John Payne, 77; Star of Movie Musicals, Remembered for 'Miracle on 34th Street'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Payne, the ruggedly handsome and vocally gifted leading man in films of the 1930s and '40s, died early Wednesday at his home in Malibu.

He was 77 and died of heart failure, said Bob Palmer, a longtime friend.

With him when he died was his third wife, Sandy, and his three children from earlier marriages to actresses Anne Shirley and Gloria DeHaven.

Payne, who once described his acting career as "living out a kid's dream" wherein he played a series of singers, cowboys and even pirates, more recently had become an astute businessman with property in Malibu and such television properties as the once-successful "The Restless Gun."

At one time he was among Hollywood's hottest properties, playing opposite Alice Faye and Betty Grable in a series of musicals and with Maureen O'Hara in his own and nearly everyone else's holiday favorite, "The Miracle on 34th Street."

Ironically, Palmer said, the film was playing on television in the Payne home Tuesday night as he lay dying.

The heart-warming story is about a department store Santa Claus who claims to be the real Kris Kringle. Payne took personal credit for the production, having spotted the Valentine Davies story in a magazine and then overcoming 20th Century Fox's objections to the making of a simple Christmas story in an era of extravagant productions.

Payne was born in Roanoke, Va., the son of a gentleman farmer who lost much of his wealth in the 1929 stock market crash.

He attended schools in Pennsylvania and Virginia before studying drama and voice at Juilliard and Columbia University. He supported himself with radio work and roles in low-budget Shubert shows and once had his own radio program on WNEW in New York.

He was an understudy in the 1935 musical "At Home Abroad," which co-starred Reginald Gardiner and Beatrice Lillie. When Gardiner became ill, the 22-year-old Payne went on for him.

In the best Hollywood tradition, he was seen by a studio talent scout who placed him under contract to Sam Goldwyn.

His first film was to become a classic--"Dodsworth" in 1936 with Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton.

He moved to Paramount and made a series of melodramas and musicals and then signed with Warner Brothers. When Dick Powell turned down the Busby Berkeley musical "Garden of the Moon" in 1938, Payne was given the role and thereafter he appeared as singer and actor in some memorable pictures.

Among them were "Tin Pan Alley," "Sun Valley Serenade," "Springtime in the Rockies," "Hello Frisco Hello," "The Dolly Sisters" and many more.

He also was a dramatic force in "The Razor's Edge" and "To the Shores of Tripoli" and a cowboy in such saddle melodramas as "El Paso," "Rails Into Laramie," "Santa Fe Passage" and others.

But Payne also proved a successful businessman, dealing in Southern California property at a time when it was affordable and in Montana when others were not investing there.

He made nearly 80 pictures but said in a 1974 interview in connection with his return to the stage in "Good News" that "I never could quite take it seriously."

" . . . It was all kind of fun. . . . It was a remunerative profession. I certainly couldn't have earned that much money any other way that I can think of. . . ."

"Good News" reunited him with Alice Faye on a national revival tour that played here at the Shubert with her as the school astronomy teacher and Payne as the football coach.

But Payne was not deep into nostalgia, telling his interviewer, "The only thing I'm nostalgic about is my Flexible Flyer, a sled I had when I was a kid."

A memorial service is scheduled at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in Malibu. In lieu of flowers, his family, which also includes two grandchildren, asks contributions to the Covenant House for disturbed and homeless children at P.O. Box 731, Times Square Station, New York, N.Y. 10108.

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