written by Nan Jarrett
"My earliest dreams were of acting, and I have never considered anything else." Those were the words of Gene Barry a few years ago as he reflected on his successful career that spanned over half of a century.

The acting bug bit little Eugene Klass in the first grade when he played Bluebeard in homemade pantaloons and turban, and an absorbent-cotton beard dipped in ink. "But my parents, like many others, regarded acting as somehow related to panhandling. So when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a civil engineer. I wasn't sure what a civil engineer was, but it sounded respectable."

In his teens, he tried out for every kind of amateur theatrical he could find. His only scholastic interests in public school were the dramatic clubs and English. "I was unlike any other boy you can conjure up, very careful not to sound like the guys in the street. I never ran with gangs or packs. I was a loner. And no matter what, I always dressed well."

Eugene was a violin prodigy and had a promising baritone voice, traits he had inherited from his parents. His father was a fine amateur violinist, and his mother was gifted with an outstanding voice. However, he gave up the violin after breaking his arm playing football, and turned to singing. In a $12 rented tuxedo, he reported to a Patterson, N.J. nightclub for his first professional job at $30 a week. Although he was fired after a week, the youth persisted in pursuing a career as a baritone by singing in choirs, glee clubs, and even with a small dance band in nightclubs, all the while gaining valuable experience.

While a senior in New Utrecht High School, Gene won one of General Sarnoff's musical scholarships to the Chatham Square School of Music. After studying there for two years, he got a job singing on a weekly radio show, won a prize on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," and traveled through the Catskills working brief engagements. He borrowed "Barry" from his actor idol, John Barrymore, while leading a high school dance band, and "made, if not a Barrymore, at least one Barry more."

But his heart was in the theatre, and Gene Barry began making the rounds of the casting offices for work. His first big break came in 1940, when he joined the road company of "Pins & Needles." Following that show, he got a role in the off-Broadway play, "Idiot's Delight." When he was given the role of a 35-year-old man known as "the Bat" in Max Reinhardt's 1942 production of "Rosalinda," he was on his way to a stage career.

Before he turned 21, Gene Barry had a vast background as a singer and dancer, and a promising career in the theatre. His subsequent theatrical credits included "The Merry Widow," "Catherine Was Great," "Glad To See you," "Bless You All," "Happy is Larry," and "The Would-Be Gentleman." He supplemented his stage endeavors by emceeing variety shows, performing in vaudeville, and singing at state fairs.

back home next