The Life of Armand "Curly" Wright
by Marie Suzon Wright
EDITOR'S NOTE: We present this story as Curly's last wife wrote it from the heart. Marie had quite a show business career of her own. One of the first stuntwomen in Hollywood, her foster mother owned the very first MGM lion named "Tawny." The text and photos are the exclusive property of the Escobedo family, and may not be reproduced without their express permission.
All the photos below are thumbnails click on them to see larger versions.
Armand "Curly" Wright was born Armand Vincent Mancuso on June 5, 1886 in Palermo, Italy. He was the eldest of four sons born to Vincent Joseph Mancuso (a chief civil engineer to the city and county of New York) and Rosa Rao Mancuso. Vincent's father had shared Garibaldi's exile in New York where the two of them lived in a basement apartment making candles to finance the Italian republican revolution.
Rosa was widowed when she was still very young and left with three young boys to raise. At 10 years of age, Armand was the oldest. Rosa was a very fine dress designer and went to work for Nat Goldstone, a then-unknown costumer to the theatrical trade. He had a very small shop in a loft with only two or three machines. The firm prospered thanks to her designs, and occupied a 16-story building by the time she retired. Rosa was devoted to her church, which took the place of the beloved husband she had lost.
From a very early age, Armand was addicted to the theater. He constantly pestered his mother to help him get his "working papers" so that he could make a start. She gave in to him when he was about 12 years old, even though they had to skirt the truth as to his age children under 14 were not allowed to work at that time.
Breaking Into Vaudeville
Armand worked as a "card boy" at the Keith-Albee offices, the powerful vaudeville magnates who owned and booked the Orpheum Circuit. He came in contact with every vaudeville act of any importance, further whetting of his appetite for the glamour this business offered. In a few short years, he struck out on his own with an act that he called "A Miniature Musical Comedy." It consisted of songs, dancing, and comedy.
Armand was a talented writer. Aside from his own acts his own acts, he created other material that he "rented" out to other performers for a percentage. One of the first to request an act was Walter Winchell, long before his days in journalism. Winchell was under contract to Gus Edwards, producer of "The Little Red Schoolhouse." This famous juvenile act featured future stars Eddie Cantor, Lila Lee, George Jessel and Georgie Price.
Winchell had fallen in love with aspiring actress Dorthy Green, and he wanted an act that would showcase them as a team. Armand, knowing that Winchell was under contract, requested that Winchell bring him a release from Gus Edwards. Since Winchell was anything but an actor, Edwards, was more than glad to give him the release. Winchell and his young love started out on their own with "Puppy Love," the act that Armand wrote for them.
Over the years, Armand wrote and appeared in a wide variety of acts. As the acts evolved, he worked with both male and female partners. His specialties included "Song & Patter", acrobat dancing, and several high-class ballroom routines with him in formal "tails" and his female partners in fabulous ball gowns.
At a time when there was no television or radio, the best way to popularize a new song was to have well-known personalities perform them in vaudeville, giving the tunes nationwide exposure. Armand was constantly besieged to introduce new songs.
As Armand perfected his craft, he fulfilled the ambition of most vaudevillians by playing the Palace not once but many times! Aside from the prestige, this gave him the opportunity to visit his family in New York. Because he was always on the road, he seldom was able to see them, and he was almost a stranger to the youngsters. He had a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, and was always happy to entertain any of the family who came to visit.
Armand was finally accorded the status of "Headliner," topping the bill at the best vaudeville houses in the country. He also became the first American star to present an act at the London Palladium, and in the "Follies Bergere" in Paris, France. Armand reached the peak of his vaudeville career around 1915. At a time when a dollar could buy a good meal and income tax did not exist, Armand was getting top salary for the times about $1700 a week.
Walter Winchell's Big Break
One Christmas, Walter Winchell was booked on the same card as Armand. Though not a great performer, Winchell had a nose for news, especially for the spicier tidbits concerning the other members of the company. He got many a punch in the nose for divulging spicy tidbits. Armand often told him to get out of show business and confine his "talents" to gossip magazines. This later became Winchell's forte, at which he made a huge reporting on all the inside stories of whatever went on whether in show business, government, or in high society.
At this particular time, Christmas found the cast playing a "split week" in a little town in Nebraska. (Christmas week in show business was the worst time of the year for performers and theater owners, because the audiences stayed at home. Performers were usually far away from home, stranded in the midst of strangers.) The manager of the theater where they were performing, took pity on the troupe, and on Christmas Eve, he gave them a party of doughnuts and coffee, and then thoughtfully gave each performer a "gag" gift particularly apt for that person. Because Armand had a tremendous head of tightly curled hair, his gift was an almost circular comb which was popular at the time, to hold his hair back.
Because this celebration was so appreciated by all the cast, Armand and Winchell sent a report of it to "The Billboard" (a theatrical publication), and signed it "W & W" for Wright and Winchell. The little item was so cleverly written, that the Billboard wrote back asking for more of the same material from W & W. Since Walter Winchell was the only one with the initials W. W., the manager took it for granted that the request was addressed to Winchell. And that is how Winchell got his start as the roving reporter for all of "Mr. And Mrs. America and all the ships at sea - let's go to press!"
By the 1920s, vaudeville was beginning to wane and silent movies were on the rise. Christmas week of 1921 found Armand in Los Angeles, already a Mecca for those with hopes of being "discovered" for the silver screen.
Armand met with Joseph Schenck, a noted producer who was head of the Goldwyn Studios and husband to actress Norma Talmadge. Having seen the handwriting on the wall for vaudeville, Armand was so impressed with the great potential of this new medium that he asked Joseph Schenck for a job.