On August 30, the first annual Guiding Star Gala benefiting ‘A Minor Consideration’ – a non-profit foundation to support young performers – will be held at Lucky Strike in the Hollywood & Highland Mall complex in Hollywood.
Some 40 former and current actors and child stars will be attending the event, including Jeannie Russell who appeared in 38 episodes of “Dennis the Menace” playing “dumb old Margaret” – as Dennis, played by star Jay North, would call her during the show’s four season run on CBS from 1959-1963.
“A Minor Consideration was founded 25 years ago by Paul Petersen after Rusty Hamer, who played the son in ‘Make Room for Daddy,’ committed suicide,” explained Russell from Los Angeles. “Child actors often have difficulty finding work in the profession as adults, so the organization offers assistance” (see www.minorcon.org).
Although she escaped the self-destructive pathway that some child actors follow, Russell didn’t make the transition to full-time acting in her adult years. However, she was able to channel her potential into other productive areas and today is a successful chiropractor in the North Hollywood/ Toluca Lake area (see www.jeannerussellchiropractic.com).
“I trained as a dancer as a child but had a couple of falls and was treated with chiropractic as a kid,” said Russell. “My grandmother was also very progressive back in the ‘50s and studied nutrition, so I was always interested in natural healing.”
Despite having theatrical performers for parents, Russell’s acting career wasn’t planned. In 1958, her younger brother, Bryan, was spotted on the street by production staff shooting the TV show “Lassie” at a nearby Hollywood studio.
“A lady knocked on the door to ask if they could use Bryan,” she said. “They needed a little boy’s hand to hold up a can of soup for a sponsor commercial. Soon after, we both started getting called in for extra work fairly regularly.”
When casting for “Dennis the Menace” began, her brother tried for a role but was too young. He mentioned his sister, who was called in for interviews.
“Jay North was present at one and told the director ‘I like Jeannie!’ We read some scenes together and I was eventually hired.”
Adorned with thick black-rimmed glasses and hair full of ringlets, Russell’s character was a bossy, prissy little girl constantly annoying Dennis with her demands to ‘play house.’ But off camera, the young pair were chums. “We had the exact opposite relationship and have kept in touch since.”
While Margaret was a source of mild ‘pain in the neck’ irritation to Dennis, the inquisitive, hyperactive Dennis exasperated his long-suffering neighbor, Mr. Wilson. The role was played initially by Joe Kearns and subsequently Gale Gordon, as his brother, following Kearns’ sudden death during the third season.
“Joe and Gale were both very patient working with kids,” Russell recalled. “The difference was that Joe vanished between takes, and didn’t hang around to chat. Gale, on the other hand, loved to hang out, tell stories, and joke around. You got the feeling he just loved being on sets.”
Russell’s acting came to an abrupt end as a teenager.
“The years between 14-18 can be a no man’s land for acting kids. The studios preferred to hire 20-year-olds to play teenagers so they wouldn’t have to deal with child labor laws. But trying to get back into acting at 18 is like starting all over and some actors just can’t handle it.”
Since an actor’s future is often at the mercy of many factors, Russell decided to move on.
“I wanted a career that I could control and chiropractic was wide open for women at the time,” she said.
In addition to supporting young actors, Russell also appears at nostalgic autograph shows and recently stepped in front of the camera again for the 2015 TV movie “Life Interrupted.”
“It’s a pilot we hope will be sold for a series and I would have a developing role,” says Russell. “Acting is still in my blood and always will be.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. Follow @TinseltownTalks