Singer and Emmy-winning actress Polly Bergen was born in Knoxville | Opinion
I tuned into the GRIT TV channel a few weeks ago and saw a western, "Warpath" from 1951, that I had never seen before. It starred Edmond O'Brien, Forest Tucker, Dean Jaeger and Knoxvillian Polly Bergen. Even though she had appeared in movies since 1949, I had never heard of her until 1957. When I got out of the Army in the spring of that year, my brother, George, had one of her albums, "The Party's Over," which I played many, many times. When he moved to Chicago he took it with him.
Some years later I found a copy of it at a vintage record store and began to reconnect with Miss Bergen. The music is on the Columbia label, and in addition to the title song, it has such great tunes as "Smoke Get in Your Eyes," "My Melancholy Baby" and "You'll Never Know." The liner notes simply gush with the comments of esteemed critics.
For example, the New York Herald Tribune called the album "lnspired ... A tour de force. The New York Times said, "A resounding personality." "A knockout performance," said Variety. "Great," said Ed Sullivan and Billboard. Hedda Hopper called it "Superb," and the Chicago Tribune said she was "A gifted multi-talented performer."
Those liner notes also recalled her original triumphs. "Polly Bergen's performance on CBS Television as Helen Morgan, and her recording of songs made famous by Miss Morgan, were unquestionably the biggest show business success of 1957. Now Miss Bergen appears again in another collection of superb torch songs sung and acted with the same artful brilliance that characterized her early performance."
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Bergen's first movie was "Across the Rio Grande" in 1949. She then appeared in "At War with the Army" in 1950 with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. She then appeared with the comic duo in "That's My Boy" in 1951. She joined them again in "The Stooge" in 1953. In 1962 she had a dramatic role in "Cape Fear" with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. In 1958 she won an Emmy for portrayal of the tragic Helen Morgan.
Bergen was in several other Hollywood films movies and movies made for television, including "The Winds of War," "Death Cruise" and "The Haunting of Sarah Hardy." She appeared in the nearly all-Black cast of "Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored," which starred Al Freeman Jr., Phylicia Rashad and Richard Roundtree. She was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 for her best supporting role in "War and Remembrance."
She once said, "l'm one of those people who always needs a mountain to climb. When I get up the mountain as far as I think l'm going to get, I try to find another mountain."
The Polly Bergen musical variety television show debuted on NBC on Sept. 21, 1957, and ran to May 31, 1958. It featured Bergen, the Peter Gennaro Dancers and her father, Bill. The Luther Henderson Orchestra that provided the music for the show provided the music for her album.
Born Nellie Paulina Burgin here in Knoxville in 1930 during the Great Depression, she and her family struggled to make ends meet. Sometimes they lived on welfare. The family moved to California when she was in her teens and she began singing on radio. "A Brunette beauty with a warm sultry voice, Bergen was a household name from her 20s onward," said an Associated Press release. Her later appearances were on "Desperate Housewives" and The "Sopranos."
The 1965 Knoxville City Directory lists her father, William H. Burgin, and mother, Lucy L. Burgin, as residents of Stone Mill Road. They owned and operated Polly Bergen's Fashions on Chapman Highway. Polly Bergen died Sept. 20, 2014, from natural causes In Southbury, Connecticut, at the age of 84. She was survived by three children and three grandchildren.
Robert J. Booker is a freelance writer and former executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. He may be reached at 865-546-1576.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Opinion: Singer and actress Polly Bergen was born in Knoxville