Ellen Drew, 89; Film and TV Actress Rose Through Ranks in Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Ellen Drew, a $50-a-week contract actress at Paramount who rose through the Hollywood ranks to star with such actors as Joel McCrea, Dick Powell and Rudy Vallee during the 1940s and ‘50s, died of a liver ailment Wednesday in Palm Desert, said her son, David Bartlett. She was 89.

Although the beautiful and capable Drew fell short of the kind of stardom other actresses of her time achieved, she appeared in numerous films before moving on to television roles.

Esther Loretta Ray -- or Terry, as she was known -- was born on Nov. 23, 1914, in Kansas City, Mo., the daughter of a barber and a housewife who later moved to Chicago.


The story of her discovery reads like a page out of a starlet’s diary. As a teenager, Drew was entered in a local beauty contest, which she won.

Shortly thereafter, she moved to Hollywood to try her luck in the movies, but quickly realized that she was just one among thousands of young women with the same dream.

Drew took a job as a waitress at C.C. Brown’s, whose famed hot fudge sundaes drew a lot of celebrities to the Hollywood Boulevard shop. One of her customers was William Demarest, a character actor and actors’ agent who told the pretty brunet that she could be in pictures.

Drew laughed at the classic Hollywood line, but eventually went for a screen test at Paramount, where she was put under contract for the minimum weekly salary.

For a couple of years, she got only bit parts, but she finally got fifth billing in the 1938 musical comedy “Sing You Sinners,” which also starred Bing Crosby and the 12-year-old Donald O'Connor. It was at this point that she changed her name, first to Erin Drew and later to Ellen Drew.

One of Drew’s most notable films was “Christmas in July” (1940), which was written and directed by Preston Sturges and in which she starred opposite Powell.

In “Christmas,” Powell, who plays Drew’s fiance, goes on a spending spree when he thinks he’s won $25,000. In one small but memorable scene, Drew’s character, Betty, asks a janitor after spotting a black cat: “Is it bad luck or good luck when they rub against you?”

“That all depends on what happens afterward,” the janitor replies.

Among her other films were “If I Were King,” which was scripted by Sturges; “Buck Benny Rides Again,” in which she was a straight woman to Jack Benny; and William Wellman’s “Reaching for the Sun,” in which she starred with McCrea. Her last film was “Outlaw’s Son,” released in 1957.

She later appeared on many television shows, including “Ford Television Theatre,” “Perry Mason” and “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.”

Drew was married four times: to Fred Wallace, a makeup man; screenwriter Sidney “Sy” Bartlett (“Road to Zanzibar” and “Twelve O'Clock High”); Detroit advertising executive William Walker; and James Herbert, a retired executive.

In addition to her son, she is survived by five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

There will be no services. Instead of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Visiting Nurses Assn. of Palm Desert.