Jean Parker, Stage and Film Actress, Is Dead at 90

Obituaries   Jean Parker, Stage and Film Actress, Is Dead at 90
 
Jean Parker, who followed Judy Holliday into the role of Billie Dawn in the Broadway hit comedy Born Yesterday, died Nov. 30 in Los Angeles at the age of 90. The cause was complications of a stroke, the Associated Press reported.
Jean Parker (left) and Bert Lahr in Burlesque.
Jean Parker (left) and Bert Lahr in Burlesque.

Ms. Parker was the third actress to play the dim-witted, but savvy Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin's multi-year-hit comedy, after Holliday and Jan Sterling. She stayed in the role a year, from late 1948 to late 1949. By then, the petite, pretty brunette had enjoyed a long film career, making her first screen appearance in 1932. She faced all three Barrymore siblings in a bit part in "Rasputin and the Empress" in 1933, played Beth March in 1933's "Little Women," appeared in Frank Capra's "Lady for a Day" the same year, and acted with Marion Davies in "Operator 13."

She had a starring role in the woodland animal drama "Sequoia" in 1934, and starred opposite Robert Donat in the hit 1935 comedy "The Ghost Goes West." She also headlined in "Bluebeard," a 1944 film by the cult auteur Edgar G. Ulmer. Six decades later, footage from the film was included in the 2004 documentary "Edgar G. Ulmer—The Man Off-Screen."

Jean Harris made her Broadway debut in 1946, playing the title character in the Jed Harris-directed comedy Loco. The show ran only 37 performances. She had better luck with Burlesque later that same year. Directed by Arthur Hopkins, the comedy, which starred Bert Lahr, ran for well over a year.

Lahr called her "a fine comedienne and a fine little actress." In his biography of his father, John Lahr relates a Burlesque anecdote about Ms. Parker. One performance, she went on while suffering from a cold that prevented her from hearing the orchestra. Frustrated during a dramatic song in the second act, she stopped and looked down into the orchestra pit and asked, "Where is everybody?"

Ms. Parker was born Louise Stephanie Zelinska in Deer Lodge, Montana. Her entry into films smacks of the tall tales then churned out by the Hollywood publicity machine. Her family having moved to Pasadena, she entered a poster-painting contest. Her winning image, of Father Time, was exhibited along with her photograph at that year's Tournament of Roses Parade. Ida Koverman, Louis B. Mayer's personal assistant, is said to have seen the photo and recommended Ms. Parker for a movie contract. Jean Parker was married four times, to George McDonald, Douglas Dawson, Curtis Grower and Robert Lowery. All the unions ended in divorce. The final one, to Lowery, produced one child, Robert Lowery Hanks, who survives her. (Robert Lowery's real last name was Hanks.) Her final film appearance was in 1966. According to the AP, the actress was known as a recluse during the final years of her life.

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