Visitors to the Redken Laboratories in Canoga Park often do a double take when they see the firm’s receptionist. “Weren’t you Gloria Jean?” they sometimes ask the smiling, soft-spoken woman who greets them.
Indeed the 59-year-old redhead was--is--Gloria Jean Schoonover, a leading child star during the Golden Age of Back-Lot Brats when screen kiddies saved mommy and daddy’s marriage instead of creatures from outer space, learned to tap-dance while smiling like crazy and functioned as pint-sized money machines for their studios.
Between Schoonover’s first starring role in 1939 and her last, eminently forgettable, part in Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies’ Man” in 1961, she made 39 films. Although her fame and her movie money are long gone, she still has memories with star-studded casts.
As she recalled in a recent interview at the beauty products firm where she has worked for almost 20 years, W. C. Fields thoughtfully gargled with peppermint mouthwash before each of their scenes together and taught her how to play pool. Bing Crosby confided to her that he couldn’t read music either, and gave her her first puppy.
Advice From Marx
As Schoonover grew up before the cameras, an avuncular Groucho Marx cautioned her not to imitate the showgirls who starred only briefly on the sheets of certain notorious Hollywood Lotharios. Eleanor Roosevelt once opened the door of a White House closet to Gloria Jean to reveal the First Lady’s favorite pair of shoes--an utterly nonsensical red-spangled pair that reminded the youngster of Dorothy’s ruby slippers in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Nobody ever told Schoonover that there are no old child stars, and the winding down of her career in the mid-1950s was the most tearful period of her life. But as she talked about her years in the spotlight and the decades after, she said she has no regrets.
“I’m not one of those downtrodden Hollywood crybabies,” said Schoonover, who still receives a dozen fan letters a week and once had to deal with a derelict admirer who stumbled into the Redken lobby wearing only underwear and overcoat and boozily declared, “I’ve found you at last!”
“I had a wonderful career, but I want people to know how happy I am today,” Schoonover said, her smile both practiced and genuinely charming. “I’m not saying that I’d mind if I got a call from Aaron Spelling or someone like that. I’d be delighted. They use everybody else in town. But it’s not the top priority for me.”
Discovered in 1938
Schoonover’s discovery in 1938 was the stuff that movies are made of. Her voice teacher, not her mother, insisted that she audition for Joe Pasternak, the man who had discovered and promoted Deanna Durbin. Pasternak was in New York looking for a small girl with a big voice to star in a film called “The Under-Pup.”
“There were hundreds of beautiful little girls there,” Schoonover recalled. “I had been grabbed out of the sandbox, and I didn’t look so nice. I had pigtails and my teeth were a little crooked. But that’s what Joe liked.”
What Pasternak seemed to like most was her spunk. Schoonover had a genuine gift, an unusual coloratura soprano voice, and she balked on principle when it was her turn to trill for the Hollywood producer.
“I said, ‘I can’t sing, the piano’s out of tune,’ ” Schoonover said. “My mother almost shot me. Joe said, ‘I like this kid. Let’s get the piano tuned and bring her back tomorrow.’ I got all kinds of lectures on the way home about being a little more subdued. When I sang the next day, I knew it went very well, but they said what producers always say, ‘We’ll call you.’ ”
A month later Gloria Jean had a contract with Universal for $750 a week, and would eventually earn up to $3,000 a week. She met her idol, Deanna Durbin, on her first day at the studio.
“I almost passed out, although I must say she wasn’t too pleasant with me,” Schoonover said. The relationship between the girls remained cool. Schoonover said she was later told by studio insiders that Durbin, who had superstar clout at Universal, was responsible for Schoonover’s making only black-and-white features. Durbin apparently vetoed Technicolor for her sweet-voiced competitor.
“The Under-Pup,” which also starred Bob Cummings and Billy Gilbert, premiered in her hometown of Scranton, Pa. Universal knew a great photo opportunity when it saw one and went all out.
The studio costumed everybody in the family, buying furs for Gloria Jean (Universal had dumped “Schoonover”), her mother and three sisters. The Super Chief was hired to carry the new star home in style--among those on board were reporters Dorothy Kilgallen and Ed Sullivan. A crowd of 75,000 was waiting at the train station when Gloria Jean pulled in.
“They closed the mines that day in honor of my arrival,” she said. “The miners were all there in the station with their miners’ lights on. They had built a throne of coal, and they walked me over and crowned me Queen of Anthracite. Unfortunately, there was so much confusion, somebody knocked down the mayor, and the roses he was supposed to present to me were nothing but a bunch of stems. They had been trampled.”
Unlike those former stars who look back in anger, Schoonover said her childhood was wonderful, for the most part, and characterized by such rarefied thrills as biking past the “Frankenstein” set on the Universal back lot. Her childhood was even normal at times. Her family bought a house in North Hollywood, where her father had a liquor store. Like her two non-acting sisters, she was expected to wash dishes and clean the bathroom. “You may be famous in films, but you’re not famous at home,” her mother occasionally reminded her.
Her co-stars at Universal included W. C. Fields, a legendary child-hater who nonetheless befriended her. “To see that nose close up was terrible,” she said, remembering how very red and very blue alcohol had made Fields’s tragically famous nose. Fields, who played her Uncle Bill in “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” in 1941, often chatted with her. But the comedian had been warned by the sharp-eyed woman who safeguarded the welfare and morals of industry children that the set would be closed down if he took a single drink in front of under-age Gloria Jean.
“He did drink heavily but always behind a folding screen where I couldn’t see him,” Schoonover said. “There was a man in a white coat who kept bringing him highballs.”
One time Fields took a public slug of brown liquid, and the chaperon surfaced like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. “Mr. Fields, that does it!” she said. “Just relax. This is Listerine,” he said. It was.
“It was great to work with him,” Schoonover said. “We always closed the set early because he was too drunk to finish by early afternoon.”
At night Gloria Jean studied her lines for the next day, often in bed. Somehow she always knew them in the morning. Crying on cue was more problematical. Child stars never uttered an obscenity in those days but they wept a lot, she recalled, and unless you could produce the requisite tears on demand, a crew member would make you cry by blowing menthol in your eyes.
“Some people were naturally great at crying,” said Schoonover, who wasn’t. Margaret O’Brien was prominent among those who could turn on the torrents.
According to former child star “Dickie” Moore, who interviewed Schoonover and others of their tribe for a collective biography of Hollywood children called “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” O’Brien started crying for “The Canterville Ghost” as soon as she was told Charles Laughton was going to steal the scene from her. Schoonover remembered another world-class weeper named Virginia Widler. “That girl cried from morning to night and beautifully every time,” she said.
Children like Schoonover were money in the bank for the studios, and they kept an eagle eye on their investments. “I felt like every move that I made was monitored,” she said, which was close to the truth. Even nature was expected to submit to studio approval. When a pubescent Gloria Jean began developing unauthorized cleavage, the studio sent her to wardrobe to solve the problem. “They took gauze and bound me up and flattened me out like a board,” she said.
The ultimate arbiter of daily life at Universal was studio executive Dan Kelley. At one point Kelley decided that, henceforth, Schoonover would eat in the commissary instead of at the hot dog stand on the lot. “He called me in and said, ‘We’d prefer that you don’t mingle with the prop men,’ ” she recalled.
The hot dog stand was far more interesting than the commissary. “Once I saw Alfred Hitchcock steal a candy bar at the stand,” Schoonover revealed. “He does it all the time,” the vendor told her when she expressed amazement.
In her case at least, the Hollywood life was remarkably sheltered. Schoonover didn’t date until she was 19. And on that occasion she went to dinner with both Mel Torme and Donald O’Connor. For years Schoonover had a crush on O’Connor, who was her co-star in four films for Universal. Nothing came of it, she said, except that one time he gave her a hug in a shadowed corner of a sound stage and accidentally broke her rib.
Groucho Marx, with whom Schoonover worked in the 1947 film “Copacabana,” was one of several stars who took a paternal interest in her. The comedian was remarkably unfunny off-camera, she recalled. He was also worried that she might be corrupted by the goings-on during that particularly lubricious shoot. As she later told Dickie Moore, “Every day we’d all have lunch and Steve Cochran would have one of the Copa girls. Later he would tell people which one he was going to have tomorrow.”
“You don’t need this yet,” Groucho counseled her. She agreed.
Like many of her Hollywood peers, Schoonover discovered one day that her movie income had been mismanaged, perhaps dishonestly so.
“I got in such trouble with the IRS that they seized all my savings out of the bank,” she said. “If I had had good advice, I wouldn’t have a worry today. Instead I’m struggling like everybody else.” During the 1950s, she also got catastrophic career advice. An agent urged her to leave Universal and go on a two-year personal-appearance tour. When she returned to Hollywood, nobody remembered Gloria Jean.
Some ‘Incredibly Obnoxious’
“Some top people I worked with--I won’t name names--were incredibly obnoxious,” she said. The worst were the decision-makers who figured she would do anything for a job.
“One producer ripped a beautiful coat I had,” she said. “I was in shambles when I got out of there. It was a nightmare. They figured I was trying to get back in the business and so I was vulnerable. Well, I didn’t want it that badly, believe me.”
Used to having studio personnel dictate her every move, she floundered at first without structure or a job. “When you’re in the studios like that, you’re not prepared for the outside world,” she said. “It’s like you are in a cocoon.”
Looking back, the end of her career seems inevitable now, but it was unimaginable at the time. “I would advise people in the business to prepare for something else,” she said, almost too calmly for someone who remembers what it felt like when her charmed life disappeared.
Worked in Restaurant
Schoonover went to work as a hostess in a Westside restaurant. She was married only briefly, she said, and the traumatic union produced her only child, a son, Angelo Cellini, who is now 22. She never remarried. “I seem to attract the drips and the drunks. I always have,” she said, without apparent bitterness.
In 1965 an employment agency sent her on an interview for a receptionist job at Redken. Schoonover bears a striking resemblance to Redken’s founder and chairman of the board, Paula Kent Meehan, a former actress and fellow redhead. “I was her idol when she was young,” Schoonover said. “People used to ask her for her autograph, thinking she was me.” According to Schoonover, her job at Redken has been a wonderful second career.
A recent convert to Roman Catholicism, she said her non-film way of life has given her peace of mind. She adores the occasional get-togethers with Jane Withers and other former child stars. But she is realistic about the costs, and odds, of making a comeback. “You’ve got to be 14 today to be famous,” she said.
On the other hand, she doesn’t altogether buy the argument that life in the slow lane is necessarily superior to the glamorous film industry.
She recalled talking to Roddy McDowell several years ago when he came to Redken to shoot a TV movie. “He told me, ‘All you get in the industry today is rejection. You’re lucky you’re out of it,’ ” she said. “What’s funny to me is that everything I see today has Roddy McDowell in it. I don’t know what he was talking about.”