Playbill obituary in June 2023:
Betta St. John, who originated the role of Liat in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, passed away June 23. She was 93. The news was confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter by St. John’s son, Roger Grant.
Born Betty Jean Striegler in Hawthorne, California, Ms. St. John was one of the Meglin Kiddies troupe of child actors, singers, and dancers alongside Shirley Temple. At the age of 10, she made her uncredited film debut in 1939’s Destry Rides Again alongside James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, which she followed up with a background role as an orphan in 1943’s Jane Eyre opposite Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Ms. St. John narrowly avoided a minor role in the seminal classic film The Wizard of Oz due to a family vacation, but all was not lost.
When Ms. St. John turned 16, she turned her focus toward the stage, playing Louise in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel on Broadway and in the touring company before being cast as Liat in South Pacific. While Ms. St. John was of European descent, she played the Polynesian Liat in both the Broadway and the London companies of the musical, before being replaced by France Nuyen for the film adaptation. (Editor’s note: South Pacific, like many plays, musicals, and films of its era, has an unfortunate history with racially inappropriate casting of white actors that has not carried through to most modern stagings.)
After South Pacific, Ms. St. John appeared in a selection of films, including The Robe, Dream Wife, and All the Brothers Were Valiant, as well as the 1954 film adaptation of the operetta The Student Prince.
Ms. St. John starred in two Tarzan films, including the first color entry, 1957’s Tarzan and the Lost Safari, and in 1960’s Tarzan the Magnificent. She continued to act sporadically until leaving the entertainment industry in 1965.
Ms. St. John married the English actor Peter Grant, who played Lieutenant Cable opposite her in the London production of South Pacific, in 1952. The pair remained together until his death in 1992. Together, the pair had three children, Roger, Karen, and Deanna.
Ms. St. John is survived by her children, and her grandchildren. Services will be private.
Gary Brumburgh’s entry:
Born in Hawthorne, California in 1929, the former Betty Striegler entered pictures as a juvenile. She made her film debut at age 10 in the unbilled role of a little girl who singsMarlene Dietrich‘s song “Little Joe” in the classic western Destry Rides Again (1939).
She appeared in an Our Gang short and had another unbilled role in Jane Eyre (1943). Rodgers and Hammerstein took notice of this young, attractive singing/dancing talent and cast her in a small role in “Carousel” in 1945.
When the musical team were ready to cast the role of “Liat” for their new musical “South Pacific” starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in 1949, they had to look no further than the beautiful, exotic-looking Betta.
A blockbuster hit come opening night, she did the show’s London tour and met British actorPeter Grant while there. They married in 1952 and settled at first in Hollywood. The splash she made on the musical stage led her back to films.
Betta made her adult debut in Dream Wife (1953). In 1960, Betta decided to abandon the limelight. Her husband died in 1992.
– IMDb Mini Biography By: Gary Brumburgh / email@example.com
The Times obituary in 2023:
Betta St John obituary
Actress of stage and screen who starred alongside Cary Grant in the MGM romcom Dream Wife
Saturday July 15 2023, 12.01am BST, The Times
A Hollywood debut at ten years old alongside Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in the classic 1939 western Destry Rides Again was undoubtedly a fine start for Betta St John’s film career.
Yet had it not been for a family holiday, her introduction to filmgoers could have been even more memorable. Shortly before she was cast in Destry Rides Again to sing the cowboy song Little Joe The Wrangler, she was offered a part as one of the Munchkins in The Wizard Of Oz.
However, her parents owned a cabin in the picturesque Morongo Valley on the edge of California’s Mojave desert and had arranged a trip there. The dates of the holiday clashed with filming and so St John was unable to join Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion on the set of a film that in 2022 was ranked second by Variety magazine in its list of the 100 greatest movies of all time.
Like her contemporaries Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, St John was a member of the Meglin Kiddies, the troupe of child actors and dancers established by the former Ziegfeld girl Ethel Meglin. The school became the first call for Hollywood studios looking for youthful talent and, by the time she was eight years old, St John had already been issued with a social security number.
Her first film and in particular her encounter with Dietrich left a lasting impression that reinforced her determination to be an actress.
“I was taken to meet her for her approval and was extremely nervous,” St John remembered more than half a century later. “She was wearing her dance hall outfit and had gold glitter in her hair. My eyes nearly popped out. I’d never seen anyone dressed like that and as a ten-year-old I thought she was simply marvellous.”
There were further films as a Meglin Kiddie, including playing an orphan in the 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine and another orphan in Lydia (1941), starring Merle Oberon. Yet after her screen debut she had to wait another 14 years for what she called her “first grown-up movie part”, when she played a sultry Middle Eastern princess in 1953’s Dream Wife in a ménage à trois with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.
St John was a cover star of the early fifties
By then she had made her name on the stage playing the innocent island girl Liat in the original Broadway cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. She reprised the role when the musical transferred in 1951 to London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where King George VI and the future Queen Elizabeth II saw the production.
When she was cast in Dream Wife, the film’s trailer billed her as “the screen’s new dream girl . . . the ‘Happy Talk’ girl of the stage hit South Pacific”. In both roles the make-up department gave her eyes an Oriental look. “Showbusiness won’t let me open my eyes,” she joked in the language of the time.