“I think the country people will like us. Maybe the city people will feel a bit edgy—the show gets satiric at points.” With that statement, the star of a show weighed its future just before its debut in 1962. As things turned out, everyone but the critics loved it. The show was “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and the man musing about it to reporters for a spell was Buddy Ebsen.
Viewers overlooked the corn and clichés to get a half hour of satisfaction that decent folk really can get the better of the snooty, pretentious rich.
Perhaps the most interesting archived story I found on Douglas was in Parade magazine of February 23, 1964; Parade was a syndicated magazine supplement in weekend newspapers. It may be the most serious piece written about her.
PRETTIEST OF THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES
By Arno Johansen
Many girls ruin their lives by marrying and having children too early—at 16, 17 or 18.
Entrapped by marriage, fearful of divorce, which in some cases is prohibited by their religion, they spend the rest of their days unrequited, unhappy, wondering from time to time how well they might have married had they only waited until they were more mature, more experienced, had developed more realistic criteria for judging good husband potential.
There are some girls of spunk and courage, however, who refuse to be defeated by an unhappy first marriage and subsequent childbirth. They try to work out their marital difficulties, but when they realize they've married the wrong man, children or no children, they obtain a divorce and set out to make a new life for themselves.
When Donna was 17—or, as she so truthfully puts it, “when I was 17 going on 12”—she imagined herself in love with a handsome young man of the same age from Baton Rouge, La., named Roland Bourgeois, who today works as a repair man there for the Ace Appliance Company.
“Frankly,” she says, “we had no business gettin' married. All we had in common really was playin' baseball and basketball. I used to be a tomboy. We were much too young. But down home back then, no one seemed to frown on young marriage. That's what most girls think about. It's the thing to do almost without thinkin', and that's what we did.”
In 1949 Roland Bourgeois and Doris Smith were married in Baton Rouge at St. Gerard Majella church. Roland worked as a salesman for an auto parts manufacturer, and the young couple lived with the bride's parents. A few years later Roland was drafted into the Army and shipped overseas to Germany. By the time he returned in 1953, Donna was convinced their marriage was a mistake. Apparently, each had outgrown the other.
They stayed together for awhile, and in 1954 Donna gave birth to a son, Danny. Despite this, she was convinced she could not save her marriage and insisted upon a divorce.
“Today,” says Donna, “my son lives with my folks outside Baton Rouge. My daddy, who works for Esso, has a 23-acre spread, and Danny's got all the room in the world in which to play. He goes fishin' and huntin', and he's the happiest li'l ole boy you'd ever want to meet. I'm in touch with him all the time, and I know everything's goin' to work out just fine.”
DETERMINED TO HAVE CAREER
Taking inventory of her virtues and faults, she decided that what she had to offer was beauty—large blue eyes, soft, luxuriant blonde hair, a flawless complexion and a well-turned figure. A girl with such physical attributes is a natural for modeling. It's difficult to make a living as a model in Baton Rouge, so Donna took what little money she had and headed for New York. This took guts, because she had never before traveled north of Shreveport.
In New York she moved into the Rehearsal Club, asked about modeling agencies, made the rounds and, because she is immensely photogenic—the wholesome, all-American type—she got jobs quickly, giving herself the name Tina Barron. Since many television programs require little or no acting talent, it was just one step up from modeling to TV.
Presently Donna became “The Letters Girl” on the Perry Como Show, “The Billboard Girl” on the Steve Allen Show—“one of those elbow-grabbers,” she declares, “you see on every daytime quiz program, the pretty girl who grabs the contestant by the elbow and leads him up to the microphone.”
When the newspaper reporters in New York were holding their annual By-Line Ball, they asked Donna if she would appear as Miss By-Line. Happily, she said yes, whereupon Ed Sullivan invited her to appear on one of his TV shows as "The By-Line Girl." Hollywood producer Hal Wallis happened to catch the show and, on the basis of Donna's beauty, brought her to Hollywood under a six-month contract, gave her the name Donna Douglas and gave her a few bit parts.
In these parts, sweet and fragile-looking Donna failed to generate the sex appeal Wallis thought she possessed, so he dropped her. But she encountered no trouble in finding TV jobs. In one year in Hollywood she found 45 such jobs and gradually learned how to act.
Two years ago, when writer Paul Henning dreamed up the Beverly Hillbillies, he remembered Donna Douglas in Lover Come Back, a film she had made with Tony Randall. To him, she seemed perfect for the part of Elly May Clampett—a beautiful, rural, naive girl at home with animals and simple country folk. He tested and signed her, and ever since, Donna has risen in popularity along with the Beverly Hillbillies.
Today, despite her weekly salary of $750, she lives most economically in a small one-bedroom Hollywood apartment ($90 a month), sends money home for the support of her son, only a few weeks ago bought herself a Buick, puts on no airs, is liked and respected by everyone she works with.
Perpetually optimistic and quietly ambitious, Donna says: “What I've learned thus far is never to be discouraged by hard knocks. People must have faith in themselves and in God. I'm livin' proof that if you work with life, life will work with you. Just don't be afraid to meet it.”
In hunting around entertainment web sites looking for confirmation about the death, I came across a gossip piece on a reality show trash-lebrity named Mama June. It shows you how much TV hillbillies have changed. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll take the friendly and genuine Donna Douglas any day.
My thanks to Armando Gomes who passed on the news earlier today