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History

June 7, 2014

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Vigo County native Billy Lee becomes movie star (Part II)

TERRE HAUTE — Billy Lee Schlensker’s versatility earned him roles in many motion pictures. The youth from West Terre Haute also was very popular.

According to a Paramount news release distributed in 1938, “no child star in the movie capital is more popular with adult players than Billy Lee, the boy from Indiana.

“He has the ability to concentrate with an intensity envied by many mature actors. Billy has always worked under the supervision of his father, who is just as particular about Billy’s manners off-stage as he is in coaching the youngster for an important part.

“That is why Billy is known as the politest star in Hollywood.

“In addition to being a polite little regular guy, he is a swell actor. He is in nearly every scene of ‘Cocoanut Grove’ with Fred MacMurray, Harriet Hilliard (who became the wife of Ozzie Nelson and the mother of actor-singer Ricky Nelson) and the Yacht Club Boys and that makes him an important part of the production.”

Billy’s baby teeth played an important role in making “Cocoanut Grove.” While helping Billy brush his teeth in a movie scene, Harriet Hilliard discovered that two of his front teeth were loose. For two weeks Billy jiggled his teeth with his tongue and Pete Schlensker limited his son’s diet to soft food.

Then, one day, while Billy and his stand-in, Roland Smith were playing catch, both went after a loose baseball. The top of Roland’s head came into contact with Billy’s mouth, loosening two upper teeth so much they were in danger of falling out. Billy was taken to Hollywood dentist Irvin Robert Barr,  who extracted the teeth and, working from photos, prepared a temporary plate.

In addition to “Cocoanut Grove,” by the end of 1938 Billy had appeared in “Sons of the Legion,” starring Evelyn Keyes, and “Say It in French,” with Ray Milland and Broderick Crawford.  

In 1939, Billy was extremely busy. He appeared in “Boy Trouble,” starring Donald O’Connor and Charley Ruggles; “Ambush,” with Lloyd Nolan and William Frawley; “Let Us Live” starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Sullivan; “Sudden Money” starring Broderick Crawford; “Outside These Walls” with Delores Costello; “Night Work,” featuring Ruggles, O’Connor and Mary Boland; “In Old Monterey,” starring Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes and Smiley Burnette; and “Jeepers Creepers,” featuring Roy Rogers.

O’Connor became one of Billy’s best friends after working the two films together. Between movies, Billy continued to sing, dance and play drums on the vaudeville stage in Los Angeles and O’Connor occasionally joined him.

In mid-October 1939, Pete Schlensker got an urgent call from Paramount offering Billy the lead role in “The Biscuit Eater.” He was asked to replace an actor known as “Baby LeRoy” in infancy who was making a comeback under his name, Lonnie LeRoy.

The movie was based upon a popular Saturday Evening Post story by James Street about two young boys – one black and one white – who converted a renegade hunting dog, “a biscuit eater,” into a champion.

It was being filmed in Albany, Ga., and the entire company was on location when Lonnie became seriously ill and was barred by his physician from working for at least three weeks. The expense of keeping the cast in Georgia for an uncertain period of time resulted in the call to Pete Schlensker. Billy was in Albany within two days and quickly befriended his 9-year old co-star Cordell Hickman.

“The Biscuit Eater” opened at Loew’s Criterion Theatre in New York City on May 22, 1940, and made its Terre Haute screen debut at the Indiana Theatre on July 3. Billy earned strong reviews. A New York Times critic wrote:

“To be sure, the story is on the sentimental side, but thanks to the direction of Stuart Heisler and the warmth and sincerity of 10-year old Billy Lee, it never becomes mawkish. . . [O]nly a cold heart could resist not being touched by Billy’s tearful prayer for the dying Promise – the runt who alternately filled the youngster’s heart with pride and anguish, but finally blossomed into a true champion.”

The success of “The Biscuit Eater” inspired Paramount to sign author Street to write a companion piece under the title, “Lonnie.” According to the announcement,  the new film would star Lee, Hickman and the dog Promise. Unfortunately, Paramount was not satisfied with the new script, with or without revisions, and a sequel was never made.

From 1940 to 1942, Billy made a dozen additional films, including “Parole Fixer,” starring Anthony Quinn; “Nobody’s Children; “Power Dive,” starring Richard Arlen and Jean Parker; “Nevada City,” with Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes; “Reg’lar Fellars,” co-starring Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer of Paris, Ill.; “Hold Back the Dawn,” headlining Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard and Walter Abel; “Road to Happiness,” with John Boles as his co-star; “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch,” also co-starring Switzer;”Eyes of the Underworld,” featuring Richard Dix and Lon Chaney, Jr.; “War Dogs;” and a voiceover role in Walt Disney’s “The Reluctant Dragon.”

Inexplicably, Billy’s movie career ended with “War Dogs,” in which he had a marquee role. The Schlensker family moved back to 350 North Cruse Drive in rural West Terre Haute. The residence has been razed and the land is now owned by William Jones.

Bill attended Concannon High School after World War II but is not listed among the school’s graduates. Jack Ross, Concannon Class of 1948,  befriended him during his high school days and remembers him as a very likable guy. The 1949 Terre Haute City Directory lists Bill Schlensker as an employee of the Merchants Distillery.

A photo of Pvt. Billy L. Schlensker in “Concannon High School 1917-1992” identifies him as a member of Battery B, 67th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, of the Third Armored Division during the Korean conflict.

Pete Schlensker, Sr. died Sept. 10, 1950 and Stella married grocer Joseph Beniulis on Nov. 20, 1955. Meanwhile Billy and his brother, Pete, Jr., settled in Beaumont, Cal.

Billy and his wife Madeleine had three daughters, Becky, Mickey and Christine. Lee died unexpectedly of a heart attack in Palm Springs, at age 60,  on Nov. 17, 1989. Sister Lucille remained in Indiana. She married Guy Rippy and died, at age 85, in May 1999.

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