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An Interview With…
        - Elena Verdugo
        - Adele Mara
        - Linda Stirling
        - Virginia Vale
        - Mary Ellen Kay
        - Marie Harmon
        - Helen Talbot
        - Peggy Stewart
        - Caren Marsh
        - Eleanor Stewart
        - Audrey Totter
        - Marion Shilling
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        - Nell O'Day
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        - Edith Fellows
        - Pauline Moore
        - Beverly Garland
        - Maureen O'Hara
        - Ann Rutherford
        - Noel Neill
        - Jane Greer
        - Lisa Gaye
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Rex Allen was Republic’s last singing cowboy. He starred in the last B-Western series to lens at the once mighty Republic. By 1954 the rapid encroachment of television and the small screen Western had spelled the demise of the theatrical Saturday afternoon program, or series, Western. And Mary Ellen Kay was the last leading lady to make a definite mark on this unique brand of entertainment, co-starring in six of Rex Allen’s 19 Westerns.

Mary Ellen told us, “I was born in Boardman, Ohio, which is like a little offshoot of Youngstown, August 29, 1929. The great fall, you know, the stock market. I was born that year. I was performing in school from the time I was a child, everything I could get into. It was just something natural. I wasn’t one of those kids who was pushed into show business by their parents. I loved to sing and I led my parents in the direction I wanted to go. Everything that came up that was musical; I was on the stage singing. My grandparents on my mother’s side were all musicians and singers and their relatives were still in Vaudeville when I was born. My aunt was an opera singer in New York and my uncle was a lyric tenor. On my father’s side, my grandfather was Swiss and German and played the guitar. I could hear my uncle’s yodeling from way up in the hills in Pennsylvania, where he was skiing. I had already started singing professionally in the middle 1940s, even though I was fifteen. My parents chaperoned me. I just loved to be on stage.”

“When I first went to Hollywood, it was a different place. It was a little town and people were polite, lovely and helpful. Pretty close to my getting there, I got into doing stage work. From that I just kept growing. I did theatre at the Glendale Center Theatre with interesting people, including Leonard Nimoy. I was enrolled at the Bliss-Hayden School of Theatre when a talent agent spotted me and offered me a screen test.”

Mary Ellen’s first film was “Girl’s School” (1950) at Columbia. “I didn’t have a very big part but I had a diving scene. Just like anything I was ever asked, can you do it…I would always say sure, and find out how to learn. I found an Olympic diving instructor by the name of Fred Cady and he taught me how to do a jack-knife dive, because that’s what they wanted. Also in 1950, I did ‘Tarzan and the Slave Girl’ with Lex Barker at RKO. I played the slave girl that was engaged to the prince. Lex Barker (Tarzan) was very friendly, very nice to everybody. People were very nice in those days. I never saw any displays of temperament.”

Title card to "Streets of Ghost Town" starring Charles Starrett.

It was then Mary Ellen moved into the field we know her best for—Westerns. “My first Western was ‘Streets of Ghost Town’ (‘50). That was my love, because I loved horses long before I ever went to Hollywood. I always loved to dress cowboy. Whenever I’d visit my aunt, although she was an English rider, I donned her boots and clothes and just played cowgirl when I was young. Charles Starrett had such a fabulous background, he’d been making movies for a long time, ‘cause I used to go to all the Westerns when I was a little girl, in ‘36, ‘37, ‘38. My favorite of the old timers was Hopalong Cassidy. To me, he was like an angel, with his white hair. My mother loved Westerns. I can remember the first Western she ever took me to see was ‘The Plainsman’ (‘36) with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. I loved her voice.”

Rex Allen sings to Mary Ellen Kay in Republic's "Silver City Bonanza" ('51).Mary Ellen was under contract to Republic from January 13, 1951 to January 12, 1952 and made 10 features and a serial (“Government Agents Vs. Phantom Empire” [‘51]) that year. “My agent, William Morris at that time, sent me out to Republic. When I arrived I met George Blair, the director that was going to do my first film there, ‘Silver City Bonanza’ (‘51). He put me in a buckboard with Rex and we rode around. Probably an hour and a half later, he simply said, ‘I think you’ll do.’ George Blair was a honey—he was like a dad to me with a lot of good advice.”

Mary Ellen nearly became Rex Allen’s permanent leading lady, co-starring in six with him. “Rex was a wholesome young man. The perfect model for a cowboy—shy, handsome and a gentleman. He enjoyed what he did so much. He was like a kid who got to play cowboy and Indians for real. On the set, when things slowed down a bit between shots, he’d pick up his guitar and we’d sing together. Rex had the most beautiful voice. It was so much fun. We did all of the singing in the studio. We never recorded anything on the set. You go in the studio where the orchestra was and Victor Young would direct us, put us in like phone booths. We’d put on earphones. Rex couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t hear him, but we could both hear the music. Then, they mesh things together. When we were on the set, we could hear the music as put together, then we’d just have to remember what the lyrics were, and that’s how we did it. We did sing on the set but it wasn’t going into the microphone. It was already recorded. All music was done that way.”

George Blair directed her in two and Phil Ford in one before Mary Ellen made a string of three with Rex Allen under Bill Witney’s tutelage. “Bill was just the best. He brought zip to everything. He could visualize what he wanted to see on the screen.” They had completed “Colorado Sundown”, the first one, and then, as Mary Ellen explains, about three or four days into lensing “The Last Musketeer” (‘52), “We didn’t have too many days, 14 days and it’s over, right? Bill Witney said, do you think you could do a flying mount? I looked at him and I just said, I could, I would, that’s what I said. And I would work on it. Well, every minute I had til we shot, about five days later, was hysterical. Slim Pickens and the guys would give me advice, and Rex would give me advice, tell me to relax and this is what you do and that’s how you do it. I practiced—I fell under the belly of the horse…went all the way over…and finally I thought I was getting somewhere, but I didn’t yet have confidence. When the day came, Bill said to me, ‘Do you think you can do the mount today, because the scene’s scheduled?’ And I gulped, ‘Yeah, I guess I can do it.’ So later, he’s lining up for the particular scene where I follow this young man that’s in trouble. He’s supposed to be my sweetheart and I know they’re trying to kill him and so on and so forth. So when I’m supposed to mount the horse, I’m thinking, I have to back up just a tiny bit. Bill says to me, ‘We’re going to do a rehearsal, then we’re going to do a take.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Two times! Oh, no!’ I saw Bill lean toward the cameraman and they were talking back and forth. I could tell the cameraman was taking some instruction from him and finally Bill said to me, ‘No, we’re going to do it in one take. Let’s just do it.’ I said a prayer, ‘Oh, Lord, help me.’ I put my foot back on a little uprise with a rock and sort of pushed myself off. I had several yards to run, so I had a chance. The next thing I knew I was on the horse and we were galloping away. I felt so good and I know Bill was happy. Later, I found out, when I was at a film festival over 40 years later, I had never seen that movie, and when I saw the movie, it was so fast, Bill laughed and joked about it. He said, ‘I just turned around to the cameraman and told him you better speed this up.’ So you have to really look quick or you’ll miss me. (Laughs) It’s just a once in a lifetime miracle, it was wonderful. I don’t even know how I did it, but I did. I must have had help spiritually, that’s all I can say.”

Al Bridge, Mary Ellen and Rex Allen in "The Last Musketeer" ('52 Republic).

Mary Ellen didn’t meet the head of Republic, Herbert J. Yates, until she’d been at the studio for 10 months or so. “I thought I was going to play a joke on director Bill Witney. My hairdresser put me up to it. Bill Witney was the most focused director I’d ever met or that I’d ever worked with. He could see what he wanted and he knew how to have you do it. He just believed we could do it and he made us think we could. Anyway, I have dark hair. My hairdresser had a blonde wig on her worktable, and she says, ‘Why don’t you try it on, see how it looks.’ And I said, okay. We had just finished ‘The Last Musketeer’. So I went out and paraded past Bill with this blonde wig, just sort of walked by him, and said hi Bill, made some remark about the day and I’ll see you. I knew we were going to start shooting the next movie pretty quickly, ‘Border Saddlemates’ (‘52). I just had time to go to wardrobe and do whatever had to be done. Get the script and so on. Well, the next day I’m on the set and one of the fellows said, ‘Gee, I’m sorry, I guess you’re not going to be working on the next film.’ Which didn’t mean I wouldn’t be working on something else, but I thought, Bill never said anything. I would imagine maybe he would say something because we’d just made two movies in a row. I thought to myself, why didn’t Bill tell me when he saw me walk by him? He looked at me but he didn’t say anything. But his mind was working, you can tell. Anyway, I went home and the next day I found out I wasn’t doing the movie. Someone told me there was a phone call and Mr. Yates wanted to see me immediately. I trotted over to his office and went in and waited and waited and waited and finally he had me sit at his desk in front of him and handed me some sheets of script. He said, ‘I want you to read the part of the girl and I’ll read the part of the cowboy.’ That’s what he said! So he starts and then I read the girl and he reads the cowboy and I read the girl and he reads the cowboy and finally he says, “Okay, that’s enough. You can go now.’ That was all. Well, I get home a little bewildered because I knew Republic was cutting down, that Roy and Dale had left and things were going to change. Right then, I get a phone call that says I was to report at a certain time tomorrow at wardrobe and to pick up my script. I thought, I bet he’s forcing Bill to use me and that wasn’t a good feeling. That was the impression I got.”

Rex Allen, Mary Ellen, Slim Pickens on loaction for "Colorado Sundown" ('51 Republic).

Nothing was said about this incident during the lensing of “Border Saddlemates”, which turned out to be Mary Ellen’s last film at Republic. It left her wondering for many years, until “…around 42 years later I saw Bill for the first time again at the Knoxville Film Festival in 1994. On a celebrity panel, I finally got up enough nerve to bring it up. We’d never talked about it, we never discussed it, and that was the last Western I made at Republic. So I just asked Bill, ‘Back in1952, why didn’t you want me in ‘Border Saddlemates’? Did Mr. Yates have anything to do with my being in it?’ Now Bill’s taking all this in. I think he’s going to reveal some big truth, because I’m sure he remembers and by George, you know what, he burst out into laughter and said, ‘You didn’t know? No, Mr. Yates didn’t make me do it. I just told him I couldn’t have a blonde leading lady with a blonde cowboy. And we all had a good laugh. (Laughs) Yates called me in just to check my hair color. I guess my little blonde wig joke really boomeranged.”

Jimmy Moss, Rex Allen and Slim Pickens in Mary Ellen's last with Rex, "Border Saddlemates" ('52).

Mary Ellen did, in fact, work as a blonde a couple of years later in a non-Western, “The Long Wait” (‘54), possibly her best work. It demonstrated her potential as an actress, where the B-Westerns didn’t give her that kind of opportunity. “I can remember working with Anthony Quinn. They bleached my hair blonde every other day, and they cut it, and if you put your fingers through my hair, it would just stand up. All I could think of in that last scene by the window, was, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s messing up my hair.’ (Laughs) So when I’m asked what was it like kissing Anthony Quinn, I don’t remember, all I could think of was my hair.”

Buddy Ebsen, fresh out of the service, had been Rex Allen’s sidekick in the first three Republic westerns Mary Ellen worked in, but a change was made for her last three to rodeo comedian Slim Pickens. “When I first met Buddy, he and his sister still had their tap dancing school. But Buddy had some things coming up that looked good for him. And also, to tell you the truth, Republic was changing people quite frequently. Slim Pickens was a laugh a minute. He kept us in stitches when he’d get in the corral like an old rodeo clown with the bulls.”

Title card to Rex Allen's "Rodeo King and the Senorita" with Mary Ellen Kay.

It’s been proposed that Republic paired Rex and Mary Ellen in several films in order to establish another ‘Roy and Dale’ co-starring team, but Mary Ellen discounts that idea. “No, they never, as far as the front office was concerned, I never heard anything. But it was a wonderful experience. I was really kind of green, I was learning. I mean, some of those scenes are pretty bad, but then I’ve seen old Westerns that are just as bad…but it was fun. It was for the kids.”

The end of Rex Allen’s B-Westerns at Republic was, essentially, the end of 24 years of the Saturday matinee Westerns for theatres—or longer when you include the silent era. Television had arrived, bringing in the era of the so called “adult Westerns”. At the theatres, the longer, more maturely scripted A-Western was coming into play, replacing the B-Western. “I think with Wild Bill Elliott at Allied Artists it started to change. I had a little crush on Bill. He was really like a daddy, so sweet and I thought he was handsome. You know how young ladies are…but that was all. I don’t think he knew that. I never told anybody that.”

During the making of her one Western with Bill Elliott, “Vigilante Terror” (‘53), Mary Ellen had a frightening incident. “We were out on location and a hard riding scene was coming up. I declined having a stuntwoman ride for me because riding horses was a joy for me. So off we went through the mountains—faster and faster. Suddenly, the shot was over and everybody reined in their horses—except me! I couldn’t get my horse to stop running. I yelled, ‘Loose horse! Loose horse!’ Bill rode up beside me, grabbed the reins and stopped my horse exactly the way the hero would do in the westerns. He was my hero!”

Bill Elliott and Mary Ellen--"Vigilante Terror" ('53 Allied Artists).

Along with the six Allen titles, Mary Ellen co-starred in three with the inexplicable Allan “Rocky” Lane. “I didn’t have the kind of situations Peggy Stewart and others had with Rocky. I just worked with a very nice person. ‘Course we never sat and talked. I did hear things from other people, but he was polite, on time, knew his lines. He wasn’t really a people person. He was focused and professional. As I look back and think of Allan, I think he was shy and a loner. In scenes he always looked right in your eyes and smiled when he spoke to you, but afterwards he’d just go off on his own. I didn’t see him mix with the guys. He was very good at what he did, but if you don’t get to know the people you’re working with, they think you are stuck up.”

Walter Reed, Doctor Forrest Taylor, Mary Ellen and Allen "Rocky" Lane look over a recovering Michael Chapin in Republic's "Wells Fargo Gunmaster" ('51).

Sheriff Irving Bacon and "Rocky" Lane try to help a perplexed Mary Ellen in "Desert of Lost Men" ('51 Republic).

Walter Reed protects a frightened Mary Ellen in "Government Agents Vs. Phanton Legion" serial ('31 Republic).Besides the B-Westerns, another of Republic’s stalwart moneymakers over the years, and a genre they were the best at producing, was the serial. Mary Ellen co-starred with Walter Reed in “Government Agents Vs. Phantom Legion” (‘51). “It just seemed like I was at the desk all the time. Serials are shot out of sequence. I was on the set to shoot scenes for several different episodes in one day. I never read the whole script. I just knew what I had to do that day. Even then, they’d change the dialogue just before we were to shoot and I’d have to learn entirely new lines. (Laughs) I’d be in the middle of a Rex Allen film and the next day I was told to report to building 21 to do lines for this serial. Luckily, I was a quick study. But most of the conversation would be between the guys about the plots and so on. Every now and then I’d say so and so is on the phone or whatever. It was just a part.”

After a year at Republic, her option was up, and her contract was not renewed. “There were some things outside that my agent wanted me to do and I was interested in television. I have a feeling Mr. Yates found out because he didn’t want anybody being in television. That might have been part of it. And I was going on interviews for television shows about the end of my time at Republic.”

Following her one year tenure at Republic, Mary Ellen began to freelance. “That was a strange time, because Republic was a family, you’re there almost every day. Everybody is friendly and caring. I missed everybody. But then I really did get busy with television. I did something with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and that was wonderful to be able to work with them. I worked on ‘Annie Oakley’ and I did an episode of ‘The Lone Ranger’ where I played the part of a really bad gal, an actress who pretended to be two or three different kinds of people. That was fun. I loved TV in those days. When I would go on an interview for a TV show it wasn’t a cattle call. You had no more than maybe four or five people, but you wouldn’t see them. It was done so discreetly in those days, in a sense that we’re not going to put them all out there to intimidate each other. They were so thoughtful. I certainly made more money doing television than I did at Republic, so I was happy about that.”

One of her movies in this period was “Yukon Vengeance” (‘54) with Kirby Grant. “It was fun working with him. He was a very up person. And his scenes were fun.”

Mary Ellen and Mountie Kirby Grant in "Yukon Vengeance" ('54 Allied Artists).

Mary Ellen was married in June of 1954. “I went on tour for ‘The Long Wait’ and got married when I came back. He was a cosmetics executive. Although we went back to New York where we had a beautiful home out in the country on 80 acres, we rented a house in the Palisades and would spend the winters there. It was really lovely and I got to know his two young sons, one was about eleven and the other was around six. We became great friends. I just resigned myself to being married, although I did commute back to Hollywood for a few parts now and then.”

Mary Ellen was married for five years and gave birth to a girl, Molly, who is now a singer in Nashville. But at the end of five years, the couple was divorced. Toward the end of her marriage, Mary Ellen found work in the low budget independent 1961 Western, “Buffalo Gun” (made in ‘58, released in ‘61) with country music singers Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce and Carl Smith forming a sort of latter day Three Mesquiteers. “Oh, Marty Robbins, what a cutie he was. He was such a dear. He just made you smile. And of course, it was the funniest, worst movie I ever saw. Oh, it was funny! There would be a huge herd of stock footage buffalo running and you’d see these guys, acting like the Three Stooges. I just found it really funny. But when Marty was singing to me, I thought, next to Rex, that was the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard. Marty had such a sweetness about him, just was a darling human being. I was glad I had the opportunity to work with him. Wayne Morris was in it. He did a real super job of acting. In this crazy movie he just stood out like Superman.”

Mary Ellen Kay and Marty Robbins in "Buffalo Guns".

“I met my second husband, Tim Ruffalo, shortly after I left New York. I went to Ohio to be close to my family. I had a little girl and I just wanted to be near my mother. I stayed in Ohio for three months, where I kind of regrouped. Then I went out to Los Angeles and it had changed. It was a different place. The people had changed, the casting directors I knew were gone. It wasn’t the same atmosphere. The kind of people they were looking for weren’t the girl next door type. They were just more sex symbols. The scripts were, at least some of the scenes that I read, the language was changing and you know, I just didn’t feel comfortable.”

Mary Ellen’s second marriage in 1963 bore her a son, Bill. That marriage lasted for 30 years until he died in 1993 of a stroke following heart bypass surgery. The marriage also instigated a move to Phoenix, AZ. “I hosted a Christian TV show off and on for six years, I did plays. I worked at the Sombrero Playhouse dinner theatre with Farley Granger in ‘Ring Around the Moon’ and I did ‘Destry Rides Again’, different things like that. I made national commercials like Ford Truck where I’d be playing the part of ‘Annie’ and the good guy would be in white and the bad guy would be in black. We did like a 45 minute movie for Ford (dealer reps).”

Is there anything in her career Mary Ellen would have done differently? “I would have worked harder. I would have been more focused. But I was young, immature. I think I would have been a better actress had I probably stuck to it. I think my movies got better, as far as my acting is concerned, when Bill Witney started directing. I look back and I’m saying, isn’t it wonderful that Westerns are a lifestyle for a lot of these people that attend film festivals.”

Mary Ellen’s Western Filmography

Movies: Streets of Ghost Town (1950 Columbia)—Charles Starrett; Silver City Bonanza (1951 Republic)—Rex Allen; Thunder In God’s Country (1951 Republic)—Rex Allen; Wells Fargo Gunmaster (1951 Republic)—Allan “Rocky” Lane; Rodeo King and the Senorita (1951 Republic)—Rex Allen; Fort Dodge Stampede (1951 Republic)—Allan “Rocky” Lane; Desert of Lost Men (1951 Republic)—Allan “Rocky” Lane; Colorado Sundown (1952 Republic)—Rex Allen; Last Musketeer (1952 Republic)—Rex Allen; Border Saddlemates (1952 Republic)—Rex Allen; Vigilante Terror (1953 Allied Artists)—Wild Bill Elliott; Yukon Vengeance (1954 Allied Artists)—Kirby Grant; Thunder Pass (1954 Lippert)—Dane Clark; Buffalo Gun (1961 Globe)—Marty Robbins. Television: Roy Rogers: Pat’s Inheritance (1953); Annie Oakley: Joker on Horseback (1956); Annie Oakley: The Mississippi Kid (1956); Circus Boy: The Little Gypsy (1956); Lone Ranger: Trouble at Tylerville (1956); Lone Ranger: Outlaws in Greasepaint (1957); Gray Ghost: Manhunt (1958).











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