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My Father’s “Rosebud”

by larrydachslager on February 24th, 2017


February 24th, 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of my father, Earl Dachslager. Dad and I had nearly identical taste in movies and music, which included a keen appreciation for once-popular entertainment that is now considered obscure. The last movie he and I watched together was Lady on a Train starring Deanna Durbin.

As someone who has always had a fascination for the past, I realize now, more than ever, how fortunate I was to have so accessible a kindred spirit, expert, and most important, first-hand witness to the vintage pop culture I love so much. Unlike most children, I relished hearing the phrase, “when I was your age…” because I knew that whatever followed would provide some piece of detailed insight into the world I missed out on.  I feel sure that my enthusiastic interest in Dad’s youth and the movies, music, radio, comic books, etc. that accompanied it is what he appreciated most about our relationship.

I was probably around nine when I asked Dad who his favorite movie star was when he was my age. I expected his response to be James Cagney, Laurel and Hardy, Boris Karloff, Daffy Duck,… even some cowboy star or serial superhero — someone I had seen and read about… someone I’d heard of. Without hesitation, he replied, “Bobby Breen.”  I wasn’t sure if he was joking. “I never missed a Bobby Breen movie,” he continued, “and couldn’t wait for the next one to come out.” I was embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Bobby Breen. Dad explained that Breen was a child actor with an astonishing singing voice who starred in a series of musicals. “All his movies were great, but my favorite was the one where he went to summer camp. I went back and saw that one a few times,” he said. Naturally, I was immediately sold and was eager to see a Bobby Breen movie, but Dad said he hadn’t seen any of the films since he was a young child because they were never shown on TV, but he remembered them vividly and with great affection.

I searched my books and those in the library’s film book collection. Aside from capsule entries in reference guides, I could find no extensive information about Bobby Breen or his movies. I scoured the TV Guide each week for Breen’s name. Bupkis. What made the search even more maddening was that Dad, whose knowledge of cinema and stars was typically encyclopedic, could not recall the title of a single Bobby Breen picture, including the revered summer camp one. Over the years, when talking of his childhood, Dad mentioned Bobby Breen and the “summer camp” movie many times. Cinematically speaking, that movie was Dad’s “Rosebud.”

Decades later, the Internet provided the answers to all the Bobby Breen mysteries. As Dad had explained, Breen was a popular child actor/singer in movies and on radio during the second half of the 30s. He never reached the star status or longevity of Shirley Temple, but he and other young performers like the aforementioned Deanna Durbin found brief popularity by singing semi-classical, pseudo-operatic, and occasional swing music. Inevitably, puberty and its accompanying voice change forced Breen into a premature retirement.

Youtube hadn’t been created yet, but at last, I was able to see photos and hear recordings of the long-elusive Bobby Breen. The pictures revealed a cherubic, enthusiastic, optimistic face and the recordings displayed an impressive, almost cantorial soprano. I still hadn’t actually seen Breen in action.


I discovered that the summer camp movie was called Make a Wish. Dad’s birthday was approaching, so I tracked down a VHS copy. When I presented it to Dad, he reacted with rare astonishment and told me it was the most thoughtful gift I’d ever given him. On a subsequent visit, I asked him what he thought of the movie after not having seen it for so many years. He shook his head, gave a sad smile and said, “It’s from another world.” He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t push. For many visits to Dad’s house after that, I noticed that the movie sat on top of his TV, separate from his other videos. My guess is that he watched it more than once.


Sad to say, Bobby Breen was one of the many Hollywood stars who died in 2016. When I read his obituary, I naturally thought of Dad. I also learned that throughout all those years of not knowing what Breen looked like, I’d always had access to a photo of because he is pictured on The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. 


Since Dad died, I have watched every Bobby Breen movie available. These were never intended to be A-list films. They were “programmers” – inexpensively produced movies intended to fill out the second half of a double feature. Though they all contain entertaining sequences and have a charming innocence, Dad was right. They are definitely the product of a very specific time and do not hold up particularly well, musically or dramatically. It’s an interesting stretch to imagine a climate in which Breen and his vehicles found mainstream popularity. Like Shirley Temple’s films, the themes typically involve an innocent child coming to the aid of well-meaning but clumsy adults and the importance and power of music to get through difficult times. However, since Breen’s repertoire lacks the staying power of, say, “The Good Ship Lollipop,” no effort has been made to restore or revive the films or his recordings. All of Breen’s films are now in public domain. As a result, the only available copies are multi-duped DVDs or on Youtube, so the poor picture and sound quality make them nearly unwatchable. 

A quick side note: One of Bobby Breen’s movies, Way Down South (1939), has historical significance in that its screenplay was authored by actor Clarence Muse and Langston Hughes, an extremely rare instance — especially for the time — of a mainstream racially integrated Hollywood movie written by African-American screenwriters. In that film, Breen plays the orphaned son of a slave owner in 1854. The sequence below takes place the evening before all of the plantation’s slaves are to be auctioned off and separated. Typical of Civil War movies of the era, the movie is far from historically accurate, but Way Down South’s depiction of slavery is, in large part, a stark contrast to the same year’s Gone With the Wind and its romantically nostalgic approach.

Make a Wish, Dad’s beloved summer camp movie, initially made me wonder what so captivated preteen Earl Dachslager. The movie is not exactly action-packed. Only the first half takes place at the camp, while the remainder of the story deals with Bobby’s mother’s romance with a disillusioned composer (played by an uncomfortable-looking Basil Rathbone) and the fate of his latest operetta. Never have so many actors (poorly) mimed playing the piano so often as they do in this movie.


On the plus side, the camp scenes are obviously filmed on a waterfront location, with a minimum of studio-bound artificiality. The great outdoors is well represented. There’s a cool scene in which the campers put on a musical show (naturally) and the audience members watch the performance from canoes on the lake, drive-in movie-style. Reliable comic character actors Henry Armetta, Donald Meek, and Leon Errol as untalented wannabe Broadway tunesmiths are genuinely funny.

But what attracted my father to Bobby Breen and this movie? Dad was a music-loving, Jewish, non-athletic urban kid who, to my knowledge, never went to summer camp. Also, despite all his passion for and extensive reading and writing on opera, jazz, show tunes, and the American popular song, Dad couldn’t carry a tune at all — not that this ever stopped him from bursting into song, which he did frequently.  And up on the screen, there was Bobby Breen, another music-loving, Jewish (real name Isidore Borsuk) urban kid who loved to sing and wasn’t into sports. The kinship Dad felt with Bobby must have been palpable.


For the final shot of Make a Wish, Bobby Breen looks directly at the camera — directly at me — and sings, “Make a wish… two or three… may they all come true for you and me…” and for that moment, I am young Earl Dachslager. No doubt, Dad’s wish at the time was that he could attend summer camp with Bobby… a place with great friends, fresh air, minimal sports, and beautiful scenery, where everybody loves music and sings on key.  My wish: That I could have lunch with Dad one more time and talk about the Bobby Breen movies I’ve now seen.


Here’s Dad with my grandmother Sara and my amazing Aunt Helene who currently lives in McMinnville, Oregon. This photo was taken in 1938, at the height of Bobby Breen’s popularity and Dad’s fandom.



  1. Josh permalink

    What a beautiful tribute, Larry. It really touched me, and I’m sure your dad would have loved it too.

  2. Amazing story and wonderfully written.

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