Coffee & Ginger: Pepper & Ginger

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Jack Pepper, from Cynthia Pepper's collection

Welcome to another edition of Coffee & Ginger, an informal series in which I sit back with a hot cup of coffee and and type whatever comes to my mind on a topic of my choosing. Today I am cheating because I am not currently drinking coffee, sorry to say. Instead, it's more like cran-pomegranate juice and Ginger, a caffeine free option since it's pretty late in the day. This post was super unplanned but I wanted to write about it because I find it intriguing.

I have just recently started reading Cynthia Pepper's memoir "Pigtails, Presley & Pepper: A Hollywood Memoir" from 2014. Cynthia Pepper is an actress who many classic film fans might know as Midge from the 1964 film Kissin' Cousins. Now, at the time I first watched this outrageous movie, whose plot can pretty much be explained by the title, I was watching it for Glenda Farrell, as it was one of her final roles. Back then, I had no idea that one of the young principal actors had such a huge Ginger connection. Cynthia Pepper is the daughter of vaudeville star Jack Pepper (and his second wife Dawn Stanton), who married Ginger when she was only seventeen. The marriage quickly turned sour, and the two separated pretty early on, before a divorce was finalized in 1931.

At the time of this post, I am only a few chapters into Cynthia's book, and I am very pleasantly surprised. I did not really know what to expect, as Kissin' Cousins and Take Her, She's Mine (1963) are the only of Cynthia's credits that I have seen. But already I have learned so much about what I was hoping to discover more about, and that is her father, Edward Jackson Culpepper. If you have read Ginger's autobiography, you know how the story goes. It wasn't exactly boy meets girl, it was more like boy meets girl's niece. That's because Jack used to date Ginger's aunt Jean. Born in 1902, he was older than Ginger by nine years. Ginger explains in her book that as a twelve year old little girl, she would spy on Jack and Jean canoodling on the porch outside and invent any reason she could to go out there just to talk to him. "I'm sure Aunt Jean must have recognized that I had a crush on her beau. Little girls often get crushes on men who are many years older than they."

Little did she know, she would be Mrs. Jack Pepper several years later. By that point, both Jack and Ginger had separately made names for themselves in vaudeville. Jack was a triple threat. He could sing, dance, and act, and Ginger could do the same. So it seemed inevitable that they would eventually team up at some point and combine their talents to create their own act, right?

Yes, but not according to Cynthia's or Ginger's account. At no point in her autobiography does Ginger mentioned that she and Jack ever performed together. Ginger writes, "Jack and I lived together on the road and marriage proved not to be what I had expected. I had nothing to do except help my husband get dressed for his show or listen to him argue with his partner. As the dutiful wife, my main task was to see that Jack's toupee was cleaned after each performance and ready for the next one. Otherwise, I was more or less like a third thumb. Instead of performing, I was hanging around backstage watching from the wings."

In her memoir, Cynthia states, "I have yet to find any evidence to corroborate that they ever shared the stage together. Through the years of his life Daddy never mentioned that the act existed. Both of them possessed many talents, and they would have been a great duo. Instead, it's just another vaudeville myth."

This I found interesting because I actually have a few clippings that show that Ginger and Jack did share the stage a few times. I figured it was sort of a known fact these days, but now since starting Cynthia's book (again, newly published in 2014) I am not so sure.  I have a near complete timeline of Ginger's vaudeville performances. In my notes, so far the earliest I have them on the same stage is at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh in early May of 1929 (they were married in March). This was for the musical "Revue in Blue." Their roles are described here in this clipping from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1929:

If you're really familiar with Ginger's vaudeville career, you might remember that Dick Powell was even the MC for this production.

The next show I have them placed at is "Rhythm Mania" at the Mastbaum Theatre in Philadelphia. Here is a clipping from  The Philadelphia Inquirer advertising their appearance that same month:

On May 6th of that same year, they even appeared on the radio together for a Stanley-Warner Bros Jubilee. And finally, at the end of May, Ginger and Jack were featured in a production called "Orientale" at the Capitol Theatre in New York. Clipping from the Daily News:

A few months ago while browsing eBay, I even came across a photo of them together. The date on the back was severely incorrect at 1938, but this looks to be our couple dressed for some sort of act:

photo from eBay
Unfortunately, I was not able to find much after that. But the fact that it appears that they were featured together a few times is significant, even though it looks like it faded quickly. Their shared stage time seems short lived, and for the most part it seems that Ginger, just as she said, became more of an assistant than a partner, much less a wife.

Despite a bitter end to a marriage, Cynthia does discuss her only encounter with Ginger. This was many decades later, during the early 1960s. Ginger's pilot for her television show was being filmed at the same time as Cynthia's and at the same studio. She states that she was starstruck, as she admired Ginger greatly, but was nervous to say hello because she was afraid that Ginger might be dismissive of her, considering her past history with Jack. This was not the case, as expected of Ginger, who we know had a very warm and welcoming personality. I won't spoil it here, you'll have to listen to Cynthia tell about this sweet meeting should you ever pick up her book, but it was nothing short of charming.

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1 comment

  1. Very interesting to read! Jack was first cousin once removed to my grandmother, Nina Lewis Strawser; they shared the same great-grandparents. Nina had fond memories of Jack, who, even when he was big on the vaudeville circuit, would come to visit his aunt, Amaryntha Culpepper Kelly (grandmother of Nina), at the family place in Texas, and do the dishes for her after dinner. Nina's sister Vera in later years found herself seated beside Ginger on a plane and they fell to talking about Jack. Ginger had nothing bad to say about him and it sounded like she was still very fond of him: 'I was young and it just wasn't working,' she said.


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