An Audience To Remember
By Tom Morrow
There are times in one’s life when unexpected pleasures come flooding in. I’ve had several of those occasions, one of them occurring back in 1979, while a cast member of the venerable stage play, “The Philadelphia Story” at the Patio Playhouse in Escondido.
I was cast as Uncle Willie, one of the supporting characters. The movie version was a favorite of mine and just about anyone whose ever seen it. The 1940 Oscar-winning film featured Cary Grant, Katharyn Hepburn, James Stewart, and Ruth Hussey as the cynical photographer Liz Imbrie.
One of my friends at the time told me Miss Hussey lived in Carlsbad and possessed the popular actress’ phone number. She had played the photographer character, for which she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, It occurred to me it would be something of a coup to have the popular star at one of our Escondido stage performances. I called her and she graciously accepted without hesitation – and, she asked if she could she bring some of her Hollywood friends? I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.
Ruth Carol Hussey, born Oct. 30, 1911, in Providence, R.I., worked as a model before landing a number of stage roles with touring companies. MGM signed her to a players’ contract and she made her film debut in 1937. She quickly became a leading lady in MGM’s “B” film unit, usually playing sophisticated, worldly roles. In 1941, exhibitors voted her the third-most popular “new star” in Hollywood. But it is her Oscar-nominated role as photographer Liz Imbrie in “The Philadelphia Story” she is most remembered.
In 1942, she married talent agent and radio producer C. Robert “Bob” Longenecker at Mission San Antonio de Pala here in San Diego’s North County. They raised three children: George Robert Longenecker, John William Longenecker, and Mary Elizabeth Hendrix.
Following the birth of her children, Miss Hussey focused much of her attention on family activities and in 1967 she was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
In 1977, she and her husband moved from their Brentwood family home to Carlsbad. Bob Longenecker died in 2002 shortly after celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.
Their son, John Longenecker, is a cinematographer and film director. He won an Academy Award for producing a live-action short film. “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy/” (1970). At age 23, he was the youngest producer in Hollywood to ever have won an Oscar.
During Miss Hussey’s long career, she made more than 60 films and numerous radio and television appearances.
Besides the 1940 classic, other notable films Miss Hussey starred in included working with Robert Taylor in Flight Command (1940), Robert Young in Northwest Passage (1940), Van Heflin in Tennessee Johnson (1942), Ray Milland in The Uninvited (1944), Alan Ladd in The Great Gatsby (1949), and Clifton Webb in “Stars & Stripes Forever (1953). In 1960, she co-starred with Bob Hope in “The Facts of Life.” Miss Hussey also was active in early television dramas such as “Marcus Welby, M.D,” “The Jimmy Stewart Theater,” “Jane Wyman Presents,” “Studio One,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The New Perry Mason” show, and many others TV productions and commercials.
She also was active in her church and was noted for painting in watercolors. Although she was a lifelong Democrat she did vote for Republican Thomas Dewey in 1944,, and for Hollywood friend and former co-star Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections.
On the night Miss Hussey and her entourage arrived at the Patio Playhouse, I introduced the young 18-year-old actress playing the photographer’s role to Miss Hussey. (Unfortunately, the years have robbed me of the young lady’s name. While the youngster had never seen the Academy Award-winning movie, nor had any idea who the Oscar-nominated star was, Miss Hussey graciously praised the young girl for her Patio performance. This was at a time before video cassette recordings, so being able to go out and rent or buy the original Hollywood production was impossible.
Among the friends Miss Hussey brought that evening was her film producer-husband Bob, Dick Simmons (Sgt Preston of the Yukon), and three other familiar character actors, whose names unfortunately I don’t recall… if I ever knew them. But the actors accompanying Miss Hussey that evening were easily recognizable by old movie buffs such as this writer. At that time those Hollywood refugees all lived in the Rancho Carlsbad community just off El Camino Real.
Ruth Hussey died April 19, 2005 at the age of 93, from complications from an appendectomy and was interred in Westlake Village, California.
During the years after that night in Escondido I had a number of encounters with Miss Hussey, but I always was fascinated with her performance in “The Philadelphia Story.” The dumbest question I ever remember asking her during one of those meetings: “Did you ever work with any ‘big name’ actors?” Duh … how stupid could I have been.