Bert Mortimer Lytell (24 February 1884 – 28 September 1954) was one of many members of The Lambs who started out in Vaudeville and made the leap to Broadway, radio serials, silent films, talking pictures, and ultimately to live television. He toured the country numerous times–even to the Hawaiian Islands–and was cast as the dashing leading man from his twenties to his fifties. Lytell was a member of the club for 35 years, served as Shepherd for five terms, and helped rejuvenate the membership after the effects of World War II. He was the president of Actors Equity and brokered the deal for the U.S. government to bring Equity members to wartime camp shows. For his devotion to the club and acting, he was named an Immortal Lamb.
Bert Lytell was born in New York City in 1884, the son of actor, author, and producer William H. Lytell and actress Blanche Mortimer. He came from a family of stage players. Both on his father’s and mother’s side, the Lytells were long prominent in the theatre, as far back as the days of legendary thespian Augustin Daly (1838-1899). Lytell’s maternal grandfather, J.K. Mortimer, was a prominent member of the Daly Company, nicknamed “Handsome Johnny Mortimer.” His mother Blanche died when he was 10.
His younger half-brother, Wilfred Lytell, also became an actor and also was elected to The Lambs. His boyhood was spent out West, touring with his parents. He was raised in the atmosphere of the playhouse. He had a walk on part at age 3 with his parents. His family attempted to give him a college education, and enrolled young Bert in Upper Canada College, in Toronto. But Bert ran away around age 16 to try his luck in the theatre.
When he was 17, he made his debut in Newark, as a member of the Columbia Stock Company, taking a part with short notice in the Civil War melodrama Cumberland ‘61, around 1902. After that he gained extensive stage experience.
By 1909 he had been hired as the leading man in several plays, so he formed his own Bert Lytell Company to tour the U.S. via railroad cars. In 1916 he was in the Marie Dressler comedy The Mixup. Lytell played the leading role in most of the big plays produced. He had his own stock company in San Francisco and Albany, and appeared with companies in Boston, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Portland, Maine; Rochester, and Troy, New York. Lytell received training as a member of the famous Alcazar Stock Company in San Francisco, under the management of Frederick Belasco, brother of David Belasco, both brother Lambs. He played several seasons there as a leading man opposite Marjorie Rambeau and Bessie Barriscale. He was then ready for Broadway and was a big success in Mary’s Ankle co-starring with Irene Fenwick.
From 1914 to 1919 Lytell was onstage except for a brief residence in Hollywood to make movies. For two years after that he toured in a Vaudeville drama sketch called The Valiant, which made him famous. Critics said he had a firm chin, wavy hair, and sophisticated drawing room manners, which made him a popular leading man in the days of silent pictures.
Lytell returned to the stage in 1928 but occasionally went to Hollywood for film work. Among the most successful films was the “Lone Wolf” series of melodramas, the lead role in Alias Jimmy Valentine, and Ernst Lubitsch’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. From 1928 to 1947 Lytell could be seen almost every season on Broadway or on a tour with a Broadway hit. Among his best remembered plays was the long-running Brothers (1928), Goodbye Again (1933), S. N. Behrman’s Second Man (1934), The First Legion (also 1934) a drama about the Jesuit order which Lytell produced as well as starred in; Margin For Error (1939) and Lady in the Dark (1941), in which he supported Gertrude Lawrence.
He was called one of the first 100 movie stars in the nascent film industry. In 1918 Lytell made his screen debut for Metro in The Lone Wolf for Herbert Brenon, another Lambs member, co-starring Hazel Dawn. Lytell would play the society jewel thief-detective character in a series of sequels into the 1930s and the advent of talking pictures. He also made The Trail to Yesterday which established him as a drawing card. Another silent film was Lombardi, Ltd. (1919), based on the Oliver Morosco stage success by Frederic and Fanny Hatton. Lytell’s fame grew by playing Boston Blackie (1919), Jack Boyle’s detective stories that were transferred to motion picture houses. Lytell established himself as a rakish thief turned slick detective.
Lytell married three times and each of his wives had been his costar. His first marriage, to actress Evelyn Vaughan, ended in 1924 when she filed for divorce after he had participated with Claire Windsor in love scenes during for Son of the Sahara in Algiers. He then married Windsor in 1925; she divorced him in 1927. In 1930 he wed actress Grace Menken, sister of Helen Menken, after starring together in Brothers. They remained married for nearly 25 years.
Lytell joined the board of directors of Actors Equity Association in the late 1920s. From 1939 to 1941 as vice president he acted as president during the long illness of Arthur W. Byron. He was elected and reelected president for six years. These duties left him little time for his professional work. During World War II he served as executive vice president of USO Camp Shows, which sent Equity players to perform for the armed forces in the U.S. and overseas. Lytell was also instrumental in arranging The Stage Door Canteen at the Forty-fourth Street Theatre, one block from The Lambs. Lytell pushed through a program with the government to build 52 theaters at military camps for the presentation of live entertainment by Equity members. Lytell worked on the army recreation program with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood.
Lytell was elected to the Lambs in 1916; his sponsors were Irvin S. Cobb and Charley Ruggles. He was elected Shepherd for a one-year term in 1947 and was then reelected four times afterwards. At the time his election was seen as being a figurehead when the club was divided by two different factions of the old guard and the new. Lytell was a compromise candidate. He healed the political rifts, reconciled the cliques, and rejuvenated The Lambs. A critic said the club was led by a handsome figure with fine manners, and a Barrymore-like profile. While he was Shepherd he had a “dignified persona of great hair and a well-curried mustache,” according to the New York Times.
In April 1952, Lytell announced that he would be stepping down. So The Lambs did what they do best, and held a public Gambol for him in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Lytell told a reporter over lunch in the Grill Room of the old clubhouse, “I feel I’ve been in office long enough. I don’t want to perpetuate a dynasty here. Besides, this is an awfully time-consuming job if you want to do it right, and I’m anxious to do more television plays and perhaps another Broadway play. I haven’t had time to do a play since the 1946 season. I’ve been busy with house committee meetings, and membership committees, grievance committees, activities committees, and heaven knows what. And, of course, every member with some problem feels he must take it up personally with the Shepherd. I remember at lunch once, Kelcey Allen came over to me and held up a pork chop. He said, ‘Joe Laurie‘s pork chop is twice as big as mine.’ He was serious too. I had to go in and talk to the chef about it. I get complaints about the size of the whiskey glasses (too small). About members who kibitz at canasta games too belligerently. I even had a complaint about an actor who had loud nightmares. He used to yell and scream in his sleep and disturb all the Lambs sleeping in his wing. We transferred him to a more isolated room.”
Under Lytell, the club made important changes for its future. “I looked around the Grill Room one afternoon,” he recalled, “And I didn’t see anybody under fifty. I knew we had to make some changes.” He proposed to lower the initiation fee from $200 to $25 for all show people who had been in the armed services. Then 135 young actors joined The Lambs.
Within a few years the stimulating effects of the new blood was felt. Two of the new members, Robert Strauss and Edmund Trzcinski, brought a play script to Lytell one evening. They said several producers had taken options on it and then backed down. They wanted to know if The Lambs would permit a trial performance. The three-act play was cast entirely among the young Lambs’ membership and given for only two performances. José Ferrer, who once held an option on it, dropped in to watch the rehearsals and a few weeks later he brought the production to Broadway. It was Stalag 17.
“People forget,” Lytell remarked, “That during the finest years of The Lambs we were an experimental proving ground for speculative plays.” Many successful Broadway shows, including The Squaw Man, The Littlest Rebel, and The Witching Hour, were first performed as sketches at Gambols and were turned into three act plays. “Over There” debuted by Lambs member George M. Cohan at a Gambol. George S. Kaufman wrote his classic sketch “If Men Played Cards Like Women Do” for a Gambol. He was proud of Stalag 17, and he said he hoped it was the first of many similar productions.
From 1949 to 1952 he acted largely on television. He was master of ceremonies on the Philco Television Theatre, and later played Father Barbour on the NBC daytime series One Man’s Family, which had been a radio serial. He worked right up until the time he was too sick to perform.
In September 1954 Lytell was living in a residential hotel at 145 W. 58th Street. He was taken to Roosevelt Hospital and underwent two operations for an internal illness. He died two weeks later at age 70. Sadly, his younger half-brother, Wilfred, passed away just 18 days before Bert. For his devotion and support of The Lambs, Bert Lytell’s name was added to the list of Immortal Lambs.