Possible Betty Lou Gerson McCallie Avenue birth residence on left
Former Marlboro Avenue home of Betty Lou Gerson’s aunt and uncle
Former Marlboro Avenue home of Betty Lou Gerson’s aunt and uncle
Movie posters for Betty Lou Gerson’s movies
Gerson biography cover, left, and author Dr. Lona Bailey, right
Many baby boomers and others from the Chattanooga area grew up watching the classic 1961 Walt Disney movie, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” and hearing the voice of the villainess woman, Cruella de Vil.
Her mean, scary and authoritative voice with a slight British accent might sound like someone from faraway, but the person behind that voice – Betty Lou Gerson – was born in the Scenic City and spent her very early life here.
The collectively forgotten fact has come to the forefront with the recent publication of the first known biography of Ms. Gerson, “The Voice of Villainy: The Betty Lou Gerson Story,” by Dr. Lona Bailey of Manchester, Tn.
While known for the Cruella role, in real life Ms. Gerson was the opposite. The author said in a phone interview that her work on the book uncovered a very upbeat and positive woman with a winsome manner.
Dr. Bailey, who has a doctorate in psychology and has worked as a therapist and stay-at-home mother, had already written a book about Virginia Gregg, who was the also-distinctive voice of Norman Bates’ mother on the movie, “Psycho.”
The current book came about when Dr. Bailey’s oldest daughter was watching and enjoying the original movie, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” While Dr. Bailey was also watching it, the voice of the Cruella character caught her ear.
“I said, ‘These voices are great. Who is she? Her voice is very unique.’ I didn’t recognize her name, but it said she was born in Chattanooga. I didn’t think of her as a small-town Southern girl.”
Ms. Gerson’s family would later move to Birmingham before moving to Chicago, where she got her first taste of radio dramatic work. After moving to New York in her 20s, she would become even better known for her voice talent, including with the soap opera “The Guiding Light.”
She later moved to Los Angeles and was in a few films, but it was her voice work with which she became best known. She was the narrator in the 1950 Walt Disney animated film, “Cinderella,” but would become most famous as the voice of Cruella in “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.”
This woman who also had usually small on-camera parts in such movies as “Mary Poppins” and such television shows as “Perry Mason” died in 1999 at the age of 84 from a stroke.
The movie in which with she gained her greatest fame became more commonly called “101 Dalmatians.” Disney also released a 1996 version of the movie, with which she was not involved on screen, although she was named a Disney Legend that year.
The 1961 version, based on a 1956 novel of the same name by Dodie Smith, was a financial hit for the Walt Disney Co. after struggling in the numbers’ ledger following the production of the expensive “Sleeping Beauty.”
The popular movie tells the story of some dalmatians being rescued by their dog parents from the sinister Cruella character, who wanted to sell their coats for furs.
Through her research and writing, Dr. Bailey learned Ms. Gerson’s father, Max Gerson, had been a steel mill operator and official in Birmingham, where he and his wife, Jennie, had their first daughter, Sid, in 1913. Due to some long-term contractual work in Tennessee, the family soon moved to Chattanooga.
And that is where Betty Louisa Gerson, later shortened to Betty Lou, was born on April 20, 1914. She was named for mother Jennie’s younger sister, Flora Betty Lesser.
Dr. Bailey said a Chattanooga Times story about the birth erroneously refers to her as a boy. She mentions in the book that the Gerson family stayed in Chattanooga for only about a year or so.
But they and their extended family did become part of a slowly growing local Jewish population in Chattanooga at that time. Mr. Gerson’s brother-in-law, Sam Cassell, who was married to Jennie’s older sister, Kate, became the manager of Mr. Gerson’s Chattanooga operations, and they would live here for many years.
Of the Gersons’ move back to Birmingham not long after she was born, Dr. Bailey writes in the book, “After Max’s Chattanooga contract was fulfilled and with World War I underway, the Gersons moved back to Birmingham in 1915, where Sid and Betty did the majority of their growing up. The girls knew elite Southern privilege from the moment they were born with more memories of nurses and governesses than of mother before their boarding school days.”
Some information found at the Chattanooga Public Library lists the Gersons only in the city directory of 1915. It identified Max J. Gerson as a broker and resident of unit 24 of The Alberta Apartments in the 300 block of Houston Street, between Fifth and Vine streets.
A check this week found that the apartment building is no longer standing, and the West Campus Housing facility of UT-Chattanooga is there.
Dr. Bailey said she found a Times article that said the family lived at 732 McCallie Ave. at the time she was born. The street numbers on McCallie Avenue were later changed, but since it was near O’Neal Street, a check in the 1000 block shows two older homes still standing in that block. If it is not one of those, it was likely one located in a vacant lot on the Missionary Ridge side of the two homes.
The 1914 city directory says that the McCallie Avenue home that year was resided in by David R. Weill, who ran the Read House Cigar Co.
Her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Cassell, for a period in the mid-1930s lived at 2512 E. Fourth St. before living for several decades beginning in the late 1930s at a still-standing home at 101 Marlboro Ave. in Brainerd between Belvoir Avenue and Moore Road.
Old city directories say Mr. Cassell was an assistant manager with Chattanooga Auto Wrecking Co. in 1935 but by 1938 was an assistant manager with the S.C. Weber Iron and Metal Co. Determining whether the Great Depression had affected the Gerson Chattanooga operations and caused him to find work elsewhere would require further research.
Mr. Cassell, who had been born in Manchester, England, and worked as a pottery artist with the Wedgewood company in that country before coming to the United States, died in January 1957. He was buried at B’nai Zion Cemetery off Lullwater Road in Red Bank.
Ms. Cassell, who was Ms. Gerson’s aunt by blood relations, lived until dying in Memphis in June 1975. She had also lived in the Marlboro Avenue home into the 1970s as a widow. She was likely no doubt proud when “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” came out in the early 1960s while still living in that home, which coincidently was on street number 101.
The connection between Ms. Cassell and Ms. Gerson is highlighted in one Chattanooga Times article from 1935 found on newspapers.com with the help of the Chattanooga Public Library. It says that she was by then a blossoming radio actress in Chicago.
After saying she had been an amateur only 15 months earlier, the article added, “Now she has the leading woman’s part in “The First Nighter” drama over the air over WEAF at 10 o’clock each Friday night.” It also mentions she is the niece of Ms. Kate Cassell.
Ms. Gerson’s name can also be found in an old Chattanooga Times movie ad from 1959 as one of the headline actresses in the movie, “The Miracle of the Hills,” which played at the Capitol, Broad Street and Highway 58 outdoor theaters locally when it came out.
Dr. Bailey, who called the book work of slightly more than a year a really fun project, said that she did not come across a lot where Ms. Gerson had referenced Chattanooga. But the professional entertainer did talk about her Southern roots, she said.
“She was very proud of being from the South,” she said. “In interviews she talked about that.”
Dr. Bailey was also able to interview Ms. Gerson’s nephew, Joseph Thornton, who was in his 90s. He recalled living with Betty during the World War II years and helping Ms. Gerson and her first husband, Joe Ainley, run the farm in Barrington outside Chicago while the couple continued doing radio work. “It’s hard to imagine Cruella de Vil having domestic work.,” the author said with a laugh.
Ms. Gerson was considered an attractive woman, and Dr. Bailey said she learned that she was also a glamorous and appealing person to many people with her approachable manner.
“She was one of those larger-than-life people,” she said. “She loved being around people and loved to talk and discuss things. She was very likable and a fun lady. She made everything an adventure.”
Dr. Bailey added that the actress and professional voice character later had trouble believing that in the 1960s she had scared so many children with her voice in the “Dalmatians” movie, as that was not her nature at all.
“To her, it was a fun, villainous role,” Dr. Bailey said. “She really had no idea how significant Cruella became. She was so cute and so modest about her performance. But everybody knows Cruella.”
In short, this actress had a good voice for work and apparently a good heart for life.
The author added that the book has garnered some attention so far, with some talks at area libraries and other events. The book is available in print and online editions through Amazon and bookstores.
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