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In Search of he Last Starlet : One fan's quest for the mysterious Carol Ohmart

In 1955, Paramount Pictures heralded a willowy woman named Carol Ohmart as its future star. Smitten, and with her encouragement, Gregg Barrios, then 12, began a Carol Ohmart Fan Club. By late 1957, however, the fan club was out of business--Ohmart had been quickly used up by a studio star system in final decline. She gave her last interview in 1973, and then virtually disappeared--her whereabouts unknown to her relatives and even to her possessive mother. Last year, curious about what had happened to her, Barrios--a Los Angeles English teacher, film journalist and longtime Calendar contributor--began searching for Hollywood's Last Starlet. He found more than he ever expected. This is the first of his two articles. Next week: The writer receives a mysterious phone call--and the trail leads to Carol Ohmart.

January 01, 1989|GREGG BARRIOS

"Carol Ohmart is a star and anyone who refers to her as a starlet is fired immediately!"

--Y. Frank Freeman, Paramount president, 1955 memo

A few weeks ago, already deep into research for this article, I sat down with a bowl of popcorn to watch an exploitation cheapie called "Naked Youth." It's part of Rhino Video's Teen-Age Theater Series of unintentionally campy teen movies from the low-low-budget past. Right after the title appeared, I sat up abruptly, nearly dumping my popcorn--caught off guard by the words: Starring Carol Ohmart.

I was certain that I knew of all 10 of her movies--and "Naked Youth" wasn't among them. The former Miss Utah of 1946 had gone on to a modeling career (posing at age 19 as the prototype for the Copper Calhoon character in the Steve Canyon comic strip), before top-lining in such pictures as "The Scarlet Hour," "The Wild Party" and "House on Haunted Hill."

But "Naked Youth"--I'd never heard of it. Ohmart's name wasn't on the videocassette cover. Instead, it pictured Mamie Van Doren, one-time Queen of B movies, who is the hostess for the series.

As "Naked Youth" unfolded in grainy black-and-white, it turned out to be an abridged (one-hour) version of a cheesy full-length film originally released in 1959 as "Wild Youth." Ohmart starred as a sex-crazed junkie.

The irony of stumbling across an old Ohmart movie--severely truncated, sold for laughs on a video shelf, its star unworthy of mention on the cover--hardly escaped me. In the context of the story I was putting together, it was the final insult, telling evidence of how far she had fallen into obscurity.

In 1955, four years before "Wild Youth," Ohmart had been Hollywood's hottest discovery, selected and groomed by Paramount Pictures as its answer to Marilyn Monroe. The studio signed the unknown beauty to a long-term contract, launching a then-hefty $2-million publicity campaign to transform her into an instant star.

I was 12 that year, living in my hometown of Victoria, Tex. With a population then of about 25,000, we had two first-run theaters--the Uptown and the El Rancho. My father, a photographer, occasionally moonlighted as a projectionist, so I grew up watching movies for free--star-struck.

With Ohmart hoopla building, I happened on a Life magazine photo of her buried--up to her chest--in the Malibu sand. Weaned on fan magazines, I knew she'd be a star. Intrigued, I wrote to her, requesting an autographed photo and information about joining her fan club. Instead, her mother Merl replied, authorizing me to begin a fan club in Victoria!

Our club eventually grew to be nationwide, before sputtering out in late 1957, when our heroine was very nearly a has-been at 30.

Her brief career outlasted my pubescent fascination; within a few years, I'd pretty much forgotten about her.

Then, last spring, I happened across a lengthy reference to Ohmart in "Who's Who in Hollywood, 1900-1976." According to the profile, she dropped out of the Hollywood scene in 1967, giving away her possessions, living meagerly and searching for a higher truth in God. She was dedicated only to her studies of Jesus, Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius. If friends located her, she would move. Maintaining a Beverly Hills mailing address, she eventually went back to Salt Lake City, where she continued her religious studies and acquired a doctorate in metaphysics from the Church of Divine Consciousness.

My curiosity was piqued. What had become of her since 1976?

The Old Scrapbook

Calls to the Screen Actors Guild, veteran trade paper reporters and her old phone numbers proved futile. Paramount executives from her era were either dead or long retired. A check of Ohmarts in the Salt Lake directory turned up nothing.

I pulled out my musty "Ohmartians" fan scrapbook of news clippings. On April 12, 1956, the Salt Lake City newspapers covered her as if she were royalty when she returned home for the world premiere of her first movie, "The Scarlet Hour." The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Paramount had flown her in and put up their statuesque star at the elegant Hotel Utah. She rode in an open convertible past cheering throngs to the Capitol Theater, where an explosion of flashbulbs greeted her.

In one yellowing clipping, I found a lead: A small paragraph about a reception at the home of a cousin, Claudia Atkinson.

Atkinson, one of the last descendants of a pioneer Mormon family, was listed in the directory. I reached her by phone and explained that I was trying to locate Carol.

There was a long pause. Then: "We're wondering what happened to her, too. She's been missing for 10 years."

Through Atkinson--and trunks full of Ohmart memorabilia, correspondence and personal belongings that Atkinson had kept, locked, in her garage for years--I began putting together the puzzle of Ohmart's life.

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