SI Vault
 
A STAR WAS BORN
William Oscar Johnson
July 18, 1984
Dashing Buster Crabbe was the perfect hero for the '32 Games, to which Hollywood 'luminaries' flocked. He cracked Japan's dominance of men's swimming, then broke into the movies to become King of the Serials
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 18, 1984

A Star Was Born

Dashing Buster Crabbe was the perfect hero for the '32 Games, to which Hollywood 'luminaries' flocked. He cracked Japan's dominance of men's swimming, then broke into the movies to become King of the Serials

My life was entirely changed because of one-tenth of a second. Nothing was ever the same again." Clarence Linden Crabbe repeated these words or variations of them hundreds of times in the 51 years he lived after the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. That fateful split second occurred during those Games; to be more precise, it ticked away around 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 10 when Crabbe made a desperate lunge over the final half-meter of a 400-meter freestyle swimming race to touch the pool wall just before Jean Taris of France did. Thus, Crabbe won a gold medal, and instead of becoming a lawyer called Clarence with a job in a law firm in Hawaii, he became a movie star named Buster who bleached his hair and gave the world Flash Gordon in 40 episodes that played in God only knows how many Bijous and Roxies on God only knows how many Saturday afternoons.

When Crabbe died, at 75, of a heart attack on April 23, 1983, obituary writers dug into their files and came up with a sampling of the B movies he'd been in: King of the Jungle, Man of the Forest, Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, Hold 'em Yale' They also listed some of the numerous roles he'd played: Kaspa the Lion Man, Tarzan, Thunda the Jungle Man, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Captain Gallant, Billy the Kid. They also reminded their readers that Crabbe had once been known as the King of the Serials.

If the '32 Games had been held in any other city—Rome, Paris, Chicago, Philadelphia, anywhere normal—Crabbe's life surely wouldn't have turned out as it did. But given the tinseled surrealism that prevailed in L.A. in the 1930s, Crabbe's life almost had to unfold the way it did.

Although the first freeway had yet to be built, the population of Los Angeles in '32 was already 1,300,000, and it was growing explosively. Each week it attracted thousands of newcomers, many of whom brought with them visions of instant immortality. Of course, Hollywood, which was then in the middle of a golden era that would extend into the late '40s, was the magnet for those dreamers. The city worshiped the movie stars, treating them as royalty. With Hollywood as a backdrop, these Olympics were infused with a dazzle and glamour that didn't exist anywhere else.

Stars—or luminaries, as the papers called them—were everywhere. Tom Mix, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Tallulah Bankhead, Fay Wray, Joe E. Brown, Clark Gable, Buster Keaton, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Amelia Earhart, Bing Crosby, Spanky McFarland and the entire Our Gang cast, including Pete, the dog with the "monocle" painted around one eye, all were seen at Olympic events. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the acknowledged king and queen of film society, gave a party for 200 Olympic officials at their mansion, Pickfair, and a writer for the Los Angeles Times burbled that guests felt as if they had been "admitted to some inner paradisiacal temple" and that the food served "reeked of epicurean superiority."

Whenever movie stars and Olympians met, the occasion was reported in loving detail. A visit by Fairbanks to the headquarters of the Italian team was described by the Times: " 'Doag-oh-lass!' howled the Italians excitedly. 'Oh! Doag-oh-lass!' They came running from all sides. Practically every one of the 106 members of Benito Mussolini's team bore down on him. Cameras, autograph-albums and pictures showered from everywhere.... Picture after picture was snapped. Gaudini, the six-foot six-inch fencer was in every one, peering excitedly above the crowd. So was a hairy-chested, bull-necked weight lifter, who crouched at Doug's feet, grinning broadly. Fairbanks declared he had never been mobbed quite so enthusiastically in his career, but he grinned delightedly throughout."

The Games themselves were a lavish spectacle that set the standard by which subsequent Olympics would be measured—one which, ironically, the organizers of the relatively austere '84 L.A. Games are trying to avoid. The opening ceremonies in the enlarged and renovated Coliseum, with its "thirty miles of seats," drew a sell-out crowd of 105,000. The onlookers saw 1,980 athletes from 39 countries parade around the new crushed-peat track. A white-robed choir belted out The Star-Spangled Banner, and the day's festivities were capped by the release of 2,000 white "doves of peace" that flapped into the bright blue sky. The U.S. may have been in the pits of the Depression—only two days before the Games began, police and troops in Washington, D.C. had fought rioting World War I veterans demanding an immediate cash payment of a bonus due them—but the Olympic pageantry went on as if the bad times were occurring on another planet.

The '32 Games featured the first Olympic Village, a flower-bedecked settlement of 550 pink and white portable bungalows in Baldwin Hills. The Village was for men only (the women athletes were put up in the Chapman Park Hotel), and Damon Runyon described it as follows: "Naked young men are sprawled out here and there on the turf, all of them tanned the color of an old saddle. It is difficult to distinguish the Americans from the Argentines, Japanese or Filipinos. The California sun has painted them all alike." Two days after Runyon's story appeared, a young woman climbed the 10-foot barbed-wire fence and roamed the Village, presumably looking for Olympians wearing only a California paint job. She was finally rounded up by a posse of mounted security guards who were decked out in cowboy getups. They made her climb back over the fence.

Crabbe had a room in the Olympic Village that he shared with one other athlete, but he was also a pre-law student at Southern Cal and stayed in a local rooming house. He spent much of his time there because he was under a good deal of pressure, and he didn't like hanging around the men he would swim against. He was America's best hope in his two events, for in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam he'd gotten a bronze medal in the 1,500 and finished fourth in the 400. Before his competitive swimming career was over in 1932, Buster would set one world record and win four indoor and 11 outdoor national titles.

At the 1932 Olympics, the 24-year-old Crabbe was a strapping 6'1", 188 pounds. He had the body-beautiful of the surfer and rough-water swimmer he'd been in Hawaii. Despite his dashing looks, Crabbe wasn't one of the starry-eyed who had come to L.A. to seek fame and fortune in the movies. He was a sober young man who was preparing himself for a career in law. His family had no money to speak of, and Crabbe had been working his way through USC by putting price tags on stock in the basement of Silverwood's, a men's store. His pay came to $8 a week. His fiancé, Adah Virginia Held of Beverly Hills, who was to marry him in 1933 and remain his wife until his death, recalls their college dates. "We used to have long conversations about the way the world should be," she says. "He was very idealistic, very serious. He was modest, a quiet man. I thought he was perfect."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5