When I was a child my grandmother told me that, Estella, the wife of her brother had been on Broadway. Also, according to my grandmother, she also knew Jeanette MacDonald and Sydney Greenstreet who were movie stars. I must admit when grandma told me that I didn’t really believe her. Then as I started digging into facts about Estella, I started to change my mind. I found many references to her in old newspapers on Fulton History, NY State Historic Newspapers and Chronicling America by the Library of Congress.
Estella Birney was born 6 Aug. 1896 in New York City as the only child of James and Edith Birney. I know that she took ballet and voice lessons as a teenager as she is mentioned as being a ballet student. One newspaper article said that in 1914 she had a small part in the Broadway show “Sweethearts.” It appears that the show only lasted a short time.
As early as April 1915 she got a part in the musical play “Pirates of Pilsen.” That was a traveling show that was about a Cincinnati brewer. Estella played the young widow, Mrs. Crocker and got to sing and dance in the show. The show schedule was rough. They would be in a new city every day. From newspaper records I found that on 16 Nov 1916 they were in Plattsburgh, NY, the next day in Massena, NY, then in Watertown. They had Sunday off but the next four days the show was in Oswego, Fulton, Utica and then Johnstown. Frank T. Buell, my granduncle and Estella’s future husband was at first the advance (publicity) man for the show and later the show manager. Estella would be with the show until spring of 1917.
During the summer of 1916 and 1917 Frank was the publicity man at Luna Park which was one of the amusement parks at Coney Island. On 4 July 1916 Estella christened a captive balloon at the Park. She was also one of the first passengers in the balloon which would rise to as high as 2,200 feet and then be pulled back down by a rope. The picture from a magazine shows Estella in the center in a white dress and hat. Two people to the right, with his hair standing up, is Frank Buell.
Estella and Frank Buell married at her parent’s house in New York City on 25 June 1917. I didn’t find any references to Estella from that time until Dec. 1920 when she is at the Liberty Theater on Broadway. She is in the play “Lady Billy” which starred a then famous soprano Mitzi Hajos. That play was at the Theater until 21 May 1921. After that the show did a tour but I don’t think that Estella traveled with the show.My reason for believing that was that she and Frank had a son, Boyd, born 5 Dec. 1921 in New York City. Boyd only lived about a month and a half.
Estella would end up in the next play starring Mitzi Hajos that had try-outs in New England in April 1923. That show was titled “The Magic Ring” and it would come to the Lyceum Theatre in Rochester for six days the week before it opened at the Liberty Theater on Broadway on 1 Oct. 1923. After three months there in New York City, the play would tour around the US until at least summer 1925 and maybe in to 1926.
Then a distant cousin would sent me a couple of interesting pictures. The picture at the opening of “The Magic Ring” at the Liberty Theater shows the primary female leads. Mitzi Hajos is on the left and Jeanette MacDonald on the right. Jeanette had started in the show in the chorus and was promoted to a solo for that show. I keep looking at that picture and I can’t decide which of the other ladies is Estella. Newspaper reviews of those days say that Estella was a great singer and actress.
The other picture from the Broadway opening shows another star of “The Magic Ring.” On the left is Sydney Greenstreet. Then on the right is my granduncle, Frank Buell who was the show manager.
By summer 1926 Estella has retired from show business and is opening a vocal school in Perry, NY where the Buell family had a summer cottage. Estella would occasionally sing at local talent shows around Perry, NY over the next few years. She gave birth to Frank Birney Buell in November 1926 in the Bronx, NY.
Frank continued to tour as a manager of a variety show starring comedian Charles “Chic” Sale. I’m not sure what happened between Estella and Frank but in May 1938 she was granted a divorce in Reno, Nevada. Later that year she would marry Chester Stearns who owned a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. She and Chester would eventually retire to Florida. I don’t have an exact death datefor her but I think she died in the mid 1960s in Florida.
So as it turned out, the stories my grandmother told about Estella were completely true. Plus I found a lot more information about her career than my grandmother ever knew.
I have lots of pictures of Estella from newspapers but most are of poor quality. Besides all newspapers that I got information from, there is also the Internet Broadway Database which lists plays that were on Broadway, dates and the cast members.