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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

Studio President Y. Frank Freeman sat next to the guest of honor. He rose and spoke in his soft Southern drawl: words later quoted in Daily Variety: "As someone with 25 years' experience in the motion-picture business, I ask you to be humble and remain humble. Not every star has done this. Remember that when entering the movie business, you stop living for yourself alone. You now represent a great industry and your actions can either enhance or hurt its reputation."

"The important thing is to realize that you can't become a star alone. You need the help of all the people you will be working with. You have a great chance and we're all behind you."

The studio commissary introduced the Carol Ohmart Luncheon: A ripe banana, sliced cucumber, raw carrot curls, a sliced raw potato, celery sticks, one-half bell pepper, zwieback bread, fresh pomegranate juice, unsalted almonds, and a slice of Italian white cheese. Price: $1.50.

Army Archerd, the columnist for Daily Variety, couldn't believe that Ohmart actually ate raw potatoes. So he dined with her and watched as she polished one off, telling him she was "a food faddist."

A full-page photo of the actress appeared in the Hollywood trade papers with the announcement: "Carol Ohmart, now before Paramount's VistaVision cameras in 'The Scarlet Hour,' under the direction of veteran star-maker Michael Curtiz, is arousing the kind of excitement that comes once in a decade. Paramount feels that she is destined for stardom."

Ohmart cutouts began appearing in theater lobbies around the world. Carol Ohmart bowling teams were formed in New York and L.A. Fan magazines churned out stories on the lucky starlet.

Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons nominated her for stardom. Hedda Hopper wanted Ohmart's last name changed to Omar. James Bacon, then an Associated Press writer, dubbed her "a female Brando." Life edged out Newsweek by a week to publish a major story on her.

The Times featured her front page photo with a new registered orchid strain named after her--Cymbidium Carol Ohmart. Orchid authority E. E. Hetherington predicted it would make Ohmart's name immortal. (He was right: Hetherington recently confirmed that the Ohmart strain still exists around the world.)

In describing the image he wanted for Ohmart, director Michael Curtiz, who had directed the heralded "Casablanca," instructed legendary designer Edith Head: "I want you to think of her as a female tiger recently out of the jungle."

In 1955, by the time I had received Merl's first letter, authorizing the fan club, she was living at a rundown apartment complex in Santa Monica. Her letters--written on impressive pink stationery lifted from the posh Lady Windemere Hotel--were filled with tips on how to run the fan club. Once, she also confided her own dream to be a beauty consultant to the stars. I learned later that she was attending daily beautician classes in Hollywood.

She also revealed that as a young woman, she had wanted a great spirit to enter her body to create a perfect child. Carol was God's answer.

But Merl also feared losing control over her. She was known to call Ohmart's business contacts, pretending to be her daughter. She forged Carol's signature to letters, even sneaked into her daughter's apartment to make or break Ohmart's appointments without her knowledge. Later, during Ohmart's marriage to TV star Wayde Preston, Merl tried to spread the idea that Preston had been a baby boy Merl had given away--insinuating that Ohmart had unknowingly married her own brother.

"Carol Ohmart's career is zooming with incredible speed--even greater speed than I, who first mentioned her potentialities, believed possible," Louella Parsons clucked in her column in February, 1956.

Hedda Hopper tooted: "(Producer) Sidney Harmon wires that he's succeeded in borrowing Paramount's Carol Ohmart for 'Step Down to Terror' (later released as "Wild Party"). She'll be co-starred with Anthony Quinn, Jay Robinson and Kathryn Grant. Carol will play a thrill-seeking socialite who is held prisoner by Quinn until she agrees to a Mexican elopement."

In April, "Scarlet Hour" opened at the RKO Pantages to lukewarm reviews.

Herald-Express critic David Bongard wrote: "Carol Ohmart is the sultry boss's wife. She has an amazing physical resemblance, in some angles, to Barbara Stanwyck."

"Obviously she's Curtiz's Galatea in the acting field. If the material weren't so childish and over-dramatic, she might have made a bull's-eye with this. She soon might be capable of the stuff of a Stanwyck or a Bette Davis."

But this would be her first and last film for Paramount.

United Artists "Wild Party" premiered at the World Theater in New York on Dec. 21, 1956. Hollywood Reporter reviewer James Powers praised the film: "It is not a pleasant picture, but it is an absorbing one. The script and the dialogue are remarkably good; the names--Anthony Quinn, Carol Ohmart, Arthur Franz--are attractive, and for once names deliver solidly."

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