Recalling Twin Cities show biz stars

Archival photo Menominee native Doris Packer (right) is seen in this episode of the television show “Leave it to Beaver” with an unknown actress. Packer, who appeared in movies, plays and television, may be remembered as “Mrs. Cornelia Ray-burn,” the principal at Beaver’s school, in the popular show of the 1950s and 1960s.

The show biz community with its solid fanbase will be in adoration mode with the “Oscar Night” awards Sunday night. Television cameras will focus on glamorous women and handsome men who thrive on the spotlight. Photographers will be hustling to capture the smiling, waving celebrities as they stroll down the red carpet to take their place of honor in Hollywood’s biggest show of the year.

Younger generations may differ, but the modern-day movies are nothing like those that entertained my generation. In the good old days, Friday evenings were reserved for local sporting events and teen dances. Saturdays and Sundays were retained for afternoon matinees and evening shows.

Moviegoers could pick from several local theaters. Menominee had the Lloyd and Menominee Theater. Marinette had the Fox, Rialto and Strand. Peshtigo and Stephenson also had cozy theaters with quality bookings. Going to theater in a nearby town, however, required lucky teens to get the keys to the family auto.

It’s really fruitless to compare the talented actors and actresses of our time to the roster of entertainers on screen now. The girls had their favorite male actor to drool over, and the boys had a long list of actresses to dream about. We know the country has undergone a sweeping cultural change from the days of older generations, but there is no analogy when comparing the quality of the movies, and the attire, language and personal behavior of screen stars between then and now.

Not many people may realize it, but the Twin Cities have had a connection with Hollywood dating to the “silent movies.” I wrote a pre-Oscars column last year about the Hollywood career of Kathleen Kirkman, who was born in Menominee. Her father was a well-known commercial photographer in the downtown district. Kathleen’s career in Hollywood lasted from 1915 to the 1920s.

Two years ago at this time, I traced the footsteps of Menominee native Mitchell Leisen who gained fame as a Hollywood designer under the legendary Cecil DeMille before becoming a movie producer under DeMille. Leisen, who was a member of the well-known family that manufactured beer here, was a celebrity in Hollywood. A book was written about his lifework.

Marinette had one of its sons make it big in the movie industry. Arthur Gardner, who was born Arthur Goldberg in Marinette and later changed his name, was a movie and television producer in California. Gardner graduated from Marinette High School in 1927 and went to the West Coast in 1929.

Gardner, now 100 years old, competed in the first Fox River Valley Conference cross-country meet in Green Bay in the fall of 1926. The Marines were a strong contender in the conference at the time. Running under the name Goldberg, he led the Marines to a third-place finish. He competed in intramural basketball, performed in the band and orchestra, and was treasurer of the school’s Twelfth Night Dramatic Club.

Billy Wells, a 1949 graduate of Menominee High School, had a brief role in a movie following his brilliant college and professional football career. He had a couple of dates with movie starlet Debbie Reynolds and did some movie production work. His charm worked best, however, as the leading man in an all-male band that performed at swanky nightclubs and splashy parties hosted by California celebrities.

There was still another local product who starred in Hollywood. Doris Packer was born in Menominee on May 30, 1904, the daughter of Stephen and Etta Packer. Her father was an automobile dealer and a marketing salesman. The family name dates to the 1890s during their residency in Menominee.

Stephen Packer uprooted his family from its residence in the 1300 block on Main Street (1st Street) and settled in California. Doris’ interest in acting blossomed in high school and extended to the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), and later to drama schools in New York City. She appeared in Broadway shows which included a starring role in “Elizabeth the Queen.” Other major roles were in crime dramas “City Detective” and a syndicated series “State Trooper.”

In one of the episodes of the latter series, “The Last Stage Robbery,” the show featured a reenactment of an Old West stagecoach ride that developed robbery, kidnapping and murder.

Packer was best known for her role as Mrs. Cornelia Rayburn, Theodore Cleaver’s principal in “Leave It to Beaver.” Janet Callow and Amber Allard, researchers at the Michael Anuta Research Center in Menominee, were a tremendous help in flushing out information on Packer and her marvelous career in Hollywood.

The actress also is remembered for her part as the mother of millionaire playboy Chatworth Osborne Jr. in CBS’s “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Her epithet, “you nasty, nasty boy” in referring to Chatsworth, will be remembered by the many people who viewed the show.

Packer had numerous other stints in a career that probably pushed her to the top among local performers in the movie and television industry. Not to be overlooked was her work as a wealthy society matron in various CBS sitcoms in the 1950s, namely the “Burns and Allen Show” starring old-time favorites George Burns and Gracie Allen, and “I Love Lucy,” with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

In 1964-’65, Packer played a character named “Cornelia” in a short-lived CBS sitcom called “Many Happy Returns.” The setting was a complaint division of a fictitious Los Angeles department store named “Crockmeyer’s.”

Packer was married to Rowland G. Edwards, an acclaimed stage director, for 25 years. Rowland died in 1953. Packer died in 1979 at the age of 74 in Glendale, Calif.

The average price of a movie in my high school days was 42 cents (late 1940s). In 1950, the average ticket price was 48 cents and by 1960 it was 76 cents. The cost of a ticket to relive the memorable times of high-class movies, featuring glamorous female performers and stylish male actors, is priceless when the reels of nostalgia flicker.

The reruns of history that illustrate the remarkable past of the Twin Cities showcase fascinating testimony of the talent that walked the streets of Marinette and Menominee before us.