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History's Headlines: Althea Heinly was first Lehigh Valley native on silver screen

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 08 2013 04:31:11 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 11 2013 04:41:24 PM CST

Fifty years ago, Max Hess was bringing Hollywood to the Lehigh Valley.

Fifty years ago, Max Hess was bringing Hollywood to the Lehigh Valley. Today the Lehigh Valley is returning the favor.

The recent opening of the new Hollywood blockbuster film “Les Miserables,” aka “Les Miz,” with Allentown native Amanda Seyfried as one of the film’s leads, is just one example of a number of local actors making it to the big screen. But they are not the first. That honor goes to Althea Olga Heinly, aka Althea Henley, of Allentown.

Eighty odd years ago she became the first local person to have a role in a major Hollywood movie. A talented dancer and singer, she was a Broadway star who appeared on stage with comic Will Rogers before going to Hollywood.

Althea_Heinly____-_hollywood Yet Heinly found her career path in Hollywood cut short. “When I asked her about them,” her son Michael Markham said in 1996, talking about his mother’s years in Hollywood, “she always made it clear it was something she didn’t want to talk about.”

In 1936 Heinly began a new acting life in British films that was to lead to marriage to a wealthy Englishmen and being caught up in World War II. Here Heinly played a real life role in aiding the children of London that far exceeded anything she did in Hollywood. 

All of this could hardly have been predicted when Heinly was born on July 23, 1911, in Egypt, PA. Her father was an Allentown sheet metal worker. She had a sister, Pauline, who she would remain close to for the rest of her life, and two brothers, Lewis and Henry.

Heinly showed talent early. It is not known if her parents encouraged her but apparently they did not have to. Her two biggest boosters in Allentown were Mona La Mar, a pioneer teacher of dance who gave Heinly her first lessons, and Joe Hart, the founder of Allentown’s Flag Day movement, who had settled in the city after a career as an actor and theater manager.

Althea_Heinly__-_vaudeville It was 1926 when Heinly was conducting her children’s dance studio in Allentown that she caught Hart’s eye. He urged her to go on tour with a theatrical vaudeville troupe. This was a time when young women, particularly young women from Allentown, did not do such things on their own. So Heinly joined the Publix theaters vaudeville circuit with her mother as chaperone.       

While on the circuit Heinly was spotted by talent scout and instructor Ned Wayburn, who featured her in his “New Buds of 1927” revue. Among those who caught her act was legendary Broadway producer Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld. In the middle of casting his show “Three Cheers,” Ziegfeld decided to hire her as a dancer. It was here that she met Will Rogers, who had the lead in the show. In 1929 Heinly was selected by Ziegfeld as a lead dancer for his next musical “Show Girl.”

To say Heinly’s rise in show business was meteoric would be an understatement. And it became more so when a Fox Studio talent scout went to her dressing room to offer her a movie contract.  But she was on Broadway, a place she had always wanted to be and could not imagine leaving. So Heinly turned it down. “Never had such a thing happened in a world that seemed peopled with girls who wanted nothing so much as to act in the movies,” noted the Morning Call.

Althea_Heinly-_will_rodgers It was Will Rogers who made her change her mind. She contacted Fox and agreed to a five year contract. Soon Heinly was in Hollywood making a film titled “Up The River.” One love struck Allentown fan went so far as to break into her parent’s home to steal a pile of autographed pictures, leaving money and jewelry untouched.

“Up the River” opened on October 19, 1930. It starred the now forgotten Claire Luce and Warren Hymer. Heinly played opposite two other unknowns at the time- Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy. The film's director was John Ford.

Heinly appear in 15 more movies between 1930 and 1936. She had a bit part in the classic “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”  She also made three short films with the Three Stooges.

Althea_Heinly_-_Groupshot By the mid 1930’s Heinly’s career seemed stuck. So after a brief return to Allentown, where she shocked the town by wearing men’s pants on Hamilton Street, she left for London. Here she made films for Fox’s British studio and by 1937 was a movie star there. By then she had become the wife Arthur Markham, a wealthy titled Englishman whose mother was a lady in waiting to King George VI’s wife Queen Elizabeth.

Although her in-laws were often far from warm to their actress daughter-in-law, Heinly and her husband lived a comfortable life, including a round-the-world cruise in 1938. But it came to an end at the start of World War II. In 1946 on a short visit to Allentown with her three-year-old son Michael, she told the Morning Call how her husband had died during the war of a brain tumor at age 39 and of the terror of living in London under the German blitz. Along with other prominent families, she took in large numbers of the city’s children at her country home. The paper noted Heinly had also acquired “a clipped British accent.”

Althea_Heinly_-_Heinly Heinly returned to America for good in 1947 and married William Begg, a Hollywood agent. Among Michael Markham’s favorite memories is being on the set of “Zorro.” But his parents were clear about one thing. “Neither my brother William nor I was never to go into show business,” he recalled. In the 1960s the family relocated to Bermuda where Althea Heinly died in 1996 at age 84, her movie career long forgotten.