Double Whammy Baby Names: Cyd & Charisse

cyd charisse, movie, dancer, 1940s, baby name, cyd, charisse

As far as I can tell, the very first person to boost both a first name and a last name into the baby name data was dancer and movie star Cyd Charisse. Charisse debuted in 1946, and Cyd followed a year later:

Year # Cyds # Charisses
1950
1949
1948
1947
1946
1945
14 baby girls
20 baby girls
6 baby girls
8 baby girls [debut]
x
x
17 baby girls
14 baby girls
19 baby girls
10 baby girls
5 baby girls [debut]
x

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) was what propelled Charisse to stardom, but in the late ’40s she had minor dancing parts in various musicals, and these appearances must have given her name enough exposure to influence expectant parents.

But she wasn’t born with the name Cyd Charisse. Her birth name was Tula Ellice (ee-leese) Finklea. Here’s how one name morphed into the other:

My real name was Tula Ellice, it was not Cyd. But my brother was only a year older than myself and he couldn’t pronounce Tula Ellice, so he started calling me Sid as a nickname, for sister. And it stuck with me and all my life I’ve been called Sid. But when I went to MGM, Arthur Freed did not like the spelling of S-i-d, which is a boys’ name. And he changed the spelling to C-y-d — a little more glamorous.

And of course Charisse was my first husband’s name, Nico Charisse. So actually Cyd Charisse you could say is my real name.

But there’s actually more to the story, as she went through several stage names before settling on “Cyd Charisse”:

Before I went to MGM, I had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. And, of course, joining a Russian ballet company in those days, you were supposed to have a Russian name. So Colonel de Basil, who was the regisseur of the ballet at that time, he first named me Felia Siderova. And after a couple of months he decided he would change it to Maria Istomana. Two names.

Then when I wound up back in California, before I went to MGM, I met another Russian director. And he decided that my name should be Lily Norwood.

So finally, when I got to MGM, and Arthur Freed said “We have to change your name,” I said “No please, I’ve had my name changed so many times. Let me just be Sid Charisse.” And that’s when he changed the spelling to C-y-d. And finally I had my own name.

These days, American parents still bestow the name Charisse occasionally, but they rarely go for Cyd. Which name do you prefer?

Which name do you prefer for a baby girl, Cyd or Charisse?

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Sources: SSA, Cyd Charisse Interview [vid]
Image from Singin’ in the Rain (1952).


The Introduction of Tisa

my girl Tisa, movie, 1940s, baby nameThe cute name Tisa first appeared in the U.S. Social Security Administration’s baby name dataset in the late ’40s:

  • 1951: 6 baby girls named Tisa
  • 1950: 5 baby girls named Tisa
  • 1949: 11 baby girls named Tisa
  • 1948: 15 baby girls named Tisa [debut]
  • 1947: unlisted

What gave the name a boost that year?

The long-forgotten movie My Girl Tisa, which was set in New York City in the early 1900s. It followed a Hungarian immigrant named Tisa Kepes (played by Lilli Palmer, herself a German immigrant) whose aim was to earn enough money to bring her father to the United States.

Leonard Maltin called the film “sincere but uninspiring.”

So is Tisa a legitimate Hungarian name? Good question. It doesn’t seem to be a traditional female name, but there’s a well-known river that runs through Hungary called the Tisza. So perhaps this one is a modern creation along the lines of the Irish name Shannon (inspired by the River Shannon).

The name Tisa saw its highest usage (and even popped into the top 1,000 for a year) in 1970, when Theresa Magdalena “Tisa” Farrow — sister of newly famous Mia Farrow — decided to try acting and appeared in her first film, the low-budget counter-culture drama Homer (1970).

Source: My Girl Tisa (1948) – TCM

The Rise of Risë (ree-sah)

rise stevens, carmen, opera, the met
Risë Stevens as Carmen

This one took me years to figure out.

The curious name Rise debuted in the Social Security Administration data in 1942:

  • 1944: 13 baby girls named Rise
  • 1943: 7 baby girls named Rise
  • 1942: 15 baby girls named Rise [debut]
  • 1941: unlisted

“Rise”? Huh.

Rise was the 4th-most-popular debut name that year, and not far behind (in 7th place) was the somewhat similar Risa:

  • 1944: 12 baby girls named Risa
  • 1943: 5 baby girls named Risa
  • 1942: 12 baby girls named Risa [debut]
  • 1941: unlisted

Later in the ’40s, names like Reesa and Rissa popped up. And in the ’50s, names like Riesa and Reisa appeared. So there was definitely a minor Ris– trend going on in the mid-20th century, with “Rise” being the unlikely top variant.

But because “Rise” is also a vocabulary word, I had no luck pinning down the source. (It’s ridiculously hard to research word-names on the internet. I’m still stumped on Memory and Treasure.) Eventually I gave up.

Years later, as I was grabbing an image for the Finesse post, the answer landed right in front of me in the form of a cigarette ad:

Risë Stevens, Camels cigarettes, advertisement, 1953
Risë Stevens in a Camels ad © LIFE 1953

The full-page advertisement for Camels from a 1953 issue of LIFE magazine featured a “lovely star of the Metropolitan Opera” named Risë Stevens. I knew right away that this glamorous-looking lady — and her umlaut! — was the solution to the “Rise” puzzle.

Mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens was born Risë Steenberg in New York City in 1913. Her first name is pronounced “REE-sah” or “REE-suh.” Here’s how she explained it:

“It’s Norwegian; it was my grandmother’s name and my great-grandmother’s name. In school I was called everything but Rise; I was called Rose; I was called Rise {rhyming with “eyes”}; I was called Risé {rhyming with “play”}; even Teresa. In school, it was terrible; I would have arguments with the teachers. I would say, ‘I should know how to pronounce my own name.'”

One source suggested that Risë is related to the Latin word risus, meaning “laughter.”

So what was an opera singer doing in an national advertising campaign? Shouldn’t those be reserved for Hollywood stars? Well, turns out she was a Hollywood star — at least for a time. She sang professionally from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, but in the early 1940s she gave acting a shot.

Her first film, released in late 1941, was the musical The Chocolate Soldier. Notice how her umlaut was left off the movie poster:

chocolate soldier, musical, film, 1941, rise stevens

This film accounts for the 1942 debut of both “Rise” and the phonetic respelling Risa.

Risë Stevens ultimately left Hollywood and returned to the opera — and she managed to bring at least a portion of her movie audience with her:

“I probably would never have reached that vast public had I not done films,” she said. “At least, I won a lot of people over to opera.”

This explains why Risë Stevens, often called the greatest Carmen of her generation, was being featured in advertisements and on television talk shows more than a decade later. And why her unique name therefore saw peak usage in the 1950s.

If you want to know more about Risë (and hear her sing!) here’s a Risë Stevens Tribute video created by the National Endowment for the Arts.

P.S. Risë Stevens had a granddaughter named Marisa — a combination of the names of her grandmothers, Maria and Risë. Risë Stevens’ son told her that he went with the -a ending instead of the ending because he was “not going to put her through what you’ve been through.”

Sources:

The Sad Story of Sherianne

On February 22, 1944, Spencer and Easter Hutto of rural Alabama welcomed quadruplets: Dianne, Yvonne, Spencer and Sherianne.

The quads were born about 30 days premature, and though they were said to be in “good condition” at first, none of them lived very long. Dianne, the first-born, was the only one that lived longer than 24 hours.

For the short time they were alive, their story was front-page news. And that was enough for expectant parents to pick up on the baby name Sherianne (and the variant spelling Sheriann) in 1944:

  • 1945: unlisted
  • 1944: 23 baby girls named Sherianne [debut]; 8 baby girls named Sheriann [debut]
  • 1943: unlisted

The other three names saw decreased usage that year, ironically.

The Huttos, who had already lost a baby named Daphne prior to having the quads, did go on to have three babies that lived to adulthood: Gloria, Felton, and Cornelia.

Sources:

[Etan, Roni Sue and Rainelle are three more baby names linked to sad news stories.]

The Baby Name Caldonia

Caldonia, Louis Jordan, film poster, 1945The baby name Caldonia was on the U.S. charts for most of the first half of the 20th century, but there was a curious uptick in usage in 1945:

  • 1948: 7 baby girls named Caldonia
  • 1947: 7 baby girls named Caldonia
  • 1946: 10 baby girls named Caldonia
  • 1945: 23 baby girls named Caldonia
  • 1944: unlisted
  • 1943: 11 baby girls named Caldonia
  • 1942: 12 baby girls named Caldonia

This uptick corresponds to the release of a song that played a part in rock and roll history in two different ways.

That song was “Caldonia” (1945) by Louis Jordan, one of the most successful African-American bandleaders of his day. It’s an up-tempo blues (or “jump blues”) song about a woman named Caldonia:

Walkin’ with my baby she’s got great big feet
She’s long, lean, and lanky and ain’t had nothing to eat
But she’s my baby and I love her just the same
Crazy ’bout that woman cause Caldonia is her name

The song reached #1 on the Race Records chart (which tracked music by and for an African-American audience) and peaked at #6 on the pop chart.

Here’s video footage of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five performing “Caldonia” in a short musical film (a “soundie”) made the same year:

The song was covered by many other artists, including Erskine Hawkins. Hawkins’ version is notable because a reviewer in Billboard described it as “rock and roll music”:

rock and roll music, caldonia, review, erskine hawkins
First use of “rock and roll music” in print? (1945)

The phrase “rock and roll” had been around for decades, but this might be the first time it was ever used in print to describe a style of music.

Jordan’s song also made a big impact on rock and roll pioneer Little Richard, who said that “Caldonia” was the first non-gospel song he ever learned. The character of Caldonia even seems to be “the mother of Long Tall Sally, Miss Molly, Miss Ann, Jenny and especially Lucille, the least cooperative and most desired of Little Richard’s musical sweethearts.”

So now let’s get back to the name. Where does Caldonia come from?

It’s hard to know where Jordan discovered it. The name had been featured in African-American music at least once before, in “Caldonia Blues” (1924) by blues singer Sippie Wallace, and it had also been in use (though not very common) in the Southern states since the mid-19th century.

My best guess is that Caldonia is based on Caledonia (kal-eh-DŌN-yah), the Roman word for the region that is now Scotland, because the words are so similar.

Do you have any other theories?

(One of the baby girls born in Scotland in 2015 was named Caledonia, btw.)

Sources: