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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

For a Star-Struck Kid, a Lifetime to Remember

March 29, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

I watched the Oscars to watch the women. Radiant and ravishing women. Absolutely fabulous women. Women I had seen on a silver screen and always wanted to know.

Women such as Fay Wray, 90, star of "King Kong," who made her first film in 1919. She was there Monday night.

And so was Luise Rainer, 88, who won an Academy Award twice, for "The Great Ziegfeld" and "The Good Earth."

And so was Gloria Stuart, 87, who was up for one for "Titanic."

And so was Celeste Holm, who won one 50 years ago, practically to the day, for "Gentleman's Agreement."

And so were Jennifer Jones, and Eva Marie Saint, and that Shirley Temple kid. (She's the youngest of the women I've mentioned.) They were all up on stage six nights ago at the Shrine.

Still a bunch of 20th century foxes.

I watched with delight. Any one of them could have played the Rose role in "Titanic." A couple were old enough to have been on the Titanic.

This was my favorite part of Oscar night.

My least favorite? It's the same every year. It's when they scroll the names of Hollywood personalities who have recently passed away.

I watched film roll of Lloyd Bridges, Burgess Meredith, Billie Dove, Robert Mitchum, Jimmy Stewart. . . .

Billie Dove, Billie Dove . . . hmmm, now there was one I didn't know a thing about.

*

Hal Riddle has a cottage at the lovely Motion Picture and Television Fund Country House and Hospital, a retirement home and care facility in Woodland Hills.

The walls of his living room are lined with artifacts from Riddle's career as an actor, a photo autographed by Gable, a letter signed by Garbo, a few 8-x-10 glossies.

"I became a movie fan by 1929, when I was 9," Hal says. "I went to see a picture called 'Adoration.' "

It was aptly named.

"It was quite an adult movie for someone of my age to see. And when I came home, I said, 'Mother, I'm in love.' "

Hal's mother thought he meant in love with some local schoolgirl.

"That's nice," she said. "Who?"

"Billie Dove," said her son.

At their old Kentucky home, planet Hollywood couldn't have seemed farther away. Hal couldn't help how he felt, though. He found a Photoplay magazine that listed studio addresses. He sat down and wrote Billie Dove a letter.

The studio sent back a 5-x-11 photo.

He doubted the actress ever saw his letter, but it was his first movie star picture. He began to follow Billie Dove's career. He read of her love affair with Howard Hughes. He learned of her background as a Ziegfeld showgirl, and of the 49 films she made, mainly silents.

"Blondie of the Follies" (1932) was the last. She co-starred with Marion Davies but, as the story goes, William Randolph Hearst used his influence to weaken Dove's part and beef up that of his protegee, Davies.

Fed up, Billie Dove retired at 32.

Hal Riddle had little idea what became of his idol, other than that she was married in Los Angeles to someone not in the industry. Meanwhile, moving out here to begin a career of his own, Riddle got small parts in films with Dean Martin, Vincent Price, Andy Griffith and, much later, Michael Keaton, before gradually settling into his own retirement.

All those years later, he still couldn't stop talking about his lifelong love, Billie Dove.

A secretary at the MPTF home overheard.

"Did you know she's here?"

Hal couldn't believe what he just heard.

He was asked: "Would you like to meet her?"

*

Every day. That's how often they saw each other after that.

"I took care of her, any way I could. She was very weak, in a wheelchair, very tiny, very frail. She'd had a mild stroke. I even took care of her fan mail. She still got fan mail."

Like the one from that kid in Kentucky.

Hal did take a trip to Alaska a few months ago. Chilled from a cold, Billie told him, "Don't stay away too long."

Upon returning, he found out that Billie's cold had turned into pneumonia. Hal sat with her, squeezed her hand. The hospital ran a film on New Year's Eve night. Hal watched it. Right around the time it was over, Billie died.

Her face appeared on TV on Oscar night. I asked Hal the next day, "Did you see it?"

"Didn't she look beautiful?" he asked.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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