Deborah Walley, the perky young actress who succeeded Sandra Dee as the “girl midget” in the first “Gidget” sequel, starred in several of the 1960s beach frolic movies and became a writer and producer aiding children and Native Americans, has died. She was 57.
Walley died Thursday in Sedona, Ariz., of esophageal cancer.
The petite, red-haired ingenue’s 15 motion pictures in the 1960s and 1970s ranged from her debut in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” through similar cotton candy features for Columbia and Disney with such titles as “Bon Voyage!,” “Summer Magic,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.”
A fan favorite from the beginning, she was chosen Photoplay Magazine’s Most Popular Actress in 1961, the year her “Gidget” was released.
Neither the typecast image of the 5-foot-2, 95-pound Walley as a bouncy, libidinous but virginal teenager nor even her appearances with Elvis Presley in “Spinout” or with the popular canine in “Benji” completely defined the multifaceted entertainer.
“When I was discovered, I was doing Chekhov. I was in ‘The Three Sisters’ off-Broadway, and I went from ‘Three Sisters’ to ‘Gidget Goes Hawaiian,’ ” Walley told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1999 when she was a guest at the Memphis Film Festival. “I rode on a 6th Avenue bus from one end of Manhattan to another, crying my eyes out. ‘Gidget’ was so huge, I guess I knew on that bus that day that part of my dream of being a serious actress was kind of destroyed.”
Walley made her peace with the bikini fluff films and with Hollywood, she said years later, after realizing that the movies made her fans happy and that “there really was an art to filmmaking as well as being on the stage.”
But her career before and after her surfer-girl era might have justified that tearful reaction four decades ago.
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., Walley was the daughter of Ice Capades star skaters and choreographers Nathan and Edith Walley and from age 3 took her star turn on the ice with her famous touring parents. Resisting her father’s wishes to train as a skater, she studied acting at New York’s Academy of Dramatic Arts and made her stage debut in a summer stock production of “Charley’s Aunt” when she was 14.
As she earned bigger theatrical roles, Walley put her tiny foot into television–first with a toothpaste commercial, then “The Dave Garroway Show” and guest roles on “Route 66,” “The Naked City” and “Wagon Train” in which she was spanked as a misbehaving teenager by wagon master John McIntyre.
Walley continued her television work during her motion picture years and beyond, appearing in such series as “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “The Virginian,” “The Hardy Boys” and in 1999 in “Passions” and an episode of “Baywatch.”
Notably, she was the married collegiate daughter of star Eve Arden on the Desi Arnaz-produced sitcom “The Mothers-in-Law” from 1967 to 1969.
If the “Gidget” videos still glitter, Walley nevertheless may have created her best legacy away from Hollywood. Moving to Arizona to rear her three sons, she co-founded two children’s theater companies, Pied Piper Productions and the Sedona Children’s Theatre. With her companies, she introduced live theater in inner-city schools throughout the West Coast and Arizona and conducted acting classes for children.
Intrigued with Native American culture, Walley co-founded Swiftwind Theater Company, wrote scripts and trained Indians to act and to work in film production crews.
In 1990, she wrote and produced “The Vision of Seeks-to-Hunt Great” starring Native American Michael Horse and shot in Thousand Oaks and Sedona. The short film earned a number of awards, including the National Cine Golden Eagle, the American Indian Film Festival’s Best Short Subject Award, the Oklahoma Tribal Council Award for Best Fiction Film and the 1991 Algrave (Portugal) International Video Festival’s Best of Festival Award.
The story related in the film–a young Indian boy tracking a mountain lion and learning from it an appreciation of nature–was one of three that Walley incorporated into the 1993 children’s book, “Grandfather’s Good Medicine.” The book, involving relationships between humans and animals or “the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds,” was illustrated by Navajo artist Tommy Thompson.
Walley also wrote scripts for her own production companies, for other educational children’s films and for Disney Animation, often performing voice-overs for cartoons.
During her Arizona years, she was artistic director of the Charles W. Raison Theater at the Sedona Arts Center, where she produced a number of plays and acted as pioneer settler Sedona Schnebly, for whom the city is named, in the play “A Woman’s Hand.”