Todd spent his boyhood in Chicago and began his show business career here as an impresario for a flame dancer at the Century of Progress Exposition in 1934.
Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 11, 1909 to Chaim Goldbogen (1872-1931) and Sophia, nee Hellerman (1868-1962). The Goldbogens had eight children: Joseph (1889-1958), Sadie (1893-????), Carl (1894-1972), Frank (1897-????), Shirley (1901-????), Edith (1904-1964), Avrom (1909-1958) and David (1910-1976). Chaim Goldbogen had many occupations through the years: laborer (1906), peddler (1916), painter (1918), and even a mention that he was a shochet (kosher slaughterer), but I found no evidence that he was ever a rabbi as some sources have stated, nor does his tombstone indicate that he was a rabbi - in Hebrew or in English. I did find one reference that said that Chaim's father had been a rabbi but I was unable to verify this.
In 1918 the family decided to move south looking for greener pastures and ended up in Chicago, arriving right as World War I ended on November 11, 1918.
None of the Goldbogen family appeared to have participated in the 1920 US Census.
The stories of Avrom (now "Abe") Goldbogen's youth are legion. Some are undoubtedly apocryphal, but many contain a kernel of truth buried deep. Some of the more interesting takes are that 1) He was expelled in the sixth grade for running a game of craps inside the school; 2) In high school, he produced the school play, "The Mikado", which was considered a hit; 3) He eventually dropped out of high school and worked at a variety of jobs, including shoe salesman and store window decorator; 4) One of his first jobs was as a soda jerk. When the drugstore went out of business, young Abe had acquired enough medical knowledge from his work there to be hired at Chicago's Michael Reese Hospital as a type of "security guard" to stop visitors from bringing in food that was not on the patient's diet. Whether any or all of these are true is lost in the mists of time, but they do add some "flavor" to the story.
Easier to verify are Goldbogen's first ventures into the construction business. As he told it, he made, and then lost, a fortune. He opened the College of Bricklaying of America, buying the materials to teach bricklaying on credit. The school was forced to close when the Bricklayers' Union did not view the college as an accepted place of study. Abe and his brother, Frank, next opened their own construction company.
His first flirtation with the film industry was when he served as a contractor to Hollywood studios, soundproofing production stages during the transition from silent pictures to sound. The company he owned with his brother went bankrupt when its financial backing failed in early days of the Great Depression. Not yet twenty-one, Abe Goldbogen had lost over $1 million. But as he once commented, "I've never been poor, only broke. Being poor is a frame of mind. Being broke is only a temporary situation."
On the personal side, Abe Goldbogen married Bertha Freshman (1905-1946) in Crown Point, Indiana on February 14, 1927. Having relocated to the west coast, their son Michael Goldbogen was born in Los Angeles on October 8, 1929.
The 1930 US Census shows the young Goldbogen family living at 105 N. Commonwealth Avenue in Los Angeles. They were renting - paying $75 per month for their apartment. The Hollywood Freeway now covers 105 N. Commonwealth Avenue. Abe lists his occupation as "Construction." They were doing well enough to report a live-in maid "Annie B. Shine."
|A young Michael Todd|
Abe returned to Chicago for the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-34. It was at the fair that he produced an attraction called the "Flame Dance." In this number, gas jets were designed to burn part of a dancer's costume off, leaving her naked in appearance. The act attracted enough attention to bring an offer from the Casino de Paris nightclub in New York City. Abe got his first taste of Broadway with the engagement and was determined to find a way to work there.
After seeing the Federal Theatre Project's Chicago run of "The Swing Mikado", an adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "The Mikado" with an all African-American cast, Abe decided to do his own version on Broadway which he called "The Hot Mikado", despite protests by the FTP. "The Hot Mikado", starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, opened on Broadway March 23, 1939.
We don't know exactly when "Abe Goldbogen" decided to change his name to "Michael Todd", but we do know when he made it official. Abe's father Chaim Goldbogen died in Chicago on September 30, 1931. On that day, Avrom Goldbogen died as well, but was replaced by Michael Todd. Abe knew that his father would never have approved of the name change, so he waited until his father's death to make the change official.
The 1940 US Census, reports the Michael Todd family living at 25 Central Park West in New York City.
|25 Central Park West, New York City|
Michael was a "Theatrical Producer", his wife Bertha Todd was a housewife, and their son was Michael Todd Jr.
Bertha Freshman Goldbogen Todd died suddenly at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica on August 12, 1946 of a collapsed lung while undergoing surgery for a damaged tendon in her finger. Todd and his wife had been separated at the time of her death; less than a week earlier, he had filed for divorce. There were whispered rumors that Michael Todd had arranged for Bertha to be murdered, but nothing ever came of this.
I am not going to cover Michael Todd's extensive career as a theatrical and then a movie producer here. These topics have been more than adequately reported in many other places. If you want more information, a good place to start is Wikipedia:
Todd's last marriage was the one that was the most famous: he married Elizabeth Taylor on February 2, 1957.
|Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Todd on their wedding day|
Todd was 47 and Taylor was 24 (two and a half years younger than Todd's son); he was also her third husband, and she was his third wife. As they say "Third time's a charm." Todd and Taylor had a daughter, Elizabeth Frances (Liza) Todd, who was born on August 6, 1957.
In 1950, Mike Todd had formed Cinerama with the broadcaster Lowell Thomas and the inventor Fred Waller to exploit a widescreen film process created by Waller that used three film projectors to create a giant composite image on a curved screen. The first Cinerama feature, 'This is Cinerama', was released in September 1952.
Before its release, Todd left the Cinerama Company to develop a widescreen process which would eliminate some of Cinerama's flaws. The result was the Todd-AO process, designed by Todd and the American Optical Company. The process was first used commercially for the successful film adaptation of 'Oklahoma!' (1955). Todd soon produced the film for which he is best remembered, 'Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days', which debuted on October 17, 1956. Costing $6 million to produce, the movie earned $16 million at the box office. In 1957, 'Around the World in 80 Days' won the Best Picture Academy Award.
|Michael Todd with Oscar and Elizabeth. He loved them both very much.|
In the 1950s Todd acquired the Harris and Selwyn Theaters in downtown Chicago. The Selwyn was renamed Michael Todd's Cinestage and made into a showcase for Todd-AO productions, while the Harris was renamed the Michael Todd Theatre and operated as a more conventional cinema. The facades of both theaters survive as part of the Goodman Theatre complex, although the interiors have been demolished.
Michael Todd had everything. He was rich and famous, his wife was one of the most beautiful women in the world, he was a successful movie producer with an Oscar to prove it - Michael Todd was on top of the world But then it all came crashing down.
On March 22, 1958, Todd's private plane Lucky Liz crashed near Grants, New Mexico. The plane, a twin-engine Lockheed Lodestar, suffered engine failure while being flown, grossly overloaded, in icing conditions at an altitude which was too high to sustain flight with only one working engine under those conditions. The plane went out of control and crashed, killing all four on board.
In addition to Todd, those who died in the crash were screenwriter and author Art Cohn, who was writing Todd's biography The Nine Lives of Mike Todd, pilot Bill Verner, and co-pilot Tom Barclay. Elizabeth Taylor had wanted to fly to New York with her husband, but stayed home with a cold after her pleas to come along were overruled by Todd. Just hours before the crash, Todd described the plane as safe as he phoned friends, including Joseph Mankiewicz and Kirk Douglas, in an attempt to recruit a gin rummy player for the flight: "Ah, c'mon," he said. "It's a good, safe plane. I wouldn't let it crash. I'm taking along a picture of Elizabeth, and I wouldn't let anything happen to her."
Michael Todd Jr. wanted his father's body to be cremated after it was identified through dental records and brought to Albuquerque, New Mexico, but Elizabeth refused, saying he would not want cremation. Elizabeth Taylor had converted to Judaism when she married Todd, and she knew that cremation was frowned upon by observant Jews (although there is no evidence that Todd had been particularly observant).
So, the remains of Michael Todd was buried in Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, at Gate 66 - Beth Aaron in the Goldbogen family plot.
But just what was there to bury? In his autobiography, Eddie Fisher, who considered himself to be Todd's best friend, stated:
"There was a closed coffin, but I knew it was more for show than anything else. The plane had exploded on impact and whatever remains were found couldn't be identified....The only items recovered from the wreckage were Mike's wedding ring and a pair of platinum cuff links I'd given him."
Somewhere along the way a rumor was started that Elizabeth Taylor had placed a diamond ring valued at $100,000.00 on her husband's finger prior to his burial. Not to be morbid, but anyone who did the least amount of research about the accident could figure out that there wasn't enough left of Michael Todd for Elizabeth to place any ring on.
So that brings us back to the Tribune story at the beginning of this article. The rumor mill was rife, and although the family said they had not received any ransom demands, the prevailing opinion was that a ransom demand would be forthcoming.
The Chicago Daily Tribune from June 28, 1977 contained a follow up story:
Elizabeth Taylor told police she is baffled by the theft of the remains of her former husband Michael Todd from a suburban Forest Park cemetery, spokesman for the actress said Monday.
"She's been in contact with the police there [Forest Park]," John Springer, Miss Taylor's public relations representative told reporters. "She is very upset and as baffled as anyone over the motive."
Todd's remains were stolen from a grave in Jewish Waldheim Cemetery, Forest Park, sometime during the weekend.
"It could be the work of sick pranksters, it might be a possible extortion attempt, or it might have been the work of some anti-Semitic organization that wants to attract attention to its cause," said Sgt. Richard Archambault of the Forest Park police.
"Who knows? Maybe someone thinks he can make some money selling the remains, Archambault said.
Todd, who grew up in Chicago and later became a successful movie producer, was burned beyond recognition in a plane crash in 1958. His remains, identified through dental charts, were placed in a rubber bag and buried in a bronze coffin.
Archambault said the theft appeared to have been well planned. The thieves apparently surrounded the gravesite with large tree branches to conceal themselves while digging up the coffin.
The gravesite, in an unfenced area of the cemetery, is 100 feet south of Roosevelt Road, just west of Des Plaines Avenue.
Archambault speculated that at least two, and possibly more, individuals took part in the theft because the tombstone, weighing 250 to 300 pounds, was found 4 feet from the grave.
He estimated it took the thieves as long as five hours to dig up the coffin. A shovel was found near the grave.
The open coffin was discovered about noon Sunday by a woman visiting a nearby grave. Police believe the theft took place while the cemetery was closed between 5 p.m. Friday and Sunday morning.
Everyone waited to find out what the thieves wanted. The Forest Park police tracked down clues as fast as they turned up - still nothing. And then, what they had least expected to happen, happened. They found the remains. Here's the Chicago Tribune from the next day, June 29, 1977:
A plastic bag, believed to contain the remains of movie producer Michael Todd was found Tuesday afternoon under a pile of leaves and branches in Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in suburban Forest Park.
Police said the discovery was made about 75 yards from the gravesite where the former husband of Elizabeth Taylor was buried after his death in a 1958 plane crash. Todd's remains were stolen from his grave last weekend.
If the remains prove to be Todd's, they will be reburied in a secret location at the request of his son, Michael Todd, Jr., according to Sgt. Richard Archambault of the Forest Park police.
"We don't know if they are the remains of Michael Todd for certain," Archambault said. "But they have been taken to the county morgue where a pathologist will conduct an examination."
Police were told where to find the remains by Anthony Pellicano, a private detective, Archambault said. Pellicano said he received instructions on where the body was from an informant.
The bag was covered with dirt, leaves, and branches and possibly could have been missed during an earlier police search of the cemetery, Archambault said.
Pellicano told police his informant suggested that the thieves may have removed the body in the belief that Todd was buried with a 10 carat diamond ring on a finger. Archambault said Todd's son, who lives in New York City, told police his father was not buried with any jewelry.
"I can only surmise that people made up stories and that this was a rumor someone heard," Archambault said. He added that the robbers probably became frightened at the publicity resulting from the grave robbery.
Forest Park police Sgt. Gary Doss said the bag probably had not been removed from the cemetery. He said a zipper on the bag had not been opened but that the bag had a tear on one side, apparently caused when it was dragged up a rocky incline near the spot where it was found.
Besides the remains, the bag also contained a few small pieces of what appeared to be a partly burned nylon seat belt, Doss said.
Todd was burned beyond recognition in the plane crash, and his remains, identified through dental charts, were placed in a plastic bag and buried in a bronze coffin.
As quickly as the purloined remains of Michael Todd were in the news, they were just as quickly out of the news after the remains were reburied. The case remained open, although every lead ended up in a dead end. That is until 1983 when this article showed up in the Chicago Tribune:
Two criminals were identified in court documents Thursday as the grave robbers who stole movie producer Michael Todd's body in 1977 in search of a diamond ring.
Peter Basile and Glen DeVos, longtime associates of organized crime figures, dug up Todd's body at a Forest Park cemetery in search of a 10-carat diamond ring that Todd supposedly wore when he was buried in 1958, two government witnesses said.
The claim was contained in a sentencing memorandum submitted by J. Kenneth Lowrie, an attorney with the Justice Department's organized crime strike force in Chicago, in connection with last month's conviction of Basile and DeVos on charges of conspiracy to transport stolen property.
Basile, 38, of 2048 Highland Avenue, Wilmette, and DeVos, of Chicago, face sentencing November 21 by federal District Judge James Moran. The memo was included in the prosecution's request that Basile receive a prison sentence because of his background.
Todd's body was stolen from its grave at Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park on June 28, 1977. Though the body was found hidden in some bushes 75 yards away a short time later, no one was ever charged in the incident.
Todd, once married to actress Elizabeth Taylor, died in a plane crash in 1958. He supposedly was wearing a large diamond ring when he was buried.
Salvatore Romano, a government informant, now claims that Basile told him in 1977 that he and DeVos had discovered Todd's grave and dug up his body in search of the rumored ring. Frank Collotta, a mobster who turned informant, said Basile told him the same story in 1982.
Basile told Romano that he had made a map of the cemetery and found DeVos drunk one night and they both went to dig up the body.
"They went to the grave and dug and dug until they uncovered the casket containing Todd's body," the government memo said. "Basile told Romano that DeVos did all the digging.
"According to Romano, Basile said that after the casket was uncovered he broke through the top of the casket and he rummaged through a body bag containing Todd's body and was unable to find the ring."
Basile then allegedly dragged the body into some nearby bushes. A few days later, he was ordered to draw a map identifying the location of the unearthed body and he gave it to an unidentified organized crime leader.
Todd's body was discovered by police after they received information about its location from Anthony Pellicano, a private investigator, who claimed at the time to have received the tip from an informant.
Todd's son said at the time that the late movie mogul wore no jewelry when he was buried. The body was moved to another location.
Peter Basile ended up being sentenced to 30 months in prison for charges unrelated to the grave robbery; I was unable to uncover any sentencing information for Glen DeVos. To the best of my knowledge, no one every served and time for stealing Michael Todd's body.
So that's the story of the theft of Michael Todd's remains from his grave at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery. Less than one year later in March of 1978 the headlines screamed that Charlie Chaplin's grave had been opened and his remains stolen from the local cemetery in Switzerland. In Chaplin's case, a ransom demand for $600,000 was made but his widow refused to pay. Ultimately two laborers were caught and sent to jail and Chaplin's remains were recovered, none the worse for his "excursion."
Michael Todd's remains were said to have been reburied "at a secret location" in Jewish Waldheim Cemetery, but his tombstone was put back in the same spot where in always was.
Michael Todd would be pleased to know that he was still making headlines twenty years after his death.
Avrom Hirsch "Michael Todd" Goldbogen - may he rest in peace.