When one reflects upon classic film, television, and radio, it is easy to recall legendary show business pairings. These dynamic duos were in complete harmony with one another, and their quips on or off-screen seemed organic, natural, and flawless. Each party was unique and balanced the other out, and each pairing was perfection.
The pairing of Lyn and Lee Wilde is especially interesting to me, since they do not appear in the foreground of show business pairings very often. First of all, Lyn and Lee Wilde are unique in that they are among just a handful of twin acts from the time period. Unlike sister acts, or mirror images of the same actor thanks to split-screen technology, the beautiful, blue-eyed and blonde Wilde twins boasted an unrivaled authenticity as being the only identical twin act under contract by a major film studio during the 1940s. They paved the way for other sister acts and mistaken identity tropes for twins in films, which were all new ideas at the time.
Since their careers in the entertainment industry were curbed by limited plot lines from studios, as well as advances in split-screen technology, an effort to dedicate their time to family life would later become all the more appealing instead. As a result, they left the moviemaking business for more exciting endeavors. However, their time in the industry and beyond is fascinating.
While watching Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble (1944) last year, I became curious about Mickey Rooney’s supporting cast members, Lyn and Lee Wilde. The two played identical twins with a panache for performance, while poor Andy Hardy is unaware of the fact that he is attempting to woo two separate ladies. Upon researching their career, I learned that both Lyn and Lee were alive at the age of 92 at the time, with Lee residing in California, and Lyn in Indiana. During this past year, I was lucky enough to visit Lyn Wilde Oberlink as well as with her son, James Carter Cathcart in order to discuss the careers of the Wilde twins.
First and foremost, Lyn believes in the power of making plans and pursuing them, regardless of what other people say. While growing up in East St. Louis, Illinois, which author John Gunther labels as “the most backward city in the United States,” Lyn and Lee would busy themselves with making exciting “secret plans” between themselves, as race riots at the nearby stockyards on hot summer nights did not make for sweet dreams.
The Wilde twins were born one day apart from each other. Lee, named Marion Lee Wilde, was born on October 9th, 1922, while Lyn, named Mary Lyn Wilde, followed on October 10th, 1922. The twins expanded the Wilde family, which already had two daughters and a son—Helen, Jenny, and Oscar “Ockie” Wilde. According to Lyn, a boy was always preferred, and the mother was usually to blame in the olden days. As a result, their father did not speak to their mother for weeks after they were born. Lyn holds that her mother was nothing short of angelic.
The story of their teen years has the makings of a film plot on its own. According to the Pittsburgh Post, Lyn chides that she is “sort of sober and Lee is sort of vivacious.” Lee liked math, so in school, she took Lyn’s geometry examination. Lyn liked history, so Lee took her history test. Lyn and Lee also had no problem swapping scenes when they performed in films. In fact, some of their past dates echo the plot of Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble. Lyn once took a date for Lee, and the oblivious boy spent the evening telling “Lee” how much prettier she was than her twin. The whole situation turned out to be just as embarrassing for them as for their date. Lee told the Pittsburgh Post, “We don’t want to be the same.” Lyn responded, saying, “We aren’t the same.”
After seeing Mickey Rooney in a film when he was number one at the box-office, Lyn and Lee made plans to one day make a film with him. With a planned goal in mind, Lyn and Lee decided to put their plan into action as soon as possible. They decided not to share their secret goal with anyone who would frown upon their dream. The twins believed in each other wholeheartedly. Having skipped two grades and graduating at sixteen, the two never really had any close girl friends in life, according to Lyn. Though they were well-liked, popular, and considered beautiful by their male peers in high school, they always found it important to plan and practice with one another.
“We could sing and had our own radio show singing hymns at six in the morning on our new radio station, WTMV (Watch the Mississippi Valley), once East St. Louis finally got a radio station. It took us three years of singing in a trio with our minister’s daughter, Eloise Sidwell,” recalls Lyn. Eloise was two years older than the Wilde twins, and an excellent musician. “She played piano, and we would sing. Billed as “Lee, Lyn, and Lou,” the trio spent most of their time in church on a rigorous schedule, as Eloise’s father, Reverend Irl Sidwell, was a minister of the Landsdown Christian Church. The twins had Sunday school and church in the morning, and Christian Endeavor and church in the evening. Prayer meetings fell on Wednesdays and choir practice occurred on Thursdays.
“When we started performing as a trio, we sang hymns on the radio and in revival meetings in churches all over Southern Illinois. Lou’s dad would preach, we would sing, and Lou played the piano. We did that for two summers. Then, we started singing popular songs with a local orchestra every weekend. We also sang with a dance band on the weekends in Belleville, Illinois, for a time and earned five dollars each.”
Later, the trio would perform on riverboats, singing across the river in St. Louis, Missouri. They had their own radio show called “The Sundown Club” every afternoon. At night, they sang on the then-new riverboat, the Admiral, from St. Louis, Missouri, to Alton, Illinois, and back.
Afterwards, Lee, Lyn, and Lou got a manager, an older woman named Katie Gearhart, who had bigger ideas for them. Gearhart took them to Chicago, where they visited several talent agencies and met Ray Noble’s Orchestra manager. Ray Noble’s orchestra was the house band at the Palmer House for over a year, and the Wilde twins first performed with the orchestra on New Year’s Eve in 1940.
“The orchestra played in the Empire Room for a year. My darling first husband, Jim Cathcart, was first violinist. We joined them for their last two weeks and then toured with them for 11 months,” recalls Lyn.
After playing the Palmer House, they toured with the orchestra, and performed stage shows after movies in just about every theater on the way to New York and every college prom on the way back. Soon after, the Ray Noble Orchestra performed on The Charlie McCarthy Show, and the Wilde twins sang the opening song, “Here Comes Charlie” in the 1941 broadcast. The Wilde twins toured with Ray Noble’s orchestra until he decided to go back to England.
At that point, Lee, Lyn, and Lou were still a trio, but Lou decided to quit and marry Earle Hagen, who was a trombone player with Noble.
“When Lou left, we were staying at the Gilbert Hotel, a small hotel between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard. We didn’t have a job but we had faith. Faith works. Hope is a four letter word,” says Lyn. “Once Lou married, we had the opportunity to sing with Bob Crosby’s band. He was making a movie with Judy Garland.” The film in question was Presenting Lily Mars (1942), in which the twins sang a verse to “When You Think of Loving, Baby Think of Me.”
“We were visiting the set when Joe Pasternak, the producer, saw us and asked what we did. We told him that we sang with the band and he put our number in the movie. MGM signed us to long-term contracts. What a wonderful time!” says Lyn.
When MGM signed Lyn and Lee to long-term contracts, the twins were not yet 21 years of age, so their parents had to sign their contracts. The twins flew home and visited their father, who was very ill in the hospital. “He cried when he signed our contract, and we cried as we kissed him goodbye. He passed away a few months later, only being 54 years old. This was a very bittersweet experience,” recalls Lyn. “We really never had any fun when we were little. We spent most of our young days trying to make Daddy like having two more daughters. He always ‘predicted’ that we would never amount to anything, and we were determined to prove him wrong. We did!”
Once the twins returned to Hollywood, they began their individualized training for careers in film. “We had lessons with the best teachers in the business: jazz singing with Earl Brent; pop singing with Harriet Lee; light opera with Arthur Rosenstein; drama with Lillian Burns; tap dancing with Willie Covan; and ballet with Jeanette Bates,” says Lyn. “We lived across from a newspaper office, and were hired by Bell Brand, when they invented the first ‘twin-paks’ of potato chips and popcorn. They used our photo in their ads, paid us, and also kept us supplied with their goodies. Mother also supplied us with some of her goodies that we missed so much. We survived!”
The Wildes dealt with the clichés of Hollywood tabloids, putting a stop to what they thought were silly ideas about twins. When a Pittsburgh Post reporter suggested the idea of “twin talk,” Lee responded with: “That’s telepathy and we don’t believe in it.” Instead, she held that they communicated by expressions and attitudes. “I put on a dress and look at Lyn. She looks back and I know whether it is becoming,” said Lee, demonstrating a raised-eyebrow expression, suggesting, “How does this look?”
The twins appeared in Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble (1944), and they had accomplished their goal of starring in a film with Mickey Rooney, although Mickey was no longer number one at the box office at that point. “We were the only twins under contract with a major film studio,” says Lyn. Twice Blessed (1945), which is basically the first Parent Trap, was also written exclusively for the Wilde twins. The Wilde twins also appeared in Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) and Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).
MGM then loaned the Lyn and Lee out to other studios to make movies as sisters, not twins. They were the leads in Campus Honeymoon (1947), and were supporting cast members in Look for the Silver Lining (1949).
“Mistaken identity is short-lived and we spent most of our seven-year contract playing sisters on loan to other studios, such as Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and Universal. Then, the big stars started to finance their own movies and things changed,” recalls Lyn. “We would entertain at the Hollywood Canteen, where we met Bette Davis. She helped serve the food and was so interested in our ‘twinship’ and how much we looked alike. Years later, she starred as twins in a movie that MGM had wanted us to do. The movie was A Stolen Life (1946), but the studio thought we were too young to be in a film that had us killing each other. Olivia de Havilland also played twins in The Dark Mirror (1946)—another story for which we were deemed too young.”
While Lyn could have worked all she wanted to, Lee was considering leaving the movie industry for college and family life. Lee was considered a new comedienne at the time and did not like competing with older comediennes. At this time, Lyn and Lee had separate agents and were no longer working as the Wilde Twins. Lyn was working a great deal and earned roles in two films without Lee by her side, and had bit parts in several more—even performing the shimmy with Charles Coburn in one film appearance.
Lyn stayed on to appear in seven more films without Lee, in mostly uncredited roles. She can be seen as Gertie Peck in Tucson (1949), as Nancy Bishop in Sheriff of Wichita (1949), in the chorus of Show Boat (1951), the tennis player in the “Beautiful Girl” number featured in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a Charleston dancer in Has Anybody Seen My Gal (1952), in the chorus of The Belle of New York (1952), and as Peggy in The Girl Next Door (1953).
“I still remember the white tennis shoes I wore when I was the tennis player model in Singin’ in the Rain. I felt a little short compared to some of the other models who were wearing high-heeled shoes! Either way, making movies was never as much fun as singing with the band,” concludes Lyn.
Meanwhile, Lee auditioned for a comedy part, but the role went to Marie Wilson instead. This caused her to leave the film industry. Instead, Lee decided to have a family, marrying Tom Cathcart of the Cathcart brothers in 1947. The four Cathcart brothers—Jack, Jim, Tom, and Dick—were all talented musicians from Michigan City, Indiana. Dick played trumpet for Lawrence Welk and married Peggy Lennon of the Lennon Sisters. Jack married Judy Garland’s sister, Sue.
“We knew Judy Garland and spent many holidays with her and her mother. Judy’s mother was such a dynamic person, and lived next door to our mother for several years. She should have been president of something, but MGM discouraged her interference and kept her away. She dropped dead in the parking lot of Lockheed, where she worked. I loved her. She was a great cook, played the piano, could do just about anything, and had a great-sounding laugh,” says Lyn.
Lyn married Jim Cathcart in 1942 when he was conducting the Air Force orchestra radio shows Hello, Mom and Wings Over America throughout the duration of the war. Jim Cathcart was first violinist for Ray Noble for two years. Thus the Wilde twins were not only sisters, but sisters-in-law.
“After taking conducting lessons for several years by flying to Chicago once a week, he enlisted in the Air Force and became the conductor of his two shows. I would take the street car to Santa Ana to watch him conduct,” says Lyn.
Upon leaving MGM, Lee earned her pilot’s license and continued acting as part of the Palm Desert Players. She earned an Associate’s degree from College of the Desert, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Foreign Languages from the University of California at Irvine. Lee graduated cum laude, and Lyn attended her graduation. Lee and Tom had two children: Bill and Kathy.
After Lyn’s final film, Jim came back to Michigan City to start a symphony orchestra after the war and Lyn followed him to start a family. Lyn worked as a model at Sears in Chicago and South Bend. She continued acting at the Long Beach Theatre in Long Beach, Indiana, and was also a stage director for the Miss Indiana Pageant. In her spare time, Lyn loved to sew and paint, and is a very talented copyist painter. Jim and Lyn had two children: Carter and Lee Ann.
“There was always music in the house,” shares Carter. “I think Dad set the tone with what we heard, and that ran the gamut! Horowitz, Toscanini, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie—great jazz and classical. He loved Judy Garland, too. He dated her when he was young, so Mom was always singing along with those tunes. Also, Mom always dressed like a star.”
Lyn’s recollections of Jim also emphasize a deep fondness for music. “I just want you to know what a wonderful, talented father my children had,” says Lyn. “He worked his way through Indiana University with the ‘Jimmy Cathcart Band.’” Lyn recalls that the university would hold a “Battle of the Bands” and Jim was always the best. He graduated with distinction from Indiana University.
Jim Cathcart passed away in 1970. Three years later, Lyn married Dwight Oberlink, and the two enjoyed traveling and sailing on Lake Michigan, until his passing in 1996.
In 1989, Lyn and Lee reunited to record an album called, Back Together Once Again. “Aunt Sissy was doing a lot of gigging, using arrangements my uncle Jack wrote,” says Carter. “I recorded a couple of big band versions of them and sent them to Mom and Sis, and they loved them! So, for two weeks, we recorded in my little 82nd Street apartment in Manhattan.”
The next year, Lyn and Lee appeared in an annual reunion of the “Jivin’ Jacks and Jills” at Universal Studios, stealing the show. “I don’t think Hollywood was forward-thinking enough to expand on the twin thing, which is a shame, because later on, Parent Trap and The Patty Duke Show had quite a run with twins!” says Carter.
Unfortunately, Lee passed away in September of 2015. “She was planning to come for a visit and to see if we could spend our end days together watching old movies and ordering in. No one told me, but I knew. The ‘identical-twin bond’ was so strong, we could always communicate without words. I think we still can!” says Lyn.
Lyn is immensely loved by her enormous family, including children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, stepchildren, step-grandchildren, and step-great-grandchildren. She’s known as “Grandma the Great” at home, and her home is testament to a life well lived. Lyn has a wall covered in Wilde twins memorabilia, which was put together by her second husband, Dwight. The photos and captions read like a “who’s who” of old Hollywood. She is showcased laughing with Judy Garland, standing alongside Fred Astaire, singing with Bob Crosby, posing with Mickey Rooney, and so many more. Scrawled onto a framed album page is the following message from her days at the Palmer House: “To two of the cutest twins I have ever seen—Lee and Lyn. Sincerely, Frank Sinatra.”
But it’s easy to see that Lyn is most proud of her family and her dream come true. With 93 years of wisdom that come with love, faith, hard work, and dedication to her family and talents, Lyn’s message is simple: “Make plans, believe in them, and make them happen. Most importantly, have fun. Time passes so quickly.”
The more I got to know Lyn, the more it became clear that she had a story she wanted to share. I visited Lyn frequently to chat with her about her memories of Old Hollywood and her film career. The above story was printed in Nostalgia Digest‘s Summer 2016 issue. Lyn was delighted to see her story in print.
Lyn passed away peacefully in her sleep on September 11th, 2016, at the age of 93.
I am so blessed to have known Lyn and to have been able to interview her about her career at length. I will forever cherish our visits and conversations–especially the fun evening when we watched Singin’ in the Rain and spotted her appearance in it! Lyn was full of 93 years worth of memories of old Hollywood and so much more. Our conversations were mostly about our personal lives and thoughts about Hollywood’s Golden Age. When we visited with each other, I’d always bring along a bunch of photos and articles from her Hollywood days and she’d give me the scoop on what was going on in the photos and anything she remembered about various stars. Though a more minor celebrity in MGM’s heaven of stars, Lyn was a wealth of information and quite the star to me.
Whether in phone calls, emails, or in-person visits, Lyn would always give me pieces of advice that she would sometimes find a little cliche, but I now find them profound. “Love each other.” “Figure out what you want to do, don’t say anything to anyone who will poo-poo it, and do it!”
Here’s one last piece of wisdom she left me with–“Make plans, believe in them, and make them happen. Most importantly, have fun. Time passes so quickly.”
I’ll miss you, Lyn.