Early LifeThe story of how the Brian Sisters
came to Hollywood has been told by Doris and
Betty. It would be impossible to improve on their own
account, so here is a shortened version, without so much
family history information, that will suffice.
The girls' mother, Meda Nichols (Lovina Almeda) was born on 1st August 1893 in Rexburg, Idaho. She married Frank Leslie Brian in Idaho in 1912 and they had five daughters, pictured below:
Brian, born in Rexburg, 1913. Bernice Schafer died
- Norma Radia
Brian, born in Twin Falls, 1918. Norma Chapman
died in 1997.
- Betty Lee Brian,
born in Rexburg, 1923. Betty Gutter died in 2015.
- Doris May Brian,
born in Pocatello, 1926, now Doris Rounds.
- Gwen Marie Brian, born in Pocatello, 1928. Gwen Wardrobe died in 1990.
Norma (13), Bernice (18)All five girls had exceptional natural musical talent and sang in perfect tune and in perfect time. They often sang at family and other events.
Gwen(4), Doris(6), Betty(8)
Salt Lake City, 1932
Gwen(4), Doris(6), Betty(8)
Salt Lake City, 1932
In 1930 the family was living in Salt Lake City, Utah, caught up in the Great Depression.
Like many families at the time, they had little money available to do more than survive. In spite of this, Frank and Meda were doing the best they could for their family.
By 1932, the younger three girls were singing popular tunes that they learned from the radio; Gwen (4) taking the melody with Doris and Betty harmonizing. They appeared on local radio station, KDYL, in Salt Lake City at around that time.
The photograph was taken in 1932, at the same time as their KDYL appearance, when Norma was 13, Bernice 18, Betty 8, Doris 6 and little Gwen was 4.
By 1933, the girls were making more public appearances. In February, Bernice, Betty, Doris and Gwen joined in a pageant held by the Ladies Literary Club as "Children from many lands".
In December, the three younger girls performed at the Playhouse in Salt Lake City, singing in their own developing style and reported as "Three clever youngsters, Gwen Marie, Doris and Betty Brian, aged 5, 7 and 9 years, respectively, who emulate the Boswell Sisters in a few minutes of melodious harmony."
From this beginning, the Brian Sisters rapidly went on to appear successfully in other shows. In May 1934 they were in a musical revue at the Elks Ladies' Club annual fete, directed by Bobby Thatcher, their dance teacher.
Two months later, in July 1934, they sang at the Brass Rail, a speakeasy in Salt Lake City. This was the turning point. When the act was finished, the patrons threw money on the floor to show their appreciation; the girls collected it and counted their wealth - about $8 - on the kitchen table at home. The Brian Sisters had taken payment for their performance and knew they could do so again. They had become professionals and knew that their childhood was over. Inevitably, Meda had similar thoughts, and it is at this time that her ideas of escaping increasing poverty in Salt Lake City and taking the young girls to Hollywood began.
Frank had permanently deserted his family in 1934, leaving Meda to bring up all the children and somehow make ends meet on her own. This became an impossible budgeting task and there were even more powerful reasons for trying to succeed through the girls' obvious talents. Frank subsequently only visited his daughters twice before he died in Custer County, Idaho in 1948.
In August of 1934, the Brian Sisters appeared again at the Playhouse in Salt Lake City. Their performance was reported in the local newspaper: The tiny Brian Sisters, amateur winners, appeal with their singing and tap dancing.
Bernice (21) and Norma (16) were making their own way in life. Meda had made the right decision and the time was right for change — She left Salt Lake City taking Gwen, Doris and Betty to face an unknown future in Hollywood.
Seeing the five Sisters together in the above photo from 1932, you can imagine how traumatic it must have been for the family to be torn apart. The three young girls would have a difficult time ahead of them, through absolutely no fault of their own. It must have been very hard for them to understand what was happening, and to adjust to it. Bernice and Norma also felt great loss at the break-up of their family.
They had a hard childhood, but not only got through it; they did so very well. These days it is not easy to imagine the difficulties they faced. Even their education, required to be of a certain standard by the State of California, was not straightforward.
With no father to support or assist them, Meda and her young children had to cope as best they could, doing all the things that were, especially in those years, regarded as a man's responsibility. They succeeded, through their effort and ability. It is amazing to think of the three young girls, not yet even in their teens, being able through their incredible talent to earn enough to support themselves and their mother.
Doris says "There was no money to spare for gifts or luxuries of any sort - the girls neither expected nor received them. They learned the hard way that if they misused their shoes, there were no new shoes. They learned that if they wasted food, the next meal would be meager. They learned to forgo any but the barest necessities because the rent must be paid first.
They learned early and well that producers, theater managers, and musical directors detested child performers and would not tolerate any extra noise, taciturn or temperamental outbursts, or other childish conduct. They learned that there are no excuses. And they learned not to cry."
That paragraph indicates how bad those days sometimes were for the girls. Give Doris's words a thought as you watch the movies.
The girls were very fortunate in one thing - there were three of them. They had each other to rely upon for comfort and support, no matter what. They stuck together and, even at school, made few other friends.
Although it's sad that the girls and Meda had to go through such troubles, if circumstances hadn't been as they were their talents would have ended up as "something they enjoyed doing as children at home" and nothing more.
The years of the Great Depression were unfavorable to many people. Even considering the problems that the family had to face, they might have been a lot less fortunate if Meda hadn't brought them to Hollywood.
As fans of their singing, we can focus on their successes - but their path to adulthood was certainly very difficult and precarious and is well worthy of recognition. It was a very hard ride.
A really excellent example of what the girls could do near the start of their careers is their singing of Mister Paganini in the Texaco Town radio broadcast of 1937. They really had what it takes!
In the earlier films in which they appeared, the girls were nearly always billed as "specialty". Their appearances were often additional to the main storyline of the films and provided the 'kiddie appeal' that was popular at the time. There were many occasions when their appearance in a film made a lot of difference to it and livened things up considerably.
The producers knew this - they didn't employ the Brian Sisters out of sheer altruism!
Most of the film directors hated working with children - apart from a reluctance to accept that small children could be popular and even talented, there were practical difficulties due to legislation about working hours and education.
Movies were the things that the girls liked doing least, which is hardly surprising - but they are the things that best survived the decades. The whims of film-makers, so disliked by the girls - such as imposing singing styles, adding freckles, glasses and braids for 'appearance' - didn't happen with radio, records, club appearances, etc.
Please use a navigation link in the left column to continue, or look now at a list of their preserved performances...
Onwards to 1935