Exclusive: Gale Storm Was “Gidget” Before “Gidget” Was “Gidget”
Classic TV’s “Little Margie” And So Much More
“I’m eternally grateful that God has given me much more than I could have expected out of life. I feel He’s been responsible for all the wonderful things I’ve had, and continue to have. I wouldn’t feel right asking for more.” — Gale Storm
“I liked Gale Storm,” said famed entertainment journalist Margaret Wendt. “I think she was exotic…and she certainly died too young. Sometimes the actors are so interesting to look at, that what they look like becomes more interesting than whatever business they’re doing or performing as their characters. I remember I used to talk about how she would wear her hair…she was like an Eartha Kitt [type] to me. There was something very different about her face…and you become so enthralled with the way they look or how they achieved that particular look as that particular character or in that particular performance that you actually miss what they were doing in the scene as that character. I think of her show as a little show…but she was a big deal.”
Storm’s hybrid charm as an actress stemmed from that fine and rare mix of an adorable and approachable beauty that was enhanced by an inspirited magnetism and eternally-youthful mindset. Young at heart, but wise beyond her years might be the best way to describe Storm who started acting while still in her teens.
Classic cinema and television historian and author Steve Randisi was good friends with the actress in her later years. As he recalled, from the time Storm made her big-screen debut in 1940’s Tom Brown’s School Days, she “won over audiences with her exuberant personality and wonderful sense of comedic timing.”
However, Randisi said it was on the small screen that in-home viewers were privy to Storm’s initial and significant success with My Little Margie, the 1952 summer replacement for CBS’s I Love Lucy:
“It was a quiet source of pride for Gale to realize that audiences devoted to Lucy’s antics were now watching her character in the same timeslot — with nearly the same level of constancy and affection. So much so that Margie evolved into a permanent weekly series [albeit on a different network, NBC] and would later spawn a radio version utilizing the same cast. Margie was cute and vivacious and, like Lucy, was more than willing to be bruised by taking a pratfall or a pie in the face. And like many other female characters in fifties sit-coms, Margie had a knack for getting herself in and out of an array of disasters. This she often did independent of the men in her life, including her wealthy widower dad (aptly portrayed by former screen heartthrob Charles Farrell) and her spiritless boyfriend Freddy [Don Hayden]. It was her show and, in most cases, the writers had Margie one or two notches ahead of her male stalwarts.”
After Margie had been relegated to daytime reruns in 1956, Randisi explained how “a more mature Gale” embarked on a second sitcom, The Gale Storm Show, more commonly known by its syndication title, Oh! Susanna. “This second series was something of a departure in that Susanna Pomeroy [Storm] embodied certain qualities of the independent woman that were becoming more and more commonplace on television. She held down a glamorous job [as the entertainment director of a luxury liner] and often stood up to, and got the edge on, a male superior [in this case, Captain Huxley, played by veteran character actor Roy Roberts].
Susanna didn’t surpass Margie in popularity, but it did in terms of longevity. “Margie spanned 126 episodes over two and half years,” Randisi intoned, “while Susanna ran for 143 episodes over four years.” Moreover, every third episode of the second series was a musical, “thus enabling audiences to enjoy Gale’s magnificent singing voice. [By this time, too, Storm had also become a popular recording artist for Dot Records. Her 1955 hit, “I Hear You Knockin,’” sold over one million copies.)
As to the Susanna/Gal Storm Show, Storm once said during production, “We’re trying to make the jokes more motivated, and we’re trying to make Susanna more intelligent.”
Of all the recognition Storm received during her extensive career in film, television, and theater, she most often recalled a comment from Margie director Hal Yates. According to Randisi, Yates was a “no-nonsense perfectionist” whose career dated back to the silent era. “And he told Gale that she reminded him of Mabel Normand, one the screen’s earliest and finest purveyors of slapstick. ‘Considering his expertise in comedy,’ she said, ‘…that was one of the finest compliments I ever received.’”
Birth Data: Born Josephine Owaissa Cottle, April 5, 1922 — in Bloomington, Texas.
Education: Albert Sidney Johnston Junior High School and San Jacinto High School.
Family: Parents William Walter and Minnie Corina Cottle; married Lee Bonnell (1941–1986, his death); and Paul Masterson (1988–1996, until his death). Children: Peter, Phillip, Paul and Susanna Bonnell.
Most Memorable TV Roles: Margie Albright on My Little Margie (CBS, 1952 to 1955), which was only supposed to be a summer replacement series for I Love Lucy, but became one of the most popular sitcoms of the early 1950s; also played Susanna Pomeroy (the first name for which she passed on to her daughter in real life) on The Gale Storm Show (a.k.a. Oh, Susannah; CBS/ABC, 1956–1960).
Benchmarks: One of her sisters gave her the middle name “Owaissa,” which is a Norridgewock Amerindian word meaning “bluebird.” When she was 17, two of her teachers urged her to enter a contest on Gateway to Hollywood, which was supervised by Jesse Lasky, Sr., and broadcast from the CBS Radio studios in Hollywood, California. The first prize was a one-year contract with a movie studio. She won and was immediately given the stage name Gale Storm. All four of her children appeared on her hit sitcoms. Her performing partner and future husband, Lee Bonnell (from South Bend, Indiana), became known as Terry Belmont, who had also at one point won the Gateway to Hollywood competition, which is how he got his name (although he has been periodically billed as Lee Bonnell). On September 28, 1970, Gale appeared on The Merv Griffin Show, and talked about how her husband changed his name to Lee from Terry, the latter of which she said, “wasn’t a strong name for a man.” She made a few successful B movies including Where Are The Children? (1943) and The Kid from Texas (1950), and she was best known in westerns as Roy Rogers’ leading lady. For a short but popular recording career, she had several hit songs like “Dark Moon,” “Memories Are Made of This,” and “Ivory Tower.” She also recorded covers of Smiley Lewis’s R&B hit, “I Hear Your Knockin’” and Frankie Lymond’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Throughout it all, she battled and won a bout with alcoholism, and became an outspoken and committed lecturer in helping to remove the stigma attached to alcoholism, particularly as it applied to women.
“My successes have certainly not been without problems. During the 1970s I experienced a terribly low and painful time of dealing with alcoholism.”
“I found myself needing a drink when I woke up in the morning. So I had a drink before breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. It just got away from me. Before I knew it, I was drinking all the time.”
“[Medical] tests showed that my liver had become enlarged to three or four times its normal size. I looked as though I were six months pregnant. [The] tests proved that I was drinking myself to death.”
Demise: June 27, 2009 — in Danville California from natural causes.
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This article is an edited excerpt from the book, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR: TELEVISION’S ICONIC WOMEN FROM THE ’50s, ’60s, AND ’70s. For more information, please visit www.HerbieJPilato.com.