slick Roy Rogers.

ROY SCHERER, JR.: Roy starred across Doris Von Kappelhoff (Day) in several movies, including Pillow Talk, and the public came to adore him as Rock Hudson.

ALPHONSO D’ABRUZZO: Alphonso found success on both the small and large screens, most notably in the television series M.A.S.H. and in films such as Same Time Next Year (in which he starred with Edna Gilhooley/Ellen Burstyn). Keeping his initials, he chose a much shorter stage name, Alan Alda.

HARVEY YEARY: The star of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Fall Guy, Harvey was born to become Lee Majors.

JOHN BLYTHE: An Old Hollywood star with a famous granddaughter, Mr. Blythe graced the big screen in movies such as Grand Hotel and A Bill of Divorcement. Even without the help of Nameberry, Mr. Blythe must have realized that a longer last name would better suit John, and he traded in Blythe for Barrymore.

FREDERICK AUSTERLITZ: The star of notable films such as Funny Face, Easter Parade, and Holliday Inn, this singer, actor, and dancer is remembered fondly as Fred Astaire.

If you could become a star, would you choose to use a stage name? If so, what would it be?

JILL BARNETT, a lifelong name fan, enjoys working with children, painting, drawing, writing, running, cooking, traveling, and following popular culture and politics. She wrote previously for us on hating her name, and is famous on the nameberry message boards as just plain Jill, always dispensing excellent advice.

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