Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Louella Parsons Vs. Everyone

It's not fair to say that Louella Parsons hated everyone. She feuded with Orson Welles, Joan Crawford, Louis B. Mayer, Hedda Hopper, Frank Sinatra and even Ronald Reagan. But, like other Hollywood gossip shows she eventually wore out her welcome. Born in 1881 as Louella Rose Oettinger, she grew up in Dixon, Illinois. She attended Dixon College and then wrote for the Dixon Star Newspaper. In her articles she gossiped about Dixon social circles, a harbinger of things to come. She married John Parsons in 1906, she kept the name but dropped the husband.

She ditched the small town life. She moved to Chicago, then new York. In 1914 she wrote another gossip column for the Chicago Record Herald, then one for the New York Morning Telegraph. William Hearst took note of her readership and by 1923 her name was under his masthead on the New York American newspaper.  She gained increasing popularity and became a syndicated columnist for Hearst.

Her first step into radio came in 1928.  SunKist sponsored weekly program with Parsons interviewing Movie Stars. She had a second show with Sunkist in the spring of 1931 on the Sunkist Musical Cocktails show. They even made a pink 6-inch 78rpm "Flexo" pressing of one program as a show premium. You can hear it here. Then in 1934 Parsons finally won out,  armed with better sponsorship from Campbells Soup, she hosted "Hollywood Hotel" syndicated on CBS. That program had a bit more staying power and ran until 1938. But that was probably per peak. In 1937 a competing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper starting taking her down a notch. In 1938 the Radio Guild pitched a fit about film stars appearing on Hollywood Hotel for free.

While it was Hearst that raised her to prominence, it was Hearst's corrupting power that also dragged her back down. In 1941 the long standing rumors of Hearst's influence came to the forefront. She initially praised the movie "Citizen Kane," directed by and starring Orson Welles. Later as she learned that it mocked Hearst personally, things changed. She demanded a preview of the film them walked out on it. Hearst's allies tried to suppress the film, even trying to buy the negatives in order to burn them. Sensing that the dispute only gave the film more attention, Hearst changed tactics, instead trying to smear mud on RKO's hiring practices. But Parsons kept on the attack repeatedly telephoning contacts at RKO and MGM with threats of further bad press. She even kept the film out of Radio City Music hall in New York. Despite her efforts, the film was a huge success.

Parsons failed in her mission and her career had been tarnished. It was clear that she was used as blackmail tool in the service of Hearst's political and personal agendas. (There's a lot more about this in the book The First Lady of Hollywood by Samantha Barbas.) Parsons didn't have another radio show until 1951.  The Louella Parsons Show was carried on ABC in the Fall of 1951 sponsored by Woodbury Soap. It didn't last. She continued writing her column until 1965 when her assistant, Dorothy Manners officially took over. It was rumored that Manners had already been writing it for over a year.  She died in 1972. Manners retired in 1977 and died in 1998 ending the legacy.