June Allyson a Popular MGM Star
“I couldn’t dance, and, Lord knows, I couldn’t sing, but I got by somehow. Richard Rodgers was always keeping them from firing me.” ~ June Allyson from a 1951 Interview.
June Allyson was an American film and television actress who was popular in the 1940s and 1950s. A major MGM contract star, Allyson won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her performance in “Too Young to Kiss” (1951). From 1959–1961, she hosted and occasionally starred in her own CBS anthology series, “The DuPont Show with June Allyson”.
June Allyson was born Eleanor Geisman, nicknamed “Ella”, on October 7, 1917 in The Bronx, New York City. In April 1918, when Allyson was only six months old, her alcoholic father, who had worked as a janitor, abandoned the family. Allyson was brought up in near poverty, living with her maternal grandparents. To make ends meet, her mother worked as a telephone operator and restaurant cashier, and when she had enough funds, she would occasionally reunite with her daughter, but more often than not Allyson lived with her grandparents or other relatives. In 1925, when Allyson was eight, a dead tree branch fell on her while she was riding on her tricycle with her pet terrier in tow. The heavy branch killed her dog outright and Allyson suffered a fractured skull and broken back. Her doctors thought she would never walk again and confined her to a heavy steel brace from neck to hips for four years. She ultimately regained her health, gradually progressing from a wheelchair to crutches to braces. Allyson’s true “escape” from her impoverished life was to go to the movies where she was enraptured by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies. As a teen, Allyson memorized the trademark Ginger Rogers dance routines and learned to copy the singing style of all the big movie stars of the time. When her mother remarried and the family became more financially stable, Allyson was enrolled in the Ned Wayburn Dancing Academy and began to enter dance competitions with the stage name of “Elaine Peters”. When her stepfather died in 1963 and facing a bleak future, she left high school after only completing two and half years, to seek jobs as a dancer. Her first job was at $60 dollars a week as a tap dancer at the Lido Club in Montreal. Returning to New York, she found work as an actress in movie short subjects filmed by Educational Pictures at its Astoria, Long Island studio. Her first career “break” came when Educational cast her as an ingenue opposite singer Lee Sullivan, comic dancers Herman Timberg, Jr. and Pat Rooney, Jr. and future comedy star Danny Kaye. When Educational ceased operations, Allyson moved over to Vitaphone in Brooklyn, and starred or co-starred (with dancer Hal Le Roy) in musical shorts. Taking the name ‘June Allyson’, she returned to the New York stage to take on more chorus roles in Rodgers and Hart’s “Higher and Higher” (1940) and Cole Porter’s “Panama Hattie” (1940). Her dancing and musical talent led to a stint as an understudy for the lead, Betty Hutton, and when Hutton contracted measles, Allyson appeared in five performances of “Panama Hattie”. Broadway director George Abbott caught one of the nights she filled in for Hutton and offered Allyson one of the lead roles in his production of “Best Foot Forward” (1941).
In 1943, Allyson was offered the role in the 1943 film version of “Best Foot Forward” and went to Hollywood . She also landed small roles in “Girl Crazy” (1943) and “Thousands Cheer” (1943). Her breakout role came in 1944 when she starred opposite Van Johnson and Gloria DeHaven in “Two Girls and a Sailor”. The studio promoted Allyson with as “girl next door” and Van Johnson as the quintessential “boy next door.” Allyson and Johnson became known as “sweetheart team,” and went on to appear together in four later films. Allyson’s early success as a musical star led to several other postwar musicals, including “Two Sisters from Boston” (1946) and “Good News” (1947). Allyson also played straight roles such as Constance in “The Three Musketeers” (1948) opposite Gene Kelly, the tomboy Jo March in “Little Women” (1949), and a nurse in “Battle Circus” (1953). She was very adept at being able to cry on cue, and many of her films incorporated a crying scene. Fellow MGM player Margaret O’Brien recalled that she and Allyson were known as “the town criers”. Besides Van Johnson, James Stewart was also a frequent costar, teaming up with Allyson in films such as “The Glenn Miller Story” (1953), “The Stratton Story” (1949) and “Strategic Air Command” (1955). In 1956 she starred opposite a young rising star named Jack Lemmon in the hit comedy, “You Can’t Run Away From It”.
After her film career ended, Allyson appeared on radio and made a handful of nightclub singing engagements. In later years, she appeared on television in her own series “The DuPont Show with June Allyson” which ran from 1959 – 1961. She also appeared in such popular programs as “The Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote”. Allyson made a special appearance in 1994 in “That’s Entertainment III”, as one of the film’s narrators. She spoke about MGM’s golden era, and introduced vintage film clips. In 1996, Allyson became the first recipient of the Harvey Award, presented by the James M. Stewart Museum Foundation, in recognition of her positive contributions to the world of entertainment. As a personal friend of President and Mrs. Reagan she was invited to many White House Dinners, and in 1988, President Reagan appointed her to “The Federal Council of Aging”. Allyson and her husband, Dr. Ashrow, actively supported fund-raising efforts for both the James Stewart and Judy Garland museums, both Stewart and Garland having been close friends of hers. Up until 2003 Allyson remained as busy as ever touring the country making personal appearances, headlining celebrity cruises, and speaking on behalf of Kimberly-Clark, a long-time commercial interest.
When Allyson first started to become a star in Hollywood, studio heads attempted to enhance the pairing of Van Johnson and Allyson as “America’s Sweethearts” by sending the two of them on a series of “official dates” which were highly publicized and led to a public perception that a romance had been kindled. But privately Allyson was actually being courted by movie heartthrob and powerful Hollywood “player” Dick Powell, who was 13 years her senior and had been previously married to Mildred Maund and Joan Blondell. On August 19, 1945, Allyson and Powell married against MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer’s objections. The story is that after defying Mayer twice by refusing to stop seeing Powell, in a “tactical master stroke”, she asked Mayer to give her away at the wedding. He was so disarmed that he agreed but put Allyson on suspension anyway. The Powells had two children, Pamela Allyson Powell, adopted in 1948 through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in an adoption arranged by Georgia Tann, and Richard Powell, Jr. (born December 24, 1950). The couple briefly separated in 1961, but reconciled and remained married until his death on January 2, 1963.
Allyson became romantically involved with writer/director Dirk Summers in an ill-fated affair that lasted from 1963 to 1975. Their relationship often became the lead item in Walter Winchell’s then influential column . They became members of the nascent jet-set and were frequently seen together in Cap d’Antibes, Madrid, Rome, and London. However, Summers continuously refused her marriage proposals and the relationship ended. During the time she was reportedly involved with Summers, Allyson was twice married and divorced to businessman Alfred Glenn Maxwell. The first time from 1963 to 1965 and again from 1966 to 1970. During this time, Allyson struggled with alcoholism, which she overcame in the mid-1970s. In 1976, Allyson married David Ashrow, a dentist turned actor. The couple occasionally performed together in regional theater, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, toured the United States with the stage play “My Daughter, Your Son”. They also appeared on celebrity cruise ship tours on the Royal Viking Sky, in a program that highlighted Allyson’s movie career. They remained married for thirty years until her death in 2006.
Following hip-replacement surgery in 2003, Allyson’s health began to deteriorate. With her husband at her side, she died July 8, 2006, aged 88 at her home in Ojai, California of pulmonary respiratory failure and acute bronchitis.