By Guido Cipriani and Mike David
(Text by Mike David 2009)
We thought it would be timely to now release this 1984 audio interview with Our Gang star Shirley Jean Rickert as she passed away earlier this year and also since she talks about celebrating Christmas at the Hal Roach Studios.
The audio is introduced by From Soup to Nuts Grand Sheik Guido Cipriani, founder of the Nutty Nut News Network Show. In looking through our files I noticed this was our first ever interview. Amusingly, when Guido did the tape transfer it accelerated the speed such that our voices sound higher than normal.
Shirley was very pleasant that evening and happily discussed her film experiences beginning with the 1930 comedy short "How's My Baby" with vaudeville actor T. Roy Barnes. She recalled going to school on the Our Gang sets and we were able to jog her memory of 1931s "The Stolen Jools".
You'll also hear Shirley talk about her appearances in the Mickey McGuire series and how she enjoyed working in such films as "Neath the Arizona Skies" in 1934 with veteran actor John Wayne and as a chorus girl in "Singing in the Rain".
Our interview was conducted after a meeting of the Night Owls Tent of the Connecticut Valley headed by the popular Grand Sheik Hal Stanton.
Very few people have heard it since in 1984 the Nutty Nut News Network Show was in its infancy and only a few tents traded audiotapes. So we are pleased to make this rare interview available now to everyone on its 25th anniversary.
"Born Shirley Jean Rickert, this blond bombshell began her show biz career at the tender age of three when she appeared in her first Hollywood picture. Then it was on to the Hal Roach "Our Gang" comedies as the little vamp in the platinum pageboy. It was in one of those comedies she got her first taste of Burlesque, when in 1931 she and Stymie did a version of the "Watt Street" sketch. As a child actor she worked in films starring with John Wayne and Joan Crawford. As she grew and "blossomed" into more adult roles she danced in such films as Best Foot Forward, Good News, Royal Wedding, and the immortal classic Singing in the Rain. When musicals went out of favor what was a young, vivacious dancing girl to do? Well, this one went down to "The Follies" Burlesque house in Hollywood and trained with Lillian Hunt, the mentor of Tempest Storm and others. Then with gold tresses flying she toured the U.S and Canada in Burlesque.Eventually playing the at top name in Burly-Q, Minsky's."
This was from the now defunct www.eebell.net/burlesque/dancers
(Back row): Lee Aaker, Ralph Hodges, Harry McKim, Robert Scott, Brett Halsey and David Hedison. (Seated): Suzanna Leigh, Gloria Marlen, Shirley Jean Rickert, Joan Evans, Jean Porter and Jacqueline White. (Front row): Dallas McKennon and Gary Gray
Photo courtesy of Tom Wyatt.
Shirley Jean Rickert, who died on February 6 aged 82, was to a legion of Depression Era fans the cute girl with the platinum blonde curls in the Our Gang comedies filmed during the early 1930s; to the same fans, some 20 years later, she was Gilda, a burlesque stripper who was in the same league of notoriety as Bettie Page and Tempest Storm.
She was born on March 25 1926 at Tacoma, Washington state. In 1927 her mother entered her 18-month-old daughter in a local baby beauty contest. When Shirley won, her mother moved the family to Hollywood.
"We spent our mornings standing in line waiting outside the studio gates hoping to be selected by a casting agent," Shirley Jean Rickert recalled in 1999. "We tried the major studios like Paramount and MGM, then Poverty Row [a series of minor B-movie studios off Hollywood Boulevard] before getting a tip-off that Hal Roach was looking to cast a new series of kids for his Our Gang comedy shorts."
Shirley was five when she made her Our Gang debut in Helping Grandma (1931), appearing with Jackie Cooper, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Dorothy deBorba, Allen "Farina" Hoskins and Norman "Chubby" Chaney.
"We were just kids playing together. We had fun and enjoyed ourselves", she remembered. "It didn't seem like work. The mothers, on the other hand, were awful. Vile women who craved the adoration and the pay cheques far more than their offspring ever did. Stardom was my mother's dream. It was never mine. I can remember at 20th Century Fox Shirley Temple's mother in particular standing just out of shot tempting the curly-haired cutie with a bar of candy: 'Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle and the candy is yours!'"
After a dozen or so Our Gang shorts, Shirley left the troupe to play Tomboy Taylor in the rival Mickey McGuire comedy series, with Mickey Rooney in the title role. Certain that her daughter was a star in the making, Shirley's mother negotiated her way out of the series contract after Shirley had made just five short films in 1934.
Out on her own and without a studio contract to protect her, finding work was hard.
She played Humility Crakstone in The Scarlet Letter (1934), and donned a black bobbed wig, styled by Max Factor, to play a native American oil heiress in the early John Wayne western Neath the Arizona Skies, released in 1934.
But fame eluded her. By the mid-1930s, she was reduced to playing a series of bit parts. During the war years she was briefly under contract with Columbia Pictures, then worked as an uncredited dancer in a number of film musicals, including The Pirate (1948) with Gene Kelly; Royal Wedding (1951), starring Fred Astaire; and Singin' in the Rain (1952). It was during this period that her path crossed with that of James Dean. "We didn't date", she said, "we were friends, and to be honest he had very few of those." He found Shirley Jean grounded and honest, perhaps because she had survived the rigours of childhood fame. The pair remained close until Dean's death in 1955.
Meanwhile, Hollywood scandal magazines linked her romantically to a bevy of unmarried male heart-throbs, including Scott Marlowe, Anthony Perkins, Montgomery Clift and Tab Hunter. Away from Hollywood, she became a burlesque dancer in an act called Gilda and Her Crowning Glory, appearing in New York and Las Vegas, and performing alongside Tempest Storm, Jean Carroll and Jane Briggerman in theatres and night clubs. She later toured Canada.
When the old Our Gang comedies resurfaced in television syndication across America in the mid-1950s as The Little Rascals, Shirley Jean Rickert found herself a new generation of fans.
Recently she wrote on her website, in response to a fan from Detroit: "Detroit was one of the towns where I would appear on a kiddie TV show on Saturday morning as Shirley Jean of the Our Gang/Little Rascals and disrobe on stage at night for the little kiddies' parents. Fame's a weird thing!"
She hung up her furs and feathers in 1959, subsequently working as a barmaid, secretary, saleswoman and as a lorry driver for the American Air Force.
Shirley Jean Rickert was twice married and divorced, and is survived by a daughter.
Shirley Jean Rickert, a former child actress who was the cute little blond with the spit curls in "Our Gang" comedies in the early 1930s and later became a long-haired burlesque stripper known as Gilda and Her Crowning Glory, has died. She was 82.
Rickert, who in recent decades went by her married name of Measures, died Friday after a long illness in a nursing home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said her daughter, Melody Kennedy.
Born in Seattle on March 25, 1926, Rickert won a local baby beauty contest when she was 18 months old. Her mother, confident she had a budding star on her hands, eventually moved the family to Hollywood.
Rickert was 4 when she went for an interview for a part in an "Our Gang" comedy short at the Hal Roach Studios.
She was in five "Our Gang" comedies in 1931, appearing with Jackie Cooper, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Norman "Chubby" Chaney and other pre-Spanky and Alfalfa gang members.
They were all "just kids playing together," Rickert told the Albany Times Union in 1999.
"We had fun," she said. "The mothers on the other hand, were awful. Stage mothers are just vile women, including my own."
Stardom, she said, was her mother's dream, "but it wasn't mine."
She left the "Our Gang" troupe to do the competing Mickey McGuire comedy series starring Mickey Rooney.
Playing Tomboy Taylor, Rickert appeared in five of the McGuire comedies in 1933 and '34.
She also donned a black wig to play a young half-Indian oil heiress in the 1934 John Wayne B-western " 'Neath the Arizona Skies."
But stardom eluded her.
She spent the rest of the '30s playing bit parts. And in the '40s and early '50s, she was an uncredited dancer in a number of movie musicals, including the MGM classics "Royal Wedding" and "Singin' in the Rain."
Rickert then became a burlesque dancer.
With flowing blond hair down to her waist, she was dubbed Gilda and Her Crowning Glory by her manager. She performed in burlesque theaters and nightclubs across the United States and Canada in the 1950s.
When the old "Our Gang" comedies resurfaced in television syndication in the mid-'50s as "The Little Rascals," Rickert found that her "Our Gang" stint gave her a certain off-stage cachet.
As she later wrote in response to an e-mail from a Detroit fan to her website: "Detroit was one of the towns where I would appear on a kiddie TV show on Saturday morning as Shirley Jean of the Our Gang/Little Rascals and disrobe on stage at night for the little kiddies' parents."
But stripping then was much different than today, she told the Albany Times Union in 2005.
"I see more flesh in television commercials today than I used to see in burlesque," she said.
After quitting burlesque in 1959, Rickert worked a variety of jobs, including bartender, secretary and sales director for a regional theater in Springfield, Mass.
While living in Connecticut in the mid-'70s, she launched a long career as a traveling industrial hardware saleswoman, for whom her "Our Gang" tenure proved to be an ideal entree for making sales.
"I walk in, and they say, 'Not another nuts and bolts salesman,' " she told the Associated Press in 1993. "And then I open my sales folder and show them an 8-by-10 of me in 'Our Gang.' I say, 'You grew up with me.' Then they do a 360."
But, she said: "That was way back then, and this is now." She was, she said, "very happy with my life the way it is."
In addition to her daughter, the twice-divorced Rickert is survived by two grandsons and two great-grandchildren.