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Nostalgia July 2017

Silver Screen, Golden Years

Una Merkel’s Roadside Memorials

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

Get out of the car and take a picture of the family by Una Merkel's roadside marker, or take a peek at her mural in Covington, and take your hats off to a good ol' sassy peroxide blonde who was our best pal during the Depression.

There is a roadside marker standing in Covington, Kentucky, paying tribute to an actress who was born here and lived here when she was a very small child. She was Una Merkel, a screen comedienne we might remember as the wisecracking chorine from 42nd Street (1933) who warbled a verse of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” with Ginger Rogers in train upper berth, or the wisecracking housekeeper from The Parent Trap (1961) with Hayley Mills, or any number of other wiseacre roles in between in movies and on TV.

Nominated for an Oscar for Summer and Smoke (1961), she also had a handful of Broadway credits, and won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play in 1956 for The Ponder Heart. I have to wonder, though, if this simple sign, as earnestly detailed as possible in what space it allows, is a more glorious tribute than even the Tony. That your hometown would care to remember you long after you’d left it, and hitched it’s civic pride to your humble existence in an entertainment industry where, to all but ardent classic film buffs, you represent little more than a footnote, is something special indeed.

The inscription: “This Covington native won a Tony Award in 1956 for performance in Broadway’s ‘The Ponder Heart’ and received an Oscar nomination, 1962, for ‘Summer and Smoke.’ With her 66 [sic] motion pictures, Merkel (1903-1986) represented successful transition from silent films to ‘the talkies.’ She played opposite film legends W. C. Fields and Marlene Dietrich. Buried Highland Cem., Kenton Co.”

Una Merkel was born here in 1903, but she and her parents moved around quite a bit because her father, Arno Merkel, was a traveling salesman. Eventually, they moved to New York City. She attended drama school, and appeared in several silent films, many of which were filmed in the New York area in that period when she was in her teens and early 20s. It was Broadway where she really made her mark, though, in a supporting role in Coquette (1927), starring her idol Helen Hayes.

She made her Hollywood debut when director D.W. Griffith hired her to play Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s first love in Abraham Lincoln (1930) opposite Walter Huston. However lovely and fey her role, she made it big in sound pictures as the wisecracking friend of several female stars.

In her 50s, she returned to Broadway, won the Tony, and enjoyed a new spate of roles in Hollywood as sassy and sensible mothers and housekeepers. Her last film was Spinout (1966) with Elvis Presley. A 40-year film career from D.W. Griffith to Elvis Presley (nearly 100 movies), yet as varied as the films were, we always saw something familiar in Una Merkel. There was a sparkle in that sly smile, and a twinkle in her elfin expression, a childlike voice chirping a Southern accent, and a snappy way with a line.

Una had married and divorced, and had no children. She had been living in an apartment in Los Angeles when she died in 1986 at the age of 82. She was buried near her parents’ graves in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.

She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the historical marker placed in 1991 in Gobel Park in Covington — but Covington still had more to say on the subject. A mural honoring Una, 21 feet by 8 feet, was installed by muralist Shaylen Amanda Broughton and a group of volunteers in The Pike to Seventh Arcade in September 2016. The mural is a collage of Art Deco-like images depicting Una Merkel as some of her characters, along with depictions of her Hollywood Walk of Fame star and her historical marker. It’s a black-and-white burst of graphic design exuberance almost like a splashy headline on a newspaper in an old movie.

What a shame Una did not live to see these simple but heartfelt monuments to her career. After she retired, she had reportedly once told a radio interviewer, “It’s awfully nice to be remembered.”

Who says historical markers are just for famous pioneers, generals, and presidents? Get out of the car and take a picture of the family by Una Merkel's roadside marker, or take a peek at her mural in Covington, and take your hats off to a good ol' sassy peroxide blonde who was our best pal during the Depression.

A tip of the hat as well to the town that so kindly pays her such affectionate tributes. That is something very special.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., and several other non-fiction books on history and classic film criticism, as well as novels.

Meet Jacqueline