Viola Richard has been one of the most asked-about and frequently misinformed-about co-stars in the entire Laurel and Hardy repertoire. With a face and physique like Viola’s, it’s easy to see why. She understandably fluttered the hearts of fans everywhere with her appearances alongside the boys in six of their silent films: Why Girls Love Sailors, Sailors Beware, Do Detectives Think?, Flying Elephants, Leave ‘Em Laughing, and Should Married Men Go Home? She is also featured most notably in the 1928 Charley Chase silent Limousine Love.
But outside of her film appearances in 1927 and 1928 at the Hal Roach Studios, Viola seemed to have all-but-vanished into thin air. Why would this actress destined to break the hearts of many young men in film fandom drop completely out of sight after such an auspicious career beginning? It is my distinct privilege to bring you the up-until-now unknown facts about one of the fairest of them all.
The search for information about Viola Richard’s life had been an ongoing struggle for decades, with published reports that she had passed away in 1955, the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Several sources speculated that this Viola Richard, who worked in the wardrobe department at Twentieth Century Fox, and our Viola Richard were one and the same. But it turns out, ‘twasn’t so. Now, through the magical detective work of Bill Cappello, we have finally put an end to the mystery.
Evelyn Viola Richard was born January 26, 1904 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada to John Richard and English-born Alice Sweeting Richard. The family relocated to the United States in 1910. Viola, although uneducated was able to read and write. The circumstances by which she chose an acting career and ultimately came to work at the Hal Roach Studios are unknown. But perhaps more mysterious were the circumstances by which she left her film career behind. The 1927-1928 season at Roach’s wrapped at the end of March, at which time Viola would have been finishing her scenes in Laurel and Hardy’s Should Married Men Go Home? It is speculated that cutbacks at the studio may have ended the career of Viola, along with other leading ladies Edna Marion and Dorothy Coburn.
Whatever the scenario of her departure, by August 22, 1928, she was in New York – getting married. She was wed at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Manhattan to Alexander Kempner, a 37-year old official of the William Fox Theatre enterprises. Film historian Richard Finegan has discovered at least one additional film in which Viola starred – in a speaking role, no less – entitled The Line-Up, filmed circa 1929 presumably in New York. From all accounts, her magnetic silent-screen presence did not quite spill over into her ability to deliver a powerful speaking performance. In a 1930 census taken in Manhattan, Viola listed her occupation as none. In the words of her third husband, Lawrence McCafferty, “Unwilling to go through the game of pretense demanded of those who would reach the summit of achievement in the world of the theatre, she withdrew from that world.” Apparently the acting bug bit Viola once more, as she did make one known appearance in a Broadway production in 1934 entitled Geraniums in My Window. It ran for 27 performances from October 20 through November 17, and she received fourth billing.
As early as 1935, the couple were back in California, residing in Beverly Hills. Viola is credited with walk-on appearances in two Hal Roach productions during that year, Our Gang’s Sprucin’ Up and Laurel and Hardy’s Tit For Tat. It is unknown whether she had made an attempt to return to the studios, or had simply dropped by for a visit. What is known is that she did appear in a 1936 Hollywood casting directory, so obviously film work was on her mind.
Apparently quite wealthy, Viola had already achieved an unsought social status in the community. However it only proved to be merely a facade for the turmoil going on within her marriage. In 1938, she was granted a divorce from Alexander Kempner on the grounds of extreme cruelty. Among other issues, he was a perpetual bridge player that could not stop once he had started and eventually squandered much of the couple’s fortune.
After her divorce settlement, Viola remained in Beverly Hills and bought into a cosmetics company that became known as the Viola Richard Corporation. Sydney I. Rusinow was the manager of the business in 1939. He had been a champion bridge player as well, and in 1936 had journeyed out west to set up bridge clubs for folks in the motion picture industry; this provides a likely scenario by which Viola to made his acquaintance. On May 4, 1942, the couple were married in Las Vegas. By 1944, there is no record of Viola’s corporation nor the couple’s residence being in Beverly Hills. In fact, it is likely that they had moved out of state by this point, possibly to Florida. Rusinow was formerly of Florida and there is good evidence that Viola’s sister resided there.
In 1951, a tragedy befell Viola that changed her life completely. Her husband, Sydney Rusinow perished in a house fire. He had been unable to escape due to his confinement to a wheelchair. At this point, we have no further details of the incident other than the fact that it did not occur in California.
The next milestone in Viola’s life was her third marriage to a widower from Los Angeles. On Christmas Eve, 1953, Viola married Lawrence McCafferty, a prominent professor of philosophy. Wed in Las Vegas, Viola gave her birth year as 1916, thus shaving twelve years from her age. Ironically, although Viola became somewhat of a spiritual and contemplative individual, she apparently never told her husband how old she really was.
The next twenty years of her life were lived in a peaceful serenity in which she sought closeness to God, no doubt prompted by the teachings of her husband. In her eulogy, he describes many incidents along her “path to the summit of consciousness.” Viola’s life was mostly reclusive, but she was a very gracious host to the students of her husband that often visited their home. Polly Green was one such visitor. She is currently the owner and distributor of the published works of Lawrence McCafferty and remembered being impressed with Viola for “her vivacity and intelligence.”
Around 1972, Professor McCafferty retired from academic teaching and moved with his wife to Carmel. It was alluded to in her eulogy that Viola was already ill at this time. In the words of her husband “God had prepared her for what was to come.” Vacationing in Palm Springs for Christmas in 1973, Viola celebrated the holiday with friends which brought her great joy in her final days. On December 28, Viola passed away, her final words to her husband being, “This is the spiritual rebirth. . . . and the pain that goes with birth.” Viola is buried alongside her husband, who passed away in 1979, in the Monterey City Cemetery in California (Block 273, Lot 2).
It is easy to picture Viola Richard during her final years. It was a life of contemplative meditation, one of peaceful reflection on a more turbulent life that had endured its share of pain and tragedy. It is a sharp contrast to the life of the average motion picture star, but to look into the beautiful eyes of Viola onscreen, it is easy to see the quiet soul that resided therein. It is nice to be able to close the book on Viola’s life knowing that the happiness she had brought moviegoers for decades, although probably never recognized by her, was at least felt by her during her last twenty years of life.
One of her favorite sayings was “God wants not busy minds.” And in tribute to Viola, we can try to live up to that.