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May 31, 2014

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

TERRE HAUTE — The son of a former minor league baseball player, Vigo County Billy Lee Schlensker became a major motion picture star.

Born March 12, 1929 to Peter and Stella (Hoskins) Schlensker near Nelson’s Bend of Sugar Creek, Billy apparently was a precocious young man.

A few months after his birth the family moved to a small farm just off National Ave. in West Terre Haute. His parents moved to Los Angeles in 1931 and took Billy and a younger brother with them. The primary purpose of the trip is unclear.

Retired from pro baseball for 15 years after playing several years in the Northeast Arkansas League, the Central Kansas League and with Fulton, Clarksville and Henderson of the Kitty (Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee) League, Pete Schlensker became a miner and suffered from asthma and emphysema. Some sources suggest he sought relief in California for his lung problems.

Another account indicates the Schlenskers were impressed by the tap dancing skills of their two-year old son and wanted to compare his abilities to those in show business.

While in Los Angeles, the Schlenskers discovered Ethel Meglin’s School for Professional Children, whose students included Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Jane Withers and many others.

It is not clear whether the Pete and Stella Schlensker enrolled Billy in the school or merely had him evaluated. Ethel Meglin taught acting, dance, voice and a variety of musical instruments. She took an immediate liking to Billy and urged the family to enroll him in her school.

He may have appeared in one or more recitals with Meglin’s Kiddies during that first visit. Encouraged by Meglin’s enthusiasm, the Schlenskers returned to West Terre Haute and made arrangements to move permanently to California.

Before returning to the west coast, Billy Lee Schlensker took the stage name, “Billy Lee,” and made a few solo appearances in Chicago theaters.

 The actual move took place in 1933. By 1934, Pete, Stella, Pete, Jr. and Billy were residing at 5515 Klump Ave., in North Hollywood. The oldest children, Charles, 23, and Lucille, 19, remained in Vigo County. On May 25, 1935, Lucille married Marion Long, who worked for Quaker Maid, in Terre Haute.

Ethel Meglin wasted little time utilizing Billy Lee’s talents. When she learned that an Our Gang comedy was going to produce a short film using some non-Our Gang/Little Rascals talent, she tendered Billy for a role. He not only got a part but, wearing a sailor’s suit, he tap danced his way to a solo performance.

Originally called “The Little Broadcast,” the short film – Billy Lee’s first – eventually was re-released with the title, “Mike Fright.” At the same time, Billy signed a contract with Paramount Studios. Over the ensuing decade, he made at least 39 feature movies.

He made his feature film debut in “Wagon Wheels,” an adaptation of a Zane Grey novel about the sturdy pioneers settling in the West, starring Randolph Scott, Gail Patrick and Hoosier Monte Blue. Playing the role of the subject of a custody battle between his widowed mother and his paternal grandparents, Billy Lee made his Terre Haute screen debut Nov. 1, 1934, at the Grand Theater.

Billy next appeared at the Grand in “Silk Hat Kid,” with Lew Ayres, on Aug. 15, 1935. In July 1936, he was featured in “Three Cheers for Love,” starring Robert Cummings.

Lee had a small part in Paramount’s “Big Broadcast of 1937,” a comedy with Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Martha Raye, Ray Milland, Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman, which opened at the Indiana Theatre on Oct. 24, 1936.

Though Billy got to sing briefly in “Wagon Wheels,” he had a larger singing role in “Make A Wish,” starring Basil Rathbone and child vocalist Bobby Breen. Billy played Pee Wee, Breen’s closest camp buddy, and the pair sang “Polly Waddle Doodle” as a duet.

“Make A Wish” opened Sept. 18, 1937, at the Orpheum Threatre in Terre Haute, the same day “Varsity Show,” starring Brazil native and former Terre Haute musician Johnnie “Scat” Davis, opened at the Grand.

In addition to the movies mentioned, Billy appeared in at least a 10 other films in 1936 and 1937, including “Too Many Parents,” with Frances Farmer; “Wild Money,” with Edward Everett Horton; “Exclusive,” with Fred MacMurray; and “Thunder Trail,” with Charles Bickford. All were box office successes.

The more movies Billy made, the more the public wanted to know about him. For the first few years of his Hollywood career, very little was written. Then, in 1937, film feature writer Sara Hamilton interviewed Billy and wrote about him in Photoplay magazine.

“His brown hair, too long for comfort” Hamilton observed, “hangs over one eye with a most alarming droop. His brown eyes live and speak and radiate the spark of something rare within. Billy is one of those ‘beyond me’ children.”    

Billy continued attending Ethel Meglin’s school until he was a teen. He also was enrolled at Viola A. Lawler’s esteemed Professional Children’s School for an academic education, from 9 a.m. to Noon each day, with a 10-minute recess. The Board of Education mandated producers to provide child actors working on a film with a teacher.

Meglin taught Billy how to play the guitar and, when he was 9 years old, he began taking drum lessons one hour each day after school. He also received 30 minutes of dance instruction and 30 minutes of horse riding each week.

Billy’s father took him swimming almost every afternoon. During the summers of 1937 and 1938, Billy was batboy for the Paramount Studio Baseball Club, captained by his father, the former professional player known to his teammates at the studio as “Pop Lee.”

A Paramount press release in April 1938 asserted: “Youngest in point of years, Billy Lee nevertheless is the oldest in point of continuous service among the many stars under contract …

“For his part in (the forthcoming movie) ‘Cocoanut Grove,’ Billy learned to play drums and traps in four short weeks, mastering rhythm that keeps perfect tempo … with Harry Owens Royal Hawaiian Orchestra.”

Continued next week.

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    March 12, 2010

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