Zelma O'Neal (May 29, 1903 – November 3, 1989) was an actress, singer, and dancer in the 1920s and 1930s. She appeared on Broadway and in early sound films, including the Paramount Pictures films Paramount on Parade and Follow Thru (both 1930).
She was born in Rock Falls, Illinois, on May 29, 1903, and moved to Chicago at the age of two. She attended public schools until she was fourteen, when she went to work in a factory and later took office jobs. She worked occasionally in vaudeville, at first without pay and later professionally as a vaudeville act with her sister Berenice and a piano player. Her touring brought her to the East Coast, where she was cast in Good News. Of her appearance in that musical comedy set on a college campus, Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times in 1927: "one pert young freshman, Zelma O'Neal, dances herself into willing exhaustion to the snapping tune of 'The Varsity Drag'." In a profile, the paper referred to "her personality, which experts say resembles that of a caged cyclone".
She was part of the cast that took Good News to London in 1928. There she met British actor Anthony Bushell.
She returned to New York for a role in the musical Follow Thru. She married Bushell in New York on November 22, 1928. He was appearing on Broadway in Maugham's The Sacred Flame. Follow Thru opened in January 1929 and proved a hit. It ran almost a full year. In it she and Jack Haley sang "Button Up Your Overcoat". Atkinson wrote:
She appeared in the West Coast production of the show in Los Angeles in October 1929, and she stayed there to make her first films.
In the spring of 1930, she and her husband took a delayed honeymoon trip to Germany, France, and England. She appeared in a vaudeville in November, where her performance was well received: "In appearance the buoyant Miss O'Neal has become quite ladylike after a sojourn in, of all places to acquire that, Hollywood. Naturally she has lost some of her gamin quality, but she is sufficiently old-style in her renditions of "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "Varsity Drag", and delights her audience with an excellent act." She opened in The Gang's All Here in February 1931, but the show received poor notices–"Seldom has a lavish musical stage production struggled so clumsily to reconcile a satiric book with the antics of clowns who ask for nothing so much as space and freedom on the stage."– and closed after three weeks.
O'Neal and Bushell relocated to London in 1932, where she established a second stage career. When the New York Times reported in December 1934 that she was announced for the cast of Jack O'Diamonds that would tour England before opening in London, it commented: "That should relieve a lot of people who haven't been able to locate Miss O'Neal since the days of The Gang's All Here in 1931". The play opened to good notices in London in February 1935, and the Telegraph wrote of O'Neal: "She's that very rare thing–an attractive woman who doesn't mind making a fool of herself."
They divorced in 1935. Following their divorce, they appeared in the same show at least once, though they did not appear together on stage. O'Neal appeared in Swing Along in Manchester and London in 1936. She returned to New York on the Hamburg in June 1937.
She retired in 1938. Dorothy Lee, her co-star in Peach O'Reno explained: "Zelma was great on stage, but like a lot of stage performers, something was lost when she stepped in front of the camera. ... She sure had talent but it didn't always register on film." She also said "A million dollar personality, and twenty five cent looks"
She published her reminiscences in 1984: Memoirs from Scotts Hill.
She died in Largo, Florida, on November 3, 1989; upon her death, she was cremated.
Birth and Death Data: Born May 29th, 1903 (Rock Falls), Died November 3rd, 1989 (Largo)
Date Range of DAHR Recordings: 1927 - 1930
Roles Represented in DAHR: soprano vocal
|Company||Matrix No.||Size||First Recording Date||Title||Primary Performer||Description||Role||Audio|
|Victor||[Trial 1927-08-19-01]||10-in.||8/19/1927||The varsity drag||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with orchestra||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E29130||10-in.||1/18/1929||I want to be bad||Ben Bernie ; Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra ; Zelma O'Neal||Jazz/dance band, with female vocal solo; without vocal (take G)||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||LTR228||12-in.||10/8/1929||Button up your overcoat||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||LAE854||10-in.||7/31/1930||It must be you||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||LAE855||10-in.||7/31/1930||We’d make a peach of a pair||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E29078||10-in.||1/18/1929||Button up your overcoat||Al Goodman Orchestra ; Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E29079||10-in.||1/18/1929||I want to be bad||Al Goodman Orchestra ; Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E29488||10-in.||Mar. 1929||What didja wanna make me love you for?||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E29489||10-in.||Mar. 1929||Do something||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E29567||10-in.||Mar. 1929||I’ve got a “code” in my “dose”||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E29568||10-in.||Mar. 1929||I‘m “ka-razy” for you||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E30592||10-in.||7/31/1929||Do what you do!||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||XE30593||12-in.||7/31/1929||Brunswick brevities [program and part unknown]||Al Goodman Orchestra ; Zelma O'Neal||Radio transcription disc : Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E30594||10-in.||7/31/1929||I’ve made a habit of you||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with jazz/dance band||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E26765-E26766||10-in.||3/1/1928||Varsity drag||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with piano||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||E26767-E26768||10-in.||3/1/1928||Can’t help lovin’ dat man||Zelma O'Neal||Female vocal solo, with piano||vocalist, soprano vocal|
|Brunswick||XE30298-XE30299||12-in.||July 1929||Follow thru’—Medley||Al Goodman Orchestra||Jazz/dance band, with female vocal solo; without vocal (take G)||vocalist, soprano vocal|
Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. "O'Neal, Zelma," accessed July 31, 2021, https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/names/113902.
O'Neal, Zelma. (2021). In Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/names/113902.
"O'Neal, Zelma." Discography of American Historical Recordings. UC Santa Barbara Library, 2021. Web. 31 July 2021.
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