Kansas City to New York and Hollywood
A remarkable journey on film and television
It reads like a fractured fairytale – a poor girl from Kansas City follows the Yellow Brick Road to the big, bad, bespangled city in the early 1970s.
Thing is, she likes it there. She thrives. She doesn’t want to go home again. In fact, she embraces the realm of the Wicked Witch.
Actress Dee Wallace, now a veteran of some 100 films, mostly of the sci-fi and horror variety, and scores of TV roles, talked about her remarkable journey on a recent visit to Lahaska to see her brother, Dennis Bowers, and sister-in-law, Doylestown psychologist Nell Bowers.
Her career includes roles as the mother in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” and the newswoman terrorized by werewolves in “The Howling.” She was trapped in a stalled Pinto by a rabid St. Bernard in Stephen King’s “Cujo” (“I hope I never see a Pinto again in my life”) and chased by cannibal killers in “The Hills Have Eyes.”
So, while her road to “scream-queen” fame was meteoric and earned her a cult following, those first steps were pretty rocky, Wallace recalled at the Bowers’ hilltop home that she visits frequently.
“I was 26 and had never been out of Kansas CIty. I wrote a letter to (Broadway producer-director) Hal Prince in New York who was holding auditions for unknowns for “A Little Night Music,” she said.
Having saved $1,800 by working two jobs, the aspiring actress arrived in the Big Apple, auditioned, and to her surprise, was one of the five finalists for the part.
Then she was asked to sing and she didn’t have a prepared song.
“ ‘Well, dear, it is a musical. What key do you sing in, dear?’ ”
“ ‘Somewhere in the middle,’ I said.”
Wallace didn’t get the role, “but I was on my way” with a little help from brother Dennis in Lahaska, who today is CEO of Care Express.
The $1,800 she had saved was down to $4.80 after three months in New York. She had to ask Bowers to lend her $1,000, which he did.
Then came a break in the form of an industrial show for fabric products.
“Twenty grand and I got to keep the clothes. I thought I was in heaven. I was still wearing clothes my grandmother had made for me.”
Dennis was paid back in six days and a future queen of scream was about to be born.
But first there was a role in Blake Edwards’ movie “10” filmed in Mexico with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek. Remember? The beach, the bikini?
“She was the bombshell. I was the real one” that he met in a bar.
Wallace’s most recent release is more true-to-form. She plays the witch in the 2013 version of “Hansel & Gretel” where teen siblings are enslaved by a psychotic recluse in her house of horrors in the woods.
En route to Lahaska, Wallace stopped by Kunkletown in the Poconos to finish shooting “Zombie Killers.”
“It’s about a town that has stopped living because of fear and her character (a cancer-ridden mother), who wants to live but can’t,” Wallace said.
The film has a role for her daughter, Gabrielle, who plays the girlfriend of the sick mother’s son.
Because of type-casting that started with “E.T.,” Wallace laughed, “I’ve played every kind of mother ever possibly created – crazy moms, sick moms, horrible moms.”
Sitting cross-legged on the Bowers’ living room sofa, the petite actress with a pixie haircut and a perky polka-dot outfit belied, not only her scream-queen persona, but personal trauma that eventually launched her parallel career as a self-help lecturer and author.
Wallace talked about growing up in a dysfunctional family and the suicide of her alcoholic father when she was a senior in high school. Her actor husband of 15 years, Christopher Stone, died at the age of 55 of a heart attack in 1995 while she was on location in New Zealand filming “The Frighteners.”
“You have a choice to create yourself,” she said. “You can take in energy for good or for bad. You get to choose to be happy.”
Her latest book, “Bright Light,” is about her spiritual journey, and life’s choices.
In her spare time, she runs an actors studio in California and has two self-help call-in radio shows.
Wallace conducted two self-help seminars in Doylestown during her visit and made an appearance at the Bucks County Courthouse for a ceremony at the new veterans memorial there.
What’s next for actress might be a “dark truck-stop hooker” movie, but it’s not nailed down yet.
“People talk a lot in Hollywood,” she said, “but you can’t get excited until the contract’s signed.”
The role she actually would like to play is that of a good, decent nun, Wallace said.
Could the star of “Alligator 2: The Mutation” really find happiness in the “Sound of Music” genre?
Hard to believe – but then so is the true-life story of Kansas City’s Dee Wallace.
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