Theo Coffman was a beautiful girl who rose from her modest working class origin to become a singer and dancer of some repute. After achieving minor success in Chicago, Hollywood beckoned and she tried to become an actress. Unlike many others, she really tried, even taking dramatic lessons, but, unfortunately, it did not work. She quite Hollywood after only one movie. Let’s learn more about her!
Theo L. Coffman was born in 1915, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Oscar Coffman and Josephine Snyder. Her father worked as a carpenter in a railroad company. Theo’s masculine name was due to her unusual familial circumstance – she was the only girl among five children, and her parents expected her to be a boy (pretty optimistic, don’t you think?). Her older brothers were Paul, born in 1910, and Alva, born on June 12, 1912, and her younger brothers were Oscar Jr., born in 1918 and Orville, born on January 1, 1921.
Theo was reared in Indianapolis, and attended Public Schools 28 and 8. She started singing and dancing when she was a child and pretty soon it was clear she had a good voice and some presence. In July 1931 her father died and her mother took over the reins of the family. Theo attended and later graduated from Manual Training High School. Her first job was as a cashier and secretary in a local Indianapolis shoe store. Feeling that she could give more to the world as a singer, she decided to try her luck in show biz. She danced for a while in the old Chez Paree, and sang with Paul Collins’s Orchestra. During this time she learned to dance like a pro on a roof of a Indianapolis hotel. Wanting more out of her career, she went to Chicago in 1938. by day she worked as a cashier, living with Ethel M Vandeveer, who was listed as her business partner. Yet, she hoped for a more stable career in dancing, so she teamed with Raoul Gomez in an exhibition dance act that was featured in Chicago in the Colony Club.
On a visit to New York in 1940, a film executive told her she should be in the movies, so she went to Hollywood, and obtained a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract and a role in “DuBarry Was a Lady.” And there she went!
Theo’s sole credited remained Du Barry Was a Lady, the movie she was brought to Hollywood for. Du Barry has a plot that was used a hundred times in a hundreds of types of movies (summary from IMDB) – A night club’s coatroom attendant whose in-love with the club’s singer accidentally sips a drugged drink that makes him dream he’s French King Louis XV courting the infamous Madame Du Barry. While not a top musical, it’s one of the most beautiful, shot in stunning Technicolor, almost like being in a pastel wonderland, just two shades short of Heaven. All the craftsmanship is first class – the set design, the costumes, the lightning, the editing. And the fabulous music by the premier big bands of the era. The supporting actors are a great bunch too (Zero Mostel, Douglas Dumbrille, Louise Beavers…) . Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly in the leads are good too – but it seems they are overshadowed by everything else, and the musical doesn’t quite work as it did on Broadway. Still, it’s a sweet little piece of escapism, worth watching for sure.
And that was it from our Theo!
It was often noted in the papers how Theo comes from a large family with several brothers. One of her four brothers, Oscar, got employed at MGM. Her other brothers, Paul, Alva and Orville, remained in Indianapolis. Growing up with a bunch of unruly bros, Theo developed a unique way to fend of all the hungry wolves, a handy skill to have in Hollywood. Here is a short bit from 1942, just after the war started, about that:
The other day at I ha Beverly Hills swimming pool, a “wolf” was trying to impress Theo. Coffman with his importance. “Just a year ego,” he said, “I had a suite at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel In Honolulu.” “You can have it again,” said Miss Coffman, “if you join the Marines.
Theo an ardent deep-sea fisher, her best catch being a 150-pound marlin which she landed off Florida after a fifty-five-minute tussle. Eager to play light comedy roles, Theo was reported taking dramatic lessons from Maria Ouspensknya, the noted actress. Her Hollywood home was a cottage formerly occupied by Victor Mature. Theo was also a pretty good seamstress who designed her own clothes. Here is a short article about one of her creations:
It all began when Theo Coffman, a shapely showgirl, strolled onto the set of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s frothy Technicolor musical, “Du Barry Was a Lady.” Theo’s avocation is dress designing and she was wearing one of her own creations, a tight-bodiced pink pique number with a wide flaring skirt. This skirt was the match that touched off the argument. Appliqued around its hemline were bold bars of music, clef, notes, and all. Admiring onlookers fell into Immediate dissension. “I say the notes make a melody!” “I say they don’t!” Theo’s dress was about to cause more trouble than Mrs. O’Leary’s cow when Tommy Dorsey happened by. Whipping out his trusty trombone, the sentimental gentleman of swing started in on Theo’s appliqued music. Listeners cocked anxious ears. Smiles cooled their faces. The notes did spell a melody: “Deep Purple,” Theo’s favorite song.
As Theo came to Hollywood via Du Barry, she was immediately associated to others girls hired to the movie. She got a years worth of publicity, the crowning moment being of course when noted illustrator Alberto Vargas made an illustration of the perfect girl, who was a composite of all the best parts the Du Barry girls – the hands of Inez Cooper, the hair of Mary Jane French, the feet of Theo, the hips of Ruth Ownbey, the waist of Eva Whitney, the bust of Aileen Haley, the legs of Hazel Brooks, the arms of Kay Williams, the profile of Kay Aldridge, the lips of Natalie Draper, the ankles of Marilyn Maxwell and the eyes of Georgia Carroll.
The press tried to report on a rapport between girls with snippets like this:
Hoofing is traditionally cruel to the discovers between takes on a dancing sequence. Inez Cooper lends a sympathetic ear to Theo’s woes. Her own tootsies are killing her! Right Time out for repairs is taken by piquant Ruth Ownbey while Theo Coffman offers moral support.
And now for her romantic ventures, and there sure. Theo’s first Hollywood beau was Phillips Holmes, the gentle, feminine looking actor who worked so well with Nancy Carroll in several good 1930s movies. They dated for a few months before he join the Royal Canadian Air Force. He died in a mid-air collision in 1942.
In started May 1942 dating set designer Merrill Pye. This proved to be her longest liaison, and certainly the most tempestuous. They dated for almost six months in 1942, but it was a sketchy, spotty, passionate affair with lots of ups and downs. Merrill was freshly of his long relationship with hoofer Eleanor Powell, and dated almost half of the Du Barry girls team, including Ruth Ownbey. Yet, Theo proved to be the most resilient of the lot, lasting the longest (except one, you’ll see which one). Theo downplayed the relationship in the papers, saying there is nothing serious between her and Merrill. At least, not yet. . . . Nevertheless, she got Pye’s permission to go to the fights with Tommy Dorsey. So you judge how serious it was 🙂
Somewhere in September 1942, she took up with the playboy Jimmy Ritz, who dated a whole of other girls that way, so obviously it was nothing serious. The Ritz affair helped chill Theo and Merrill for good. Theo then switched to international producer Raymond Hakim.
She lingered for a bit more with Merrill, but it was truly over when he started to date his future wife, another DuBarry girl, Natalie Draper. Like most couples in Hollywood, they had a post scriptum, but that was that. Theo started to date her old beau, Eddie Braugnau, of Chicago. Then, in a strange twist of fate, Theo was seen with both Robbie Robinson and Merrill Pye, and even the press called it an odd threesome. Guess it truly was.
In early 1943, Theor was seeing Bill Hawks, brother of Howard and Kenneth, had a few dates with Pye (this time truly not serious), and was showing the town to Richard Jacobson of Chicago. Jacobson was a newspaper publisher, and the man who Theo ultimately chose.
In March 1943, Theo married Richard Jacobson. Jacobson was a wealthy publisher, who bought he Evanston News-Index, (which had been in bankruptcy for a few months by then), and was already publishing Standard Opinion in Chicago. Jacobson owned a palatial 51-foot yacht powered by 140 horsepower engines.
After the marriage ceremony, she went home to Indiana to sort out her affairs, and Richard went back to Chicago, looking after business, but they had plans to return and live in Hollywood, and were looking forward to their purchase of Joe Penner’s Beverly Hills home.
Theo used to joke that whenever she went to Indianapolis to visit her mother, she was invariably pressed to work at housecleaning. “It doesn’t seem to matter much what time of year I get here,” Theo said, laughing, “house-cleaning is just about to start and I get in on it.”
This is where I lost all track of Theo – did she remained married to Jacobson, did she have children, is she alive today – all remains a mystery to me. We can only say for sure that she didn’t make any more movies under the birth name. As always, I hope she had a good life!