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Gale Storm : Classic TV Stars
by Cary O'Dell

These past few weeks' bizarre, coincidental hecatomb of celebrity deaths (Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon), and the media’s ongoing coverage of them, no doubt means that the passing of TV, film and recording star Gale Storm (who died June 26 at age 87) will not receive near the coverage and attention that it deserves.

Granted, of course, though Storm was a successful recording artist, she’s wasn’t Michael Jackson and even she freely admitted that some of her body of work (like her film career) was rather minor and scattershot.  But, nevertheless, she was, in her time, a major TV star and, in retrospect, she’s an often under-remembered, under-appreciated small screen icon.

Storm has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for TV, one for music, one for radio).  She was a five time “TV Guide” cover girl.  She was the solo lead of two multi-season sitcoms, “My Little Margie” (1952-1955) and “The Gale Storm Show” (a.k.a. “Oh, Susanna!”) (1956-1960)--something even Farrah, in her mega fame, cannot claim.  At her small screen height, Storm’s weekly ratings delivered numbers that such latter day “hits” as “Ally McBeal,” “Gossip Girl,” and even Jon & Kate can only dream of.  

In her most famous role, that of Margie Albright on “My Little Margie”-- and at the risk of making a very bad pun--Gale Storm was a force of nature.  In the 1950s, she was part of that special sorority of scrappy, rebellious sitcom sisters, lead by Lucy and ably aided by Joan Davis, who simply refused to follow the rules and wouldn’t do what they were told and who, in their defiant, regular run-ins with authority, seem to prefigure feminism.  

I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Storm over a decade ago when I worked at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago and co-curated (with broadcasting scholar Dr. Mary Ann Watson) an exhibition on the images of women on television titled “From ‘My Little Margie’ to ‘Murphy Brown.’”

For it, we attempted to show that these two TV characters, seemingly at opposite ends of the TV spectrum, actually had far more in common than just their first initial.  Also for it, we welcomed the gracious Miss Storm to the Windy City for a whirlwind junket of interviews, autograph sessions, and even a White Sox game for her to toss out the first ball.  During her visit, Storm was a trouper, an energetic, resilient dynamo.  This, though, should not have been that much of a surprise:  there had always been a steely core to the characters Storm played, whether it was the mischievous Margie, the go-getting Susanna or any of the frontier women she played in many of her early career Westerns.  It was a resolve, I learned, that was born from the actress herself.

This fortitude was never more apparent than upon the publication of Storm’s autobiography, “I Ain’t Down Yet” in 1981.  In the memoir, along with recounting her Texas youth and her entry into films via a “Gateway to Hollywood” contest in 1940 (which also saw her rechristened from Josephine Owaissa Cottle to her meteorological stage name), Storm also disclosed a long, bitter and ultimately victorious battle against alcoholism.  

Though today such revelations are common, at that time they weren’t.  Alcoholism was still somewhat in the shadows, far more likely to be viewed as a character flaw than as a serious disease; at that time you didn’t have “addiction issues,” you didn’t have a “chemical dependency,” you were a drunk.  And to be a male drunk was bad but to be a female drunk was obscene.

By outing herself and her addiction, Gale Storm broke the silence and shattered a myriad of cultural preconceptions; if this could befall “Margie,” it could happen to anyone.  The power and importance of her candor should not be undervalued.  With it, Storm forever altered her public persona and her legacy.  Simply remaining behind the guise of her small screen alter egos might have been easier, but it wasn’t going to help anyone.  And anyone expecting her to didn’t know the lady very well.  

“Well, that’s my little Margie.”  

I am glad to have known her, and miss her already.

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