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Gale Storm dies at 87; star of '50s sitcoms

The actress came to Hollywood as a finalist in a national talent contest, then appeared in numerous movies before starring on TV in the popular 'My Little Margie' and 'The Gale Storm Show.'

June 29, 2009|Dennis McLellan

Gale Storm, who shot to the top on television as the vivacious star of two popular 1950s situation comedies, "My Little Margie" and "The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna," has died. She was 87.

Storm, who also had a successful recording career during her TV heyday, died Saturday of natural causes at a convalescent hospital in the Northern California community of Danville, according to her son Peter Bonnell.

A summer replacement for "I Love Lucy," "My Little Margie" ran from 1952 to 1955, with Storm starring as the plucky young Margie Albright and Charles Farrell as her widower father, Vern. Although critics generally panned "My Little Margie" as a lightweight farce, the public fell in love with the mischievous Margie. A 1953 poll of the most popular TV stars listed Storm at No. 2, behind TV comedy queen Lucille Ball.

After "My Little Margie" ended, Storm starred in "The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna," in which she played social director Susanna Pomeroy aboard the luxury liner the SS Ocean Queen. The situation comedy, featuring Zasu Pitts as the ship's flighty beautician Elvira "Nugey" Nugent and Roy Roberts as Capt. Huxley, ran from 1956 to 1960.

Storm was a pert and pretty 17-year-old Houston, Texas, high school senior named Josephine Cottle when she arrived in Hollywood in late 1939 as a finalist in the nationwide "Gateway to Hollywood" talent contest.

Born on April 5, 1922, in Bloomington, Texas, the auburn-haired Storm had played the leads in numerous plays and musicals in school, but two of her teachers had to push her to enter the "Gateway" competition.

The winning actor and actress were promised contracts with RKO Studios and guaranteed a role in a major motion picture. And, as Hollywood tradition dictated, they would be given new, marquee-suitable names.

During the elimination period in Hollywood, the male and female finalists acted in scenes broadcast live Sundays over CBS Radio, with the home audience spurred to tune in the following week to find out:

"Who will be Terry Belmont?"

"Who will be Gale Storm?"

If young Josephine Cottle was Cinderella, her Prince Charming was her male co-winner, the newly christened Terry Belmont: Lee Bonnell, a handsome Indiana University drama student from South Bend, Ind.

In 1941, Storm married Bonnell, who became an insurance executive after a short-lived film career. Their marriage lasted until Bonnell's death in 1986 and produced three sons and a daughter.

Beginning with "Tom Brown's School Days" in 1940, Storm appeared in 36 movies during the next dozen years. Dropped by RKO after six months and two pictures, she appeared in a variety of B-movies at Republic, Monogram, Allied Artists and Universal.

Among her film credits, which included musical comedies, film noir dramas and westerns (three with Roy Rogers), are starring roles in films such as "Freckles Comes Home," "Where Are Your Children?," "Campus Rhythm," "G.I. Honeymoon," "Sunbonnet Sue," "Swing Parade of 1946," and "It Happened on 5th Avenue."

But by the early '50s, her movie career was in a slump and she was resigned to devoting herself to her family full time when she received a call from producer Hal Roach Jr., who wanted her for the lead in a proposed TV series, "My Little Margie."

Her success with "My Little Margie" -- and a radio version with original episodes -- led to her being approached to do a nightclub act in Las Vegas during the summers of 1953 and 1954. After hearing Storm sing on one live TV show, Dot Records signed her to a contract.

Her first record, the rhythm and blues song "I Hear You Knocking," soared to No. 2 on the Billboard chart in 1955. Other Top 20 hits followed, including "Teenage Prayer," "Memories Are Made of This," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?," "Ivory Tower" and "Dark Moon."

Storm, who received three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame recognizing her work in TV, radio and recordings, saw her career decline dramatically after her second series ended in 1960.

"My whole life has been a pattern of success," Storm told The Times in 1981. "So many marvelous things that I would never even have dreamt of wishing for [have] happened to me."

But there also was an unexpected downside.

In 1980, she returned to the limelight as the commercial spokeswoman for Raleigh Hills Hospital, the now-defunct alcohol treatment chain where she had been treated for a serious bout with alcoholism.

Alcoholism, she told The Times in 1988, "is a disease of denial. I had been the kind of alcoholic -- as so many women are -- that I was so careful. You talk about a secret drinker."

She had been in and out of a number of hospitals before she heard of Raleigh Hills.

In 1979, she underwent detoxification at Raleigh Hills Hospital in Oxnard, followed by its aversion therapy and counseling program. Afterward, she said, she never craved alcohol again.

Through it all, she said, her husband offered his support. "It was absolutely a great marriage," she said.

In 1988, two years after Bonnell's death, Storm married retired ABC executive Paul Masterson, a widower whom she met through a mutual friend. Masterson died in 1996.

In addition to her son Peter, she is survived by sons Phillip and Paul and daughter Susanna Harrigan. She is also survived by eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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latimes.com/obituaries

Recent obituaries and accompanying photo galleries are on The Times' website.

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