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Martha Sleeper

Martha Sleeper
Martha Sleeper pp135.jpg
Sleeper in 1935
Born(1910-06-24)June 24, 1910
DiedMarch 25, 1983(1983-03-25) (aged 72)
Occupation(s)Actress; businesswoman
Years active1923–1945 (Acting)
(m. 1934; div. 1940)

Harry Deutschbein
(m. 1944; div. 19??)
Col. Howard C. Stelling
(m. 1969)

Martha Sleeper (June 24, 1910 – March 25, 1983) was a film actress of the 1920s–1930s and, later, a Broadway stage actress. She studied dancing for five years with Russian ballet master, Louis H. Chalif,[1] at his New York dancing studio. Her first public exhibitions were at Carnegie Hall at his class exhibitions.


Sleeper reputedly spent her first years on a sheep ranch in Wyoming. Her father, William B. Sleeper, was an official of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in New York City. Her uncle was John J. Murdock, head of KAO and one of the most powerful men in the business. He had a major impact on her career. Her mother was Minnie Akass.[2]

Her father retired to Los Angeles, California, in 1923 due to ill health. Martha was under contract to Hal Roach studios beginning in 1924, when she was 14 years old. Her father was found dead of heart disease on September 1, 1925, in bed at his home. Sleeper, then 15 years old, with her mother and sister, were away, having taken a short trip to New York City.[citation needed]

Acting career

Martha Sleeper in 1928
Martha Sleeper in 1928

Sleeper's film career began in 1923 and continued until 1945. Her first screen appearance, at the age of 12, was in The Mailman (1923),[3] an independent production. After appearing in several kiddie comedies at the Christie studio she was signed by the Hal Roach studio for the Our Gang series but she quickly outgrew that role, leaving it shortly after her 14th birthday.[4]

From 1925 to 1927 she appeared in comedies playing opposite the studio's most popular male stars. She developed into a very inventive comedienne, with an animated face of many comic expressions -- especially in the Charley Chase short The Rat's Knuckles (Martha's a waitress, registering confusion when a customer pours an entire bottle of soda on his sandwich) and in the Max Davidson short Pass the Gravy (Martha, imitating a chicken, thinks she has laid an egg!). Many of her early comedies were directed by Leo McCarey.

In 1927, Sleeper was one of 13 actresses selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star,[5] one of the year's feminine personalities whom exhibitors thought had a promising future in feature films. Late that year she left the Roach studios -- which made only short-subject comedies -- and signed with the FBO studio. FBO introduced Sleeper and Bryant Washburn as a new comedy team.[6] In 1928-29 she starred in six silent features. With the coming of sound she was signed by MGM and placed in their training program.

From 1930 to 1936 she played many supporting roles in melodramas, her role typically that of a well-bred and somewhat snobbish society woman who loses her man to the film's leading lady. Frustrated by the types of roles she was being offered, Sleeper began playing in local stage productions, at one point drawing raves as Eliza Doolittle in a performance of Pygmalion in 1932.

After appearing in some low-budget melodramas for Monogram studio, Sleeper and her husband, actor Hardie Albright, left Hollywood for New York in 1936[citation needed] where Sleeper began a long run in both on- and off-Broadway plays. Her first Broadway play was Good Men and True (1934).[7] In 1945, as a favor to her Hal Roach director Leo McCarey, Sleeper played the role of Patsy's mother in The Bells of St. Mary's. It was her last screen role. In 1945, after appearing in The Bells of St, Mary's, Martha returned to New York and played Spencer Tracy's wife in the Broadway play The Rugged Path.[8]

Business career

While In New York, she turned a hobby into a thriving business, finding herself at the forefront of a fashion craze for "gadget jewelry" in the late 1930s.[9] She had designed and manufactured whimsical pieces of costume jewelry for herself, but soon other women saw these pieces and wanted to know where they could obtain a copy. Martha found a company that would manufacture her designs, and they soon became available in department stores around the country, generating Martha a substantial sideline income in addition to her stage work. Many of these pieces were manufactured using Bakelite; these pieces are now considered valuable collectibles.

In 1949, she and her second husband were on an extended cruise in the Caribbean. Her destination was the Virgin Islands and a vacation with her husband; however, when she reached Puerto Rico, she fell in love with the island. Terminating the cruise, Martha and her husband took up permanent residence in San Juan. Looking for a new challenge, and no longer interested in jewelry design, she reinvented herself and began designing women's clothing and resort wear. She had her designs manufactured locally and sold them through a boutique that she established in a 300-year-old building in Old Town San Juan. She won many awards and commissions from large corporations for unique designs. She operated this business from 1950 until her retirement in 1969. In 1969, married her third husband and left San Juan for Beaufort, South Carolina, where she spent her remaining years.


Sleeper died of a heart attack, aged 72, in Beaufort, South Carolina, where she had lived with her third husband, Col. Howard C. Stelling, who survived her.[7] She had no children.

Former discrepancies regarding Martha Sleeper's year of birth

Many sources had cited 1907 as Sleeper's year of birth, but she was actually born shortly after the 1910 census was taken in April 1910. Martha's true date of birth is June 24, 1910, as verified by a copy of her birth certificate.

No "Martha Sleeper" appears in the 1910 census records; however, a "Martha Sleeper" is listed as 9 years old in the 1920 census (April 1920) and 19 years old in the 1930 census (April 1930). An airline passenger list, flight CBA 611 from St. Maarten to Charlotte Amalie, VI, on 10 Sep 1962, gives a birthdate of 6-24-1910, in Illinois ( A U.K. Incoming Passenger list ( for the RMS Queen Elizabeth, from New York to Southamptom, arriving 19 Aug 1958, gives a birthdate of 24.6.10. The Social Security Death Index records the date of birth of a "Martha Stelling" (Sleeper's third husband's surname) who died in March 1983 in Beaufort County, South Carolina, as June 24, 1910.[10] Sleeper's 1983 New York Times obituary, as well, was titled "Martha Sleeper Is Dead At 72."[11]


Year Film Role Notes
1923 The Mailman Betty
1924 The Racing Kid Short
Trailing Trouble Short
Please, Teacher! Short
A Ten-Minute Egg Mrs. Dugan Short
Seeing Nellie Home Short
Sweet Daddy Daughter Short
Outdoor Pajamas Girl with Runaway Pony Short
Low Bridge Martha - Buddy's Sweetheart Short
Should Landlords Live? Short
Too Many Mammas The Apache Dancer Short
Every Man for Himself Lady with rings around her eyes Short
All Wet Uncredited
The Royal Razz Short
1925 The Rat's Knuckles Flirty McFickle Short
Plain and Fancy Girls Short
Bad Boy Jimmie's Girl Friend Short
Are Husbands Necessary? Short
Big Red Riding Hood The Maid, Book Store Clerk Short
Wild Papa Short, Uncredited
Sure-Mike! Vermuda Short
Sherlock Sleuth Hotel Operator Short
Innocent Husbands Girl at Party Short, Uncredited
Tame Men and Wild Women Short
There Goes the Bride Short
Better Movies Teenaged 'Vamp' Short
Should Sailors Marry? Smyrna Short
Laughing Ladies Short
Hold Everything Short
1926 A Punch in the Nose Short
What's the World Coming To? Butler Short
Your Husband's Past Short
Madame Mystery Short
Dizzy Daddies Minor Role Short, Uncredited
Ukulele Sheiks Short
Baby Clothes Leggy Lady Short
Mum's the World The Nervous Little Girl Short, Uncredited
Say It with Babies Hector's Wife Short
Don Key (Son of Burro) Maid Short
Long Fliv the King Princess Helga of Thermosa Short
Never Too Old Short
Thundering Fleas Bride Short
Along Came Auntie Marie, the Maid Short
The Merry Widower Short
Crazy Like a Fox The Bride Short
Should Husbands Pay? His Wife Short
Bromo and Juliet Bit Role Short, Uncredited
Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes Co-ed Short, Uncredited
1927 The Honorable Mr. Buggs The Fiancée Short
Jewish Prudence Rachel Gimplewart Short
Fluttering Hearts Daughter Short
The Way of All Pants Short, Uncredited
Love 'Em and Feed 'Em Martha, a stenographer Short
Fighting Fathers Short
Flaming Fathers Daughter Short
1928 Pass the Gravy Daughter Short
Should Tall Men Marry? Martha Skittle Short
Skinner's Big Idea Dorothy
The Little Yellow House Emmy Milburn
Danger Street Kitty
Taxi 13 Flora Mactavish
1929 The Air Legion Sally
The Voice of the Storm Ruth
1930 Our Blushing Brides Evelyn Woodforth
Madam Satan Fish Girl
War Nurse Helen
1931 Girls Demand Excitement Harriet Mundy
Ten Cents a Dance Nancy Clark
A Tailor Made Man Corrine
Confessions of a Co-Ed Lucille
1932 Huddle Barbara Winston
The Chimp Landlord's wife Ethel Uncredited
Rasputin and the Empress Party Girl Uncredited
1933 The Secret of Madame Blanche Chorus Girl Who Hears 'My Country Tis of Thee' Uncredited
Midnight Mary Barbara Loring Mannering
Penthouse Sue Leonard
Bombshell Lola's Hair Stylist Uncredited
Broken Dreams Martha Morley
1934 Spitfire Eleanor Stafford
Hollywood Party Show Girl Uncredited
Tomorrow's Youth Mrs. Hall
West of the Pecos Ril Lambeth
1935 Great God Gold Marcia Harper
The Scoundrel Julia Vivian
Two Sinners Elsie Summerstone
1936 Rhythm on the Range Constance Hyde
Four Days' Wonder Nancy Fairbrother
1945 The Bells of St. Mary's Mary Gallagher, Patsy's mother (final film role)


  1. ^ "Prattle about Picture Plays". The Evening Review. Ohio, East Liverpool. November 23, 1923. p. 17. Retrieved June 23, 2019 – via
  2. ^ Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912–1976 vol.4 Q-Z p.2206; compiled from editions originally published annually by John Parker; this 1976 version by Gale Research.
  3. ^ Bird, David (April 7, 1983). "MARTHA SLEEPER IS DEAD AT 72; STAR OF FILMS AND BROADWAY". The New York Times. Retrieved August 8, 2018.
  4. ^ "Into Bigger Roles". The Los Angeles Times. California, Los Angeles. October 5, 1924. p. Part III - 16. Retrieved June 23, 2019 – via
  5. ^ "New Name on List of Baby Stars". The Los Angeles Times. California, Los Angeles. January 11, 1927. p. Part II - 9. Retrieved June 23, 2019 – via
  6. ^ "Take a Bow". The Los Angeles Times. California, Los Angeles. December 26, 1927. p. Part II - 11. Retrieved June 23, 2019 – via
  7. ^ a b "Actress Martha Sleeper, 72, star of Broadway and cinema". Chicago Tribune. Illinois, Chicago. New York Times News Service. April 8, 1983. p. Section 2 - 11. Retrieved June 23, 2019 – via
  8. ^ "("Martha Sleeper" search results)". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Retrieved June 23, 2019.
  9. ^ Deanna Dahlsad. "Merry Martha Sleeper Jewelry & Fashions". Inherited Values. Retrieved April 8, 2021.
  10. ^ SSDI profile,; accessed August 11, 2015.(registration required)
  11. ^ "Martha Sleeper Is Dead At 72", New York Times, April 7, 1983.
  • Hayward Daily Review, Silent Film Dream Gal Found in Puerto Rico, May 27, 1955, Page 24.
  • Los Angeles Times, Her Youth No Bar To Mature Roles, May 10, 1925, Page 18.
  • Los Angeles Times, Keith-Orpheum Former Official Succumbs Here, September 2, 1925, Page A3.
  • Los Angeles Times, Here and There, October 29, 1926, Page A8.
  • Oakland Tribune, Comedienne Writes, Sunday, October 31, 1926, p. W3.

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Martha Sleeper
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