I first met Dorey Claire on the Mascot lot—before they got merged with Republic. They were shooting a bunch of shorts with a band-in-the-park theme and were using lots of kid actors. Even then they held school every day. I taught grammar, history and civics; this other lady did the math and geometry, such as it was.
The way you teach depends on how many you've got around on a given shoot. Then—it might have been 1935—we were still going in a trailer that they towed around to the sets and locations. I sat at the front of the class and the kids showed up all day until six in the evening. This particular series had forty kids from seven to twelve. There were some toddlers but they went to the nursery if they stuck around at all.
These films were five minutes long. They'd show one or two of them between Rin Tin Tin and Flash Gordon. Anyway, the plot was the same: the kids somehow get to singing with the band, or playing instruments and dancing. You just had time for an intro, some funny business and then the musical part.
There's no art to this. It's like an assembly line. They get four little boys and show them a bit where they pretend to play the harmonica for maybe fifteen seconds. Next they film them one after another doing the harmonica bit. Next they need some girl to dance a few moments as the band starts up. A bunch of girls do a beat-riff-and-whirl; they shoot that and it's on to the next scene in the book. In the end the director picks the best of it and they patch together a movie.
Dorey was one of the girls there. She must have been eight or nine, though she looked younger. By that time she had already been around the block. She was a Meglin Kiddie and they came out of there knowing their biscuits. Before they ever hit a studio they would do weekend matinees at the big houses. Anyway, the series was to have featured a boy and another girl, I forget their names now—but they chose Dorey instead because of her dancing.
It was a tough set of shots. The script called for a little girl to come into a party at a hotel and rush across this big dance floor to tell her father that the dog's run away. She's got this whole retinue of kids behind her. They rush the floor, upset waiters, the whole bit. The bandleader sees the chaos and starts a jazz tune while a spotlight hits the girl. She of course just has to jump into this tap routine. The floor clears and everybody watches. You get about thirty seconds of Dorey doing some really fast stepping. At the end she does this series of high kicks at a line of balloons—she's got to move sideways and it's really something to see. Anyway, Joe Norton shot it four or five times because Dorey couldn't keep her leg straight for the kicks. Between takes Dorey went back to class and told me "I can't hit the balloons right in those shoes—I keep slipping!" The floor was polished like a mirror and it was the first time she had ever danced in 'adult' tap heels.
They let it go for the day and when the rushes came next morning they saw it was great stuff. Dorey would get her kick about halfway up bent-leg and then wham, straighten out and hit the balloon. It made the film.
It's a hard business. They used those kids up like chewing gum. By the time they got to studio work they were like little machines. It was all 'Okay now, take one--Dance! Sing! Cry!' and they did or it was out the door. It was the Depression and most of these kids were supporting whole families.
Her real name was Ruth James. It would have been a nice name to keep but some agent picked another out of the phone book. One of my rules was that you could use your old 'real' name in class. The studio didn't like that but it gave the kids something to hold in a place where they didn't even own their socks and had to go around all day taking orders. When they had a real tough scene to shoot the director would shout at the kid "What's your name?" and she'd have to shout back "My name is Dorey Claire!" I guess it put them into character but it just seemed harsh to me.
Dorey's agent got her over to Warner's and Paramount for a look when she was about eleven. They had her read and sing for a lot of parts but nothing came of it. She did work for the Poverty Row studios— I taught her for half a year at Cheshire, which was run by Hal Gomel. They put her into stuff that was just not good. I was teaching an English class one day and she came in off the set wearing a big sweatshirt that went down to her knees. She had all this makeup on, just like a showgirl, and believe it or not, fishnet stockings. I think she was in sixth grade. I asked her the role and she said "I'm Leigh, the cigarette girl." There wasn't a single other kid in the movie. Dorey's part got cut out after the Production Code man saw the rough, and she ought to have been glad.
Her mother was furious. Another of my rules was that parents didn't come into the classroom except in emergencies—just like a regular school. Mrs. James tried to barge in and I barged her right back out again. Even so she rattled the poor girl all the time. Took her out between the trailers and gave her misery over the slightest thing or nothing.
When Dorey got tired or beat down she used to curl up on a couch we had and read books about horses, especially Black Beauty. She carried a copy with her whose covers were practically in tatters. Other kids would go outside and play cards or shoot craps for bottle caps. Dorey read Black Beauty.
Cheshire folded into thin air and none of their contracts were paid off. I know because they bounced a couple of my checks and I had to take them to small claims for the money. Dorey did some radio work around town—she had a pretty good range and could sing if the script called for it. But there was no movie work. Her mother marched her around the lots but it was the same with all the others: they're kid actors because they look like kids; once they don't look like that it's over, and almost none of them jump the gap to the adult films. But you know what they say—it's never over until your agent drops you. Christmas of '42 I saw her dance a routine at a bond rally over to Paramount, but by then she was only getting low scale and was standing in line for every job. We talked and she told me there was a chance she would act in a war film directed by Lem Polk—something about guerrillas in the mountains of Luzon. She was barely sixteen and it came through.
The script called for a missionary's daughter to get caught up in the war and trapped with a bunch of guys fighting the Japs—some U.S. soldiers, Filipinos, navy nurses and all that. They shot it in Griffith Park and at the Narrows in El Monte near the river. They finished in two weeks and it was in the cans when another couple of studios did about the same thing and they never released it—at least not in America.
I never saw or heard of her on a studio lot after that. I wouldn't have even if she were working because she was old enough to skip school. I would guess she got work in some defense plant and rode out the war like that—lot of them did with Lockheed right there in Burbank and the others close by.
One day I was teaching some stage kids at the Pantages and this grip I knew from long back mentioned something about Dorey. He said there was some trouble on the location of that Luzon movie. Some mules and horses drowned in the river. Dorey got sideways with the director and that was it—they shot her scenes over with another girl.
But that's not where I was going. After I married Hal he was writing westerns for Republic when the fingers got pointed and everything fell apart. We rented out the place here and went to Mexico for ten years. I got pregnant and we snuck back to have Rudy. Hal got work again and we moved back into the old place, you know? But it wasn't the same. I couldn't get back on the book for studio teaching and got with the high school which was just as good if not as interesting. I mean, no Judy Garlands in your class but the checks never bounced.
Anyway, last year we got invited to a friend's retirement party up at some guy's house way above Burbank. You remember that rain—all through February night and day. Well, we got lost on the way up and it's so posh there aren't any damned signs. Hal spun the car around to go home and our headlights lit up this horse—big brown monster with somebody riding. The rider got off and said to me "You're looking for Gracie Evans' house. It's about two hundred feet along this street. Turn left at the oak." And you know what? It was Dorey. Same voice exactly, no taller, soaking wet out there in the pouring rain. I'm sure she didn't recognize me—my hair's gone gray. Anyway, Gracie told me that there's a Ruth James lives in the shed up around there and runs a little stable. Keeps to herself, always.