From Baltimore to Broadway to Hollywood

Over the years, many noted actors, such as Mildred Natwick, Edward Everett Horton, Mildred Dunnock, Charley Chase, Francis X. Bushman, Anita Gillette and Josh Charles, have hailed from Baltimore, and their paths to stardom often began by treading the boards right here.

Add another: Bill Mullikin.


Maybe you haven't heard of the comedian, but you will certainly recognize his work, which, in addition to the stage, included TV and movies during his 61-year career.

I learned about Mullikin when my phone rang at work on a marvelously beautiful April morning this year when I was filled with thoughts of going AWOL if the editor wasn't looking.


I was snapped back to reality by the phone. On the other end of the line was a charming woman, Kate Mullikin, a California art teacher who also teaches Shakespeare to students at Shoreline Middle School in Santa Cruz.

She called to tell me about her father, Bill Mullikin, a Baltimore-born and -raised actor whose career began here and took him to Broadway and eventually Hollywood.

She also told me that her father had died a year earlier of Alzheimer's disease at age 82 in Aptos, Calif., where he had lived with her and his son, Matt Mullikin.

The son of a bond salesman and a homemaker, Mullikin grew up in Towson, and when he was 3, entertained drinkers in a bar with a rather spirited rendition of "Clarence Cracked a Peanut Shell."

"His father was always taking him to bars and putting him on the rail, and he'd sing that song," his daughter said.

He learned to play the piano and taught himself to sing and dance. After completing his studies at Robert E. Lee Junior High School for advanced students, he entered Polytechnic Institute.

"He delights to entertain, but only on the stage. At the public schools, Polytechnic Institute and Loyola College he never has been the class clown. That doesn't appeal to him," said a 1949 profile in the old Sunday Sun Magazine.

Artists who influenced Mullikin were Ray Bolger, Al Jolson, Bobby Clark and Eddie Cantor, reported the magazine.


He had worked with the fabled Isabel B. "Dearie" Burger, who established the Children's Theater Association in Baltimore.

"In fact, that's where he met my mother, Regina Catherine Bahlman. They were both appearing in her production of Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,'" his daughter said. The couple married in 1952.

While a student at Poly, Mullikin, who was a member of the Sir Henry Irving Dramatic Club, earned his first notice, a brief one at that, in The Sun for his work in the 1941 edition of the annual Poly Follies.

"W.L. Mullikin was the soloist for a chorus hula dance," reported the newspaper.

After serving in the Navy during the waning days of World War II, Mullikin returned to Baltimore and enrolled at Loyola College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1950.

While in the service and stationed in Bermuda, Mullikin put on a little show and sang "I Gotta Song" from "Bloomer Girl" and "The Firemen's Bride" to his own accompaniment.


Irving Berlin happened to hear the performance and told Mullikin he had never heard the "Bloomer Girl" number done better.

He made his TV debut in 1948 when he appeared in a production of "Counterfeit Lady" that was staged at the Baltimore Museum of Art and broadcast on WMAR-TV.

His impersonation of Maurice Chevalier — in which he sang several songs in French — earned him praise from critics who wrote that he was the hit of the show.

A few days after graduating from Loyola, he was recruited for a touring company of "South Pacific." He toured for 18 months in the national road company with Janet Blair.

Returning to Baltimore, he was performing in several Starlight Cabaret reviews at the Johns Hopkins University when Broadway producer Leonard Sillman spotted him and put him in the cast of "New Faces of 1952."

Making his Broadway debut, Mullikin shared the stage singing and dancing with Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Paul Lynde and Robert Clary.


He toured with the revue for the next two years and made his movie debut in its 1954 film adaptation.

Mullikin was best known for his role of Cornelius Hackle in the stage musical "Hello Dolly," appearing more than 2,000 times and with such stars as Ginger Rogers, Phyllis Diller, Dorothy Lamour (who had lived in Sudbrook Park and later Dulaney Valley), Carole Cook and Martha Raye.

He toured with the show across the nation and Australia, his daughter said, including appearing in Baltimore in the role opposite Ginger Rogers at the Mechanic Theatre in 1968.

An article in the News American at the time carried the headline "So Nice to Have You Back."

"He said his homecoming was one of the highlights of his career," his daughter said. "After the second tour of 'Dolly,' we settled in Los Angeles."

He did commercials, and his movie credits included "Hell is for Heroes," starring opposite Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin, James Coburn and Bob Newhart. His TV work included performances in "The Brady Bunch" and "Little House on the Prairie."


In 1980, he was in "Peter Pan" with Sandy Duncan, playing Captain Hook. During the rest of the decade, he toured Europe in a bus and truck tour of "Showboat" as Captain Andy, appeared in a San Francisco Light Opera Company production of "La Cage Aux Folles," and performed aboard cruise ships.

His last performance was in a 2004 production of "Crazy for You" at the Civic Light Opera in Long Beach, Calif.

Mullikin was proud of his Maryland roots and his family "back East," his daughter said, and enjoyed his summers during his youth spent at a family beach house at Bembe's Beach, near Annapolis.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2006, Mullikin told his daughter that her home at Aptos Beach overlooking Monterey Bay was really Bembe's Beach.

"Acting for him was a dream come true. That was his life," she said.

He explained his philosophy of life when talking to a reporter about his role in "Dolly."


"I love Thornton Wilder's idea of happiness that comes to a simple person. If I can come through the evening making contact with a large group of people, I feel I am doing something that makes me fulfilled, proud, on top of it all."