PCA Interview: Jeannie Russell

Casting classic comic characters can often be tough.  Appeasing the fans of the comics is one of the biggest challenges of all, who have a certain glowing nostalgia for the way the character should look and be.  Great casting can make a project based on a comic flourish, while bad casting can kill it. The casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Christopher Reeves as Superman, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman was so good they have become ingrained in the minds of the public’s collective subconscious forever. And the same could also be said for Jeannie Russell as Margaret Wade on Dennis the Menace.  Sure, it’s a stretch of a comparison, but the example is clearly the same.  During an era where comic rarely translated to the screen, Jeannie Russel brought the character of Dennis’ bossy frenemy to life in a very real and endearing way.  Under heavy makeup and a mass of curls, Jeannie Russell became the embodiment of Margaret in a very real way.

Although she only appeared in 38 episodes, over four seasons Jeannie Russell became as iconic to “Dennis the Menace” as the series star Jay North.

 

Growing up in a household dominated by show business, Jeannie Russell followed her brother Bryan Russell into the world of show business in 1959 in an episode of The Deputy.  More television would follow, but she would become part of pop culture history when she was cast as Margarete Wade for the TV version of the popular newspaper comic strip Dennis the Menace in 1959.  With a distinctive look that was instantaneously recognizable to both fans, Jeannie quickly became one of the favorites of the series, although she surprisingly only appeared in thirty-eight of the 146 episodes filmed over four seasons.  Although only a perennial co-star, Jeannie Russell stuck in the minds and hearts of the viewers and become as iconic to the series as star Jay North.

But when the series ended in 1963, Jeannie’s short career came to an end as well.  Becoming phased out of Hollywood after a life dominated by show business, Jeannie suddenly found herself forced into the role of an outsider.  In the years that followed Jeannie put herself through school and began a successful chiropractor practice, but it seemed like her days in the public eye were over.

Running a successful chiropractor practice today, Jeannie Russell was also the first chairman of A Minor Consideration.

However, things changed in 1990 when former child star Rusty Hamer committed suicide. Appearing with Donna Reed Show actor Paul Petersen on a TV talk show, the two realized that something had to be done to help support former child stars who left show business with feelings of abandonment, isolation and other scars.  Meanwhile, Jeannie and Paul learnt that Jay North was in a state of crisis, and the two reached out to get him and helped turn his life around.  The result was the formation of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit organization of former child stars which supports entertainment kids form the past and present in various psychological and legal matters.  As A Minor Considerations first chairman, Jeannie Russell helped rasie awareness to the real life difficulties former child stars face, and helping create programs and legislation to better the lives of kids that go down this unique path in life.

On August 20th and 21st 2016 Jeannie Russell will be joining more than fifty other former child stars at The Hollywood Museum in the old Max Factor Building at the corner of Hollywood and Highland to celebrate the opening of the “Child Star- Then and Now” exhibit.  The event will include an autograph show with all proceeds going to support A Minor Consideration’s continues growth and efforts to protect the rights of children in the entertainment industry.  As part of the exhibit, Jeannie will be sharing a true treasure that she recently discovered in a box of scripts that her mother saved.  Something so rare and horrifying that it may be one of the highlights of the show.

CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS

MY FAVORITE MARGARET:

A CONVERSATION WITH JEANNIE RUSSELL

Sam Tweedle:  Let’s start from the beginning.  How did you get involved in acting when you were a little girl?

Jeannie Russell: I was sort of born into it.  My parents were musicians and were living in Hollywood.  We lived behind the KTLA Studios, which was where Lassie was filmed.  But, in my household what we did as a family was rehearse and practice before I was even professional.  So I was being stretched to get ready for dance class and doing some singing.  Well one day there was a knock on the door – literally – and it was a production assistant from Lassie.  They had spotted my young brother Bryan, and they needed a small child to do pick up shots.  They asked my parents if they’d let Bryan do it, and that’s how the whole thing started.

Sam:  So you and Bryan were both acting at the same time.

Jeannie Russell’s brother Bryan Russell appeared in films such as “Bye Bey Birdie”, “How the West Was Won” and “Emil and the Detectives.”

Jeannie:  My brother is Bryan Russell.  I am known for Dennis the Menace, and I was in The Birds.  Bryan not only did television, but he did big movies.  He was in How the West Was Won and Bye Bye Birdie.  He went on to do a movie with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris called Safe at Home and then Walt Disney put him under contract.  He did a movie called Emil and the Detectives.  His final picture was a Disney film called The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin with Roddy McDowall.  My brother worked with big stars like James Stewart and Steve McQueen.  So there were two of us going out simultaneously which sort of intensified the whole experience.  That was dinner talk at night.  What Laurence Harvey had done on that day.  That kind of thing.  We were just totally immersed.

Sam:  Where your parents the classic stage parents you hear of?

Jeannie:  My father was interested in promoting his career, but my mother always worked.  My parents divorced while I was very young.  But she was professionally trained and was a concert caliber musician.  She did a lot of coaching for us musically and with our acting.  My mother was a Jane Withers fan as a little girl, so when I was up for Margaret she coached me on Jane Withers impersonations.  A lot of what Margaret was came from Jane Withers.  Alison Arngrim later told me that she used to watch me on Dennis the Menace before she did Nellie Olsen, so there is a sort of tradition handed down there.

“I had no problem looking (Alfred Hitchcock) in the eye and saying “I want to be in this! I love horror! It’s my absolute favorite!”’

Sam:  I would love to talk about your scene in The Birds.  I think that the scene where the birds gather outside the school and then attack the children is one of the most suspenseful and terrifying thing that Alfred Hitchcock ever filmed.  It was truly brilliant.  What memories of Alfred Hitchcock do you have?

Jeannie:  I was Margaret at the time I did The Birds and I was called in for a one on one interview with him.  I was alone in the office with Alfred Hitchcock.  He was sitting at a desk, and he had storyboards all over his office with pictures of kids running down the hills with gouged out eyes.  I knew who he was, because Bryan and I loved watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Bryan had even done one of the episodes.  So I had no problem looking him in the eye and saying “I want to be in this!  I love horror!  It’s my absolute favorite!”  He sort of nodded.  So I got home and my agent called up and said “Jeannie, you’ve got the part” and that we were leaving for Santa Rosa the next week. Well what he did was hired about a dozen Hollywood kids at principal rate, and then he flushed it out with normal kids.  But once we were on set it was pretty funny because he wouldn’t talk to at us at all.  The assistant director was giving us direction.  I had a blast.  We were at Bodega Bay for about a week.  We ran down that hill I don’t know how many times.  I had a mechanical bird rigged under my dress.  I’d run down the hill and I’d hit a switch and it’d peck at my head, and the first time down the hill it actually drew real blood.  So they had to stop and put some tape and reposition the bird and soften the beak a bit.  But I had a blast.  One interesting thing is that we sang that song, and that is the actual the only music in The Birds.

Sam:  I never noticed that.

“I had a mechanical bird rigged under my dress. I’d run down the hill and I’d hit a switch and it’d peck at my head, and the first time down the hill it actually drew real blood.”

Jeannie:  Yeah.  When you look at the credits there is no music.  Just the flapping of wings.  There is not one note of music from beginning credits to end credits.  The only music is the kids singing that song.  Now in preparations for the Child Stars – Then and Now exhibit, I was digging deep into a closet.  My mother saved everything, and I got to the bottom of my script box and I nearly fainted.  There were fourteen pages of that sequence from The Birds.  Literally, Sam, I had to sit down because I had not seen those pages since 1962.  A few of those pages are going to be in the exhibit.  All of Hitchcock’s shots were on that page, and there were all the verses to that song.  So I am able to share a little bit of that with the exhibit.

Sam:  Now who came first?  Did Hank Ketcham create Margaret prior to the Dennis the Menace series, or did you play her first and then the character was incorporated into the comic?

“As the filming went along, (Hank Ketchum) started drawing (Margaret to) look a little more like me.

Perfect casting. The studio made Jeannie Russell to be a splitting image of Margaret Wade: “In my book he drew a quick drawing of Margaret and he signed it “To my favorite Margaret.”’

Sam:  I was wondering because it’s amazing how much the made you up to look like the comic character.  I mean you could kind of see a bit of Dennis in Jay North, but you were distinctly Margaret.

Jeannie:  (Laughs)  Yeah.  Herbert Anderson, who played Dennis’ dad, and I came the closest to looking like the comic characters.

Sam:  Was Hank Ketchum ever on the set?  Did you ever meet him?

Jeannie:  No.  I did not meet Hank Ketchum until the mid-90’s if you can believe that.  I never met him during the shooting.  He did a book signing in Sherman Oaks and Jay North and Gloria Henry and I went over and surprised him.  We got in line and got a book and he was surprised.  In my book he drew a quick drawing of Margaret and he signed it “To my favorite Margaret.”  Our paths crossed a couple of times after that, and he was also very gracious and glad to see me.

Sam:  When you were doing the series they made you up quite heavily.  Were you ever recognized when you were out in public?

Jeannie:  The only time I was recognized was if I were in my Margaret drag.  Like if I came home from the set and I still had my Margaret curls and I’d go outside and some older kids from the high school would see me and go “Oh!  There’s that monkey from Dennis the Menace.”  The first thing I’d do is stick my head under a faucet and get those curls out.  That was my own hair and every time before the cameras they had to do my hair like that.

Sam:  At least Alison Arngrim got to wear a wig.

“That was my real hair in the day of the larger hair and make up department.”

Jeannie:  Ah.  I didn’t know Alison wore a wig.  Okay.  That was my real hair in the day of the larger hair and make up department.  One of my favorite memories is this one time when they had to bleach Jay’s hair, and here’s Jay under the hair dryer blowing bubble gum and reading a comic book, and there’s me under the hair dryer with all these very hideous pin curls all over my head, and then Jane Fonda is in another chair getting made up for the Academy Awards that night.  But sometimes they’d send us out on personal appearances where we’d go to a trampoline court, or this one picture of us at the Beverly Hills courthouse steps and I’d be myself and not as Margaret.  But you wouldn’t know who I was.  So they had to start sending me out in drag with my hair done and with the glasses so the public would recognize me.

Sam:  An interview I did with Paul Petersen was recently quoted in an article about Jay North, and how bad his childhood was.  Paul talked about how you and he really helped save Jay in the 1990’s.  I read the article about Jay with a lot of interest.  Was Jay’s experience as bad as he says it was?

“Dennis the Menace” star Jay North has gone on record many times talking about his unhappy childhood: ” Jay was an only child with kind of an absentee Mom and a very strict Aunt. “

Jeannie:  Okay.  First of all I never saw any kind of physical abuse in regards to Jay, because I would have been incredibly upset, and my mother would have been upset.  I don’t know if he’s claimed physical abuse, but I never saw any.  Jay’s mother worked, and his Aunt Marie and Uncle Howard were on the set with him.  And Marie was very strict.  When a bunch of the kids were working Jay would just light up and want to have lunch with us.  But Marie would say “No, he’s got to have lunch in his dressing room.  He’s the star and he’s got to conserve his energy.”  So Jay was an only child with kind of an absentee Mom and a very strict Aunt.  So he did not have a lot of balance in his life.  Now I don’t know if you can use the term balance when talking about show biz babies because my house couldn’t have been any wackier.  But I had a brother who was in the business, so I didn’t have the kind of isolation that Jay had.  Jay was in every scene.  He had to really carry the load.  But I do remember that he was very sensitive.  If he blew a line then, oh my God, he’d apologize to everyone.

Sam:  What you said there is what he was saying in the article.  He talked a lot about the loneliness and the isolation.

“I spent many a lunch time in high school standing in the girl’s bathroom because I did not know what to do.”

Jeannie:  And that’s sort of what A Minor Consideration started being about.  When the series ended we all went our separate ways.  I had not seen Jay and Paul in twenty years, and then in 1990 Rusty Hamer shot himself and all kinds of bizarre headlines were coming out about former child stars.  Then the press started coming around and saying “What’s going on?”  So there was this guy from New York called Bobby Rivers.  He had a VH1 show and he did a series of interviews of “where are they now” and that’s when I came face to face with Jay and Paul after all these years.  So it was eye opening to find out that we all felt the same way, because I too felt very isolated.  I spent many a lunch time in high school standing in the girl’s bathroom because I did not know what to do. Decades later I did a Suzanne Sommers show with Dana Plato, and Suzanne asked Dana “What happened?”  Dana said “I did not know how to function outside of a sound stage.”  You could just tell Suzanne didn’t get it, but I felt like I took a bowling ball to the gut.  That isolation is a recurring thing.  We had all thought we had failed, and we had all taken it very personally.  So that’s how A Minor Considerations started.

Sam:  How successful have it been to reaching out to people, and how involved were you in that process?

Jeannie Russell with members of A Minor Consideration (left to right) Paul Petersen (The Donna Reed Show), Jeannie Russell, Randall Whipple (My Mother the Car), Alison Arngrim (Little House on the Prairie) and Steven Wishnoff.

Jeannie:  Well it was a game changer for me.  I had a marriage, and I had my chiropractor career, and I had regained myself when all of a sudden I got called in by the media and hooked up with Jay, where we were flown to New York to do Geraldo and Sally Jessy Raphael.  So there was no turning back.  Meanwhile, Paul made inroads in The Screens Actor Guild.  He’d go in and make all kinds of commotion himself, and eventually the president, Barry Gordon, who was a former child actor himself, said to Paul “Okay, you’re right.  We’ll have a committee and get things changed, but you can’t be the chair because you’re too volatile.  You need someone who can sit down and talk to the board.”  So my phone rings and it’s Paul.  I was sitting on the couch watching X-Files reruns.  Paul says “We’ve got this opportunity to get into SAG and get the union.”  So that was the beginning of a six year quest, because I found that I could articulate a lot of the issues, and then Paul would raise hell and bring up issues, and I would take them up to the executive staff, which is an over simplification because it was an eight board national committee.  But what it was is that A Minor Consideration infiltrated the old performers committee and put some child actors on it.  Through the board process we got the executive staff to realize that children did not own the money that they earned, and working children were getting marked unexcused by teachers and losing academic credits, and also losing premature babies.  It took over my life.  I was Paul’s first lieutenant I guess you could say.  I wound up going to contract negations in New York.  I wound up testifying in Sacramento and we successfully got three pieces of legislation passed, which included the one that nobody said we could do, which was getting the Coogan Law revised.  Then in 2000 I found out my mother was sick and my husband was leaving me and I abruptly resigned the moment the Coogan Law was turned around.

Sam:  I remember watching the Sally Jessy Raphael episode you and Paul were on when it first aired.  Last year, after interviewing Paul, I watched it again.  I remember at the time it really had an impact on me in realizing that behind our TV icons there lays a real person with real emotions.  I think that often gets lost between viewers and performers somehow.

“Through the board process (A Minor Consideration) got the executive staff to realize that children did not own the money that they earned, and working children were getting marked unexcused by teachers and losing academic credits, and also losing premature babies. It took over my life.”

Jeannie:  That episode of Sally Jessy Raphael was where everything fell into place because it was on that program that I realized I could articulate.  When I did Geraldo before it was a bigger panel and more disorganized.  When we were on Sally we realized we were really going to be pin pointing some stuff, and that was a challenge for me.  That’s where it started.

Sam:  You and Paul really changed Jay’s life at that time.  Are you and Jay still in touch?

Jeannie:  Oh yes.  After 1990 we never let go.  We did one talk show, and then another, and then we started working the autograph circuit.  I had never heard of this, but there was an imposter who was sitting in claiming he was Lee Akers from Rin Tin Tin.  Someone had also been going out that was saying he was Jay North.  So Jay called me and said “Please do this with me.  I need to shut this down.”  I said “You’re kidding me.  Someone is going to buy our autographs from us? That’s weird.”  But we made a significant sum and I realized this was a cottage industry and I have a product.  We’ve had so much fun.  We’ve been to New Orleans and Baltimore and New York and Jay was just out here doing The Hollywood Show.  So we see each other a couple times a year.

Sam:  You had a relatively short career as an actress.  You made reference that you were “phased out.”  How did that happen, and how did you know your career was coming to an end?

Jeannie Russell and Jay North began doing the autograph show circuit when an imposer was going out claiming to be Jay: “Jay called me and said “Please do this with me. I need to shut this down.” I said “You’re kidding me. Someone is going to buy our autographs from us? That’s weird.” ‘

Jeannie:  Okay.  This is my big issue.  Being in show business was fabulous and educational and enriching and I wouldn’t trade it for one nanosecond, except for the very dismissive way they treated children that they had virtually raised.  It’s a very cruel and difficult thing to be turned away from your community as an adolescence.  When I was working there was no cable television, so it was all network and movies, and there was very little transitional territory.  Now they have no problems casting kids to play the age they are.  But Stan Livingston told me that the girls they were using to use his high school girlfriends when he was seventeen years old were in their twenties. When you were eighteen they didn’t have to conform to the labor laws.  You could spend more time on set and you didn’t have to have a tutor around.  As soon as they could they would use older actors to play down, so you hit a real no man’s land when you got to be about fourteen, unless you were a Natalie Wood or Elizabeth Taylor. There are ten years that I wish I had back where I was totally dysfunctional.  I’m still ten year behind my peers.  You ever see The Graduate?  You know when he stands at the bottom of the pool in his scuba gear and he’s just standing there?  That’s how I felt in high school.

Sam:  In your work with A Minor Consideration did you find that younger actors are still having that same feeling as you were?

” Kids are a Jello mold in the formative years, and to have an entire industry say “Thank you very much. Now drop dead” is awful. So that was my beef with the industry.”

Jeannie:  When I was working with SAG and doing Geraldo I was meeting younger child actors, and I met this girl who used to be on Step By Step with Suzanne Sommers and Patrick Duffy.  Well she told me in an open meeting where we were getting SAG to work on a transition program that she spent her lunches in the bathroom.  I thought my head was going to explode to hear that come out of a recent child actor.  So my issue, along with Mary McDonough, was to get a transition department going where you could get career days going with the Directors Guild and various other positions behind the camera.  Because I remember trying to keep alive by calling my script supervisors and trying to get into the script supervisors union and she shut me down.  There was absolutely no support and no information for transition.  Kids are a Jello mold in the formative years, and to have an entire industry say “Thank you very much.  Now drop dead” is awful.  So that was my beef with the industry.

Sam:  Now have meeting fans at the autograph shows been a way to show just how much your work did make an impact?

Jeannie:  Yeah.  That’s a perk of it.  But the main reason I go is because there is nothing like hanging with show business peers.  There is nothing like it.  I got to meet people.  Adam West would flirt with me from across from me, or I’d meet George Takei and he’d say “Oh Margaret.”  We were meeting people whose shows we have seen.  This is part of the fun, because we all get where we are now.  This is a behind the scenes way to hobnob a bit.  But what is amazing about meeting the fans is that you can meet people who watched the show and say “It got me through my parents’ divorce” and to really understand the way that television’s waves were out there.  It’s amazing.  I’m very proud of it.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The world of pop culture may always remember Jeannie Russell as Margaret, but she has made her true mark on show business with the work she has done with A Minor Consideration.  An important organization that is taking care of a very niche subculture of performers, A Minor Consideration’s work continues, and as long as there are kids working in entertainment there will still be a need for A Minor Consideration.  For more information on A Minor Consideration visit their web-site at http://aminorconsideration.org/.

And for those in Los Angeles on August 20th and 21st, come out and meet Jannie Russell and more actors from you favorite television programs by support A Minor Consideation at The Hollywood Musueum in the historic Max Factor Building.  Tickets to the event are $10 with purchase of Museum Ticket (autograph prices will vary) and can be purchased by calling 949-439-9504 or available at http://tinyurl.com/hdxlokk. For more information visit the Hollywood Museum’s web-site at http://thehollywoodmuseum.com/.

PCA NOTE:  Special thanks to Harlan Boll for organizing my visit with Jeannie Russell.  I appreciate you bringing me together with the people involved in A Minor Consideration and helping to further promote this important organization.    For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.

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