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June Allyson, 88; Film Sweetheart GIs Pined For

July 11, 2006|Claudia Luther | Special to The Times

Actress June Allyson, the perky blond with the husky voice who was one of Hollywood's most beloved stars in the 1940s and 1950s, has died. She was 88.

Allyson died Saturday at her home in Ojai of pulmonary respiratory failure and acute bronchitis after a long illness, her daughter, Pamela Powell, told The Times on Monday. David Ashrow, Allyson's husband of 29 years, was at her side.

"She was a joy to know," actress Ann Rutherford, who met Allyson at MGM in the 1940s, said Monday. "She was a wonderful actress and just confronted her life with vast enthusiasm."

Aquatic film star Esther Williams, another MGM colleague, said: "Junie and I were wonderful friends. It was a wonderful relationship. Whenever we did a movie we'd trade scripts and talk about it and see if there was a way to make it more interesting. She was a very special little lady. Very strong; people didn't know that."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 13, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Allyson obituary: A photo caption accompanying the obituary of actress June Allyson in Tuesday's California section said the film "The Glenn Miller Story" was released in 1953. It was released in 1954.

Allyson rose from teenage chorus girl on Broadway to contract player for MGM. She began in Hollywood as a dancer and singer in short films. She later co-starred with Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson and Dick Powell in a series of wifely and other supportive roles. Powell became her real-life husband in 1945; he died in 1963.

Petite at barely 5 foot 1 and weighing less than 100 pounds, she was everybody's sweetheart. As Ginger Rogers once said of her, "She's the girl every man wants to marry and the girl every woman wants as a friend."

Her simple, blond pageboy, Peter Pan collars and no-nonsense manner stamped her as the all-American girl next door, the woman millions of GIs wanted to come home to. She was consistently voted a top star by movie magazines and box office surveys.

Among her more well-known movies were her breakthrough film, "Two Girls and a Sailor," in which she co-starred with Johnson and Gloria DeHaven; the 1949 remake of "Little Women," playing the tomboy Jo; and three movies with Stewart: "The Stratton Story," "The Glenn Miller Story" and "Strategic Air Command."

After she married Powell and had two children, Allyson made a few films and TV movies and had her own TV show, an anthology series, from 1959 to 1961.

After his death, she continued working in films and appeared on Broadway, succeeding Julie Harris in "40 Carats." She also appeared on many television programs, with guest spots on CBS' "The Judy Garland Show" and roles in several series.

But life was not easy for Allyson after Powell's death. Talking to CNN's Larry King in 2001 about what she called her "tunnel years," Allyson said, "I just locked myself away and -- I found the bottle."

She married and divorced Powell's barber -- twice. She said she felt her ties to the "good life" were unraveling.

She credited Ashrow, a dentist turned actor whom she married in 1976, with helping her to turn her life around.

Drinking and some relationship troubles hardly represented the good-girl image of Allyson that was fostered throughout her career both by her own sunny personality and the Hollywood publicity machine.

Although Allyson gave various birth dates for herself over the years, her daughter, in Santa Monica, said she was born Oct. 7, 1917. For 13 years, Allyson's studio biography also stated that she was born "Jan Allyson" to French-English parents. But her daughter said Allyson was born Eleanor Geisman to a French mother and Dutch father.

Allyson wrote in her autobiography that a choreographer for "Sing Out the News," her first Broadway show, decided she needed a new name, although she told CNN's King that "actually, it was George Abbott," the famed Broadway director.

She said Abbott liked the name June because it was "kind of sunny," and she picked Allison, which was a family name, and changed the spelling slightly.

Once in Hollywood, the spunky Allyson was buoyed by her ability to form close friendships.

Among those who befriended her were Lucille Ball, who was the star of the 1943 film version of "Best Foot Forward," and Mickey Rooney and Garland, who were the stars of "Girl Crazy," in which Allyson had a specialty number.

Getting a foothold in Hollywood was not easy for Allyson, whom MGM movie chief Louis B. Mayer and others considered not conventionally beautiful. And although she got into films as a Broadway singer and dancer, Allyson was the first to say she was not particularly good at either.

It was Ball, who also starred in the 1944 film "Meet the People," in which Allyson had a role, who counseled the discouraged Allyson not to give up on Hollywood.

"You're here now, and you're going to stay," Ball said, according to Allyson's autobiography.

Allyson's next film was "Two Girls and a Sailor," a musical that made her a star.

Eleanor Geisman was born in the Bronx into a rocky family situation. At age 8, she was seriously injured when a tree fell on her while she rode her bicycle. The cost of her medical care and physical therapy impoverished a family that was already desperate after the father had left.

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