Gale Storm, 1950s TV Sitcom Star, Dies at 87

Gale Storm's wholesome appearance and perky personality made her one of early television's biggest stars on
Gale Storm's wholesome appearance and perky personality made her one of early television's biggest stars on "My Little Margie" and "The Gale Storm Show." (AP)
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By Adam Bernstein and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gale Storm, 87, an actress and pop singer whose chirpy, upbeat charm made her a leading television star on two 1950s sitcoms, "My Little Margie" and "The Gale Storm Show," died June 27 at a convalescent hospital in Danville, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

Ms. Storm, who was born Josephine Owaissa Cottle, won a talent contest in her native Texas that led her to Hollywood at 17. Despite her perky, fresh-faced appeal, she proved less than the forceful screen personality studio executives hoped when they manufactured her name.

She jokingly blamed her lackluster film career on her debut role as a 10-year-old in "Tom Brown's School Days" (1940) opposite Freddie Bartholomew. "That was a rip-roaring start!" she said.

Dropped by RKO Studios, she worked for a series of cheapie independent studios and managed leading roles in more than 30 films. She suppressed her fear of horses to star opposite Roy Rogers, Bob Steele and Johnny Mack Brown in Westerns, and she sang in forgettable film musicals such as "Swing Parade of 1946," "Let's Go Collegiate" and "Campus Rhythm."

She revived her moribund career by going into television -- a risky step for a Hollywood leading lady in the early 1950s, when the small screen was viewed as a major step down. Almost immediately, Ms. Storm became a household name through "My Little Margie," which began on CBS in 1952 as a summer replacement for "I Love Lucy."

Always well-meaning but frequently daffy, Ms. Storm's energetic, enthusiastic Margie Albright lived in Manhattan with her widowed onscreen father and showed a gift for concocting kooky schemes to keep him from new romantic entanglements. Her TV father was played by another veteran film actor, Charles Farrell.

By the end of each episode, difficulties were resolved in a way that enabled Ms. Storm's patient but put-upon father to sigh, shrug and proclaim to laugh-happy living rooms all across America: "Well, that's my little Margie."

The show, which ran until 1955 and lasted many decades in syndication, helped shape one of the stock characters of popular entertainment: the wacky woman, a fount of endearingly comic mistakes and misadventures.

In 1956, CBS launched Ms. Storm in a new series, "The Gale Storm Show," which ran until 1960. The show, sometimes known by it subtitle, "Oh! Susanna," referred to Ms. Storm's role as the social director on a luxury cruise ship. She and her friend Esmerelda, the ship manicurist played by Zazu Pitts, often teamed up to make life difficult for the pompous captain.

During this period, Ms. Storm also was busy on radio and cutting records. She rocketed to No. 2 on the charts in 1955 with her first record, rhythm-and-blues song "I Hear You Knockin' ". She also achieved top-selling hits with "Teenage Prayer," "Memories Are Made of This," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" "Ivory Tower" and "Dark Moon."

Ms. Storm was born April 5, 1922, in Bloomington, Tex., and raised with her four siblings in Houston by her widowed mother. She excelled at ice skating and dancing and, in the best tradition of budding actresses, put on backyard shows with her friends.

It seemed obvious that to make a career of show business "would have been impossible," she told an interviewer for the Archive of American Television. However, her high school Latin and English teachers "changed the entire course of my life," she said. They insisted that she enter a nationwide contest called "Gateway to Hollywood," that took her to the film capital in 1939 and gave her membership in the actors's union and an RKO contract.

In 1941, she married the male winner of the contest, Lee Bonnell, who later became an insurance executive. He died in 1986. Her second husband, Paul Masterson, a former television industry executive, died in 1996. Survivors include four children from her first marriage; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

When her television career tapered off in the 1960s, Ms. Storm focused on summer stock or dinner theater work and commanded high fees because of her presence on reruns.

She also wrote a memoir, "I Ain't Down Yet" (1981), that revealed candid details about her alcoholism. She spoke frequently about struggling with the disease, once telling a reporter that hiding her addiction "was the best acting job I ever did."

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