~Martha Sleeper~

Born: June 24, 1910 in Lake Bluff, Illinois, USA
Died: March 25, 1983 in Beaufort, South Carolina, USA
~Biography~
Martha Sleeper was a talented and versatile woman who was very successful in four different
careers in an eventful life.  At a young age she was a busy screen actress, then left Hollywood in the
late 30s to pursue a career on the Broadway stage.  While doing stage work Martha took a hobby of
creating unique costume jewelry and turned it into a very lucrative side business.  Finally, in 1949,
after deciding that she would spend the rest of her life living on the island of Puerto Rico, she
founded a new business designing and manufacturing women's clothing and soon became a world
renown designer of tropical themed women's leisure wear.  

This fascinating life began June 24 1910 when Martha was born to William and Minnie Sleeper in
Lake Bluff Illinois.  (Some sources give Martha's year of birth as 1907 but this is incorrect). Her
father was an official of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit and her uncle was John J.
Murdock.  J. J. Murdock was E. F. Albee's business partner and general manger of the KAO circuit
and was a heavyweight in the theatrical world.  While living in New York Martha was educated in
private schools and studied ballet for 5 years.  She was also doing stage work at the age of 7.  Her
uncle John hung a framed picture of the young ballerina Martha on a wall at his home and, when
the home was later sold to the mother of motion picture executive Emory Johnson, that
photograph was shown to Mr. Johnson who set out to find the girl and give her a part in his
upcoming film "The Mail Man".  Martha and her mother were already living in Los Angeles when
her father retired in 1923 and joined them so Martha's film career began in 1923.

Martha's first screen appearance, at age 13, was in "The Mail Man" however she was soon
signed by the Hal Roach Studio to appear in the "Our Gang" series.  Martha quickly outgrew that
series and, having already demonstrated a talent for physical comedy, moved on to play supporting
roles in the Charley Chase "Jimmy Jump" films.  She appeared in 13 films in 1924 and an additional
15 films in 1925.  One of her most memorable roles was in the 1925 Chase short "The Rat's
Knuckles" - her character was named "Flirty McFickle"!  Martha was already a veteran of films at
age 15 and put her talents to very good use in this film - her facial expressions are absolutely
charming.  She and Chase worked very well together - even if Charley was about twice her age.  In
1925 Martha appeared in her only starring role at the Roach studio - a one-reeler entitled
"Sure-Mike!".  The plot was more Sennett than Roach but Martha again showed how comfortable
she was with knockabout physical comedy.  

Martha was already playing adult roles as a 15-16 year old and some of her best parts were in
Charley Chase's domestic comedies.  She was at her charming and flirtatious best in "Mums The
Word", "Fluttering Hearts" and "Crazy Like A Fox".  These are among the very best of any studio's
silent comedies.  Martha also appeared opposite such Roach stars as James Finlayson, Glenn
Tryon and Arthur Lake.  In 1927 Martha appeared in several Max Davidson comedies playing Max's
daughter.  "Pass The Gravy" (1928) is one of the funniest films of the silent era - and Martha is at
her best in this film.  She is both beautiful and clever in this film and "Pass The Gravy" just might be
the funniest 2-reeler ever filmed.  Martha's final film at the Roach studio was a comic western
entitled "Should Tall Men Marry?"  This film was Stan Laurel's final film as a solo comic, as he had
already been teamed with Oliver Hardy by the studio.

Although Martha was a very active player at the Roach studio in the silent era her contract
was not renewed in 1928.  The Roach studio needed to free up cash to allow the studio to
install new sound equipment related to the coming of the talkie era so several contracts of
both featured and supporting players were terminated in 1928.  Among those set free were
Roach studio sweethearts Viola Richard, Edna Marion and Dorothy Coburn.  

After Martha left the Roach studio she moved to the FBO Studio.  FBO specialized in low-budget
feature films that were very popular in the Midwest.  In 1928-1929 Martha starred in a total of 6
silent features at FBO: "Skinners Big Idea", "The Little Yellow House", "Danger Street", "Taxi 13",
"The Air Legion" and "Voice Of The Storm".  Sadly, as is the case with so many silent films, none of
these features are known to survive today.

In 1930, with the advent of the talkie era, Martha signed a non-exclusive contract with MGM and
played supporting roles in several MGM films.  She also appeared in films released by Paramount
and RKO however her only true starring roles would be in low-budget melodramas released by the
poverty row Monogram Studio.  The majority of the roles she was given were typically those of a
well bred, well dressed, occasionally snobbish East Coast socialite who was either the wife or girl
friend of one of the male leads.  Her character was always proper, fashionably dressed with very
clear diction.  Martha also played "the other woman" in quite a few 1930s dramas in which she ends
up losing the leading man to another woman, usually the film's leading lady.  Her roles in these
films were in support of the featured players but she did appear opposite such luminaries as
Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, Loretta Young, Myrna
Loy, Jean Harlow, Noel Coward, Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman.

In 1936 Martha and husband Hardie Albright moved from Hollywood to New York and Martha
began a 10-year run on the Broadway stage.  Martha had begun seeking out stage work while under
contract to MGM in the early 30s and, dissatisfied with the roles she had been offered by the
studios, decided it was time to move on and began doing theatre work full time. Martha would
appear in 11 Broadway productions over the next dozen years appearing with such performers as
Spencer Tracy, Diana Barrymore, Noel Coward, Hedda Hopper and Leo G. Carroll.  Martha was
also be very active in many off-Broadway productions.

Martha had always been a creative individual and, in the early 30s, had begun to manufacture her
own costume jewelry.  Other Hollywood stars, seeing some of Martha's creations, were soon asking
for their own copies of her work.  Before too long the costume jewelry business had gone from a
hobby to a $300,000 a year sideline.  Martha was at the forefront of a new fashion trend - "gadget"
jewelry - and it wasn't too long before her jewelry business had become a full-time occupation.  In
the 1970s Andy Warhol accumulated a massive collection of Martha's Bakelite creations - after his
passing they were sold at auction and drew world record prices.

In 1949 Martha and her husband embarked on a two-week Caribbean cruise however, once they
landed on the island of Puerto Rico they decided that they would go no further - they fell in love
with the island and its people and San Juan Puerto Rico would become Martha's home for the next
two decades.  Selling her home in New York, and her yacht, by phone Martha left the mainland
behind and quickly established herself on the island.  Again using her creativity Martha started a
new business designing and manufacturing women's clothing that she sold through a boutique she
opened in a 300 year old building in Old Town San Juan that she had bought and renovated.  As
she was living in a tropical location her skirts and blouses were brightly colored and designed for
comfort.  Martha very quickly became a world renown designer and manufacturer of women's
clothing and her boutique would also become a major tourist attraction in San Juan.  Martha
remained in San Juan  until 1969 when she retired and moved to her husband's plantation in
Beauford SC.  She remained there for the rest of her life.  Martha passed away March 25 1983 - the
result of a heart attack.

Martha was married three times but had no children - her first husband was actor Hardie Albright.  
She was very much her own person and was a "liberated woman" long before there ever was such a
term.  She was very successful in multiple careers and was always looking forward to the next
challenge.  Martha was a very self-confident individual and was not afraid to try something new and
different.  Given that she lived such a full and vibrant life it is truly amazing that so few people
remember her today.  Martha was not one to spend much time looking back but her life is certainly
worthy of celebration today!

Biography written by Bob Duncan, updated May 27, 2011
The Voice of the Storm (1929) .... Ruth
The Air Legion (1929) .... Sally
Taxi 13 (1928) .... Flora Mactavish
Danger Street (1928) .... Kitty
The Little Yellow House (1928) .... Emmy Milburn
Skinner's Big Idea (1928) .... Dorothy
Should Tall Men Marry? (1928) .... Martha Skittle
Pass the Gravy (1928) .... Daughter (D-6)
Flaming Fathers (1927) .... Daughter
Fighting Fathers (1927) (D-4)
Love 'Em and Feed 'Em (1927) .... Martha, a stenographer (D-3)
The Way of All Pants (1927) (uncredited) (unconfirmed)
Fluttering Hearts (1927) .... Daughter (B-20)
Jewish Prudence (1927) .... Rachel Gimplewart
... aka Prudence (USA: rerun title)
The Honorable Mr. Buggs (1927) .... The fiancée
Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes (1926)
Bromo and Juliet (1926) (uncredited) .... Bit Role (B-11)
Should Husbands Pay? (1926) .... His wife (C-10)
Crazy Like a Fox (1926) .... The Bride (B-10)
The Merry Widower (1926) (unconfirmed)
Along Came Auntie (1926) .... Marie, the Maid
Thundering Fleas (1926) .... Bride
Never Too Old (1926)
Long Fliv the King (1926) .... Princess Helga of Thermosa (B-8)
Don Key (Son of Burro) (1926) .... Maid
Say It with Babies (1926) .... Hector's Wife
Mum's the Word (1926) .... The Nervous Little Girl
Baby Clothes (1926) .... Leggy lady
Madame Mystery (1926)
Ukulele Sheiks (1926)
Dizzy Daddies (1926)
Your Husband's Past (1926)
What's the World Coming To? (1926) .... Butler (C-6)
A Punch in the Nose (1926)
Hold Everything (1925) (D-83)
Laughing Ladies (1925)
Should Sailors Marry? (1925) .... Smyrna (C-2)
Better Movies (1925) .... Teenaged 'Vamp'
There Goes the Bride (1925)
Tame Men and Wild Women (1925) (E-8)
Innocent Husbands (1925) (uncredited) .... Girl at Party
Sherlock Sleuth (1925) .... Hotel Operator (E-12)
Sure-Mike! (1925) .... Vermuda (D-85)
Wild Papa (1925) (uncredited)
Big Red Riding Hood (1925) .... The Maid, Book Store Clerk (D-66)
Are Husbands Necessary? (1925)
Bad Boy (1925) .... Jimmie's Girl Friend (E-14)
Plain and Fancy Girls (1925) (D-81)
The Rat's Knuckles (1925) .... Flirty McFickle (D-76)
The Royal Razz (1924) (D-75)
All Wet (1924) (uncredited) (D-73)
Every Man for Himself (1924) .... Lady with rings around her eyes
Too Many Mamas (1924) (D-71)
Should Landlords Live? (1924) (E-5)
Low Bridge (1924)
Outdoor Pajamas (1924) (D-69)
Sweet Daddy (1924) (D-68)
Seeing Nellie Home (1924) (D-62)
A Ten Minute Egg (1924)
Please, Teacher! (1924)
Trailing Trouble (1924)
The Racing Kid (1924)
The Mailman (1923) .... Betty
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Counter
~Martha Sleeper
during her Hal
Roach days in the
1920's.
~A more mature
Martha while on
contract with MGM in
the 1930's.
~Martha Sleeper
in the 1960's
during her life as
a clothing
designer while
living on the
island of Puerto
Rico~
~Trio of
photographs of
Martha Sleeper
donated by Bob
Duncan~
SilentHollywood.com
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