In the late 1930s he was one of the 10 highest grossing movie stars in Hollywood, but he never forgot where he came from. It’s an Anderson story.
Robert “Max” Terhune was born in a log cabin in Franklin, Ind., in 1891. By the age of three he could imitate the sounds made by every animal on his father’s farm, amazing his family and friends. His first show business success was winning a whistling contest in Shelbyville. It must have given him a taste for performing because from that point in his life Terhune tried in every way he could to make a living entertaining.
So talented was Terhune that it must have been hard to decide what to settle on. He was a fine baseball player, a pitcher, and for several years he played for teams all over Indiana, finally concentrating on the Lafayette area. While playing in Wisconsin in 1915 he came to the notice of the Minnesota Millers, who signed him to a contract. An injury to his wrist put an end to his professional career (although he continued to play on Indiana teams for the next few years) and he began to concentrate seriously on the stage.
Terhune’s first show business career was as an imitator. Billing himself as the “Hoosier Bird Boy," he would whistle, do bird calls and other imitations. His early appearances were as an act between movies in theaters around Indiana. He would do 22 different imitations in an act called “15 minutes in a barnyard.” He augmented his performance with card tricks and magic. By the early 1930s he had mastered ventriloquism and had a dummy named Skully Null. Terhune was popular and quickly made a name for himself in Indiana.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make a living for him and his mother. Also, in 1919, a friend had asked Max to help him him in his courtship of Maude Cassada, a New Castle girl. Max met Maude and decided that he’d rather help himself. He and Maude married in 1922. Soon they had a growing family. Maude had a sister who lived in Anderson, so perhaps that’s why they settled here. Max learned the toolmaker’s trade and hired on at Delco-Remy.
One of his early show business breaks came as a result of a local acquaintance. Harry Van Noy, who owned Anderson’s Riviera Theater, had met Max when Max had appeared in a local talent show and had been quite impressed by him. In 1924, Roy Brownlee’s "Hicksville Follies" were appearing at the Riviera. Two of Brownlee’s cast members were too drunk to go on and Brownlee asked Van Noy if he knew of two entertainers who could take their place. Van Noy told him that he knew one man who could take the place of both and called Max’s home. Max was working at Delco Remy until 9, but when he got home, Van Noy told him to come in. Max went on without even meeting Brownlee and was such a success that Brownlee offered him a job that night. Terhune left Delco Remy and started with the company the next night in Crawfordsville. He stayed with the company for 46 successful weeks and returned to Delco Remy the next year.
Until 1931, Max interspersed vaudeville and periods of work as a toolmaker. He lost his toolmaker’s job as the Depression deepened and went on the road once more. A guest appearance on the WLS National Barn Dance Radio Program was so successful that he was invited back to the show on a permanent basis as master of ceremonies. One of the performers on the Barn Dance was a young cowboy singer from Oklahoma named Gene Autry. Autry was impressed by Terhune’s many talents and when he left in 1934 to go to Hollywood and make a movie, he tried to talk Terhune into coming with him. It took two years. Terhune was happy at WLS and wasn’t crazy about the idea of the movies at first, but by 1936 he decided to give it a try. He signed a five-year contract with Republic Pictures and made "Ride, Ranger, Ride," a Western in which he made a favorable impression.
Republic Pictures had a series called "The Three Mesquiteers," which featured actors Bob Livingston and Ray Corrigan and a third actor, a comedian named Sid Saylor. Republic felt that Saylor was not right in the role and decided to replace him with Max Terhune. The role of Lullaby Joslin was re-written so that Terhune could do some scenes with his ventriloquist’s dummy, who was renamed Elmer Sneezeweed.
"The Three Mesquiteers" was an extremely popular series and an enormous moneymaker for Republic. Max with his natural comic gifts fit beautifully into the ensemble. He made more than 15 pictures in the series. When Livingston left the series toward the end, the last six Mesquiteers movies had an up-and-coming actor named John Wayne as the third Mesquiteer. When the Republic series ended, Terhune went on to appear in a second Western series, "The Range Busters," as “Alibi” Terhune. He appeared in over 50 films in his career, the last being "Giant," starring Indiana native James Dean. After his film career was over, he appeared in several early television shows, including "I Love Lucy."
Terhune was too versatile a performer to be an actor alone. He voiced almost all the animals in the Walt Disney cartoon "Barnyard Symphony." He even stood in for Clark Gable once. In 1956, Gable made "A King and Four Queens." One of the movie’s scenes called for Gable to deal cards expertly in close-up. Gable wasn’t able to do this, but Max, the veteran of years of vaudeville card tricks, was easily up to the task. The face may be Gable’s, but the hands were the hands of Max Terhune.
After his acting career was over, he was for many years the featured performer at Corriganville, a California ranch attraction which had been a Western movie location. His ventriloquism, card tricks and amazing voices were used to entertain a new generation of children.
Throughout his career, Terhune seems to have been a genuinely nice guy. He was so well-liked he was made Honorary Mayor of Sylmar, Calif. He also retained warm memories of Anderson, which he called a wonderful town.
He and his wife returned frequently to visit family here and in 1963 he helped launch Anderson’s United Way Drive. As he aged, he was proud to watch the career of his son Robert, who became a movie stunt man.
Max Terhune died in June 1973 in Cottonwood, Ariz.
Beth Oljace works in the Indiana Room at the Anderson Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.