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home : considered comment : august 2007 May 24, 2016

9/26/2007 9:02:00 AM
When Macy's Mullican sisters conquered Hollywood
President and Owner, The Sentinel

Do you know about the Mullican sisters from Macy who became Broadway stage and Hollywood movie actresses? Probably not. Their time is long past and yet their rise to success still is a tale worth telling.

There were five of them, all daughters of a Macy dentist, Dr. Lorenzo Mullican, and his wife, Cora Bell Hicks. The mother was a determined woman who once worked as reporter for the weekly Macy Monitor. She had a dream of acting that was forbidden by her strict Methodist parents, so she realized them through devotion to her daughters' careers.

Three of the five - Leota, Martha, Lola - were born in Macy. The other two, Rosemary and Priscilla, were born in Indianola, Iowa, where Dr. Mullican moved his practice in 1907. Indianola is near Des Moines and the site of Simpson College.

Leota and Lola were the first to leave home, in 1927-28, for Broadway. It was there that a producer changed their name to Lane which Rosemary and Priscilla later took on as well. The fifth sister, Martha, had no interest in show business and became a medical secretary.

Cora made certain that her daughters got training in singing, dancing, acting and musical instruments. When the last two, Rosemary and Priscilla, were ready to go to New York City in 1932, Cora accompanied them, leaving a husband who later divorced her.

Cora made sure that both girls attend auditions for Broadway productions. While singing at one of these auditions, they were heard by Fred Waring. His popular Pennsylvanians, a 50-piece band and chorale group, were about to start another national tour. The girls' looks and talent impressed Waring so much that he hired them both. Rosemary and Priscilla then toured as feature performers with the Pennsylvanians for five years, Cora going along to mother them. Rosemary sang the ballads, Priscilla sang the swing tunes and joked with Waring and his guests.

While appearing in Hollywood in 1937, Waring and his band were signed by Warner Bros. to appear in the movie "Varsity Show" with actor Dick Powell. Rosemary and Priscillla each got feature roles in the film and were so appealing that Warner's signed them to seven-year contracts.

Meanwhile, Leota and Lola had appeared in three Broadway shows in the late 1920s before trying their luck in Hollywood. Leota appeared in only one movie, a comedy short, in 1931, and returned to Broadway for the rest of her career. She had three marriages but no children and finally retired in California, where she died in 1963 at the age of 59.

Lola projected a tough-girl image in her roles during a 17-year movie career. She appeared in 44 films from 1929 to 1946, but never broke away from the type-casting. She retired twice from the business for marriages but made a comeback by joining her two sisters for three movies together from 1938-1941, all well received by audiences. Lola retired from films in 1946. She had five marriages altogether, one to actor Lew Ayres, and died in California in 1981 at the age of 75.

Rosemary and Priscilla, some said, were the prettiest of the sisters and each made a significant impact in the film industry.

Rosemary's beautiful singing voice and sophisticated beauty led to feature roles in movies with some of Hollywood's top male stars, including John Garfield, Rudy Vallee, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Always athletic, she once had to hang upside down from a trapeze in a movie's opening scene to be rescued by her leading man, Vallee.

In 1941, Rosemary made an unusual move for actresses of her era. She became a star on Broadway with "Best Foot Forward" which ran for 326 performances. She lost the role to Lucille Ball when it later became a movie. Rosemary married just once, to Hollywood makeup artist Bud Westmore. They had one child, a daughter, and were married 13 years before going through a messy divorce in 1954. She appeared in 26 films from 1937 to 1945 and died at age 61 in 1974.

Priscilla's blond beauty had an appealing girl-next-door quality. That, with her marvelous singing voice and vivacious personality, made her perhaps the best-known of the sisters. She appeared in 22 pictures from 1937 to 1948 with the leading male actors of the time: John Garfield, Eddie Albert, Ronald Reagan, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Cummings and Cary Grant.

In 1942, famed director Alfred Hitchcock selected her for the leading role in his mystery movie "Saboteur." Priscilla's reputation earlier had earned her consideration for the role of Melanie Wilkes in the classic movie "Gone With The Wind." The part went to Olivia de Haviland.

Priscilla married an Air Force colonel, Joseph Howard, and had four children during a 34-year marriage that lasted until his death in 1976. Priscilla died in 1995 at age 79 and was buried beside her husband in Arlington national cemetery, Washington, D. C.

It is a mark of Priscilla's movie popularity that the first wife of entertainer Elvis Presley, Priscilla Beaulieu, had been named for her.

Mother Cora continued to watch over her daughters' careers in California, where the girls had purchased her the house where she lived until her death in 1951.

Most of the Lane sisters' movies played here at the Char-Bell (Times) theater and most of us saw all of them. A local uncle of theirs, Ben Mullican, talked of them almost incessantly to keep friends current on their careers.

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