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Dorothy Ritter, 88; Movie Cowgirl of the 1930s, Wife of Western Singer

Times Staff Writer

Dorothy Fay Ritter, a leading lady for Buck Jones, William “Wild Bill” Elliott and other sagebrush screen heroes of the 1930s and ‘40s, including the man she married, singing cowboy Tex Ritter, has died. She was 88.

Ritter, the mother of the late actor John Ritter, died of natural causes Nov. 5 at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills, where she had lived since 1989, her son Tom said Wednesday. She had a stroke in 1987.

Ritter’s death came less than two months after that of John, who died as a result of an aortic dissection Sept. 11.

The daughter of a doctor in Prescott, Ariz., Ritter was born Dorothy Fay Southworth on April 4, 1915.

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She grew up in Prescott but spent her last year of high school at Hollywood High. After attending USC, she studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and the Pasadena Playhouse.

As Dorothy Fay, she played opposite Buck Jones in “Law of the Texan” (1938), the first of three westerns with Jones, including the 1941 serial “White Eagle.”

From 1938 to 1941, she appeared in about a dozen B-movie westerns made primarily at Monogram and Columbia studios. She also was a featured player in the 1940 action serial “The Green Archer,” starring Victor Jory, and had bit parts in “The Philadelphia Story” and “Lady Be Good.”

Boyd Magers, editor and publisher of Western Clippings, a film publication on westerns, said Dorothy Ritter was “a little more forceful” than other leading ladies in B westerns.

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“She was no shrinking violet, that’s for sure,” Magers said. “She is not just waving goodbye to the star as he rides away.”

Magers said Ritter “was well thought of at the time. Part of that was her personality.”

The blued-eyed and brown-haired -- later blond -- actress was vivacious and an extrovert.

“She was very outgoing, very charming -- the sort of person who walks into a room and the energy is driven to her,” Tom Ritter said Wednesday, adding that “my brother was very much his mom’s son.”

Dorothy Ritter made the first of four westerns with Tex Ritter, “Song of the Buckaroo,” in 1938. The couple married in 1941.

“I loved Tex,” she said in a 1973 interview with Magers, “but I think I enjoyed working in westerns more with Buck Jones.”

As a married couple in the 1940s, the Ritters were often photographed for fan magazines on their small ranch in what was then rural Van Nuys.

“Tex and I would get requests for autographs of not only ourselves but Tex’s horse, White Flash, too,” Dorothy Ritter said in the 1973 interview. “We would put ink on the horse’s hoofs and ‘autograph’ pictures for the fans.”

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Although Dorothy Ritter went on a USO tour to Southeast Asia during World War II, she gave up her show business career after marrying Tex, who became one of the top 10 Western stars at the box office and a top-selling recording artist who sang the haunting ballad used in “High Noon.” He also was one of the six original members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Tom Ritter said his mother did charity work for the United Cerebral Palsy Assn., the President’s Commission on Employment of People With Disabilities and other organizations, “but she really focused on her family after she married.”

When he and John were growing up, Ritter said, his parents “were very loving and very supportive in whatever my brother and I wanted to do.” And although his father had reservations about John’s desire to go into acting, he said, “My mother was especially supportive in the beginning.”

The Ritters moved to Nashville in 1968. After Tex Ritter died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 68, Dorothy Ritter became an official greeter at the Grand Ole Opry. She returned to California in 1981.

It was John Ritter who contacted the London Daily Telegraph after it mistakenly published an obituary on his mother Aug. 25, 2001, which was picked up by other newspapers. The Daily Telegraph ran an apology five days later for publishing what it called Dorothy Ritter’s “premature obituary.”

In explaining what had happened, Andrew McKie, the paper’s obituaries editor, wrote that “a member of staff at her nursing home believed her to have died (after arriving in her room to be told that she ‘had gone’ -- as she had, but only to another wing of the hospital) and then phoned one of our regular contributors who is a great friend of Mrs. Ritter.”

McKie apologized, writing that “I am genuinely delighted she is still with us -- I came to like her a lot while preparing her obituary for the page.”

In addition to her son, Ritter is survived by four grandchildren.

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A private funeral service is being held today in Prescott. A memorial service at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home is pending.


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