Billy Lee, whose birth name was Billy Lee Schlensker, was born on March 12, 1929, at a farm near Terre Haute, Indiana in a tiny area known by local residents as 'Nelson's Bend'. Before Billy's 2nd birthday, his father, Peter Schlensker, who suffered from asthma, temporarily moved the family to the west coast, hoping that a change to the warmer climate of Los Angeles would help ease his condition (1931). That was the behinning of him becoming an important Hollywood child star. He became an important figure in Paramont films during the 1930s and very early-40s.
After Billy turned age 2, his father took him to Hollywood and enrolled Billy in The Meglin School For Professional Children, a school whose students included Judy Garland, (formerly known as
"Baby Gumm"), Mickey Rooney, Jane Withers, Ann Miller, June Lang, Mickey Rooney, Darryl Hickman, Melody Thomas Scott and a curley-haired tot named Shirley Temple, to name a few. The school's founder, Ethel Meglin, taught voice, dance, acting as well as a variety of musical instruments. Her students were commonly known as "Meglin Kiddies".
At one time her Kiddies were being billed as "Ethel Meglin's Hollywood Wonder Kids", and there could be as many as 500 of her students performing on stage at one time. Seeing in Billy, a natural talent and ability at age 2, unlike anything she'd seen before for his age, Meglin took an immediate liking to Billy Lee, and took on an
enthusiastic interest in him which kept Meglin actively involved in Billy's training, including acting, singing, dancing, guitar and other musical instruments. She also remained actively involved in his career for as long as he remained in films, which was until 1942.
Billy's career on stage began at age two, appearing in and around Hollywood as a tap dancer, the first step he was taught, and he also sang and danced at that age with The Meglin Kiddies. When Billy turned 3, the whole family went
back to Indiana. After settling their affairs, they left the family farm behind once again. Billy's father never worked again after his son entered show business, except to manage Billy's career. He was clearly a man Billy could look up to and Billy did gladly, wanting nothing more than to please his father, as Billy related in later years.
Before returning to Hollywood, where he was re-enrolled at The Meglin School, farm boy, Billy Lee Schlensker, taking on the stage name, Billy Lee, first played some dates in Chicago.
No sooner had he returned to Hollywood, once again being under the instruction of Ethel Meglin, she got word that an "Our Gang" comedy was in production which called for some non-"gang" talented kids who, in the film's plot, would seem to threaten Spanky and the gang's chances of passing a radio talent audition. It was a take-off on the 1932 film called, "The Big Broadcast". The gang's version would be called, "The Little Broadcast" (later re-named "Mike Fright" when
re-released years later.) Billy got the part. In the middle of a Hawaiian song being performed by a number of young girl dancers and a singer (very likely other students of Ethel Meglin), Billy dances into the scene for a solo spot, exhibiting an utterly amazing sense of timing and rhythm for a 3 year old, seen dressed in a sailor's suit, (a
very popular style of dress for young boys in the early 30s). Billy performed quite a fancy tap routine to a "live" piano performance, allowing one to begin to understand Meglin's joy at working with Billy Lee, and her eagerness to promote him. Billy looks calm, cool and collected as he brings the routine to a close in perfect time with the piano music, arms extended forward and landing on one foot on the last beat of the song. A very impressive start in films. (A remastered version of this short was recently released to home video and DVD.)
Billy Lee worked under contract with Paramount. In the golden age of Hollywood, Paramount was one of the Big Five
Hollywood film studios. Paramount was founded in 1913 and quickly rose to its legenfart status during the Golden Age of films. The studios at the time would put their stars under contract rather than sign individual contracts for specific films. Paramount had the largest and most impressive group of film stars under contract. Billy Lee was put under contract to Paramount and most of his films were made with Paramount. Billy was notable because he began his film career at such a young age. He thus was used in a wide range of film. If one of these stars wanted to work on a film for another stydio, they would have to get permission from the studio that had their contract. Billy was, for example, loaned out to MGM for a film. This studio system was dominant during the 1930s, but began to decline after World War II (1941-45).
It was Ethel Meglin who rushed Billy over to see producer Sol Lesser when she learned he was starting work on "Make A Wish". For 2 years, Meglin and Billy were hoping that a role might come along where Billy Lee might be able to show off his guitar skills. Meglin was quoted as saying that Billy Lee was fast becoming her
most accomplished guitar student. "Make A Wish" did have a part open for a boy to play guitar to accompany Breen in two songs. Both Breen and Billy were good guitar players at this time, but the boy who was finally chosen to play the guitar in the film was a young actor who obviously knew nothing about the guitar. The guitar
would only be a prop no matter who was holding it, as pre-recorded music would be what was actually accompanying Breen as he sang. But, the boy who was chosen to have the guitarist part, looked more the part, being an older child, while Billy, still looking much younger than his age, might not have been believable in the part,
despite his guitar ability. The fact that both Breen and Billy were both musicians while the young actor holding the guitar was not, appears to have given Breen and Billy the idea of quietly teasing the boy as the film roled on the first song which features the guitarist, supposedly accompanying Breen and the chorus of campers. When the music starts, Breen looks up at the "guitarist" with a smile, then he leans over a bit, inspecting each of the guitarist's hands one at a time as he fakes the song's introduction, then Breen looks him in the eye laughing. Breen then turns away and begins his vocal while Billy takes over making a variety of faces at the "guitarist" throughout the song as the "campers" just behind Breen appear to keep looking over at the "guitarist" to see if either Breen or Billy can rattle him. It's a night
scene, filmed around a campfire, so that, if one is not looking for these goings on, it would be easy to miss. It would seem that both Breen and Billy wanted the guitarist part for that song. In fact, in some lobby cards for "Make a Wish", Breen is pictured holding the guitar in the "Polly Wolly Doodle" scene, which was the second guitar
scene in the film, rather than the boy who holds and "plays" the guitar in that scene. Basil Rathbone appears as Johnny Selden, a composer who lives across the lake from the camp. In the summer of 1938, Sara Hamilton of Photoplay Magazine interviewed Billy Lee. She writes, "Billy was the lad the audiences cheered in Bobby
Breen's picture, 'Make A Wish'."
A few films later, at age 8, Billy was called upon to learn to play drums for his role as "Half-Pint", the son of an orchestra leader played by Fred MacMurray in the film, "Cocoanut Grove". (1938). Drummer, Lee Young, of Fats Waller's band was called in to train Billy on drums for his role in the movie. Like everything else Billy
atempted, he took to the drums immediately. Sarah Hamilton again, writes, "His (Billy's) present film is 'Cocoanut Grove' - he astonished Fats Waller into a coma by beating a perfect set of drums after three short lessons. Fred MacMurray can't get over him." Billy then began regular instruction on the drums. To quote a Paramount press release on Billy one year later, it reads, "Billy who is now nine, has appeared in 24 features and several short subjects. He has been accredited by his drum teacher, Emil L. Farnlund, with mastering everything the teacher knows. He can play any piece and is equipped to work with any grown-up dance orchestra, Farnlund says. Billy is able to dance soft shoe, buck rhythm, ballet and virtually every step known in the modern theater. He sings a clear tenor, yodels, is an excellent horseman and is now breaking ponies for a Hollywood riding academy."
Billy Lee given the more than 40 films in which he was cast, appeared in a wide variety of costumes.
Billy Lee made several films wearing sailor suits or army military uniforms, including "Mike Fright" (1934), "Sons of The Legion" (1938) and "Sudden Money" (1939). In the film, "The Road To Happiness" (1942), Billy, in the role of young Danny Carter attends a military boarding school.
Sailor suits were commonly worn by boys through the 1930s. They were considered boys' clothes more than uniforms. Billy also appeared in army uniforms in several films. These were uniforms at a military school. A HBC reader reports that, in the Little Rascals/Our Gang "Mike Fright" movie at one point in his tap-dance number, the camera zooms in on Billy's feet. Besides his sailor costume Billy is wearing horizontally striped socks and black patent leather strap shoes.
While younger British boys commonly went to boarding schools in the 1930s and 40s, American boys did not. While boarding school was more common with wealthy Americans, most middle-class Americans saw boarding school as an ordeal. Often it was a seen as a way of dealing with unwanted children. Film makers liked to use the device of a young child in a boarding school to appeal to viewers. By making the school a military school, the school seems even more inappropriate to viewers. pulling on their heart strings.
We only have limited information at this time as to the clothes Billy Lee normally wore when not in costume. We have noted him wearing sailor suits, a variety of suits, and some casual clothes popular in thge 1930s. One early photographic showed him wearing a little boy Easter suit with some similarities to an Eton suit. A subsequent studio photograph shows Billy Lee at about 7-8 years of age in a light-colored double breasted short pants suit. Stangely he wears it with a sailor shirt. He looks to be wearing short socks rather than kneesocks.When he was 8 years old, Billy had a favorite cap he'd wear which had a red button on top. When asked in an interview for Photoplay Magazine about his cap, (refered to as a skull cap by interviewer, Sara Hamilton), she asked particularly about the red button. Billy explained, "It's my tail-light. I don't want anything to run into me."
Of Billy, Hamilton observed, "His brown hair, too long for comfort, hangs over one eye with a most alarming droop. His brown eyes live and speak and radiate the spark of something rare within. Billy is one of those 'beyond me' children.". She also reports the following: "In the doorway some writer paused a moment to call out some nonsense in which Billy joined in. It went, 'Sitting on a dog, looking for a flea. One jumped to the left, one jumped to the right, but the one that
was best flew on Billy's back." After the passing writer guffawed and then went on his way, Hamilton asked Billy what that was all about. Billy responded with a shrug, "I don't know. He always says it when he sees me. I think he thinks I'm having fun."
A Paramount bio on Billy from about the same time reports the following: "He goes to school from 9 a.m. to 12 with ten minutes' recess. When he is working on a stage the school hours are longer, but are interupted by 'takes'." When they were working on a film, teachers for child actors were provided by the board of education. If a child actor or actress did not get in their full three hours of school time, these teachers had the power to close down production for that day if need be to make sure these kids received their schooling. The Paramount bio continues, "Following school in the afternoon, Billy is given an hours' drum lesson, and 30 minutes of dance instruction one day each week, and an hour's riding lesson each week. Sunday's schedule is a joyful one for Master Billy. He goes to the neighborhood Sunday School (Angelus Temple). At noon his father takes him swimming for an hour at the Bimini Plunge. By 1 p.m., and the schedule seldom varies, they are on their way to Paramount field, where Billy takes over the mascot's duties on The Paramount Studio Club baseball team which is captained by (former) electrician, 'Pop' Lee. Billy comes by his baseball fever honestly. 'My Dad used to play for the Louisville Colonels!' he proudly tells newcomers." The brief bio also mentions Billy's early stage work as a singer and dancer, but adds that Billy was also serving as juvenile master of ceremonies beginning at age 3 in the various shows put on by Ethel Meglin and her Meglin Kiddies.
A Paramount press release from April, 1938 states the following: "Youngest in point of years, Billy, nevertheless is oldest in point of continuous service among the many stars under contract to Paramount. For his part in "Cocoanut Grove", Billy learned to play drums and traps in four short weeks, mastering rhythm so that he keeps perfect tempo in the musical numbers he plays in the picture with Harry Owens' Royal Hawaiin Orchestra."
The same press release continues, "No child star in the movie capital is more popular with the adult players than Billy Lee, the boy from Indiana. He has an ability to concentrate with an intensity envied by many mature actors. He picks up bits of business quickly and carries them out before the camera faithfully. Billy has always worked under the supervision of his father, who is just as particular about Billy's manners off-stage as he is in coaching the youngster for an important part. That is why Billy is known as 'the politest star in Hollywood'. Billy is familiarly known as 'the Bing Crosby of Hollywood's screen children'. Like the famous crooner, Billy has
a singing style all his own. He has the same fondness for sports that
distinguishes Crosby. And both are the down-to-earth type of person able to greet all comers alike and be at home in any company."
The one time that Billy held up production on a movie was during the
filming of "Cocoanut Grove" when, according to Screen and Radio Weekly, "in an exchange of off-stage pleasantries, Billy's Lee's stand-in whacked him in the mouth and knocked out Billy's two front teeth..." A March 1938, 2-page press release from Paramount related the incident and its aftermath in detail. It names Billy's stand-in as Roland Smith and explains that while Billy waited to be called for his next scene, the two boys were throwing a ball back and forth to each other having a catch when the incident occured. It further explained that actress Harriet Hilliard (who later became Mrs. Ozzie Nelson, and mother of singer/actor Ricky Nelson) discovered, while filming a scene with Billy, where she was to help him brush his teeth, that
the same teeth had already been loose before the incident, causing the
director, Al Santell to advise Billy's father to keep him on soft foods
until filming was complete. But, when Billy's teeth were knocked very
loose by his stand-in, director Santell, being concerned about Billy's
unexplainable change of appearance mid-way through filming, rushed Billy through one more scene with Fred MacMurray and Hilliard, after which a studio car whisked Billy off to receive dental repairs. Dr. Irvin Robert Barr, a Hollywood dentist had the repairs completed by 7 p.m. that night. After extracting the two teeth in question, Dr Barr created a removable plate for Billy to duplicate the missing teeth working from a studio photo of the young actor. The following day was Billy's 9th birthday.
While active under contracy at Paramount, Billy Lee never gave up on Vaudeville. Between his 9th and 10th birthday, Billy was still active on the Vaudeville stage, touring as a singer, dancer and now as a drummer, and he completed filming on 9 more feature films, working that year (1939), with Broderick Crawford, Donald O'Conner (who had appeared in 3 films witrh Billy and had struck up a close friendship with him, being only a few years older than Billy), The Hoosier Hot Shots, Smiley Burnette, Lloyd Nolan, Jack Carson, Anthony Quinn and other great film stars.
Billy Lee's most memorable film role is surely "The Biscuit Eater". Strangely, he was not the first choice for the role and came about it by accident.
It was in mid-October, 1939, that Billy's dad, now known as "Pop Lee", got an urgent call from Paramount, offering Billy the lead role of Lonnie McNeil in the film, "The Biscuit Eater." Filming would be on location, in and around Albany, Georgia.
The urgency was that the film's lead actor, 9 year old Baby Le Roy, as he was known from his films as an infant and toddler with W.C. Fields, who was already on location in Georgia, had become very ill following the first day of shooting on the film. Le Roy had been called on to swing on a rope across a lake in the opening scene of the film. But what the camera caught, was Le Roy falling into the lake on each of the two times he attempted the take. Although he was thoroughly dried off both times that he fell into the lake, the boy actor, who had disappeared from films at age 5 and was attempting a comeback at age 9, had, by the next moring completely lost his voice, suffering from a terrible head and chest cold. The doctor who examined Le Roy insisted that he would need 2 weeks to recover. With cast and crew on location in Georgia, it was impossible to wait for the young actor to recover, and it was impossible to film around him, since, as the lead character, he was to appear in virtually every scene. On October 20th, 1939, Paramount execs announced that another picture would be ready for Baby Le Roy upon his recovery, so he could still make good his comeback. But that opportunity never materialized. At age 3 LeRoy became drunk and was noticiably staggering when W.C. Fields spiked his orange juice with Gin while making the film, "It's A Gift". In their previous film together, Le Roy had been kicked so hard by Fields while filming a gag scene, that it was ordered cut from the film by studio execs who were disturbed by the footage, although Fields defended the scene on the basis that men who had to deal with young children could relate to him kicking Le Roy. Baby Le Roy's last real chance to make a comeback, to prove his abilities as a young actor in a lead role, rather than to be remembered as a mere comic prop for W.C. Fields, had slipped out of his hands and the role went to Billy Lee,
Director Stuart Heisler, with no other choice, put in an emergeny call to Paramount in Hollywood for a replacement child actor. Le Roy was flown back to Hollywood to recover, while Billy Lee, in preparation for the junket down to Georgia, was first inocculated against 7 or 8 varieties of malignant flora and fauna native to the deep south.
Headed for Georgia, Billy and his father boarded a plane to New York, after which they would take a train down to Albany. When the stewardess started to strap Billy into his seat, he joked, 'Don't do that! I can ride her western style!' " Once on the train, and coming to the Mason-Dixon Line, Billy came to learn something about the racial prejudice that existed. All at once, the blacks on the train were seperated from the rest of the passengers by accordian style doors closing off the back section of the train where the black passengers were sitting. Billy had never experienced anything like
that before and it disturbed him.
Shooting resumed on "The Biscuit Eater" the very day Billy arrived in Albany (October 21, 1939). He was filmed swinging across a lake on a rope to the other side and made it on his first attempt. Once on the other side, Lonnie McNiel, (Billy Lee) was to run and fetch his best friend "Text Lee" (Cordell Hickman), a 9 year old black actor
who was his co-sar in the film, with whom Billy immediately struck up a
friendship. The weeks they spent in Georgia were happy ones. On their off time, the two boys would swim, ride horses and they had a lot of fun playing with the dogs who were prominently featured in the film.
Billy Lee and Baby Le Roy, who were friends, had appeared together as themselves in the MGM Short, "Cinema Circus" (1937). They were often photographed together, having known each other since Le Roy was age 3 and Billy was age 4. Both Baby Le Roy and Billy Lee, as well as many other Paramount child stars were assigned phony birth dates by the studio to give the impression that their talented child stars were younger than they actually were. Another popular Paramount child star, and a good pal of Billy's, Virginia Weidler, was age 11 when she was asked, among other things, by Photoplay Magazine how old she was. She responded, "Make it 'ten'. Studio reasons. They're always chopping off a year." The fake d.o.b. Paramount issued for Billy Lee was September 12, 1930, when actually his d.o.b. was March 12, 1929. The incorrect September 1930 birth information on Billy appears in almost every piece on him, from almost any source you will find relates to Billy Lee. It wasn't until Richard Lamparski, founder of the magazine series, "Whatever Became Of...?" interviewed Billy Lee for his 10th series in the mid-'80's, that the record was set straight.
We don't have a complete list of Billy's films. One was Make a Wish (1937)in which he played with singer Bobby Breem.
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