AN AMERICAN actress and her famous husband played a visit to Northern Ireland in the winter of 1943 to entertain US troops in the province.
Ella Baxter McKenzie arrived at an air force base with her husband, comedy star Bill Gilbert on a tour of GI camps, which included Londonderry.
American troops arrived in Ulster in January 1942, within a short time of US entry into the Second World War following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 by the Japanese.
Some 3,600 men of the Vth Army arrived to be welcomed by the band of the Royal Ulster Rifles playing the Star Spangled Banner on the quayside in Belfast.
At the end of February another large contingent of troops arrived, this time to less fanfare and publicity.
The troops were spread in camps across Northern Ireland, with a major air force base developed at Langford Lodge near Crumlin and a major naval base at Londonderry on the Foyle.
Carrickfergus, another home to General Infantry troops, was also the location where the US Rangers regiment was formed, the only American regiment which was formed outside the United States.
It is estimated that the US population of Northern Ireland reached 10% of the overall total at its height before the Normandy Landings in June 1944.
By the time Billy Gilbert, a famous star of screen and stage arrived in winter 1943, the numbers would have been impressive.
Known as the “sneezing” comedian, Gilbert was the son of singers with the Metropolitan Opera and had been born in a dressing room at the Hopkins Opera House in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1894. His real name was William Gilbert Barron.
He began working in vaudeville at the age of 12 and in 1929 was talent spotted by Stan Laurel, who had been in the audience of Gilbert’s show Sensations of 1929 and introduced him to comedy producer Hal Roach. The up and coming star was employed as a gag writer, actor and director and appeared in his first film that same year, at the age of 35.
Gilbert appeared with other comedians including Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, the Three Stooges and Our Gang.
By 1934 Big Billy Gilbert had become one of the most familiar faces on screen, and he developed his own routine of getting progressively excited or nervous and breaking down into speech spasms culminating in a loud sneeze.
This attracted attention from Walt Disney who immediately cast him as the voice of Sneezy in the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
A few years before arriving in Northern Ireland, he had featured prominently in the 1940 film Seven Sinners with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. He also appeared during his career with stars such as W. C. Fields, Ben Turpin, Susan Fleming, and Betty Grable.
Not surprisingly he was the subject of media attention when he and his wife Ella Gilbert arrived in County Antrim in 1943.
The couple stayed at the Grand Central Hotel, where they were interviewed by the Weekly Telegraph, and described Northern Ireland as “the most beautiful place they had ever seen.”
During their stay they not only entertained the troops but were also able to sightsee and there is a newspaper report of them attending the Ulster Stadium Boxing Tournament on Saturday evening, December 18.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that the pair had been cordially welcomed to the event and had ringside seats.
But the first stop after their arrival in Ulster had been to Ballymena, where Ella Gilbert was on the trail of her ancestors.
The pair were accompanied by Mr. A. Dalzell, chairman of ENSA in Northern Ireland, who acted as their guide.
Ballymena had been the birthplace of Robert Baxter McKenzie around 50 years before, the son of a leading Ballymena Orangeman of his day, John McKenzie.
The family had left their home at 12 King Street when Robert was nine years old, and there was much excitement when Bill Gilbert and his wife arrived there in 1943.
The couple were able to identity the house where Ella’s father had grew up, and they had photographs taken, a large placard recording the connection was placed above the front door as they had cinematographic film taken.
“The pictures will go to the states to gladden the heart of Mr. McKenzie and other ‘exiles’ from the north,” the Larne Times and Weekly Telegraph informed readers.
A large crowd, particularly of children gathered to see the special visitors, it was also reported.
Mrs. Gilbert’s grandmother was Mary Baxter from Ballymena and she believed that Baxter relations were also living in Ballymena, but the actress was unable to learn any more on her visit.
In relation to the Orange connection, it was reported that “The Ulster tradition has been kept up in Oregon, where they settled, and over the fire of nights the talk was often of Ballymena and the “Twelfth” and when the old man passed the son carried on the customs and on the “Twelfth” wore an Orange marigold and defied anyone to remove it,” the newspaper said.
Ella McKenzie was born in Oregon in April 1911 and was married firstly to Edward C. Sweeney and then to Bill Gilbert.
Her best-known films were, as a child actor, in Jane Goes A Wooin (1919), The Last Warning in 1928, and Riders of the Dawn in 1937.
As a child actress she appeared in over 100 films, appearing with stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Will Rogers.
Acting was in the family, clearly, for Ella was the niece of actors Eva McKenzie and Robert McKenzie and her cousins Fay and Ida Mae McKenzie were also actresses.
Ella passed away in 1987 in Los Angeles, surviving her husband by some years; he retired from the screen in 1962 and died in North Holywood in September 1971 and is buried in the Oddfellows Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Bill Gilbert is also recognised with a star on Holywood Boulevard. His acting career spanned the decades from the 1920s to the 1960s and he appeared in an exhausting list of films, four of them in the same year as he visited Ulster; Shantytown as Papa Ferrili, Spotlight Scandals as himself, Always a Bridesmaid as Nicholas ‘Nick’ Neopolitan and Crazy House as Sid Drake.
Sadly King Street in Ballymena, where the Gilberts visited in 1943, is no longer standing and the site of the houses there is a car park.