Frances Carson was under contract to MGM in the '40s. So was Marie Windsor. Frances was bandied about as Joan Crawford's successor. So was Marie. Frances refers to her former boss L. B. Mayer with an unprintable epithet. Marie says he was nice to her .
Frances and Marie--one a fictional character, one a real-live actress--are two of the engaging stage fellows in "The Bar Off Melrose" (at the Melrose Theatre), a pastiche of 15 stories by members of Oliver Hailey's Playwright's Lab that focus on the interpersonal comings and goings at a mythical local bar. Frances Carson--brassy, gravel-voiced and a tad alcoholic--is one of the transient souls, a former MGM starlet now facing the terrifying prospect of appearing in an Equity Waiver play.
So where does Frances end and Marie begin?
Forget that Windsor has known playwright Terry Kingsley-Smith most of his life--and that he created the part especially for her.
"There is so much fantasy in this play, I can't believe any member of the audience wouldn't think I wasn't playing the fantasy as well," the still-trim actress said. "If you knew me, you'd see that the character is not the way I am in real life. Her smart-aleck way of speaking, her dialogue in general, is not me. The story may be close, but it's not exact."
Windsor's own story follows an early devotion to dance and drama, studies at Brigham Young University and a move to Hollywood, where days of modeling and selling cigarettes eventually gave way to a string of film roles: in "Stardust," "Follow The Girls," "Outpost in Morocco" with George Raft and "Force of Evil" with John Garfield.
"Those two," she said fondly, "were the only leading men in my life who didn't care about my height (5 feet 9 inches)--even though I was an inch or two taller than them. Otherwise, it was a huge handicap; many actors wouldn't allow me on their shows because of the height. It's interesting, being a survivor in the industry and seeing all the things that go on over the years. Actors have become taller and they have accepted taller women.
"I do have a slight disappointment in my heart that I wasn't a bigger star, that a lot of things didn't happen to me that I hoped would've happened," Windsor added. "But I have so many wonderful memories--and very little to be sorry for. I have this nice husband (of 31 years, realtor Jack Hupp), who's fascinated with the business and loves my career. Even when we first got married, he was never the kind of man to want me to stay home and scrub and iron shirts. He likes the vitality of my life."
Currently, the objects of that vitality include a son (Ricky, 23), tennis ("though lately I haven't been playing so well") and art (she's sold more than 100 of her paintings)--along with civic duties (the Thalians, John Tracy Clinic, Screen Actors Guild) and ongoing studies (Stella Adler, the Lee Strasberg Institute, Harvey Lembeck Workshop and a recent screen writing class at UCLA).
"It's all a part of me," Windsor explained. "Just different colors. So when I sit down at my easel or do enameling in my studio or play tennis or go to the theater, it's all the same--just a different location, a different task. But acting is my first love. Between jobs, I've often made the half-true statement that I'd pay somebody just to work."
In spite of her willingness to toil in the largely unglamorous context of Waiver theater, a "star" label frequently follows Windsor--"and I find it both gratifying and embarrassing. Of course, it's nice in the sense of being respected and looked up to, but I hope that it never makes others feel ill at ease. When people come up and say, 'I hate to bother you for an autograph,' I always say, 'I'm glad you bothered me. I'm glad you know who I am.' "
She remembers the old days of Hollywood as "always exciting and a lot more glamorous: Ciro's and the Mocambo, parties with Crawford, David Niven and Cary Grant." Her nostalgia extends to the former "studio system" (built-in publicity, classes and wardrobe) as well. "They don't build stars now. We've all got to go to Equity Waiver if we want to learn anything."