Roscoe native made her mark on the silver screen
For most people, next Wednesday will probably pass quietly.
But that won’t be the case with family and friends of Sally Cairns, because it was 46 years ago – on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 1965 – that the Roscoe native who enjoyed a successful, albeit brief, movie career in Hollywood died. She was only 45.
“Sally was a wonderful woman – a good actress who gained fame in Tinsel Town but never forgot her hometown,” said Robert C. Nesti, a Roscoe native now living in Clearwater, Fla. “I think of her often and have lasting memories of our childhood days.”
Nesti, 89, a retired educator, recalled the first time he met Cairns, whose given name was Sara (or Sarah, because it was spelled both ways in media publications).
“She was about five or six years old, about the same age as my sister Iole and a few years older than I,” Nesti said. “Sally was in our store in Roscoe when I walked in and saw her on the floor displaying her ability to wrap her legs up and around her neck. She was double-jointed, but I didn’t realize that at the time and was bewitched by what she was doing.
“I got on the floor and tried it, but couldn’t do any of her tricks. I tried for years but never could replicate Sally’s ability to twist herself into a human pretzel. It took a while to understand that our joints were not as flexible as hers.”
Cairns’ talents weren’t limited to entertaining and befuddling people as a contortionist at the Nesti family bakery.
“She was an excellent singer and dancer,” Nesti said. “She and Iole would perform at a spot directly across the street from our bakery. They often would make up their own songs and dance routines and people loved them.”
Sally’s initial experiences in formal acting came as a young girl with the Stone House Players in Roscoe — one of the region’s best community theater groups for many years.
Her first leading role with the Stone House troupe, which presented its productions at the historic Latta home, came in 1939, when she played “Katrina” in “Smiling Through.”
“Miss Mary Margaret Chester, director of the Stone House Players, was (Sally’s) constant adviser,” The Charleroi Mail recalled in a Sept. 27, 1939, story. “Miss Chester urged Sally to take up dramatics after her graduation from California High School and assisted her in getting a scholarship to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.”
It didn’t take long for Cairns, a 1937 graduate of California High School, to distinguish herself at Duquesne University.
A story on Page 3 of the May 16, 1938, edition of The Charleroi Mail heralded her starring role in the school’s production of “Topper and Tails,” a musical comedy, at the Nixon Theatre in Pittsburgh. A photo of Cairns and Jimmy Kirsh, the male lead, accompanied the story, which also noted that Sally would do a “specialty number in the original dance routine devised for the coed chorus.”
The story also called attention to Miss Cairns, a freshman in the school of drama, being “recently … voted as the most popular coed on the campus.” That recognition came on January 20. and Cairns presided over ceremonies at the William Penn Hotel when Betty Jane Rupert was crowned queen of the freshman class.
“Miss Cairns won a scholarship to the school because of her acting ability,” the newspaper reported. “But her abilities aren’t limited to acting. She also sings with Ted Waldron’s orchestra in Pittsburgh and the school band. Previously, she sang with Frank Paterra’s local orchestra.”
Cairns’ work at Duquesne obviously caught the attention of people far beyond the geographic boundaries of western Pennsylvania. That was emphasized in the September 27, 1939 Page One story in The Charleori Mail that carried this headline: Roscoe Girl Gets Chance For Stardom. The story read as follows:
“The big ‘once-in-a-million’ chance came up last night for pretty, auburn-haired Sally Cairns of Roscoe.
“The 19-year-old Duquesne University drama student won out over 500 applicants for a Hollywood break and now goes on salary and will speed to Hollywood by plane for film tests, broadcasts and tryouts.
“Jesse L. Lasky, noted film executive, gave Sally his nod last night at a Pittsburgh theatre where the trials were held.
“Sally (she’s really Sarah to her folks up at Roscoe) hasn’t had a chance to get home yet due to her studies at Duquesne, but she must have felt something was portending for she telephoned home last night and urged her folks to come down to Pittsburgh.
“Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. William P. Cairns of Plum Street, Roscoe; her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John Cairns of Roscoe, and other relatives were on hand for the show. And as soon as the announcements were made, they were overjoyed.
“It was a good thing they made the trip because Sally’s father had to sign her contract.
“Mr. Lasky personally selected Miss Cairns last night. More than 500 applicants were interviewed.
“Sally leaves by plane for Hollywood about November 1. She will then take part in the ‘Gateway to Hollywood’ radio broadcasts and contest. She will be given $25 a week for 14 to 20 weeks and will stay at a Girls’ Club. There will be nine girls and nine boys competing in the Hollywood contest. The winners will receive two- to seven-year (movie) contracts. Those not winning will be permitted to remain in Hollywood for three extra weeks to try out for other companies.”
To celebrate the good fortune of one of their charter members, the Stone House Players presented four one-act plays November 29 in the Vorwarts Hall in Roscoe. Miss Chester, the group’s director, said the special production would be “a testimonial” to Miss Cairns. A newspaper story said Sally was “one of the first Stone House Players and from the beginning showed remarkable talent and skills.”
Cairns finally took those qualities, and high hopes, to California on Saturday, December 2, 1939.
The Charleroi Mail account of her departure came under this Page One headline: Sally Cairns Off For Hollywood Tonight.
“Dreams of many but realized by few, a Roscoe girl goes to Hollywood tonight for a screen test and that one big chance,” the story read.
“She is Sally Cairns, titian-haired dramatic student who won the Lasky Gateway to Hollywood chance in an elimination at Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. Sally, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Weir Cairns, leaves Pennsylvania Station, Pittsburgh, tonight.
“Sally will wave good-bye to her parents, relatives and a group who will accompany her to the city and then settle down to the long (train) trip which takes her to the glamour capital of the world. Miss Cairns is making the trip alone but will greet other contestant winners en route.
“Last night friends feted her at the home of Miss Nannie Roddy, an aunt here in Charleroi. Gifts and niceties fo the Hollywood trip deluged the talented young woman. Fellow artists made up a tidy purse for Sally this week and she leaves tonight with well wishes of the entire district.”
The newspaper story said Saturday night, December 17, would be “Sally’s big moment.”
“Before a battery of microphones in CBS studios in Hollywood, Jesse L. Lasky will call her up for a coast-to-coast broadcast of the playlet to try her wares,” The Mail said. “Two more broadcasts will follow her December 17 air debut from Hollywood. In between there will be screen tests, tryouts, hard work and more hard work, but the Roscoe miss told friends here a few days ago that she was ready and will seize the chance when it comes.”
Cairns finished second in the national Gateway To Hollywood competition. The winner was a 17-year-old girl from Bloomington, Texas named Josephine Owaissa Cottle, whose stage name became Gale Storm. Storm went on to long and successful careers in movies, recording (“I Hear You Knocking” and “Ivory Tower” among other hits for Dot Records) and television (“My Little Margie” and “The Gale Storm Show). She was 87 when she died June 27, 2009.
Cairns made her movie debut in her first feature role in 1940 when she shared top billing with cowboy star Addison “Jack” Randall in “Covered Wagon Trails,” a Monogram Studios film.
The Menlo Theatre in Charleroi ran a large ad in The Charleroi Mail on Wednesday, May 1 to alert movie-goers that the film “Starts Tomorrow … 3 Days Only 3 … Sally Cairns in first starring picture.” The film was part of a double feature at The Menlo, sharing the screen with George Sanders and Helene Whitney in “The Saint’s Double Trouble.”
Cairns and Randall drew the spotlight in a four-column promotional photo in The Sun-Telegraph newspaper in Pittsburgh. The headline above the picture, which shows Cairns in a bonnet and gingham gown, proclaimed, Former Duquesne Drama Student Film Starlet Now.
Six miles south of Charleroi on Route 88, in Cairns’ hometown, The Roscoe Theatre was preparing for a two-day run of “Young Thomas Edison” starring Mickey Rooney. But the popular movie house noted that “Covered Wagon Trail” would be “coming soon … featuring our Roscoe gal, Sally Cairns.”
According to filmography credits on the Internet, Cairns appeared in nearly 30 movies. They included western, romance, comedy and musical stories including “Cover Girl” with Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, Jinx Falkenberg, Otto Kruger and Eve Arden in 1944.
Others with whom she appeared were Fred Astaire, Chester Morris, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, June Allyson, Betty Grable, Don Ameche, Nancy Walker, Adolph Menjou, Dinah Shore, Gloria Swanson, Vera Vague, Alan Mowbry, Kay Kyser, Deanna Durbin, Lana Turner, John Barrymore, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In addition she appeared in numerous short films produced by the U.S. War Department to entertain American troops.
Cairns also shared the cameras with The Three Stooges in two of their classic slapstick films, “Three Smart Saps” in 1942 and “Home From The Front” in 1943. She was Moe Howard’s dancing partner in “Saps” and was featured in a scene punctuated by the Stooges legendary mayhem.
As Moe twirled Sally around the dance floor, various pieces of her clothing were being pulled off by a large fan and flew across the room. Unaware that she was now wearing only her frilly underwear, Cairns asked Howard, “Do you feel a draft in here?” To which the lead Stooge replied, “Draftâ¢ No, I was exempted.”
Many of those films are shown today on classic movies channels.
According to her obituary in The Valley Independent on February 9, 1965, Cairns retired from making movies 15 years earlier to become a housewife and mother.
Identified as Sally Cairns Lewis of 246 South Maple Drive, Beverly Hills, in the obituary, she died at 5:50 a.m. in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital following a lengthy illness. Obituaries in other publications – e.g., Los Angeles Times and Variety, listed her as Mrs. Sara Lewis.
Survivors included her husband, Harold Lewis; a daughter, Dianne, and her mother, Mrs. Mary Cairns, who made her home with the Lewis family. Three sisters, Mrs. Janet Wages of Los Angeles, Mrs. Margaret Bobschok of Stockdale and Mrs. Anna Mary McVey of Roscoe, along with several aunts and uncles in the Mon Valley, also were listed as survivors.
Funeral services were held February 12 at St. Peter the Apostle Church and interment was in Holy Cross Cemetery in Beverly Hills. The Cunningham and O’Connor Funeral Home in Hollywood was in charge of arrangements.
“At 45 she was much too young to die,” Robert Nesti said of his childhood friend.
He also recalled the last time he saw Sally.
“My brother Alfred, a friend of his and I drove to California in March 1946,” Nesti said. “I phoned her from our hotel, she recognized my voice and said, ‘Hello, Roberto.’ She had called me Roberto for years. Sally asked us to come to see her, so we did and she greeted us like we were family.”
When Nesti and his traveling companions arrived at the apartment Sally and her husband, Harold Lewis, were renting while their new home was being built in Westwood, ” … she was outside the building holding her little pet dog.”
“She was all smiles and said that meeting us again was like being back in Roscoe, the hometown she missed so much,” Nesti said. “Her sisters came to the apartment and we had a great time reminiscing.”
Sally asked Nesti who his favorite actors in Hollywood were.
“I told her Judy Canova and Cass Daley, because I loved comedians,” he said. “She laughed and said, ‘Robert, come with me,’ and she took me into her bedroom. ‘Look,’ she said as she pointed to a framed autographed picture on her dresser. It was Judy Canova. I asked Sally, ‘Is this a jokeâ¢ Did someone tell you?’ She said no and we both laughed again. Her husband came in from work, heard us laughing and asked, ‘What’s this all about?’ We explained, he started laughing too and told me, ‘Judy is one of Sally’s best friends.'”
Nesti said Sally looked “beautiful … more suave and stately … stunning.”
“But she was still the same old Sara Cairns from Roscoe,” he recalled with a knowing smile, “She always treated anyone she knew like they were her best friend. That was the character of Sally.”
• Sally Cairns came from a well known family of business men and women, educators and other professions in Roscoe and the Mon Valley. Her father, William P. “Weir” Cairns, ran a billiards and bowling establishment and also had a Philco radio dealership in Roscoe, while her grandfather, John J. Cairns, owned and operated a grocery store and was burgess there. Weir Cairns also was a justice of the peace in Roscoe and was an outstanding football player with the Elco Sterlings, one of the best independent/professional teams in Pennsylvania.
• Like his daughter, Weir Cairns was only 45 when he died at his home Monday, June 26, 1944 following a lingering illness. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery near Coal Center. Sally’s mother, the former Mary Roddy of Charleroi, was 84 when she died Monday, January 10, 1983 in Los Angeles, where she also was buried.
• The California Area Historical Society and the Charleroi Area Historical Society have excellent archive material about Sally Cairns. The California organization’s files include information from The Roscoe Ledger and The Valley Courier, a publication of its Charleroi counterpart, and pictures donated to the group by the late Merrell Holman. Both societies deserve credit for being committed to preserving the history of this area.
• Sally’s first husband was Thomas Piper, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Earl E. Piper, longtime Charleroi residents who moved to California in 1937.They were married on May 26, 1941 in Hollywood. Earl Piper was a pharmacist and owned and operated the drug store that carried the family name at Fifth Street and Fallowfield Avenue in Charleroi before selling the business. The pharmacy was founded by his father at the turn of the last century.
• Two of Sally’s sisters, Janet and Margaret, drew back-to-back May Queen honors at California High School. Janet wore the crown in 1941 and returned to CHS to present it to her sister Margaret in 1942. Margaret and another sister, Anna Mary Cairns, were chosen Queens of the Sixth Ferry Command at a dance and staged by the command at its Long Beach, California headquarters in October 1945. Sally, then Mrs. Harold Lewis of Hollywood, explained in a letter to Mrs. Emily Balsano of Charleroi, that actress Bette Davis, who was serving as judge, was “unable to determine which of the two girls was the prettier … chose both as Queens.”
• Sally’s second husband, Harold Lewis, was a longtime sound engineer and specialist in Hollywood. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound in 1933 for his work on “A Farewell To Arms.” He later gained acclaim as a director for such television shows as “Hazel” and “The Farmer’s Daughter.”