Tuesday, June 30, 2009

That's My Little Margie

We all knew her as Margie on the popular television show of the fifties. But there was a lot more to Josephine Owaissa Cottle (April 5, 1922 - June 27, 2009), better known as Gale Storm, than that role portrayed.

Born in Bloomington in Victoria County in southeastern Texas, Josephine was the youngest of five children. Even as child, her talent was evident. She learned to be an accomplished dancer and became an excellent ice skater at Houston's Polar Palace. At Albert Sydney Johnston Junior High School and San Jacinto High School, she performed in the drama club. When she was a 17-year-old senior, two of her teachers urged her to enter the contest on Gateway to Hollywood, broadcast from the CBS Radio studios in Hollywood, California. The first prize was a one-year contract with a movie studio.

She won, and she was immediately given the stage name Gale Storm, while her performing partner (and future husband), Lee Bonnell from South Bend, Indiana, became Terry Belmont. After winning the contest in 1940, Storm made several films for RKO Radio Pictures, the first of which was Tom Brown's School Days. She worked steadily in a number of low-budget films released during this period. In 1941 she sang in several Soundies, three-minute musicals produced for "movie jukeboxes." She acted and sang in Monogram Pictures' popular Frankie Darro series, and played ingénue roles in other Monogram features with the East Side Kids, Edgar Kennedy, and The Three Stooges.

American audiences warmed to Storm and her fan mail increased. Altogether, she performed in more than three dozen motion pictures for Monogram. The early exposure from these film appearances paved the way for her success in other media. Storm became an American icon of the 1950s, starring in two highly successful television series, and it was in this decade that her singing career took off.

Her television career skyrocketed from 1952 to 1955, with her starring role in My Little Margie. The show, which co-starred former silent film actor Charles Farrell as her father, was originally a summer replacement for I Love Lucy on CBS. After becoming a hit, the show ran for 126 episodes on NBC and CBS. In an unusual move, the series was broadcast on CBS Radio from December 1952 to August 1955 with the same lead actors. Only 23 episodes of the radio show are known to survive. If you look at the right sidebar you'll see a video of a 1952 episode of My Little Margie.

Storm's popularity was capitalized upon in The Gale Storm Show (aka Oh! Susanna), featuring another silent movie star, ZaSu Pitts. This show ran for 143 episodes between 1956 and 1960. Storm appeared regularly on other television programs in the 1950s and 1960s as well. She was a panelist and as a "mystery guest" on What's My Line?

In Gallatin, Tennessee in 1954, a 10-year-old girl, Linda Wood, was watching Storm on a Sunday night television comedy show hosted by Gordon MacRae, singing one of the popular songs of the day. Linda's father asked her who was singing and was told it was Gale Storm from My Little Margie. Linda's father, Randy Wood, was president of Dot Records, and he liked Storm so much that he called to sign her before the end of the television show. Her first record, "I Hear You Knockin'", a cover version of a rhythm and blues hit by Smiley Lewis, in turn based on the old Buddy Bolden standard "The Bucket's Got a Hole In It", sold over a million copies. It was followed in 1957 by the haunting ballad, "Dark Moon" that went to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Storm had several top ten songs and headlined in Las Vegas and appeared in numerous stage plays.

In 1981, Storm published her autobiography, I Ain't Down Yet, which described her battle with alcoholism. She was also interviewed by author David C. Tucker for The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms, published in 2007 by McFarland and Company.
Storm lived alone in Monarch Beach, California, near two of her sons and their families, until failing health forced her into a convalescent home in Danville where she died June 27, 2009 at the age of 87.

Gale Storm has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to recording, radio, and television.

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