For those of us who are “old enough to know better” classified as Baby Boomers, early life was a Candyland existence with the arrival of the television sitcom. We were served up the life of innocence and perpetual family harmony beginning in the 1950’s.
Never would Ozzie and Harriet Nelson have to discuss opioid addiction with their boys. Never would June Cleaver have to deal with both of her children “coming home to the nest” when they couldn’t find a job. Never would Lucy and Ricky Ricardo have to worry about if their relatives were legal US citizens and therefore find a sanctuary city! Never would the character of Richie Petrie have to worry about how to come out as a gay young man to his parents, Laura and Rob. Such problems did not exist in the public eye… and were most certainly taboo! Just imagine any of these scenarios in the 50s and 60s. Just mind boggling!
However, in truth, there were many behind the scenes struggles with child stars – abuse of labor, time, schooling, sexual abuse, etc. In 1900, 18 percent of all American workers were under the age of 16. The National Industrial Recovery Act served to reduce child labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which for the first time set national minimum wage and maximum hour standards for workers in interstate commerce, also placed limitations on child labor. In effect, the employment of children under sixteen years of age was prohibited in manufacturing and mining.
In 2010, Eighteen states still had no laws to protect child performers and only half of states require child work permits.
In 2010, Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Murt watched a TV panel discussion with former child actors led by Paul Petersen, an original Mouseketeer who later appeared on The Donna Reed Show Pennsylvania became the latest state to update its labor laws for child performers with new requirements for work permits, on-set teachers, special trust accounts and limits on work hours.
The problems – The provisions of the 1938 Reform Act didn’t apply to child performers and child farm workers because of the FLSA’s so-called “Shirley Temple Act” exemptions. Several entertainment based states, now require 15 percent of their child actors funds to be set aside in a trust account. This measure was enacted after a 1930’s child star, Jackie Coogan’s parents mismanaged and spent his fortune prior to him reaching childhood. However, (Caution, Will Robinson!) according to many former child actors, parents do not always safeguard properly – exploitation, misuse of funds…and the ever-present pedophelia reported in the entertainment industry!
In 2017, Child and Entertainment laws – California (Example)–
Extensive requirements for theatrical employment: The Labor Commissioner issues permits to minors to work in the entertainment industry with required documentation from appropriate school districts as applicable and/or permits permitting employment of minors in the entertainment industry.
Sec. 6-1308.7-Work permit to work not more than 5 consecutive days in the entertainment or allied industries; excused from school for up to 5 absences per school year; school districts are to allow pupils to complete all assignments and tests missed during absence.
Sec. 6750 Family Code – Courts may require a portion of earnings be set aside for the minor in a trust.
Past President, former child actor, Paul Peterson, began the non-profit, “A Minor Consideration” in 1991 to raise awareness, advocate for child actor in the Industry today and change legislation.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter- Where they are Now
Larry Matthews– Ritchie Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show, was always fascinated with the behind the camera action. Has had a successful career in post production sales and married for 30 years!
Lauren Chapin – The youngest child on Father Knows Best- She actually rose to the top of 78 other applicants in the search for 9 year old, Kathy or :Kitten” as she was called. However her later life was fraught with trouble – drug abuse-addiction and three times divorced. She is now 70 years old. Sad to have had to play the perfect precious child. Did she receive the needed emotional support? Was she able to “be her own person outside of the role? Probably not.
Elinor Donahue – Multi-talented singer, dancer, actor beginning her career in vaudeville, Elinor played many parts, including in Father Knows Best and as a romantic interest for Sheriff Andy Griffith! She also acted in daytime soaps and In 1998, she published a memoir entitled “In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue”, in which she relived some of her memories of Hollywood along with providing more than 150 of her top-grade recipes.! It appears she escaped “the Hollywood life” relatively unscathed! Good for her! Here she is reporting for a date at the Mayberry jail! LOL
Rusty Hammer, aka Rusty Williams of “Make Room for Daddy” played the cute little red headed son of Danny Thomas. Danny stated he was the most talented child actor with whom he had ever worked. But, it appears he may have been one of those 1950 typecast actors who could not steer their career in a different direction. In addition family members reported he suffered from severe back pain, but refused to seek medical attention. Tragically, Rusty committed suicide in 1990, in his trailer home in DeRidder, Louisiana. I can’t imagine anything more sad, and preventable!
Angelia Cartwright – Was another of the most versatile actresses for decades – Make Room for Daddy, Lost in Space, the movie ,the Sound of Music”, etc, etc. No scandals reported. That’s not to say she didn’t have problems sacrificing her entire childhood to acting. But an image is worth a million words – In her early 60’s – an attractive and successful photographer.
Keith Thibodeaux- aka “Little Ricky Ricardo” He appears to have made it…despite the on and off camera goings-on of the “I Love Lucy “ Show of the 1950’s and 60’s. Reportedly, he manages his wife’s Christian Ballet Company called, Ballet Magnificat. (Don’t Know if he gets to do his drumming” with them! Congrats “Big Ricky! Your TV parents would be so proud!
Jay North- The Menacing kid , particularly to neighbor, Mr. Wilson in “Dennis the Menace” was an icon and worked in other industries including health foods, and according to a 2017 article, working as a corrections officer for the Florida Department of Corrections for the past 20 years! Wow! He reports being typecast, and pushed out of the industry, as well as helping to found the non-profit, A Minor Consideration with Paul Peterson.
Anissa Jones– “Buffy” on A Family Affair” OMG! What a life lesson – This little girl whose Mom drove her to stardom, working seven days a week, not having a real life, with brother, Paul (whom she cherished and insisted on others sharing generosity with him, ) headed in a downward spiral BECAUSE OF the monetary royalties finally awarded to her as a teenager. Hanging out with the wrong crowd, and mixing unlimited access to money and drugs, she became the ultimate party girl and died tragically of a drug overdose at age 18. Apparently, someone claiming to be a friend, wrote this blog regarding her life and demise with some suspect corrections at the end. Regardless this is a very sad tale!
Danny Bonaduce– The wise guy kid of the Partridge family clan, Danny got in trouble on camera and off. Third time in married life is apparently the charm with marriage to a considerably younger women whom he met at Starbucks and wed in 2009. He has struggled with drug addiction, with re-invented careers as a “bad boy radio host”, wrestler and is dabbling in the reality show circuit. Life is not perfect with the big family clan portrayed on TV.
–Melissa Gilbert – Ahhh “Little House on the Prairie “- taught us good family values of a bygone era! But what was life really like for Melissa, beyond the character of Laura Ingalls?
She had a tough family life and was adopted by a childless couple. In later years, she married, including actor Bruce Boxleitner and gave birth to a premature child, has suffered chronic head and neck injuries. She was present of the Screen Actors Guild X2 and tried to run for Congress, but stepped down due to her orthopedic problems. She is now happily married to actor Timothy Busfield since 2013 and lives in Michigan.
Through trials and tribulations, Melissa and Laura Ingalls ultimately survived the prairie and has evolved!
When I was a child, it was about innocence and trying to figure out the world in the simplest of terms. It should have been the same for these child actors. But, the brass ring was for the benefit of others, vicariously and financially. Some children were more resilient than others. Is it better today with the advent of social media and a “tell all society?” Only time will tell.
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