What’s in a name?

what's in a name

The original Engelbert

Lately I’ve been traveling back in time with my playlist. My days have been filled with the toe-tapping sounds of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and of course some Stevie Wonder. This week I added another big name to the queue: Engelbert Humperdinck. Whenever I discover (or re-discover) an icon from the past, I put on my sleuthing hat. I’m always eager to learn more about their personal history – what makes them tick, who is important in their life, and what projects they pursued. Imagine my disappointment when I learned Engelbert’s name isn’t the name listed on his birth certificate. I know it sounds naive; as I type this I recognize that new monikers are part of the star-making playbook. After all, could you imagine the iconic poster from “The Seven Year Itch” emblazoned with the name Norma Jeane Mortenson rather than Marilyn Monroe? In honor of this longstanding Hollywood tradition, we’ll explore a few stars who were given a box-office alias. So I ask you dear reader, what’s in a name? Let’s find out…

We’ll start with the mid-century troubadour, Engelbert. Born with the name of Arnold George Dorsey in 1936, he discovered a passion for music at a young age. By the time Arnold reached his teenage years, he and his saxophone were playing gigs at nightclubs all over the town of Leicester. Leicester was a city hungry for inspiration, having suffered some of the worst air raids during WWII. In this English enclave, the main source of joy was music. In addition to a thriving club scene, by the 1950s this ancient town was hosting concerts by the likes of Buddy Holly and the Beatles. The same year the Beatles came to Leicester, Arnold inked his first deal with Decca Records. (If you recognize the name Decca, that’s because it’s the label that published Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”) With this publishing powerhouse in his corner, Arnold had set the stage for a successful music career. But, as always happens in life, fate intervenes.

Arnold’s first single didn’t dominate the air waves and then he got sick. After his recovery, he returned to the venues from his youth. But Arnold wasn’t destined to remain a local crooner as inspiration struck during a 1965 meeting with an old roommate. After this session, Arnold envisioned a new wave of success by changing his professional name to Engelbert Humperdinck. Funnily enough, this rather robust moniker was already known in musical circles. The original Engelbert was the composer behind the opera Hansel and Gretel. Fueled by his roommate’s confidence in deal-making, he struck a new contract with Decca and the rest is history. In fact, his path crossed with the Beatles again, when in 1967 his hit “Release Me” kept their “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” classic from grabbing the number one spot on the UK charts. While it’s easy for me to imagine his album covers with the name Arnold Dorsey, I must admit that Engelbert Humperdinck is a more memorable name. It’s a natural conversation starter and being unforgettable is critical to showbiz longevity.

Looking for another awesome origin story? Michael Caine (or should I say Maurice Micklewhite) can thank Humphrey Bogart for his famous alias. More specifically, Humphrey’s iconic flick “The Caine Mutiny.”

Judy Garland is one of my favorite performers and her turn in “Meet Me in St. Louis” always brings a smile to my face. Born Frances Ethel Gumm, she entered the entertainment industry during the height of Vaudeville. Originally performing with her two older sisters, Frances transitioned from the stage to the cinema by the late 1920s. They continued to perform as a trio of singers and dancers under the name of the “Gumm Sisters.” The surname had served them well until a 1934 performance in the windy city. It was the first time they stepped onto the stage to the sound of laughter – the audience was giggling at their name (or perhaps because it may have been incorrectly billed as the “Glum Sisters”). Rumor has it George Jessel came to the rescue. A famed Hollywood & Vaudevillian producer, known for The Jazz Singer, he commented that the sisters were as beautiful as a garland of flowers. Alternate versions state that a character in Twentieth Century served as the inspiration or that a critic’s last name was influential. I prefer to believe the Jessel rendition personally. Judy’s voice is as charming as a fresh bouquet, so the red sequined shoe fits in my book!

what's in a name

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While Judy Garland captures me with her voice, Cary Grant captures me with his charm. There’s something special about the combination of his dreamy looks and carefree disposition. Cary’s choice of roles has always been eclectic and I feel his birth name is a good reflection of the quirky characters portrayed on the big screen: Archibald Alexander Leach. Archibald’s looks screamed leading man to Hollywood executives, but they found his name lacking in charisma. The search was on for a strong name that would match his masculine appeal. Using Gary Cooper as a reference point, Archibald enlisted the help of his closest pals. After nights of brainstorming they came up with Cary Lockwood. Feeling triumphant, he took the name to the studio executives. The surname felt too long to grab a movie goer’s attention. As Cary himself recalled, a member of the Paramount staff started reading down a list of possible last names and stopped as Grant. That simple choice decided it and in 1941 he made it official by updating his legal documentation.

There’s no doubt that the marketing system behind the entertainment industry is fickle. And as an audience we can be just as flighty, which makes it challenging for a performer to get an edge in the popularity game. During the golden age of cinema and the heyday of the recording industry, names could make all the difference. Just look to Engelbert’s success as a prime example. His talent was always there, but by adding a few extra syllables he turned the tide, rocketing from the local scene to the global stage. In today’s quickly changing celebrity scene, it seems the name has taken a backseat to the number of followers on social media. But the thread that connects these two eras is the idea of reinvention. Back then (and to a certain extent in our modern times), people believed in the concept that by changing your name you could change your professional destiny. It’s a surreal idea for those of us not in the business of spotlights and film, but it’s fun to ponder. Tell me dear reader, if you could change your name what would you choose? Would you follow the path set by Arnold and go for the lengthy razzle dazzle or keep it succinct like Archibald? Let us know in the comments…

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