In the minds of boys and girls in the 1930s, Shirley Bell Cole was a plucky little redhead engaged in thrilling adventures she punctuated with exclamations like “Leapin’ lizards!”
In real life, she was a dark-haired girl from Chicago whose job playing radio’s “Little Orphan Annie” helped support a handful of families struggling through the Depression.
She didn’t even care much for Ovaltine, the show’s sponsor.
But she was, in many ways, just as indomitable as the fictional heroine to whom she gave her voice. Six days a week, she boarded a bus or streetcar for the trip downtown to record two 15-minute segments.
Cole, 89, died of natural causes Jan. 12 in Arizona, said her daughter, Lori Cole.
“Little Orphan Annie” aired before radio ratings were established, but the show’s immense popularity could be measured by the success of the promotional deals it advertised for Ovaltine.
When a Little Orphan Annie decoder could be had for the seals from two jars of Ovaltine, hundreds of thousands of kids sucked down their malted milk and sent in to claim one.
The show was produced by Ovaltine’s advertising agency, which shielded child actors from fan mail and other indications of their popularity, said Chuck Schaden, the longtime host of old-time radio programs in Chicago.
Years later, Cole was amazed at the attention she received at radio conventions and shows, he said.
“She really was a radio icon,” Schaden said.
Shirley Bell was born Feb. 21, 1920, on Chicago’s South Side and lived in a series of apartments through her childhood as her extended family found ways to make ends meet, said Susan Cox, who collaborated with Cole on a book about her radio memories.
She had a classic stage mother and was singing in the synagogue while still a tot, Cox said. By age 6 Bell was on the radio, a medium still in its infancy.
When the call went out for a girl to play Little Orphan Annie, the title character of a popular comic strip by Harold Gray, hundreds of girls auditioned. Bell gave a reading with an enthusiasm that embodied the character and was immediately hired, Cox said.
For nearly 10 years, first on WGN-AM and then on the NBC network, Annie, her adoptive father Daddy Warbucks, dog Sandy and good chum Joe Corntassle entertained children gathered around the radio in the late afternoon. (Floy Hughes and Janice Gilbert also had stints playing Annie.)
Cole, who was 10 when she took the role, continued to play Annie through her teenage years, showing up for rehearsals and live broadcasts after school.
“My first vacation wasn’t until 1940,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1979. “Eventually, I had to drop out of high school and finish with a tutor.”
Her paycheck was shared among several families. While she later said she had fun with the people she worked with, she knew she missed out on a lot of normal childhood activities.
“She looked back and said she really didn’t have a childhood, and she regretted that,” Schaden said.
When “Little Orphan Annie” was replaced by “Captain Midnight” around 1940, Cole was essentially finished with radio.
She married Irwin Cole, a businessman, and raised three daughters in Glencoe, a suburb of Chicago.
Every now and then, she pulled out the curly red wig she wore for appearances as Annie, much to her children’s amusement.
Cole’s husband died in 1998. Her daughter declined to provide details on surviving family members.