Long before Oprah came to town, the Chicago airwaves were reigned over by a trio of stylish, smart and sophisticated ladies--the three “First Ladies of Chicago Television.”
Over NBC’s powerhouse Chicago affiliate, WMAQ (then WNBQ), Dorsey Connors was known for her plethora of household helpful hints, and later turned that into national exposure over NBC’s “Today” show, a series of successful books and a long-running daily newspaper column.
On WBBM, the city’s CBS affiliate, Lee Phillip (later Lee Phillip Bell) began her on-air career arranging flowers before seguing into a TV career as an interviewer with an on-air career that spanned 30 years. Later, with her late husband Bill Bell, she co-created TV’s “Young & the Restless” and “The Bold & the Beautiful.”
And then there’s Carmelita Pope. The true show biz hyphenate of the group, Pope, over the Windy City’s small screens, was known as a commercial saleswoman, actress, and game show regular.
Born and bred in Chicago, Pope practically had showbiz in her veins. The daughter of an ex-vaudevillian turned attorney, Pope’s father instilled in her and her older sister, Clarissa, a love for the stage. Pope says today, “He LOVED his career in show business and I think he bend over my crib every night and told me to be an actress.”
By age five, Carmelita was already dancing and singing and while her older sister bowed out of performing after getting married, Carmelita stayed with it. She got her first “real” theater job at age 17 in the “hillbilly” play, “Maid in the Ozarks.” Says Pope, “I yelled for the pigs in that one! We played for a year and a half in Chicago and then went on the road for six months. I got my Senior Equity Card for it.”
Pope’s next notable role came in a Chicago production of George Abbott’s three-act comedy “Kiss and Tell.” That play—where she played Corliss Archer--took her around the world as Pope and the play were soon part of the USO. Beginning in January of 1945, Pope and the “Kiss” company spent six months traveling to war zones to entertain the troops. Eventually, those travels included Italy and Northern Africa. She said, “We played theaters, wherever we could. Sometimes, though, they just spread out some chairs and we made a ‘theater’ that way. We’d play in hospital rooms for the wounded soldiers.”
Returning to the States, Pope settled in New York and quickly found work as a double for actress Ida Lupino and in film short subjects for 20th Century-Fox and RKO. In 1947, she even had a bit part in the Christmas classic “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Finally, after pounding the pavement and hitting up auditions, Pope got her first feature film starring role. In “Citizen Saint,” Pope took on the part of America’s first canonized saint, Frances Cabrini. The film was independently produced and was directed by Harold Young. A copy of it can now be found on Youtube.
This 1947 religious film, for Pope, though, was a bit of a mixed blessing. She says, “I liked the work we did in the original scenes but then they spliced in a lot of this stock footage that looked cheap. It undermined the film.” Pope’s first film role also came with a short-lived—in fact, one time only--name change courtesy of the producers. She says, “They thought that the no one would believe my name was actually ‘Pope,’ so they abbreviated my first name to ‘Carla’ and made my last name ‘Dare.’ ‘Carla Dare’!”
Still, “Citizen,” got the young actress—Pope was only 19 at the time--her first big screen exposure and she got to travel with the film as it played screens across the country. “After the film, I’d take the stage and speak to the audience….,” she says.
Even better, though, was who happened to catch her in the film: Elia Kazan!
Kazan was a mega film and stage producer/director who, after seeing “Saint,” “Called every agent in New York looking for me. Finally, he found my agent and my agent called me and said, ‘Elia Kazan wants to see you!’”
What Kazan wanted was to meet with Carmelita about a show the show he had just opened on Broadway: Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
After a brief meeting, without even an audition, Pope was cast by Kazan as the understudy for Kim Hunter in the role of Stella in “Streetcar’s” Broadway debut in 1947.
Also in that original cast, making his Broadway debut, was Marlon Brando. Interestingly, Pope and Brando—or “Bud,” as he was known then—already knew each other. They had known each other for years in Chicago and their friendship followed them to NYC; they would remain friends.
Kim Hunter, of course, was not only a very good “Stella” in “Streetcar,” she was also a healthy one; she never missed a performance. And though Carmelita had hopes of taking over the role once Hunter departed from it, it was hard to make a case to the producers since they never actually saw her in the role. To remedy that, Hunter worked out a little plan. Carmelita remembers: “Kim said to me, ‘I’m going to be sick next Thursday and you can go on so everyone can see you.’ Well, I never thought, she was serious. But come Thursday, she pretended to be sick and I went on!”
Pope performed, and impressed. She was cast as the stage’s new Stella, signing the contract with the show’s producer, Irene Mayer Selznick, the next day.
Not only was her career on the ascent, so was Pope’s personal life. At a wedding reception back in Illinois, in 1942, Pope met young “Chicago Tribune” reporter Howard Charles Ballenger II. The duo married in April of 1949.
But as strong as the lure of the stage was, so, too, was the call of marriage and motherhood, so Pope moved back to Chicago.
Lucky for her, Chicago was booming at the time as both a theater town and as a production center for the new medium of television.
Back in the Windy City, Pope heard about an audition for a new TV show for an on-air game show called “Down You Go.” They were looking for on-air panelists. She said, “I wasn’t sure I was that smart, but I went anyway.”
Pope was that smart, and that engaging and that good at thinking on her feet and she was soon cast on the live show beamed out every week from a WGN theater.
Prefiguring “Wheel of Fortune,” “Down You Go” was a TV version of Hangman that utilized a set of four regular panelists to solve its word puzzles. Debuting in May of 1951, the program originally aired over the now-defunct Dumont network and was hosted by Dr. Bergen Evans, an English professor from Northwestern. The show’s title phrase was uttered when a panelist/player was eliminated from the game for a wrong answer or guessing an incorrect letter. Along with Carmelita, other early panelists included fellow actress Toni Gilman, WGN employee Fran Coughlin, and university prof Robert Breen.
Pope, who would remain with the live TV show until 1956, has fond, fun memories of her “Down” days—the only hiccup being when she was pregnant once during the show’s run. She relates, “I was pregnant with my second son during the show’s second season so they would have me out and seated before the audience came in. They didn’t want me coming in in front of the audience! I had to sit there all alone. It wasn’t so bad though, the stagehands would take pity on me and talk to me. They told me all sorts of naughty jokes!”
As mentioned, Chicago was coming into its own at this time in regard to TV and was a hotbed of various daily and weekly broadcasts. Along with her weekly work on “Down You Go,” Pope could also be found as “femcee” of the show “Magic Slate” over WNBQ in 1951. Earlier she had roles on the legal drama “They Stand Accused” in 1949 and in the title role of a live staging of the operetta “Frederika” on Mutual in 1950. Other small screen credits included “Baby of the Week” in 1954 and as the host of the interview show “Guest Star” in 1952-53 as well as the nationally-seen weekly show “Today on the Farm” featuring country star Eddy Arnold. “Farm” aired 1960-61.
Beginning in 1958, Pope began appearing on TV’s first (non-radio derived) soap opera, “Hawkins Falls.” Along with appearing in the serial “off and on,” Pope also got pulled into doing commercials “every other day” for the show’s sponsor, soap detergent Surf. Pope recalls, “I enjoyed doing commercials. They were, of course, live. They just told me what they wanted and they paid me!”
Pope’s skill as a seller soon made her in demand. And soon she was doing ads for Bell Savings, Wanzer Milk, and Northern Illinois Gas Co., too. When Perry Como had his own New York-based music show, they would switch back to Chicago and Carmelita for their live commercials, probably the only time in TV history that that was done.
Most famously, Carmelita was the face for PAM cooking spray beginning in around 1961. She recalls, “I turned down a lot of products that I was offered if I didn’t like them. Then they came to me with this revolutionary spray that said it made food not stick. I was like, ‘Really?’”
Pope would be the on-air rep for PAM for the next 10 years.
In time, Pope became so synonymous with on-air advertising in Chicago that, unfortunately, it eventually began to work against her. She says, “One day I went to a local audition because I heard they were looking for a ‘Carmelita Pope’-type. But, when I got there I was told, ‘We are looking for someone like you, but not you.’”
This career crossroads occurred at the same time as a personal crossroads developed as well. Pope and her husband, Chuck, after 23 years of marriage and two sons, had decided to divorce.
“Overused” in Chicago, and with her two sons (Bruce and Buzz) largely grown, Pope decided it was time to try her luck on the West Coast. “I rented a furnished apartment in Los Angeles for $350 a month—you can’t do that now!—but I kept our house in Highland Park, Illinois.”
Out in LA, Carmelita appeared on “General Hospital,” “Days of Our Lives” and in the original “Spider-Man” TV movie from 1977. (In the latter, she was a choir member turned bank robber.) Carmelita also kept busy doing commercials for Minute Maid and the Pet Food Institute. That latter job quickly turned into a major new role as Carmelita became the Institute’s roving ambassador. For two years, she traveled the country on behalf of the organization. Her work required not only ample travel but also tapped into her old sales and performing skills. She says, “I’d do 15-20 shows a week in different cities. I did the job for two years.”
That job also lead to Pope’s next great evolution. In 1978, Pope was named the director of the Hollywood office of the American Humane Association. That body had the responsibility of overseeing animal welfare in all movie and TV productions. In the high-profile job, Pope reviewed thousands of scripts and sent her officers onto the sets of hundreds of productions to make sure no animals were harmed or injured in their creation. (If they were in danger, the officers were empowered to make arrests.) It was under Pope’s leadership that that now-famous phrase “No animals were harmed or injured in the making of this motion picture” became part of the Hollywood vernacular. Pope’s office also pushed through a clause in the Screen Actors Guild that allowed performers to walk off sets if they felt any animals were being abused within the course of their work.
Pope loved the job: “I LOVE animals,” she says. But, after 10 years of the “exhausting” work, Carmelita found it necessary move on.
Besides….she had other business to attend to. In 1984, Pope remarried and, due her new husband’s health, the couple moved from LA to FL. Mr. and Mrs. William Wood would reside in the Sunshine State for the next 10 or so years. Carmelita says, “It was really lovely. I even learned to play golf but, when you learn something new in your 60s, you know you’ll never get good at it.”
Mr. Wood, who had been a TV producer and director on the West Coast before the move to Florida, passed away in 1995. Wanting to be closer to at least one of her two now adult sons, Carmelita took on a major change in climate when she relocated to Idaho. (Her other son lived in California). That move occurred in 1999. True to her nature, though, Carmelita was/is not one for sitting idly in her “retirement.” Since 2002, she’s been assisting in the local Veteran’s History Project, an endeavor of the Library of Congress. Working largely out of the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, Carmelita organizes the talks with veterans from all branches of the US armed forces and from any conflict, any era, so that they can record their stories. She says, “We record the interviews on video, so it was helpful in the beginning as I knew about TV production and lighting.” She began her work with the project in 2002. In her latest incarnation for the vets projec, Pope and her team have just surpassed 1,000 completed interviews.
In terms of Carmelita Pope, “incarnation” seems like a most appropriate word to apply to her. Consider: in her singular, remarkable career, Carmelita has been an actress and an activist, a panelist and a personality, a spokesperson and even an American saint. All the while underscoring that the title that she wears of “First Lady” is a term, not so loosely bestowed, but fully earned.
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