Dakota Relatives, 1930

March 31, 2010

The Frank Reardons visit the Dan O’Keeffes in Pierre, Summer, 1930

From left: Alice Breene O’Keeffe, Lauretta Varty Reardon, Betty Reardon, Helen Wickersham Reardon, Agnes O’Keeffe, Daniel V. O’Keeffe, Daniel J.  O’Keeffe, Pat Reardon, Frank Reardon.

In 1930, Dan O’Keeffe was a lawyer in Pierre, SD, Frank Reardon was a bank cashier in Hoven, SD, and Lauretta, wife of Paul Reardon, was a teacher in Bowbells, ND, on the Saskatchewan border.


John and Julia O’Connor O’Keeffe, circa 1875

John and Julia married in 1862 in Boherbue, County Cork, Ireland, and reached Brattleboro VT before the birth of their first child, Ellen Ann “Nellie,” on September 27, 1863. John isn’t seen again until 1870 when he and Julia are working at a boarding house in Brattleboro. Family stories place John in New Zealand in search of gold. He sailed to California in 1868 and he and Julia moved to Wisconsin in the early 1870s where they farmed and raised Nellie, J.D., Hannah, Pat and Dan.

Reardon’s Farm, July 4, 1915

Reardon women and girls pose at Reardon’s farm including, probably, Stapletons, Kellys, Kiltys and, certainly, Reardons. The woman in back, center, with gray hair is Nellie O’Keeffe Reardon. Directly in front of her is Nellyebelle (hairbow), whose arm is around Alice Reardon. Behind Alice is Judy Reardon (plaid skirt) with Blanche to the right in gray-looking dress. The five women and girl farthest to our left are probably Stapletons with Margaret fourth from left in back and Dorothy the young girl. Marie Kelly may be second from right. No doubt we are missing a paired picture of the Reardon men and boys.

Neil and Nellie O’Keeffe Reardon with Bill

William John “Bill” Reardon was the first child born to Neil and Nellie O’Keeffe Reardon, August 3, 1890, at River Falls, Wisconsin. Seven more children followed: Paul Allen, Francis Leo “Frank”, Edmund Cornelius, Julia, Harvey, Blanche, and Nellyebelle.

From 1930 until 1935, Blanche and Nellyebelle Reardon toured Chicago, where they lived, and four nearby states, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, as “The Reardon Sisters” in “costume programs.”  They set off from their apartment in South Shore in their Model T with costumes they had sewn, professional photographs, and prepared skits that emphasized other cultures (Japanese, Dutch, Irish) or characters (the colonial maiden and the flapper).

Dutch Skit with Nellyebelle as Hans “who paid five cents for a nice valentine for Gretchen and now she knows he loves her and she”s going to help him learn his dance steps . . . . He always thinks his right foot is his left one.Vot Dumbness!” –from photograph caption

The sisters kept a scrapbook of their professional photographs, brochures, programs, and newspaper clippings. From these sources, we know they performed at least 60 times between 1929 and 1935 while letters from Charles Cannon, who was courting Blanche, suggest that there were many more appearances. Their audiences included high schools and colleges, women’s clubs,  Kiwanis Clubs, YWCAs, the annual conventions of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women and the Catholic Daughters of America, and the DePaul School of Music.

Savanna, Iowa, April 13, 1934

Two experiences stand out but we have no first-hand knowledge of how the sisters felt about them. On March 17 to 19, 1934, they gave a “musical program” at the Call Theater in Algona, Iowa, opposite two films, Lionel Barrymore in “This Side of Heaven” on the 17th and Ramon Novarro and Jeanette MacDonald in “The Cat and the Fiddle” on the other days.  One advertisement billed this pairing as “Vaudeville and Pictures.” I can just imagine Blanche, who hated to stay in hotels during these trips and much preferred private homes, reacting with horror at the dressing rooms backstage.

“Vaudeville and Pictures,” Algona, Iowa, March, 1934

The other unusual booking was a six-week one in the Irish Village at the Century of Progress International Exposition (the Chicago World’s Fair)  in the summer of 1934. Other than a clipping from the following October that mentions this appearance, there is no other record of it. It is possible that their brother Harvey Reardon was also at the fair exhibiting books for his publishing company, but there are no letters from Charles to confirm anything about the fair.

Publicity Photograph, Blanche on the Left

In later years, Nellyebelle became a piano and voice teacher. It was probably she who pioneered “Private and Class Instruction in Singing, Piano, and Diction; Adult Classes in Opera Appreciation”  at the LaGrange Park Village Hall for the fall term, 1930. Their brochure emphasized that “Our Junior Theatre and Operetta Guild is organized for the development of the young girl’s natural speaking and singing voice and to establish poise.” Blanche is a good bet for the diction coach.

Several of their clippings call the sisters “Chicago radio artists.” Their scrapbook contains several telegrams from friends: “Care Station WHA Madison Wis Program coming in fine enjoying it very much.” Station WMT in Waterloo, Iowa, shows them in the evening lineup: “7:30 Reardon Sisters”–fifteen minutes between “Carlos Molina’s Orchestra Iowa Soap Co.” and “California Melodies CBS.” One of their skits was “Scene from Broadcasting Station” for which they performed “Beautiful Lady (Song and Waltz)” and two other songs with Spanish titles, presumably a reflection of their own experience.

Undated Program, circa 1934

Several letters testifying to the quality of the Reardon Sisters’ programs echo that of Rev. James. D. Hisher of St. Gall’s parish in Chicago: “Each selection rendered by these exemplary Catholic young ladies is marked by cultural refinement and artistic beauty and is presented in a fascinating and refreshing manner.”  A clipping from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in the spring of 1935 gives a clearer picture: “Perhaps the liveliest sketch and one most enjoyed was the Dutch scene in which colorful costumes and dramatic expressions played a prominent part. As a Dutch girl and boy in the native dress of the country–wooden shoes and all–the duo made a decided hit in the singing of ‘A Little Dutch Mill,’ ‘In a Tulip Garden,’ and ‘Clump, Clump, Clump.’ When they showed how to ‘Tip-toe through the Tulips,’ they were especially vivacious, their accompanying dance steps helping to enliven the act.”

Blanche and Charles Cannon became engaged on Valentine’s Day, 1935 and they married in June.  The Reardon Sisters programs came to an end that spring. In later years, the costumes, all made by Blanche and Nellyebelle, turned into dress-up clothes and doll clothes for the next generation. The wooden shoes and the scrapbook have moved east to my house in Connecticut. But the songs and some elements of the sketches were performed regularly at family gatherings and my Brownie Troop was put through the paces of “The Low-Backed Car” and its Irish jig.  Forming the “Reardon Sisters” in 1930 and persisting into 1935 was a depression-defying act but one which must have given real pleasure to many people at the time, as it did for the family later.