From West T. To HollywoodPosted: September 2, 2011
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.