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The Spotlight: Back to ‘St. Louis’ for Margaret O’Brien

Margaret O’Brien was the reigning child star on the MGM lot in the 1940s. Diminutive and adorable with big brown eyes and the ability to cry at the drop of a hat, she received acclaim at age 5 as an orphan in 1942’s “Journey for Margaret” and later received a juvenile Oscar for her performance as the spirited Tootie, the baby sister of Esther (Judy Garland), in Vincente Minnelli’s beloved 1944 Technicolor musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.”


FOR THE RECORD:
Margaret O’Brien: An interview with Margaret O’Brien in the July 25 Calendar section said that the actress makes her home in Westlake. She lives in Westlake Village. —


O’Brien, 75, is back to “St. Louis” this weekend. The actress, who makes her home in Westlake, will be appearing during intermission and after performances of the Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” playing through Sunday at the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks. O’Brien will be autographing photographs and selling Victorian-themed Christmas ornaments and other items to raise money for her charity Canine Companions for Independence.

The actress, who was looking forward to seeing young Hayley Shukiar as Tootie onstage, talked about her role in the classic musical made nearly seven decades ago.

Were you MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer’s No. 1 choice to play Tootie?

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I was always supposed to do it, but almost didn’t do it because my mother walked into Mr. Mayer’s office and asked for more money. Of course, he started to cry. He could do better tears, when you asked for money, than I could do in the film. He said, “No, no, no.”

My mother felt, “We don’t know how long we were going to be here [at MGM], so I want some security for my child.” So she said, “I am a dancer and we are going to New York.” So we left.

They had another little girl ready to do the part who was under contract and her father was a lighting technician on the set. Mr. Mayer finally relented, called us in New York and called me back. Then they had to tell this little girl and her family. It just broke their hearts. Her father had a nervous breakdown over it.

Was Garland like a real big sister to you?

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I loved working with her. It was a very happy time for her because she was going with director Vincente Minnelli. What most people don’t realize is that she had a wonderful sense of humor. She was a happy person deep down. She loved playing with us kids. She would play jump rope with us.

My favorite scene is when you get so upset you have to leave St. Louis that you destroy the snowmen and then Garland comforts you with the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I have heard all sorts of stories of how they got you to cry.

I was having little bit of a difficult time crying because Judy had just played jump rope with us and I was happy. I was in competition with June Allyson on the lot — we had a little game going on as to who could be the best crier and win the award as “best town crier on the MGM lot.” My mother came to me and said, “I think I will have the makeup man put false tears on your face, so it will be easier for you.” But of course, June is such a great actress, she always cries real tears. That made me cry because I thought, “I don’t want her to get ahead of me and be the top town crier!”

susan.king@latimes.com

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