Women in Entertainment under the Star System of 1950s & 1960s Hollywood

by Carrie Smith

            As a child, I was raised not only by my family, but also by the constant company provided by watching countless hours of television.  I was intrigued by the way in which most problems could be solved in episodic programming in only twenty-one minutes.  And of course, there was always a happy ending.  Because I place a high price on family values and morals, I often preferred to watch reruns of shows from the 1950s and 1960s such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show, as, when compared to more current shows, they revolved around life in the home.  One of my favorites series was 1963’s The Patty Duke Show.  As a child, I was mystified by the premise of the show, as it revolved around identical teenage cousins.  Always a realist, I was dumbfounded at this prospect as it is genetically impossible.  However, it was the first sitcom in television history solely about teenage girls.  American shows had previously featured males in lead roles, however, Patty Duke provided a role model for many adolescent girls.  Not only was I able to look up to the characters, I learned from them the right way to approach a problem.  With The Patty Duke Show, I could also differentiate between how American culture and values have changed since the 1960s.  Furthermore, I was able to see, even though I wouldn’t become aware of it until later, the role and attitudes that were forced upon women of all ages during the time period.

            By studying the lives of women of diverse backgrounds and cultures, an oral history project such as this is invaluable.  Through the relay of information, one is able to learn about gender differences and relations necessary for future generations.  With this exploration, I will examine The Hollywood Star System of the 1950s and 1960s through the eyes of an actress.  Through the relay of personal anecdotes, I hope to uncover the similarities and differences between what one is able to see as a viewer of a particular television show or movie and what is the actual truth, and apply them to the gender stereotypes imposed by society.  Moreover, I hope to compare these observations to similar accounts of today’s movie industry in order to see how they have changed—if at all—in how they affect women.

I have been a fan of actress Jean Byron for as long as I can remember.  By living so close to New York City, I’ve met celebrities before both while working in Manhattan’s Theater District and on the street in upper-class neighborhoods.  However, the fact that they don’t always share the same attributes with the characters they portray on-screen wasn’t a thought that had entered my mind.  When one first meets a celebrity—especially one whose career has spanned several decades—one prepares herself to encounter the typical “ Hollywood ” persona: very egocentric, glamorous, finely dressed and perfectly coiffed.  However, this was not the case when I first met Jean.  To her credit, she appeared to be very laid back, reserved, and quite easily approachable.  In fact, she often remarks that she is a person, not a character, and thus has an individual identity apart from those she depicts on-screen.

I’m interested in interviewing Jean, as she has had such an interesting life.  An actress for over fifty years, she has seen the ins-and-outs of Hollywood, has gone from rags to riches, and has the most diverse circle of friends of anyone I know.  Jean has seen it all and has managed to retire with her dignity still intact.  She has the greatest sense of self, is brilliant, and is quite beautiful.  Although she was briefly married to actor Michael Ansara in the 1950s, Jean has never had children of her own.  However, she has a deep maternal instinct, is always able to help in any situation, and gives one hundred percent of herself in everything she does.  To say she is my role model is an understatement.  In fact, I have often exclaimed that had I been able to choose the family I was born into, I would choose hers.  Jean is one of my closest friends, the mother I never had, my confidant, and my mentor.

Since Jean can read people quite well, she has the innate ability to immediately tell if one is not only happy or sad, but if one is true at heart, trustworthy, and honest.  Unfortunately, because she lives in Mobile, Alabama, we are not able to see each other as frequently as we would like.  Instead, we correspond either through letters or by phone, at least once each month.  Because of the miles between us, my interview is taking place via a series of phone conversations, most recently on December 11, 2002, with other, more personal information gathered from previously sent letters.  I have documented my discussions by taking notes while speaking with her.  This has helped my research in that although she is a celebrity, there is very little published about her life.  Jean is a very private person and considers her affairs to be her business alone.

            Although she and I have been close for over three years, there is still so much to learn from her.  Our meeting was based upon her celebrity, however, when we talk, it’s hardly ever about her career.  We are prone to discuss topics of more importance—current events, literature, culture—although bits and pieces of her career do manage to work their way into the conversation, especially when something is said that conjures a particular memory.  I also ask for her advice quite often.  Whenever I am faced with a pressing issue, Jean always knows exactly what to say to make me feel better.  However, as we usually speak of things that relate to the present, I don’t know as much about Jean’s past as I would like.  In this light, I would very much like to know more about Jean Byron, the actress.

I can credit our meeting to my longtime devotion for The Patty Duke Show.  Because of my favoritism, my friend, Billy (also a fan) and I were invited by Executive Producer, Jim Green, to spend a long weekend on the set of the made-for-television movie, The Patty Duke Show Reunion: Still Rockin’ in Brooklyn Heights, in Montreal, Canada, in December, 1998.  We jumped at the chance to go, and although we wouldn’t necessarily be cavorting with Hollywood’s elite, going was nevertheless a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we, as devoted aficionados, could not pass up.

            While we were there, we marveled at the sight of all the lights and cameras, and were fascinated by how many people are actually involved in the process of making a two-hour movie.  We were invited into the producer’s trailer to view the dailies (film that was shot the previous day), and were even asked our opinions on whether or not we felt certain takes were better than others.  When we were asked if we’d like to see that day’s scenes being filmed, we were ecstatic.  Much to our chagrin, however, the director of the film, Christopher Leitch, had asked us to be extras in a crowd scene.  But because Billy and I are unfortunately not affiliated with any Hollywood talent unions (SAG, AFTRA, etc.), we were not able to participate in the production in any way.  Union productions require the membership of not only cast and crew, but all those affiliated, from script supervisors to caterers.  Nevertheless, it was beyond my wildest dreams to witness an award-winning cast act out a script right in front of me.  The fact that it actually happened still seems like a dream.  Having been welcomed with open arms into Patty Duke’s hotel room, and having shared a catered lunch with the other actors was an experience that I will never forget.

Billy and I were disappointed, though, that we did not have an opportunity to meet Jean Byron, who was reprising her role as matriarch, Natalie Lane.  Her scenes were filmed primarily at a location a few miles from where we were staying, and our schedules never coincided.  However, another cast member had given her telephone number to me, and promised that she’d love to talk in the future, after the filming had ended.

Having also completed an internship in advertising as a senior in high school, I often had the opportunity to visit the sets of commercials at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, New York.  While there, I would frequently talk with members of the crew and be an eyewitness to the goings-on behind the scenes.  Looking back on my experiences at Silvercup and in Montreal, I am able to see that sexism does indeed exist in the film industry.  Though I did not think anything of it at the time, I now find it interesting that the majority of both crews had been comprised of men.  Women were left with the tasks of hair and makeup, wardrobe, and rallying extras.  This gender discrimination is not something that is talked about, however obvious.  It is true, though, that the majority of Hollywood ’s heavyweights—the most important directors, etc.—are all men; Spielberg, Kubrick, Cameron, are all easily recognizable names.  But when trying to match men with women, the most famous are Ida Lupino (one of the first “powerful” female directors), Penny Marshall, and Jodie Foster, all of whom started their careers through acting.

Following the correspondence of a few months, I was finally able to say that I met the entire cast of The Patty Duke Show in-person.  Jean had extended a week’s invitation to Billy and I at her home in Mobile, Alabama in August, 1999.  We were nervous, although willingly accepted her hospitality.  While we were there, Jean entertained us by telling stories of how she received her membership into the Screen Actors Guild and about the Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s.  I saw that although she has well over seventy five credits to date, she is a regular person and doesn’t expect any special treatment because of her celebrity status.  While we were eating dinner one night, something she had said struck me in such a way that I knew she had entered my life for a reason.  After we cleared the table, she and I had a long conversation, in which I had asked her advice on a very personal topic.  It was so easy to talk with her, and she returned with the most wonderful guidance.  I knew then that once two lives touch, they can never again be completely separated.  I no longer thought of her as someone famous.  She was no longer Natalie Lane—the character I knew her for best—to me.  Rather, she had allowed me to see her in her truest form, letting me connect with her on an even deeper level.  To me, she had become a close friend.

Born in Paducah, Kentucky on December 10, 1925, Imogene Burkhart (her given name) was not stereotypically Hollywood material.  Her family wasn’t rich and she didn’t have connections to any famous producers or directors.  She wasn’t stereotypically glamorous, nor did she conform to the preconceived notions of stardom.  As a child, her mother did not set her hair in curls as Shirley Temple’s did, nor did she take elocution lessons.  Her talent and passion for entertaining, however, were quite evident early on.  While presenting her first speech in front of her grade school classmates, she realized that acting was what she was meant to do, and has “never in [her] entire life—ever—felt that much at home” (Byron).

Jean and her family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, when she was still quite young, and then to California when she was nineteen.  As she began to realize that she really did have talent, and as The Hollywood Star System was on the rise, Jean soon made a name for herself.  Within the system, actors were groomed, pampered, and glamorized to the hilt.  They were literally treated like American royalty.  The emergence of this system, though, can be seen as a continuous development.  It has come to the fore by a complex interplay of many factors over a course of many years, a result of changing attitudes toward the film industry, and following, a determined effort on behalf of the early film companies.

As radio entertainment was quickly gaining popularity, Jean was quick to capitalize on its success.  In fact, she was still attending high school when she began accepting jobs as a radio and band singer.  Lending her voice to weekly family-oriented shows, she was able to prove, even as a child, that her talent was real.  At thirteen-years of age, young Jean had won a contest which presented her with the opportunity to tour the famed RKO Studios in Hollywood, where she met among others who had already won their celebrity, Lucille Ball.  The two were able to get acquainted and pose for pictures, all the while discussing Jean’s up-and-coming career.

When she graduated from high school in 1945, Jean opted to study drama (from 1947-1950) rather than to receive a formal college education.  As the country was struggling to regain its financial freedom after World War II, Jean appeared briefly as a singer on radio before becoming determined to make a name for herself in movies.

 After auditioning for her first feature role, however, she was signed to contract with Columbia Pictures, under Samuel Katzman, and shot the first of several science-fiction films.  Her agent at that time, Harry Sauber, advised Jean to adopt for a stage name her shortened moniker of Jean, and to choose a surname that was more palatable than Burkhart.  Even though it was unusual at the time for a contract player to select a stage name on her own, Jean was afforded this privilege.  However, she was immediately void of any ideas.  She would later relay a story that Byron is an homage to her love of British literature’s Lord Byron; however, this allegory is only partially true.  Instead, she literally opened a phone book and chose the name of Byron at random.  It fit.  The name Jean Byron promotes an air of higher social status than her given name, thus further escalating her new Hollywood persona to one that commanded more respect.  Hollywood was—and still is—about the physical features that contribute to one’s appearance.  The name Joan Crawford commands more respect than her given name, Lucille LeSueur, and it adequately portrayed the image that Metro Goldwyn Mayer wanted to project at that time.  However, as the United States was in the process of becoming a more ethnically diverse country, there was a greater sense of pride attached to an individual’s cultural ties.  During the Star System, actress Michelle Yeoh (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) would have had to create a stage name, as the stereotypes associated with those of Asian descent at that point in history were not favorable.  In fact, Patty Duke herself was forced by her managers, the late John and Ethel Ross, to change her first name from Anna Marie.  Actress Patty McCormack had recently capitalized on her 1956 movie, The Bad Seed, and because the Rosses thought that the young actress’s popularity would increase with a more recognizable name, the statement “Anna Marie is dead.  You’re Patty now” (Duke 24) was forced upon her.

Soon, Jean began to land roles in low-budget B-movies.  As opposed to the more mainstream A-movies, B-movies were customarily filmed with smaller budgets (hence lesser-known actors), and by smaller production companies during the 1950s.  As drive-in movie theaters gained popularity after World War II, a second film would be shown after the main feature.  Thus, the term “B-movie” came to denote second rate, of lesser popularity, such as “Side B” of a vinyl record or cassette tape.  Because the budgets of these films were dramatically smaller than the more mainstream films, the special effects employed were of lesser quality, leading to what is now considered as camp—the ability of something to be so bad that it is good.

In attempts to increase income, studios rapidly began to consider the demographic results of their viewers.  They found that the production of films aimed at distinct audiences—more highly educated and affluent people and especially people under age thirty—proved profitable.  The latter group soon became Hollywood’s target audience, accounting for upwards of seventy-five-percent of ticket sales.  These new audiences, although much smaller, demanded more in the way of meaningful content and sophisticated production techniques.  Simplistic, low-budget, formulaic plots, common in Hollywood’s earlier eras, did not fare well with younger audiences in the way that studios had hoped.

Since there was not much chance for the famed “big break” in B-movies, Jean decided to try her hand at guest starring on episodic television, as was the trend for up-and-coming actresses of the time.  With television, Jean was able to increase her dramatic resume threefold.  In the 1960s, personalities like Elvis Presley churned out endless quantities of appalling movies to quench the thirst of his fans.  Some of the last classic epics and musicals were made at this time, but by the end of the decade, the same revolution that had taken over radio’s airwaves had arrived in Hollywood.  With Maude, a popular show geared towards women’s rights, Jean guest starred as an applicant for a housekeeper’s position.  Her character was a single mother, struggling to put her son through school, while needing an income to also take classes herself at a local junior college in order to earn her degree.  Typical of the time, however, when describing Jean’s character, Bea Arthur, as the title role of Maude proclaims, “She’s so stupid, she has to go to night school!”, thus insinuating that housekeepers and other domestic positions do not require an education.  This statement contradicts the show’s premise of equality for both sexes, and continues to oppress women by portraying the female working class as uneducated.

However, during the early 1960s, Jean had auditioned for a lead in United Artists’ upcoming The Patty Duke Show, in which she landed the role of Natalie Lane.  Although she immediately formed close friendships with the cast, there was much turmoil behind the scenes.  The show was obviously used as a vehicle to transport Academy Award-winning Patty Duke’s career to even greater heights, and thus, Jean’s role was not sizeable enough to allow her to display her dramatic talents in the ways that she would have preferred. 

Even though her relationships with the cast are still strong, as she had for many years been a mentor to Duke, Jean regrets working on the show as it subsequently stereotyped her as a minor player, rather than the leading lady that she knew she could portray.  Natalie Lane was a woman who, as was popular in the time, was active in church and neighborhood activities.  Natalie’s only job was to take care of her family by making sure dinner was always on time, the laundry had always been washed, and the house was always kept clean.  Because of this stereotype, there was not much else that Jean’s character could do.  It was too early, still, for a woman to have a career outside the home, and it was considered blasphemous for one to disobey her husband’s rule.  While the show ran for three years and was nominated for an Emmy Award, only a small handful of episodes provided her character with substantial depth and emotion.

Although Jean was not thrilled to reprise her role, when she heard that a reunion episode was planned, she eagerly agreed to join the cast in Montreal for the shoot.  She longed to reconnect with the cast to which she had once been so close.

The types of roles that are offered to women today have witnessed a tremendous turnaround since the 1960s.  Because women have for years been considered second-class citizens in the working world, the same holds true for the fictitious existence of female characters in film.  Jean was witness to this extraordinary result with the films she had made during the 1950s.  The science-fiction genre was at its highest point and often revolved around research and scientific experiments.  According to Jean, “female characters wouldn’t have the same jobs as male characters—doctors, scientists, and the like” (Byron).  However, she attributes the shift in female characters’ vocations to the events that happened in the United States with “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II.  She states, “American women really showed what they could do both on-screen and off” (Byron).

Soon after ABC had cancelled The Patty Duke Show in 1966, Jean left Hollywood for a number of reasons.  She began to grow tired of her stereotyped characterizations and considered her career to be “routine and dull” (Byron) and as a result, felt that she could no longer be considered a star.  She was witness to nothing less than the seismic shift in the topography of the Hollywood Star System.  The system itself was not changing, rather, the stars were constantly in motion and the proverbial baton must be passed in order for the system to survive.  This shift had been precipitated by the presence of too many stars chasing far too few batons.  During the late 1970s, Jean, still in love with the stage, returned to her roots and began performing on the dinner theater circuit, as “[it] was always the high point of [her] life.  [She] felt at home there, and could connect with the audience in an entirely different way” (Byron).  In 1988, she entered semi-retirement, after which she retreated to the south, to care for her ailing mother.

Jean Byron now lives in a modest house in Mobile, Alabama, in the company of her pets—her constant companions—Daisy and Chantress.  Although at seventy-seven she is still quite independent, she relies on the help of family and friends in assisting with chores and weekly errands, as she suffers from an eye condition called Macular Degeneration.  She lives off her pensions from both the Actors’ Equity and Screen Actors Guild talent unions, and has no future plans for returning to the spotlight.  A devoted advocate of literacy reform, Jean is slowly becoming involved in local charitable events.  She still keeps very much to herself, however, and with the exception of only her closest friends, does not let on to her celebrity status.  Although she still uses her stage name, she prefers to be remembered as Jean Byron, philanthropist and friend, rather than for her contributions to the entertainment field.

With my research, I have come to realize the extent to which Jean has influenced my life.  Because she does not see herself as offering anything more than friendship to me, I often exclaim how she has so often been able to help me overcome life’s obstacles.  I made her aware of the fact that I hold her criticisms and praise in the utmost regard, and that I truly appreciate everything that she has done for me, whether or not she had been consciously aware of it at the time.  I embrace the fact that two people can share such a close relationship despite the difference of fifty-five-years between our ages.  Her thoughts are perhaps the best words in which to describe what has made our bond so strong.  She believes that “older people have a history and can share their experiences with the younger generation.  We can help them to find parallels and help kids feel more sophisticated about where they are in life” (Byron).  However many compliments I offered, she is modest enough to see our relationship as one of friendship and nothing more, as she stated, “no, no, I don’t think I’ve influenced you” (Byron).  To that end, Jean Byron will never fully understand how deeply she has touched my life.

 

Works Cited  

Byron, Jean. Personal interviews. 25 Nov 2002, 11 Dec 2002.

Duke, Patty and Kenneth Turan. Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke. New
   
York: Bantam Books, 1987.

"Florida’s Goodbye." Maude. 5 Feb 1974.

 

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