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Shirley Jean Rickert, 1926 - 2009

Child star of 'Our Gang' films

February 12, 2009|Dennis McLellan

Shirley Jean Rickert, a former child actress who was the cute little blond with the spit curls in "Our Gang" comedies in the early 1930s and later became a long-haired burlesque stripper known as Gilda and Her Crowning Glory, has died. She was 82.

Rickert, who in recent decades went by her married name of Measures, died Friday after a long illness in a nursing home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said her daughter, Melody Kennedy.

Born in Seattle on March 25, 1926, Rickert won a local baby beauty contest when she was 18 months old. Her mother, confident she had a budding star on her hands, eventually moved the family to Hollywood.

Rickert was 4 when she went for an interview for a part in an "Our Gang" comedy short at the Hal Roach Studios.

She was in five "Our Gang" comedies in 1931, appearing with Jackie Cooper, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Norman "Chubby" Chaney and other pre-Spanky and Alfalfa gang members.

They were all "just kids playing together," Rickert told the Albany Times Union in 1999.

"We had fun," she said. "The mothers on the other hand, were awful. Stage mothers are just vile women, including my own."

Stardom, she said, was her mother's dream, "but it wasn't mine."

She left the "Our Gang" troupe to do the competing Mickey McGuire comedy series starring Mickey Rooney.

Playing Tomboy Taylor, Rickert appeared in five of the McGuire comedies in 1933 and '34.

She also donned a black wig to play a young half-Indian oil heiress in the 1934 John Wayne B-western " 'Neath the Arizona Skies."

But stardom eluded her.

She spent the rest of the '30s playing bit parts. And in the '40s and early '50s, she was an uncredited dancer in a number of movie musicals, including the MGM classics "Royal Wedding" and "Singin' in the Rain."

Rickert then became a burlesque dancer.

With flowing blond hair down to her waist, she was dubbed Gilda and Her Crowning Glory by her manager. She performed in burlesque theaters and nightclubs across the United States and Canada in the 1950s.

When the old "Our Gang" comedies resurfaced in television syndication in the mid-'50s as "The Little Rascals," Rickert found that her "Our Gang" stint gave her a certain off-stage cachet.

As she later wrote in response to an e-mail from a Detroit fan to her website: "Detroit was one of the towns where I would appear on a kiddie TV show on Saturday morning as Shirley Jean of the Our Gang/Little Rascals and disrobe on stage at night for the little kiddies' parents."

But stripping then was much different than today, she told the Albany Times Union in 2005.

"I see more flesh in television commercials today than I used to see in burlesque," she said.

After quitting burlesque in 1959, Rickert worked a variety of jobs, including bartender, secretary and sales director for a regional theater in Springfield, Mass.

While living in Connecticut in the mid-'70s, she launched a long career as a traveling industrial hardware saleswoman, for whom her "Our Gang" tenure proved to be an ideal entree for making sales.

"I walk in, and they say, 'Not another nuts and bolts salesman,' " she told the Associated Press in 1993. "And then I open my sales folder and show them an 8-by-10 of me in 'Our Gang.' I say, 'You grew up with me.' Then they do a 360."

But, she said: "That was way back then, and this is now." She was, she said, "very happy with my life the way it is."

In addition to her daughter, the twice-divorced Rickert is survived by two grandsons and two great-grandchildren.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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