This Is A True Story About A Girl Boy Miracle—Dolores Hart
Two years ago next month I was graduated from high school. That summer of 1956 was a most depressing one for me. I had a scholarship to Marymount College but I kept thinking, here I am almost seventeen and where am I? I had a job making hamburgers in a little eating place at the Glen-Aire Country Club, a few blocks from my home, but all the time I was really dreaming of being an actress. There was a loud speaker there that played records and all summer long all I heard was music from “High Society,” which had just been released. Ever since I’d been in high school kids had teased me, saying I looked like Grace Kelly. I could never see it, but everyone said I did, probably because we both wore our hair the same way. Anyway, there I’d be, turning hamburgers while Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby would come on over the loud speaker. I’d moan to myself, so I’m just like Grace Kelly, am I? Hah, at my age she was already in New York modeling and going to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. And here I am making hamburgers.
Part of the reason I was so discouraged was because I had tried out for Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan,” and lost. It was funny, the summer before I’d gone to visit my grandparents in Chicago for a few weeks. At the time Mr. Preminger was conducting a country wide talent search and some of my friends and I went to a movie show. In the lobby there were blanks to be filled out by anyone who wanted to try out. My friends, for a joke, took a card and filled it in with my name. Later when I got back to Los Angeles I got a letter inviting me to a mass audition.
Mass audition was right. Mr. Preminger had taken over a local theater for the tryouts. The day I appeared, the whole auditorium was filled—filled with tall Saint Joans, short Saint Joans, fat Saint Joans and thin Saint Joans. They were everywhere. The audition was conducted in alphabetical order. I thought, “Well I’m lucky anyway—my name begins with H. I won’t have to wait too long.” But somehow they got mixed up and I was next to last. I waited four and a half hours. I felt like part of a herd of cattle. They kept moving us up from chair to chair, from room to room. Finally, I was told to walk out on stage. It was the first time I’d ever been on a stage so big. There was Mr. Preminger in the front row. I read a few lines and he said “Next . . .” I guess he wasn’t as impressed with me as he was with Jean Seberg.
That’s why I was so happy to see the summer pass and at least get away from the hamburger stand. But I was grateful to the country club for giving me a job so I could earn some money. They really saw me through quite a few rough spots. The season before they’d given me a job as lifeguard at the kiddie pool. To this day, they still don’t know I can’t swim but it really didn’t matter, because there was only about three inches of water in the wading pool.
I moved into Marymount in September, ’56 and for three months I settled down to being a student, although thoughts of acting were never far away.
During my first couple of weeks at college, I went to a dance given at Loyola University. It’s run by Jesuit fathers and is one of the most respected institutions in the country. Besides, the student body is one hundred percent male! Near the end of the evening, a fellow I’d never met before came over and asked me to dance. He introduced himself as Donald Barbeau. While we were dancing he said, “Have you ever thought of becoming an actress?” I looked at him surprised. How’d he know?
“Why?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “we’re casting for a play here at school. Since there aren’t any girls enrolled, we open the tryouts to girls from the area. Why don’t you give me your phone number and I’ll call you?”
Aha, I thought to myself. A new way to get a girl’s phone number.
A month went by before Don cailed and told me they were going to do “Joan of Lorraine.” How could I resist? Joan was my heroine; I’d done the role so many times in high school. I thought to myself, “I’ll show Mr. Preminger he made a mistake not giving me the part.” (Big joke. I was going to star in a college production of “Joan” and Otto Preminger would be sorry he’d passed me by!!) I went to tryouts and got the part.
It was during the last week of rehearsal that Don asked me again, “Dolores, have you ever thought seriously about acting?”
“Sure, I have,” I said, “but I don’t have the faintest idea how to go about it.”
“Well,” he said, “I think I have a plan.”
And he did. But—here I go again, jumping into the end of the story when Photoplay asked me to start at the beginning. The beginning goes back to Chicago. . . .
I was born in Chicago, on October 20th, 1938. My folks had separated so until I was four, I lived with my grandparents. Then, Mom and I decided to go to California. That is, she decided and I went along for the ride. It was a real adventure, like we were both running away from home together. I remember we came West on a milk train and we could only afford one seat between us. My worldly goods consisted of one suitcase and a Panda bear two inches taller than I was. My mother had me, a suitcase and seven dollars. As soon as we arrived, Mom got work as an interior decorator and also worked in a gift shop in Beverly Hills. With the two jobs, she could afford to rent a small apartment for us.
But things didn’t work out too well. You see. Mom had pretty long hours and she was worried about me being alone so much and I didn’t enjoy being by myself, either. So Mom sent me back to my grandparents’ home in Chicago to finish kindergarten there and had me come back to California for the first and second grade. But again it didn’t work out. Even when I started school out here again I had to enroll myself because Mom couldn’t get off from work to go with me.
Finally Mom thought it would be best for me to go back and stay with Grandma and Grandpa, so I did. The public school in their neighborhood was pretty far away, across railroad tracks and through some pretty busy streets, so my grandparents decided to enroll me in a Catholic parochial school close by. They were so happy to have me living with them again. They tried to give me lots of things they could never afford to give Mom. They even bought me a clarinet and I took lessons. We had a lot of good times together; they even helped me with my school work. Some Eastern schools are more advanced than those on the West Coast, and I felt like an idiot when I entered the third grade at St. Gregory’s in Chicago. My grandparents tutored me. Every day we’d study together, things like multiplication tables.
After I’d been going to school there a few months, I decided I wanted to become a Catholic. I don’t really remember why I had that strong religious feeling, except that maybe the other kids who were Catholic seemed to have a feeling of security that I lacked. Even though none of my family was Catholic, they didn’t try to discourage me. But then, that’s the way they were and are about everything.
For instance, they knew that ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to act, to be in moving pictures. My grandfather was my biggest inspiration. Grampa is such a vivacious man. You see, he’s German and he’s always ready for an argument at the drop of a hat. Gramps had a strong dislike for a certain very important politician who lived in the White House at that time. Every time this certain politician would speak on radio or some news commentator would say nice things about him, my grandpa would talk back to the radio. He’d sit there and argue and make sarcastic remarks. This impressed me so much because I thought that anyone who could talk back to somebody on the radio must be a very important man. To me, it was exciting to talk so well you could argue with the president!
Grampa was a projectionist at the Drake Theatre and I used to go the movies with him all the time. He’d take me up in the projection booth and, just like with the radio, he’d talk back to the screen. He’d also point up certain good and bad actors. I used to have a ringside seat for the movies. Only one trouble: grandpa never turned the sound on in his booth! All I saw were the actors along with grandpa’s commentary. I was spellbound with the things he’d tell me about the various stars. I looked up to him like he was a king—a very lovable king, not the bearded white father type.
Then, too, my father was an actor in the movies for a while. He was only in the movies for a short time. He went under the name of Bert Hicks. Pop was discovered while he was working as a soda jerk. He had a stock contract at M-G-M for six months, then went over to Twentieth where he was in “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” But the war came and he went into the service and that cut his career short. I guess he didn’t have the desire to do too much after he got out— although he did make a couple of more films at Fox.
Once in awhile when I was in the projection booth with Grandpa, one of the pictures my father was in would be playing. Grandpa, like any typical father-in-law, used to make some pretty fast wisecracks about pop on the screen. It’s kinda’ funny to remember, but I did think to myself then that someday it would be nice if I could get to be in movies and have parts that were more than just a few lines long.
When I was ten-and-a-half, my mother remarried and wanted me to come back to California to live with her and my stepfather. At first I was very unhappy at the thought of leaving Chicago. For the first time in my life I’d lived in one place long enough to make friends, to have a sense of belonging. I liked the school I was going to. I loved living with my grandparents. But one thought cheered me. In California I’d be near Hollywood, the place where movies were made! That was the only thing that made me want to leave Chicago.
I used to read Photoplay magazine all the time, especially the stories of how people had been discovered. I never let my family see me reading movie books, though, probably because I was afraid they’d think it was funny.
I was a real ugly duckling—the straight hair and buck-toothed type. Actually, I guess I wasn’t as homely as I thought but I had a funny way of walking and my clothes weren’t exactly smart. You see, Grandma’s philosophy about clothes was, “If you’re dressed warmly enough that’s all that matters.” So I used to wear an odd conglomeration of things: a pink blouse maybe with an orange skirt and a green sweater, topped off by a beat-up leather jacket.
This was the wardrobe I brought with me when I came West. It was awful. When I started school again out here I didn’t blame the kids for looking at me and making silly comments. Instead of getting upset, I decided to go along and kid myself as much as they did. It was easier to pretend to be the clown than to cry. I became sort of the school character. for a while. Actually, I was pretty much of an introvert and this helped to cover up the fact.
The nuns at school were very kind, helping me to adjust to the new school and everything. I think that’s one of the reasons Catholicism has meant so much to me. While I was growing up I made so many good friends among my Catholic classmates. I’d been away from my mother for three years so it was like getting reacquainted. There were lots of times at first when I found it easier to confide in one of the nuns than in my own mother. When I was younger I’d look at the nuns with coifs on their heads—looking so wise and yet, since their ears didn’t show, I felt I could pour my heart out to them all I wanted to. It seemed like they didn’t hear, if you know what I mean, which somehow made it easier.
There aren’t many exciting childhood incidents that I can remember. As a child, I was always running away from home. It wasn’t that I was unhappy; it’s just that I kept thinking to myself when I grow up it will be very dramatic to say I’d run away from home. There was only one trouble: Every time I ran away, nobody missed me! I’d get up on a Saturday morning and go into the kitchen and pack a lunch. I loved to eat so much that I never worried about taking extra clothes along; my first and only thought was packing a lunch. Id put the food in the basket of my bike. Just before I rode away, I’d stand in front of the house and say, “Farewell house, I’m leaving forever.” Then I’d get on my bike and go.
Of course, I always returned the same night. I’d walk into the house hoping everyone would be in a panic. My mother would look up at me and smile and say, “Did you have a nice day, dear? Did you have fun playing?” I’d just say yes. There was no fun telling her I’d run away for a big adventure—not when she hadn’t even realized I was gone!
When I was in my sophomore year, I remember reading in a magazine where some successful actresses—I can’t remember who—said that one of the greatest helps in obtaining her goal was accomplished when she was in school. She felt that becoming popular with her classmates had been the basis, the very foundation for her ability to communicate as an actress.
This became an obsession with me. I decided to go out for school politics and concentrate on becoming’ well-liked among my classmates. By the time I was a senior, I had been elected president of the student body. When one of the girls ran in to tell me I’d won the election I was terribly excited—but not for the obvious reason alone. To me, the most important thing was that my plan to instill confidence enough to vote for me had worked out; therefore, I reasoned, why couldn’t I take this as a sign that other, bigger plans might work out, too?
I kept thinking that maybe now my dreams weren’t so foolish after all, or at least not nearly so unobtainable. I used to pray every day, too, not that I would be a successful actress but that it would be God’s will that I become an actress. There’s a big difference. I felt if it were God’s will that I become an actress, then I really would have no worries.
Up until I was a senior, our school didn’t have a drama class, but that year they hired a young UCLA graduate, Beverly Block, as our drama director. She had written a play and some sketches and we were to put them on. She asked me to do a scene from “Joan of Lorraine” as one of the sketches in the show. Beverly was the first person I ever really confided in about wanting to act.
It was Bev who later told me that Marymount, a Catholic girls’ college in Los Angeles, offered drama scholarships. She encouraged me to try out and use the “Joan” scene she’d coached me on. I figured that instead of wasting time in college, I should at least be enrolled in a drama school, but I didn’t have the money for that so I tried for the Marymount scholarship. I was lucky enough to get one.
I was lucky in another way, too, because I never would have met Don Barbeau at the dance. As I was telling you, it was while I was rehearsing with Don for “Joan of Lorraine” that he suggested: “Well, why don’t you do something about wanting to be an actress.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well,” Don went on, “why don’t we sit down and write letters to all the big producers and directors in Hollywood and invite them to see you in the play.”
“Oh, who’ll read any letters we’d send?”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
He had me. hundred good reasons why you just didn’t sit down and write to a producer and tell him you want to be discovered, but at that moment I couldn’t think of one. So I just agreed. Bob made up the letters and we had some copies typed up. “We’ll need pictures of you, too,” Don suggested.
He arranged for one of his friends at school to take my picture. Then he made up the letter and picture into neat folders and sent them out to all the studios. I kept asking him how he knew so much about what to do. ing on instinct. thing so weird too, was that Don wasn’t one of those stagedoor Johnnies. In fact, he’d just recently come out of a trappist monastery!
Nobody was more surprised than I when we got a few answers. Some one from Fox replied, but it wasn’t anything definite. Then I got a call from Mr. Paul Nathan’s office at Paramount asking me to come in.
Seven weeks later, and after six test readings before Mr. Nathan, Mr. Hal Wallis and other Paramount executives, my mother received a telephone call from Mr. Wallis. Could she please come in to the studio and look over some contracts? Could she! We went in the next day. That was the day I met Elvis Presley, Wednesday, January 22nd. Elvis was getting set to star in “Loving You.” Mr. Wallis thought I should test for the role opposite. The next day, on Thursday, they tested me. Elvis saw the test and said he’d liked it. On Friday, January 24th, I had my first wardrobe fitting.
Three days later, the following Monday, I had my name changed to Susan Hart (later changed to Dolores Hart) and a seven-year contract with Mr. Wallis.
How do I feel? From what I’ve just told you, it must be obvious that my religion means a lot to me. And yet sometimes when we talk publicly about Faith, it’s misconstrued. It’s hard to put into words without having it sound all wrong and corny, but the way things happened to me it sort of gives me an eerie feeling. It’s as though God smiled down upon me and, for some reason, let me enjoy a miracle.
—BY DOLORES HART
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JUNE 1958