Three-year-old "Mary Elinor," who will go on to fame as TV star Elinor Donahue, co-stars in dance routine at Olympia Capitol Theatre on September 20, 1940.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 6/30/2016
  • Essay 11245
See Additional Media

On September 20, 1940, Mary Eleanor Donahue (b. 1937) of Tacoma appears with Gehri's Variety Revue at the Olympia Capitol Theatre, where she and Dicky Powers (b. 1937) perform an Eleanor Powell (1912-1982) and Fred Astaire (1899-1987) dance routine. The tiny future television star has been taking dance lessons with the successful instructor Reitha Gehri since before she was 2. She sings on a Saturday morning Seattle radio show and, billed as "Mary Elinor," performs with Gehri's Variety Revue. In 1942 she will move to Los Angeles with her mother and land a movie contract. As a teenager she will join the cast of the television show Father Knows Best. Later Elinor Donahue will be a regular for one season on The Andy Griffith Show. Some lean years will follow her departure from that show, but Donahue will continue her acting career for many more years, appearing in The Odd Couple and numerous other television shows and the 1990 movie Pretty Woman.

Dance Lessons Before Age 2

Mary Eleanor Donahue was born in Tacoma on April 19, 1937. Her father, Thomas "Tommy" Donahue (1895-1970) was a printer at the Tacoma News Tribune. Her mother Doris Donahue (1898-1994) was a friend of Reitha Gehri (1911-1996), a Tacoma dance instructor. The Reitha Gehri studio had considerable success in preparing young people for performing careers. Among its graduates were Shirley Jean Rickert (1926-2009), who appeared in the Our Gang comedy series; Karen Kester (b. 1938), who went on to a film career; and Marjie Millar (1931-1966), with film and television performances. When Mary Eleanor was 16 months old, Doris Donahue and Reitha Gehri discussed dance lessons for her. They agreed that she could attend and could just jump up and down. She did much more, and by age two had learned four tap routines.

Mary Eleanor appeared in local Gehri shows. Her father saw exceptional talent in his daughter and became an active promoter. In 1939 she appeared on Tacoma radio station KMO. Within three years Mary Eleanor was a regular on Seattle radio station KOL's "Youth Makes a Record" show. As "Mary Elinor" she performed with Gehri's Variety Revue. A typical revue had many acts, and at the Olympia Capitol Theatre on September 20, 1940, she and Dicky Powers did an Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire dance routine.

In 1941 she joined the Bert Levy Vaudeville Circuit and toured the Pacific Northwest singing and dancing. Several of the young Bert Levy performers went onto musical or acting careers. Shirley Mills (1926-2010) of Seattle's Bryant Elementary School became a film actor, appearing in the 1938 film Child Bride and as the youngest daughter in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Mary Eleanor Donahue also gave performances for service members at Fort Lewis and McChord Field, where she performed warmly received ragdoll dances. Her appearances at the Tacoma United Services Organization (USO) clubs were seen by many service members. In an effort to bring her wider attention, her father provided publicity shots to the Tacoma newspapers. He also hired Tacoma photographer Irving Haines (1911-1997) for professional shots.

Local Girl Who Made It in Hollywood

In October 1942 Doris Donahue and her 5-year-old daughter moved to Los Angeles. In Hollywood Mary Eleanor continued performances for service members, appearing at the Hollywood Canteen club there. She landed a film contract with Universal Pictures and appeared in Girls' Town. In 1943 she had a minor role in Mister Big. When the movie was shown at Tacoma's Rialto Theater that August, Tacoma newspapers informed their readers of a local girl who had made it in Hollywood. That same year she also appeared in Honeymoon Lodge and the next two years saw three uncredited roles.

Her father left the family and later divorced her mother. Elinor and her mother's first years in Hollywood were challenging, as they survived on a limited income. The young Donahue met the famous Los Angeles announcer Dick Lane (1899-1982) and he helped during these tough years, becoming a surrogate father. In 1946 Elinor went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and attended its famous studio-lot school for school-age actors. The next year she had a supporting role to Elizabeth Taylor in Unfinished Dance (1947). Her days as a child actor had ended by 1951, and she took to chorus-line dancing.

In 1954, after three interviews and a recommendation from actor Robert Young (1907-1998), Elinor Donahue earned the role of Betty "Princess" Anderson, the oldest daughter on the Father Knows Best television series. Robert Young played the father on the show -- his character called Betty "Princess" -- and Jane Wyatt (1910-2006) played the mother. Young became Donahue's acting mentor. In May 1956, during filming of the show, Donahue eloped to Las Vegas and married a studio sound technician. A son, Brian, was born in March 1957. Donahue's marriage and child presented a problem for the network and her image as a teenager. The marriage ended at the end of 1958. Father Knows Best got off to a slow start but was in the top ten programs when it went off the air in 1960. Several of its top-rated episodes featured Elinor Donahue.

Ellie of Mayberry

When Father Knows Best ended, Donahue signed a three-year contract for the new Andy Griffith Show, or Andy of Mayberry. The show signed her to be the love interest of Sheriff Andy Taylor, played by Andy Griffith (1926–2012). She appeared in season one as the pharmacist Elinore "Ellie" Walker, taking over for her ailing uncle. The character was significant enough that her name appeared in the episode title "Ellie Comes to Town". She was the first character to have her name in a show title. Also, the musical theme writer for the show, Earle Hagen (1920-2008), wrote a special theme, "Ellie's Theme," which was one of his favorites.

One of Donahue's most memorable performances on the show was when she ran for town council. The men of Mayberry, including Sheriff Taylor, opposed a woman running for office. A "battle of the sexes" followed. Ellie Walker then planned to drop out of the race, but Andy Taylor saw his error and spoke to the men. Walker stayed in the race and won. It was an early television show to deal with women's issues. Donahue was also in one of the memorable and touching shows, "The Christmas Story," in which the town's miser joined the Christmas party in the jail. Donahue sang "Away in a Manger" in the only Andy Griffith Show Christmas episode. It became her favorite Mayberry show and was also a fan favorite. CBS colorized the black-and-white show and aired it Christmas night 2015.

At the end of the first season Donahue, who had signed a three-year contract, asked out of it. She was tired, had personal problems in her life, and did not consider her acting up to her high standards. The show quickly agreed and did not ask her to stay on, a response that hurt her feelings. A number of reviewers said that there was no "chemistry" between her and Andy. Andy Griffith later indicated that the writing for her character was not effective. Today Donahue is best remembered for The Andy Griffith Show, a television series that half a century after it aired is still very popular on classic television channels and the subject of a number of books. It is a show in which Sheriff Andy Taylor makes life better for everyone, with love a central theme.

Continuing Popularity

In 1961 Donahue married Harry Ackerman (1912-1991), whom she had met on the Father Knows Best set. Ackerman was vice president of production for Screen Gems and producer of that show. He became a top producer of television shows. Harry Ackerman adopted Donahue's son from her first marriage and they had three more sons together. She would wed a third time in 1992, marrying contractor Louis Genevrino (b. 1939).

Donahue made a guest appearance on the television series Star Trek in its second season. She became a regular on the The Odd Couple television show in its third season in 1972. Her character was Miriam Welby, sometime girlfriend of Felix Unger, played by Tony Randall (1920-2004). She was in one of the most memorable episodes, "My Strife in Court," when Felix, in court acting as his own lawyer, writes on a chalkboard "ASSUME" and states that "when you ASSUME you make an ASS of U and ME." Donahue was in 17 episodes into the fifth season and disappeared when Felix Unger returned to his ex-wife.

She also appeared in Father Knows Best reunion films. In 1977 she was a "cheery" mother and school nurse in the series Mulligan's Stew, in which she played Jane Mulligan, a mother of three and then four more children when their parents died. The show lasted only one season. She made Minute Maid orange juice commercials and over the next few years made guest appearances on many shows, including The Bob Newhart Show and The Golden Girls. She usually played a nice, friendly person, but had a malicious role as Nurse Kate Honeycut on the soap Days of Our Lives in 1987. She appeared in the 1990 film Pretty Woman, playing the part of a Beverly Hills clothing store manager. She had a recurring role on Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman as Rebecca, the older sister of Dr. Michaela Quinn, played by Jane Seymour (b. 1951). This show ran from 1993 to 1998 and has often been rerun. It is a popular classic, honored for its portrayal of frontier America.

Elinor Donahue is still seen frequently on classic television channels in reruns of Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Odd Couple, and Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman. In recent years she has received the most attention for her role as Ellie, the Mayberry pharmacist, on The Andy Griffith Show. This show has continued to be popular and become an American treasure; there are college courses devoted to understanding its attraction. It recalls small town America. Elinor Donahue has become one of the respected cast members despite only one season on the show. More than seven decades after her performing debut, she remains popular and recognized.

Sources: Elinor Donahue, Ken Beck, and Jim Clark, In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue: Favorite Memories and Recipes from a Life in Hollywood (Nashville: Cumberland Press, 1998); Reitha Gehri Scrapbooks, 1920-1977, Manuscript Collection Number 3090, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; "Celebrity Update: Elinor Donahue," Orange Coast Magazine, December 1983, pp. 290-293; "Variety Revue Coming," Morning Olympian, September 18, 1940, p. 10; "Soldier's Inspiration," Tacoma News Tribune, May 24, 1942, p. 1; "Tacoma Starlet Wins Contract in Hollywood," Ibid., March 14, 1943, p. 1; "Mary Eleanor Donahue Makes Movie Debut at the Rialto," Ibid., August 12, 1943, p. 5; "Ex-Tacoma Girl in 'Unfinished Dance,'" The Seattle Times, October 16, 1947, p. 17; "Elinor Donahue: Child Star," Tacoma News Tribune, April 24, 1977, p. E-14; "Grown Up Role," The Seattle Times, November 6, 1977, TV section, p. 16; Vernon Scott, "Elinor's Goal: Actress for 35 Years," Ibid., November 13, 1977, TV section, p. 38.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You