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Sex Symbol of ‘50s : Mamie Forgoes Rocking Chair for Rock Career

Times Staff Writer

In a trailer parked behind the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, Mamie Van Doren picked at her rare steak and baked potato.

“I’m eating now so I won’t have that little belly while I’m on stage,” explained Van Doren, 53, as she waited Wednesday to make her debut as an ‘80s rock singer.

She was also eating to allay her fears that critics might perceive her as a senior-citizen Cindy Lauper. “They’re only coming to see me look bad, some of them,” said Van Doren, still hurt by a recent call from a newsman who asked: “Are you kidding with this? Are you really serious, trying this at your age?”

Well, yes, said Van Doren.

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String of B Movies

Thirty years ago, fitted out with what she, Jayne Mansfield and the other blondes in the studio stables referred to as their “bullet bras,” Van Doren starred in a string of B movies that included “High School Confidential” and “Francis Joins the WACs.”

Promoted as Universal Studios’ answer to Marilyn Monroe, she made second-rate movies and played the studio-orchestrated game, including such less-than-edifying exercises as beaming at gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and chirping, “Eight times this year,” when asked, “How often have you been in love?” It wasn’t so bad, according to Van Doren. The studio made Piper Laurie eat flowers for the press.

It all fell apart for Van Doren in the ‘60s, when garter belts gave way to bra-lessness, and even the people who cast her in “The Navy Versus the Night Monsters” stopped calling. But the former starlet doesn’t appear overwhelmed with regret. As a bombshell, she may have lacked the respect of the nation. But she got to do such interesting things as lose a night’s sleep because the next morning she would be kissing Clark Gable for a living--on the set of “Teacher’s Pet.”

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And she still regards the ‘60s as a much-needed period of liberation. “Thank God for the ‘60s. Even though busty blondes went out, I was still glad to see them come along,” she said. Van Doren sang in many of her early movies, and since her eclipse has continued to sing in clubs and do musical theater.

Wednesday, the Palomino was packed with about 450 Van Doren fans and some customers, no doubt, who were simply curious to see how the former bombshell was holding up (well enough to have been interviewed recently for a possible Playboy pictorial).

Among the fans was Marc Courtland, 25, a photographer and waiter and part of what he described as Van Doren’s large gay following. As the former starlet waited nervously to go on, Courtland delivered a handmade good-luck token to her trailer--a card bearing one of her publicity stills and a recent photo, inscribed “Mamie Van Doren: Past, present and what a future!”

“She sounds like a 16-year-old, and she’s got the figure of a 20-year-old,” said Courtland, whose collection of Van Doren artifacts includes rare stills from “Girls’ Town,” her blondes-without-boys cult film set in a house of correction run by nuns.

Without Prejudice

And he added: “She has a special feeling toward gays. She doesn’t have any prejudices. She did an AIDS benefit at a gay bar in Santa Monica.”

“You have no idea how many fans I have,” Van Doren acknowledged in her husky, childlike voice. “It was a surprise to me that anybody even knew I was still alive.”

Survival is the thing Van Doren is proudest of.

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“There’s a list of blondes that started out with me in the ‘50s. They are all dead,” she said, reading off a peroxide roll call that includes Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors.

Born Joan Olander in Rowena, S.C., Van Doren was renamed by Universal after Mamie Eisenhower, an odd model for a sexpot but one that Van Doren has no quarrel with. “It could have been worse. It could have been Bess” (Truman).

Van Doren recalled that she was tapped for stardom by Howard Hughes, whose empire then included RKO, after Hughes saw her picture in a newspaper. “Then casting directors started calling me from RKO, and they put me under contract for four movies. I was 15 when I met him. He was very eccentric. First, he asked me if I was a virgin. I said, ‘You’ll never know, Mr. Hughes.’ ”

“I knew when I was getting had,” she said of studio executives who regarded starlets as a personal harem. “I’d go along with it, because I knew this was the thing I had to do. In those days, I got a couple of years of college in, through Universal Studios, but you didn’t have a choice. You were going to be a secretary, a nurse, a teacher or some other cleanup job--that’s what you had to be--or a housewife. And I didn’t like any of those. So I pursued an acting career.

“Had it been today, and I had the opportunity to go to school and be an attorney or a doctor, I probably would have chosen something else. But you were limited. You were a woman.”

Early Feminist

Looking back, Van Doren regards herself as an early feminist--one who used what she had to create an interesting career for herself. Among her less obvious gifts was a knack for what she calls “psychological typing,” figuring out what a man wanted, socially and professionally, and then delivering that type. A lot of powerful men responded to dumb blondes, she found.

“You’d do the metaphors on him, and they’d enjoy it, and you got what you wanted. Sometimes, you didn’t.”

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Van Doren has been married four times, on the last three occasions to men considerably younger than she--something she first did before it was fashionable. Of older men, she said: “They push the buttons. They’ve been there before, and you try to keep up with them, and it exhausts you.

Comfortable With Husband

“I felt more comfortable with a younger man, because I didn’t have to be on my toes so much. Thomas (Thomas Dixon, 39, her husband of 10 years), he’s an old soul to me. In his mind and the way he thinks, he’s older.”

Van Doren, who attributes her survival to good genes, the stabilizing influence of her family and “the fact that I’m able to discipline myself,” thinks leaving Hollywood also saved her from the fate of so many of her fellow blondes.

“I moved to Newport Beach in ’67 to get away from Hollywood, because it could have happened if I’d stuck around. I got out to the beach and started living a different type of life--getting up in the morning instead of getting up at night.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------- Mamie’s performance is reviewed by Don Waller. See Calendar, Page 1.

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