Gloria Jean Schoonover
April 14, 1926
Buffalo, New York, U.S.
|Died||August 31, 2018 (aged 92)|
Mountain View, Hawaii, U.S.
|Resting place||Mountain View Community Cemetery, Hawaii, U.S.|
|Years active||1929 (radio), 1939–1962 (films, television, radio, stage)|
Franco Cellini (m. 1962–1966)(divorced)
Gloria Jean (April 14, 1926 – August 31, 2018) was an American actress and singer who starred or co-starred in 26 feature films from 1939 to 1959, and made numerous radio, television, stage, and nightclub appearances. She is probably best remembered today for her appearance with W.C. Fields in the film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).
Gloria Jean was born Gloria Jean Schoonover in Buffalo, New York, the daughter of Ferman and Eleanor Schoonover; her ancestry was Pennsylvania Dutch. She had three sisters, Sally, Lois, and Bonnie. The family was involved in her career, with Lois serving as stand-in for the actress and their father managing her career. Gloria Jean was three years old when she first sang on radio, under the name "Baby Skylark."
The family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Gloria Jean sang with Paul Whiteman's orchestra on radio broadcasts. When she was 12, "she was engaged by a smallish New York opera company and became the youngest member of an opera troupe in the United States."
Gloria Jean was being trained as a coloratura soprano when her voice teacher, Leah Russel, took her to an audition held by Universal Pictures movie producer Joe Pasternak in 1938. Pasternak had guided Deanna Durbin to stardom, and with Durbin now advancing to ingénue roles, Pasternak wanted a younger singer to make the same kind of musicals. Up against hundreds of others, Gloria Jean won the audition.
Under contract to Universal, she was given the leading role in the feature The Under-Pup (1939), and became instantly popular with moviegoers. Universal's publicity department initially claimed the singer was 11 years old instead of 13; her actual age was not well known for many decades. For her next two vehicles, she co-starred with Bing Crosby in If I Had My Way (1940) and starred in the well-received A Little Bit of Heaven (also 1940), which reunited her with many from the Under-Pup cast. Her best-known picture is her fourth, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), in which she co-starred with W.C. Fields.
Universal recognized the need for musical entertainment during wartime, and Gloria Jean became one of Universal's most prolific performers; during the war years she made 14 feature films. Most were "hepcat" musicals, which were geared to the teenage market of the day, and Universal often used them to introduce new young talent, including Donald O'Connor, Peggy Ryan, Mel Tormé, and Marshall Thompson.
Gloria Jean made a successful transition to young adult roles. Her dramatic tour de force, as a blind girl being menaced by an escaped killer, was filmed as one of four vignettes for Julien Duvivier's Flesh and Fantasy (1943). Her performance won raves at the film's advance preview, and her segment was the best-received of the four. However, Universal removed the half-hour sequence and shelved it. Resuming her string of musicals, Gloria Jean co-starred with Olsen and Johnson in the big-budget Ghost Catchers (1944), which featured singer-actor Kirby Grant. The two vocalists worked so well together that Universal teamed them for two more features.
When Gloria Jean's Universal contract expired at the end of 1944, her agent Eddie Sherman (who was also Abbott and Costello's manager) persuaded her to not renew it, citing the need for "a transition period to make the change from child to adult roles." This left Universal in a bind; the studio had already promised exhibitors three Gloria Jean pictures for the 1945 season. Universal solved the problem by rushing Gloria Jean through three final productions that had already been partially completed. The half-hour sequence from Flesh and Fantasy was expanded into a feature-length melodrama, Destiny; and scripts had already been prepared for Fairy Tale Murder (released in the United States as River Gang) and Easy to Look At (co-starring Kirby Grant).
After leaving Universal, Gloria Jean made personal appearances across America; the successful tour prompted a new tour of Europe. In England, her rendition of "The Lord's Prayer" (and the lyric "forgive us our debts") was taken by some critics as a pointed comment about America's lend-lease policy. Thus the European tour ended abruptly and Gloria Jean returned to Hollywood.
She resumed her movie career as a freelance performer appearing in United Artists, Columbia Pictures, and Allied Artists productions, the best-known being Copacabana (1947) with Groucho Marx. Some stage and television work followed in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as four feature films. Wonder Valley (1953), produced on location in Arkansas, was Gloria Jean's first color movie and is now a lost film. Her next feature was Air Strike (1955), a minor military drama.
After Air Strike Gloria Jean was hired by the owner of the Tahitian restaurant in Studio City, California as a hostess, greeting and seating dinner guests. She enjoyed the experience and occasionally ran the restaurant in her employer's absence. Show-business patrons were surprised that a film star was now involved in restaurant work, resulting in sympathetic feature stories in the national press. Veteran Hollywood producer Edward Finney, himself a Gloria Jean fan, saw one of these reports and hired her to star in the lightweight comedy Laffing Time (filmed in 1959, re-released as The Madcaps in 1964). Jerry Lewis also read that Gloria Jean was working in a restaurant, and signed her for a singing role in his latest production, The Ladies Man (1961). Lewis removed almost all of her footage from the finished film; she appears only as an extra and has no dialogue. It was her last theatrical motion picture.
Gloria Jean appeared in many television shows, both as a singer and as a dramatic actress. She sang on The Colgate Variety Hour, You Asked for It, and Showtime (a syndicated collection of musical performances filmed as Snader Telescriptions in 1951). Her dramatic credits included Annie Oakley, Lockup, and The Dick Powell Show.
Gloria Jean was cast as the historical Lotta Crabtree, in a 1954 episode of Death Valley Days. In the storyline, Lotta's father failed at gold prospecting while her mother operated a boarding house. Lotta was briefly under the tutelage of Lola Montez (Yvonne Cross). Paula Morgan played Montez in a subsequent 1955 Death Valley Days episode.
Newspaper columnist Bob Thomas reported that Gloria was engaged to a pilot, but he was killed in the Korean War. Gloria herself denied this, dismissing it as mistaken identity. She was engaged only once, to the man she ultimately married in 1962. The marriage was not successful; her husband was frequently absent, living apart from his wife and son. Gloria Jean obtained a divorce and began a second career working with national hair care company Redken Laboratories, where she worked until 1993.
Revived interest in her life and films
In December 1991, Gloria Jean was honored by the Young Artist Foundation with its Former Child Star "Lifetime Achievement" Award, recognizing her achievements within the film industry as a juvenile performer. Gloria Jean also participated in various nostalgia and autograph shows, meeting fans and displaying memorabilia. She had always retained her fan following, and corresponded steadily with friends and admirers for the rest of her life.
Gloria Jean's films are beginning to receive new exposure: If I Had My Way has been restored to its original length and issued on DVD, followed by the DVD release of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. (Latter-day documentaries about W. C. Fields include recent clips of Gloria Jean, reminiscing about working with him.) Universal Pictures has struck new 35mm prints of Mister Big and Get Hep to Love for theatrical use. Her 1947 film Copacabana is available on home video.
After her retirement from Redken, Gloria Jean lived in California with her sister, Bonnie. After Bonnie died in 2007, she moved to Hawaii, where lived with her son Angelo and his family. (Angelo died in 2017.) Very late in life she suffered health problems, including two serious falls that slowed her mobility, and an impaired heart condition. She died of heart failure and pneumonia on August 31, 2018 in a hospital near her home in Mountain View, Hawaii. She is survived by her daughter-in-law and four grandchildren.
Her authorized biography, Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven, was published in 2005. A tribute website, GloriaJeanSings.com, followed with Gloria Jean's cooperation. Her Internet presence includes a series of videos showing the actress as she appeared in recent years.
|1939||The Under-Pup||Pip-Emma Binns||First Universal picture|
|1940||If I Had My Way||Patricia Johnson|
|A Little Bit of Heaven||Midge Loring|
|1941||Never Give a Sucker an Even Break||W.C. Fields's niece, Gloria Jean|
|Jingle Belles||Song specialties||Short (reissued as Winter Serenade)|
|1942||What's Cookin'?||Sue Courtney|
|Get Hep to Love||Doris Stanley||(released outside the United States as She's My Lovely)|
|When Johnny Comes Marching Home||Marilyn Benton|
|1943||It Comes Up Love||Victoria Peabody||(released outside the United States as A Date with an Angel)|
|Mister Big||Patricia Davis|
|Moonlight in Vermont||Gwen Harding|
|1944||Ghost Catchers||Melinda Marshall|
|Pardon My Rhythm||Jinx Page|
|Reckless Age||Linda Wadsworth|
|Destiny||Jane Broderick||Includes sequence deleted from Flesh and Fantasy|
|1945||I'll Remember April||April Garfield|
|Easy to Look At||Judy Dawson||Last Universal picture|
|River Gang||Wendy||Filmed earlier by Universal; released outside the United States as Fairy Tale Murder|
|1947||Copacabana||Anne Stuart||United Artists|
|1948||I Surrender Dear||Patty Nelson, aka Patty Hart||Columbia|
|Manhattan Angel||Gloria Cole||Columbia|
|An Old Fashioned Girl||Polly Milton||Eagle-Lion|
|1949||There's a Girl in My Heart||Ruth Kroner||Allied Artists|
|1953||Wonder Valley||Independent; no known usable prints exist|
|1955||Air Strike||Marge Huggins||Lippert|
|1959||Laffing Time (reissued as The Madcaps)||Sally Suffer||Independent|
|1961||The Ladies' Man||Girl in boarding house||Paramount|
|1940||Lux Radio Theatre||The Under-Pup|
- "Gloria Jean, '30s and '40s Singer and Actress, Dead at 92 - ExtraTV.com". Extra.
- Dickenson, Fred (January 26, 1941). "Jingle, Jingle, Little Star". New Mexico, Albuquerque. Albuquerque Journal. p. 16. Retrieved January 2, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Gloria Jean Started Acting Career Early". North Carolina, Statesville. Statesville Daily Record. October 25, 1947. p. 16. Retrieved January 2, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- Mann, May (March 16, 1941). "Child Star Growing Up -- She Wears First 'Formal'". Utah, Ogden. The Ogden Standard-Examiner. p. 15. Retrieved January 2, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- Scott MacGillivray and Jan MacGillivray, Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven, iUniverse, Bloomington, IN, 2005
- Vernon, Terry (February 26, 1962). "TeleVues". California, Long Beach. Independent. p. 32. Retrieved January 2, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- Thomas, Bob (September 29, 1960). "Former Child Star Seeks a Comeback". Oklahoma, Lawton. The Lawton Constitution. p. 31. Retrieved January 2, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Comedian Signs Ex-Child Star". Texas, Lubbock. Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. October 30, 1960. p. 68. Retrieved January 2, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Lotta Crabtree on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 28, 2018.
- "13th Annual Youth in Film Awards". YoungArtistAwards.org. Retrieved 2011-03-31.
- "Gloria Jean, '30s and '40s Singer and Actress, Dead at 92 - ExtraTV.com". Extra.
- "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 38 (3): 32–39. Summer 2012.