Tinseltown Talks: Evelyn Rudie Shares Hollywood Memories

By Nick Thomas | July 8th, 2024

Roles with Fred Astaire, Ronald Reagan, Groucho Marx, and more

Actress and author Kay Thompson, who appeared in the TV production, with young Evelyn Rudie as Eloise - CBS publicity photo

Her film and television career only lasted a decade, but Evelyn Rudie’s memories from the 1950s and ’60s as a child actor remain vivid, beginning with a small role in the Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron 1955 musical, “Daddy Long Legs.” After meeting director Henry Koster through a family connection when she was just 3 years old, young Evelyn was offered an audition at Twentieth Century Fox.

“They thought I looked exactly like Leslie Caron would have looked like as a child,” recalled Rudie, who ended up playing one of the orphan children in a scene with the French actress.

Throughout the ’50s, she appeared in several movies but received special acclaim for roles in live television plays on shows such as “Playhouse 90” and “General Electric Theater.” For her performance as Eloise in the 1956 CBS “Playhouse 90” episode of the same name, Rudie became the first child nominated for an Emmy.

The TV play was based on the Eloise children’s book series from the ’50s written by actress Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight. The books portray the fictitious antics of young Eloise, who lives in the New York City Plaza Hotel. With plenty of dialogue, Rudie’s character was central to the story and her performance on live TV was flawless (the 90-minute show can be seen on YouTube), but the original plan was for Thompson to overdub Rudie’s voice.

“They wanted to know if I could say my lines if I was coached all day before the broadcast,” explained Rudie. “Well, I’d heard those lines every day for three weeks during rehearsals, so it really wasn’t any big deal for me.”

Evelyn Rudie’s role in the 1959 “General Electric Theater” episode “Nobody’s Child” was also memorable, mainly due to her co-star.

“I worked with Ronald Reagan who was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” she said. “He had a way of looking at you that made you feel like you were the most important person in his life. He did that with the director, the gaffer, the lady in the commissary – everyone. Whether or not it was genuine who knows, but it probably served him well when he went into politics.”

And speaking of presidents, when bantering with Groucho Marx in 1959 on “You Bet Your Life,” she informed the comedian if she didn’t remain in acting, she wanted to become president of the United States, stating, “A woman has just as much right to be president as a man does.” Not surprisingly for the time, the line drew only modest applause from the audience mixed with a sprinkling of what sounded like disapproving “oohs” as well.

“At school, in first grade, we talked about career choices, so I only wanted to be president if my acting career didn’t work out. Fortunately, it did,” she said.

Evelyn Rudie and husband Chris DeCarlo, artistic directors at the Santa Monica Playhouse - provided by Evelyn Rudie
Evelyn Rudie and husband Chris DeCarlo, artistic directors at the Santa Monica Playhouse – provided by Evelyn Rudie

Rudie’s true acting passion turned out to be theater, where she still works today. Along with husband Chris DeCarlo, the couple have been artistic directors since 1973 at the Santa Monica Playhouse, where they also act in productions (see www.santamonicaplayhouse.com). This coming fall, the Playhouse will be premiering “My Father’s Trunk,” the story of her father’s years as an underground anti-Nazi cabaret creator. After he died in 1996, Evelyn Rudie discovered an old trunk in the basement containing costumes, set designs, show programs, and most of the songs and sketches he wrote for the Secret Cabaret at the Tuschinski Theatre in Amsterdam.

“I’ve been translating the songs ever since, and finally we’re ready to start putting the show together,” she says. “In a way, I’m grateful I didn’t do more films or a TV series, because a lot of kids who did became messed up. I got to be a normal kid and enjoy an acting career at the same time.”

PHOTO CAPTION OF FEATURE IMAGE, TOP: Actress and author Kay Thompson (left), who appeared in the TV production, with young Evelyn Rudie as Eloise in CBS “Playhouse 90” – CBS publicity photo.

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for numerous magazines and newspapers, including many in the Boomer nostalgia and humor departments. See www.getnickt.org

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