Connie Stevens was the classic studio starlet — blond, effervescent and attractive in a way often described as “cute.”
She made dumb TV shows — she played club singer Cricket Blake on the Warner Bros. series “Hawaiian Eye” — and movies we now regard as camp — the early ’60s soapers “Parrish” and “Susan Slade,” both of which co-starred Troy Donahue. She made pop records. As time went by, she played Vegas. She appeared on “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” and “Match Game.”
But as is often the case with celebrities we think we know, a serious human being is at work behind the superficial imagery.
For example, after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, Stevens decided she needed to do something. In a nutshell, she loaded up her RV with $20,000 worth of relief supplies (including a huge amount of dog food donated by actor Dick Van Patten) and hit the road. Goodbye, Beverly Hills; Hello Mississippi.
“Well, I volunteered as a Red Cross volunteer, took all the lessons and what have you, and I picked up a couple of nurses I knew, and about nine of us went down there and tried to help,” Stevens said. “I had a big bus. We rescued dogs and people. In fact, we were there two weeks before the real Red Cross got there. It was a great experience.”
Stevens said her group worked mostly in southern Mississippi near the coast.
“There were so many people devastated, homes torn up,” she said. “I met wonderful people who were just so grateful. It was good for the soul.”
That kind of thing isn’t out of character for Stevens. At this stage she probably doesn’t have adequate space on her mantel for all the symbols of recognition that have come her way: the Humanitarian Award from the International Press Academy; the Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service from the Army; and the “Humanitarian of the Year” award from the Sons of Italy.
She’s been recognized for her volunteer work by the Vietnam Veterans of America and Shriners Hospitals. And she founded Windfeather Inc. to award college scholarships, among other things, to American Indian kids. The list goes on, but by now you get the general idea.
The Brooklyn-born Stevens is in town to star in the New Theatre Restaurant production of “Miracle on South Division Street,” Tom Dudzick’s comedy about a boisterous family of Polish-Americans in Buffalo. The cast includes Kansas City-based actors as well as Tricia Leigh Fisher, Stevens’ daughter. (Another daughter, Joely Fisher, is also an actress.)
Stevens said she read three scripts offered by the New Theatre, and she chose this one. “I thought I could get a lot of laughs with this play,” Stevens said. “I thought frankly, the way the world is today, people need to laugh. They need to be taken away. My career’s always been like that, though. I’ve always had the good fortune of coming along when my persona was bought by a lot of people all over the world because I made ’em feel good. “I’ve always been playful, youthful, funny, all of those kind of things, and so they think of me in that realm. So I think this play is going to help a lot of people who are worried about the economy or worried about the president, worried about the planes and the terrible things going on. How about the mudslide now? Did you see a picture of that? I couldn’t believe it. It was like, whoa.”
Stevens is the daughter of musicians, and she spent her teens in California. She made her screen debut in 1957-58 in a string of low-budget wayward-youth movies — “Young and Dangerous,” “Eighteen and Anxious” and “Dragstrip Riot.” She was hired by Jerry Lewis for her first high-profile movie, “Rock-A-Bye Baby,” and that led to a contract with Warner Bros. In the ’50s and early ’60s Warner Bros. was an entertainment factory in the old studio tradition with a stable of actors. The studio produced A-list movies, B pictures and a gaggle of black-and-white series for television, mainly Westerns and private-eye shows. Stevens appeared on several — “77 Sunset Strip,” “Maverick,” “Sugarfoot” and “Cheyenne.”
“I loved it and I was happy to be doing it,” she said. “It was my childhood dream. They would have what they called blanket calls at 6 o’clock in the morning. So I was up every morning at 5 o’clock. It was fun. I loved getting up in the morning and hanging out with all the stars in their dressing rooms. I’d be running around to Greer Garson and going, ‘Do you need anything, Miss Garson?’ All the cowboys were going, ‘Hey, you want to come down and ride the horses today?’ I was always on someone else’s set.”
Stevens said she was a “wild child” at Warner Bros.
“I worked hard but who knows if they’re working hard at 17, 18, 19?” she said. “The only thing I regretted was that I wasn’t getting the big roles that came along. They were going to Sandy Dennis and some of the New York actresses, like Shirley Knight.”
At one point, she said, a petition with 500 names circulated in a campaign for Stevens to be considered for the role played by Dennis in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Jack Warner, apparently, associated her exclusively with light entertainment. At Warner Bros.’ she began her recording career. Every week on “Hawaiian Eye” she was required to sing a song in a nightclub setting. Most of the show was shot at the studio but every six weeks exteriors were filmed in Hawaii. Her co-stars included Robert Conrad, Anthony Eisley and Troy Donahue.
“The boys were extremely protective of me and would say who I could date and who I couldn’t and I would kind of tell them, ‘Mind your own business,’ ” she said. “I got to sing every week and got to work with some of the finest musicians in the jazz world. I loved that part of my career. I wasn’t making a lot of money but it didn’t matter. That was my path and I was happy.”
Her fame was enhanced when she married singer Eddie Fisher. The marriage lasted about three years, and Stevens gave birth to her daughters. Stevens thinks she met Fisher at a party.
“I remember we laughed a lot,” she said. “I didn’t see him right away. He went on tour or something, and I wound up in New York and he was working at the Plaza and I went to seem him. “That’s where it all started, our romance. He had one of the great voices. Twenty-one No. 1 singles in a row. And he loved to sing. At 5 o’clock in the morning he’d wake up and sing and sound just as good as he would at 11.”
During her numerous USO tours, some of them with Bob Hope, Stevens met a number of nurses who had served in Vietnam. Those relationships led to her debut as a documentarian. She accompanied them on a return trip to Vietnam in 1997 and filmed all she could, including on-camera interviews. The result was a film, “A Healing.”
“They wanted to see the hospitals they worked in,” she said. “It’s a very, very important, poignant film.”
Stevens said it gets shown a lot in high schools. She’s been told that if you cut it down from its 150 minutes she might have a better chance of finding a home for it on cable television. Parts have been broadcast, but never the entire movie.
Stevens hasn’t done that much stage acting in her career, but she did make her Broadway debut in 1966. She co-starred with Richard Benjamin and Anthony Perkins in Neil Simon’s “The Star-Spangled Girl.” The show received a respectable run of 261 performances but Stevens said she had no desire to establish herself as a Broadway star. “No, I was just a baby,” she said. “I felt it was very confining. I had just sort of exploded on the scene and was given the chance to earn while you learn (in Hollywood). And I wanted to do more. I wanted to play different roles.”
“Miracle on South Division Street” runs through June 15 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster, Overland Park. For more information, call 913-649-7469 or go to NewTheatre.org.
Saved by Boonville
Despite spending nearly her whole adult life in show business, Connie Stevens didn’t direct a film until she was in her 70s. And the story was based on time she spent as a child in Boonville, Mo.
Stevens directed, produced and co-wrote 2012’s “Saving Grace B. Jones,” starring Rylie Fansler (above left), Evie Thompson (above right), Penelope Ann Miller, Michael Biehn and Tatum O’Neal. The fictionalized story is set during the catastrophic flood of 1951 and involves mental illness and small-town values. Stevens shot the film in Boonville, Mo., where she spent one summer as a kid.
“I was 10 years old and had seen a brutal murder in Brooklyn, and my dad was very worried because I stopped talking,” she said. “I got a little catatonic and I wouldn’t go out.”
So her father sent her to live with friends on a farm in Missouri for a summer, where the semi-rural environment had a healing effect.
“It’s very poignant and a very large part of my memory as a child,” she said.
“Saving Grace B. Jones” is scheduled to be released on video on May 27.