West T. to Hollywood Redux

One of the more interesting characters I have come across during my research is Grover Jones.  The son of a miner, Grover was born in Rosedale but proudly grew up in West Terre Haute (while substituting for a Hollywood columnist he once billed himself as GROVER JONES, formerly of W. Terre Haute, IND).  Like my grandfather, he began work at a young age in the mines as a breaker boy, young men who broke up too large chunks of coal into more manageable pieces.  The family lived on W. Johnson Street.  In addition to being a miner, young Grover showed his artistic side by painting advertising signs on the side.  According to Mike McCormick’s excellent piece in a Terre Haute newspaper, Jones was entranced by the silent movies he saw in West Terre Haute movie houses and even did a short film of his own on Terre Haute.  With the money he earned he took his talents and WTH upbringing to the very young Hollywood.

The family moved to Hollywood (Grover may have preceded them in 1913) , where by 1920  Grover and his father were both to find work in the nascent movie industry.  Grover began as a painter and set decorator (his father also found work as a studio electrician) but his irrepressible personality, persistence and wit led him to a career during which he was to direct over 120 short films and write or collaborate on over 400 scripts, winning an Oscar in 1932 for his original story Lady and a Gent.  His work included famous films like Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Lives of the Bengal Lancers, and Dark Command.  He worked (and fought with) such stars as Mae West, W.C. Fields, and Buster Keaton.

Jones was invariably called a “wag” and “cigar chomping” funny man and seems to have been beloved for his cantankerous wit (why do I feel a kindred spirit at work here?) by fellow writers.  His home seems to have been host to “salons” (one was called the West Side Asthma and Riding Club) attended by the Hollywood set that did not buy into the Hollywood mystique (and what right-thinking West T. lad would fall for that?).  Most of all he was highly regarded by his peers as a consummate storyteller.  Her was also not one to give a damn about convention and was once sued by neighbors who did not like the fact that he and his beloved wife Susan kept a “menagerie” in their swanky Riviera neighborhood in LA that included a monkey, goat, two deer and 14 dogs.  Yep, you can take the boy out of West T., but….

Grover also did verbal battle with George Bernard Shaw.  When Samuel Goldwyn was trying to option the rights to some of the Irish bard’s plays he famously said that when he signed over his plays the produces would turn them over to “the bellboys for adaption”  and the screenwriters could no more “tell a story than a blind puppy could write a symphony.”  Whether dog-loving Grover was more upset about the aspersions cast on the talents of puppies or his own particular writer breed is uncertain, but he replied that “The senile sage of the ages is at it again.  Once we had warts, pug dogs and Shaw.  Now we only have Shaw, so why not make the best of it.”

This from the man who called himself “Just another Jones.”  Jones died in 1940.

This is someone I want to know more about.  Jones’s papers are at the AMPAS (the Oscar organization) archives.  I have written to it requesting a collections guide in hope that some of his letters or memoirs mention growing up in West Terre Haute.  I sense a nice article may be written on Jones.  As I learn more I will pass it on.


From West T. To Hollywood

A columnist in The Van Nuys Reporter of December 20, 1934 breathlessly announced that the Van Nuys city hall had received a visit from a young Paramount movie star named Billy Lee.  Four year-old Billy, described as “a handsome little chap…. with an irresistible smile” and an amazing conversationalist, was there with his family to visit an old friend from his home town, West Terre Haute, Indiana.

In 1930 the Schlensker family lived just off National Avenue in West Terre Haute.  The father, Pete, was a sometime farmer and miner (and ten year minor league baseball player) while mom Stella looked after the children, 3 sons and a daughter.  By 1934 the family (at least mom, dad and the two youngest boys) was living on Klump Avenue in Nan Nuys.  All in all, it was a world away from West T..  Why they left is uncertain, but one can surmise that they were part of that stream who thought the answer to surviving the Depression was out west. As the mines played out and West Terre Haute’s decline was hastened by the Depression many of its citizens (WTH lost approximately one-fourth of its population between 1928 and 1940) left the area.  The Shlenskers joined the exodus (oldest children Charles and Lucille remained behind) in 1933.

So far I have not turned up any evidence that the family was ever previously involved in the entertainment business  (Though in his obituary it was said that Pete claimed to have taught Billy to dance).  They were a simple farm family from Indiana.   It is known that Billy showed talent, appearing in church productions as a toddler.  His first real stage performance took place in Terre Haute in 1932.  Not yet 4 years-old, he took the stage in the Tribune-Star Christmas Frolic in 1932.  Singing and dancing in front of a miniature stage set built by his father, he did a minstrel-esque routine in blackface, singing “Old Black Joe.” 

He was a hit.  In true Hollywood myth fashion, it is said that a talent scout for Paramount saw or heard of his dazzling debut and offered him a contract.  Flash forward to  Hollywood.

Pete and Stella enrolled young Billy in a private school in Los Angeles.  There teacher Ethel Meglin quickly recognized Billy’s talents and enthusiasm and trained him in singing and dancing.  With her help and with his father acting as his agent, Billy, now known professionally as Billy Lee, was signed to a contract by Paramount Studios.  Over the next decade he was to appear in over 40 movies, ranging from westerns with Randolph Scott, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, to musicals (Billy was an accomplished drummer).  In one musical, Reg’lar Fellers, Billy appeared with Carl Switzer, who had played Alfalfa in the Our Gang comedies and, coincidently, had been born just across the state line from West Terre Haute in the West Union/Marshall area.  Billy was recognized as a genuinely talented performer.

Did Hollywood play a role in splitting up the family?  While Billy continued to make movies, his father-agent Peter returned to West Terre Haute to farm.  His 1942 WWII draft registration card listed son Charles as next of kin.  Daughter Lucille had also stayed in the area and married into the Rippy family.  As I have found no records for Stella after 1930, one wonders at her fate.  Did she and Pete break up?  Did  she remarry?  Pete’s 1950 obituary does not list a wife as surviving him, although items in the “West Terre Haute News” in the paper in 1949 talked of Peter and wife.  Although it could have been Peter, Jr.  But Pete, Jr, was to die in California like his famous younger brother.

And adorable Billy Lee?  He made his last movie in 1943.  Like many child stars, the waning of his youth also saw the waning of his career.  By age 14, his movie career was over. 

He and the family returned to West Terre Haute, living on North 6th Street.  Always precocious for his age, Billy tried to marry at age 16.  In the Spring of 1946 he applied for a license to marry a Garfield High School graduate named Peggy Frew, 18.  The license was denied by a Vigo County Circuit Court Judge because of his age.  Only later that year were the couple allowed to marry.  Then, the same judge who had denied the license earlier because he thought it only “puppy love,” was convinced that “they were that way about each other” and issued the license after both parents gave their consent.

At the time of the marriage Billy (who had been attending Concannon High School and working at Stran Steel) told a reporter that he still had a few months to go on his contract and hoped Hollywood would welcome his talents again.

Hollywood did not call.

Billy was listed as living in Terre Haute in 1950.  He served in the Korean War.  After the war Billy married and had three children. What did he do until his death in California in 1989?  His obituary in the LA Times does not say.  Did he continue to use his musical talent?  Did part of his take life continue to take advantage of his movie career? 

No matter his end, Billy left behind his movie appearances as a legacy.  Several, like “Wagons West” and “Biscuit Eater” are available on DVD.  Young, charming, 4 year-old Billy Lee from West Terre Haute still lives on celluloid digitized for the ages.

 Billy’s brother Charles’s 1992 obituary indicates that there were still family members living in the WTH area.  Are you one of them?  Do you know them?  I would certainly like to know more of the family’s story.