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'Little Mary Sunshine' Is Still Smiling

December 09, 2001|JANET WISCOMBE

Four score and five years ago, a precocious little girl with a bob of curls ruled the silent screen. Her name was "Baby Marie" Osborne, and there couldn't have been many directors who weren't disarmed by her presence and comedic gifts. Between 1915 and 1917, the young star of "Little Mary Sunshine" and other projects was a top attraction at the Balboa Studios in Long Beach, then the world's largest maker of motion pictures. Today, Marie Osborne Yeats is a charismatic woman of strong opinions and ladylike grace who looks back on her 30-film acting career with amused detachment. The San Clemente resident was honored in September with a 90th birthday soiree aboard the Queen Mary during the Long Beach International Film Festival.

Are you a California native?

I was [taken out of] the Colorado state home for dependent children when I was about 3 months old. My foster father managed a five-cent theater in Colorado Springs. I don't quite know why my foster parents went to California.

How were you "discovered?"

My foster parents had some very small contracts at the Balboa Studios, and they had a wild animal show. We had an ocelot, a monkey and a fox, I think. Mr. [director Henry] King needed a boy actor very quickly for "Maid of the Wild." I was there, and I had a Dutch bob so they dressed me up as a boy. Our bear was [later] in "Little Mary Sunshine." At one point you earned $300 a week when the average American was making about $1,000 a year.

There was a trust fund, but I never seemed to have received anything. It doesn't matter. My foster mother bought me beautiful clothes. They had a nice life while it went on. They were divorced when I was maybe 7 or 8. I went back and forth between them. Then I lived with my foster father.

Did you quit acting?

Yes. I got married at 19 and had my daughter [Joan, who lives in San Clemente also]. I was much too young. We got a divorce. I worked as an extra with [the agency] Central Casting and then I started working in costumes, first as a gofer. I became a costume supervisor and I worked with Jane Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor--so many extraordinary people. I worked on "The Godfather Part II," "The Way We Were," "Cleopatra." I must be frank with you: I much preferred it to acting. I've had a fascinating, wonderful life.

What do you most enjoy these days?

I'm a voracious reader. I'm very interested in politics. Recently I've been looking things up on Islam. I have been devastated by what's going on in the world. I still can't believe it. I'm a Roman Catholic, and I also have quite a library of spiritual books. I love my home. I love my cats. I belong to the Sierra Club. I'm an environmentalist. My only problem is that I can't see well enough to put my makeup on!

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