Shirley Bell Cole, at age 89; played ‘Little Orphan Annie’

By Dennis Hevesi
New York Times / February 4, 2010

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NEW YORK - During the Great Depression, when so many people could not spare a dime for a movie ticket, hundreds of thousands of youngsters hovered around big, boxy radios in their living rooms, entranced by scripted voices and sound effects that conjured images of adventurous heroes in faraway places.

There were the likes of Tarzan, Jack Armstrong, and Dick Tracy, and there was the spunky, curly-haired Little Orphan Annie, who in her high-pitched voice exclaimed, “Leapin’ lizards!’’ at scintillating twists in the serial plot.

In real life, from 1930 to 1940, the primary radio voice of the red-haired Annie was Shirley Bell, a brown-haired girl from the South Side of Chicago. She got the part, adapted from Harold Gray’s popular comic strip, when she was 10 and, managing to maintain that bubbly preteen voice, played Annie until she was 20.

Shirley Bell Cole died Jan. 12 at 89, a daughter, Lori Cole, said, adding only that her mother had lived in Arizona.

“ ‘Orphan Annie’ was like the keystone of after-school radio during the Depression,’’ Chuck Schaden, a specialist on radio history, said in an interview. “It meant a lot to kids because she would save the day, come to the rescue. At Christmas time in those days they were happy to get two pennies.’’

Schaden recently retired as host of “Those Were the Days,’’ a show on the Chicago radio station WDCB that rebroadcast vintage programs. “Little Orphan Annie,’’ he said, was particularly exciting. “She was a real role model and would embark on adventures that little girls - 10, 12 years old - would never dream of,’’ he said.

Annie was the adopted daughter of Oliver Warbucks, known as Daddy, the cue-ball-headed, tuxedoed (at least on paper) capitalist who took his girl and her dog, Sandy, on journeys abroad.

Reading scripts from behind the microphone, little Miss Bell (with sound effects like a cascading waterfall or a cackling bird) would take listeners on treacherous adventures, often to exotic places. Annie was captured by pirates in the South Pacific. Off the coast of Africa, she eluded headhunters by fashioning masks of herself and propping them in every porthole of Warbucks’ big boat.

When Daddy Warbucks was off on his own, Annie stayed at a farm in Simmons Corners with Mr. and Mrs. Silo. In town, she trailed bank robbers and turned them in to the police.

“The listeners so believed in her; they were not very sophisticated, and radio was just in its infancy,’’ said Susan Cox, who helped Mrs. Cole write her self-published autobiography, “Acting Her Age: My Ten Years as a Ten-Year-Old’’ (2005).

When Annie solved a mystery with a secret decoder badge, thousands of listeners sent in two inner seals from jars of Ovaltine in exchange for their own decoders. Back then, that was one way sponsors rated shows.

The 15-minute episodes, starting at 5:45 p.m., were first broadcast on WGN in Chicago in 1930. The show proved so popular that within a year NBC was broadcasting it nationally. For a time, a separate cast performed the show on the West Coast, but eventually Shirley Bell was the one and only Little Orphan Annie.

Shirley Adrienne Bell, who hated the taste of Ovaltine, was born in Chicago on Feb. 21, 1920. Her father left the family when Shirley was a toddler. Her mother, Irene, “was the consummate stage mother,’’ Cox said.

“She made this 2-year-old girl sing, dance, give recitations at synagogues all over Chicago,’’ Cox added.

By the time she was 6, Shirley was a member of the WGN Players, an acting group. She was the pick of the crop four years later when hundreds of girls auditioned for the Annie role.

It paid off. Five afternoons a week (and, for a time, on Saturdays, too) she took the trolley to the radio station for the live broadcast. “For her, it was just a job,’’ her daughter said.

For Shirley’s mother and for relatives in nearby buildings, it was a lifesaver. “She was the only one working, and she earned all the money for five immigrant Jewish families,’’ Cox said. In 1931 (when a Pontiac sold for $600), Shirley earned $4,160; in 1937, she earned $7,514.

In 1940, when Ovaltine dropped its sponsorship, Shirley Bell’s acting career ended. A year later she married Irwin Cole, a businessman. He died in 1998. Information about other survivors was not available.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Cole kept the curly red wig she wore for publicity appearances more than 70 years ago. She could always slip into that high-pitched voice, her daughter said, and sing the show’s opening song:

Who’s that little chatterbox? The one with the pretty auburn locks? Whom do you see? It’s Little Orphan Annie.