Bobby Breen, Boy Soprano of 1930s Hollywood Musicals, Dies at 88

RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest
Bobby Breen in the 1936 RKO film 'Rainbow on the River'

He was a big box-office attraction for RKO Radio Pictures, and his likeness appears on the album cover of the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'

Bobby Breen, the celebrated boy soprano and child actor who appeared in a quick succession of popular 1930s films before puberty set in, has died. He was 88.

Breen died Monday of natural causes in a hospital in Pompano Beach, Fla., his daughter-in-law Jackie Howard told The Hollywood Reporter. His wife of 54 years, Audre, had died there three days earlier.

Breen's likeness is among those in the crowd pictured on the cover of the 1967 Beatles record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Film historian Rhett Bartlett notes that there are only five survivors left from that memorable album cover — Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter Dion and sculptor Larry Bell.

Born in Canada on Nov. 4, 1927, Breen was pushed by his older sister to become a performer. He came to Hollywood when he was about 8 and sang on Eddie Cantor's weekly radio program.

With a reputation as "a boy Shirley Temple," the curly haired, dimpled Breen made his movie debut as an opera singer in Let's Sing Again (1936) for RKO Radio Pictures.

The youngster followed with a blitz of top-billed singing roles in such films as Rainbow on the River (1936), Make a Wish (1937) — where he is befriended by a composer played by Basil Rathbone — Hawaii Calls (1938), Way Down South (1939) and Fisherman's Wharf (1939).

However, his voice naturally changed as he became a teenager, and following production of Escape to Paradise (1939), he was done with the movies after a small role in Johnny Doughboy (1942), starring Jane Withers.

"When you've been a child star and suddenly find yourself with a husky voice, it's hard to convince agents that you're not over the hill," he told the Port Charlotte Daily Herald News in a 1977 interview.

After serving in the military during World War II — he entertained the troops with Mickey Rooney — Breen performed in nightclubs, played piano in the NBC orchestra, recorded a few songs for Motown and chatted about his showbiz experiences on TV talk shows.

More recently, he and his wife booked older acts to perform in Florida retirement communities and on cruises and military bases.

Survivors also include his son Ron.

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