“A man came into I Magnum’s (a department store section of Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel), where I was working as a model and asked if I’d be interested in being in the movies—that I should go to RKO tomorrow. I asked him ‘How much would it pay?’ When he said ‘About $75 a week,’ I immediately said, ‘I’ll be there!’ (Laughs).” So, Virginia Elizabeth Carroll, born in Los Angeles, California, December 2, 1913, began her career. “I went in and was told I was too short to be a model. I’m only 5'5", and they were casting girls for the Technicolor fashion show sequence in ‘Roberta’ (1935) with Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. I came back for the next five days in a row, and finally they said I could be the sports model. So, ‘Roberta’ was my very first picture.”
Virginia’s first western was “A Tenderfoot Goes West” (‘36) with Jack LaRue. “Russell Gleason was in that, and I was friends with the family—his father Jimmy Gleason and his mother, Lucille Webster Gleason. Every Sunday, we’d go to their house in Beverly Hills for Sunday brunch. They were both darling people.” As it was her first western, Virginia recalls, “I was not a good rider, but westerns were fun to do. They asked me if I could ride, and I said, ‘Oh, sure,’ but that’s a joke! I did take riding lessons when I was at school in New York, but that was riding English saddle, which is nothing like they want you to ride for the movies (Laughs). I could get on and off horses, but girls didn’t have to do much in westerns. In fact, later on, both Gene Autry and Roy Rogers would kid me—they’d tell the studio to ‘Give her the oldest nag you have’ (Laughs). Typical western heroines were girls who couldn’t ride but could smile pretty; smile at horses or the trees! (Laughs)”
Billed below Virginia in that film was future star and her husband, Ralph Byrd. “He didn’t mind, because he was about to become Dick Tracy! Chester Gould, who created the comic strip, saw Ralph on the lot at Republic one day and said, ‘That’s Dick Tracy!’ It was that simple! Ralph and I met at a little theater in Beverly Hills. We were doing a play together, but I cannot recall its title. This was in 1935, and we married in 1936. I later had a tiny role in one of Ralph’s serials, ‘Dick Tracy Returns.’(‘39)”
Virginia’s second western, “Oklahoma Terror” (‘39), was directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet. “A wonderful man; a very nice man!” The star was Jack Randall, “who had a terrible reputation. But, he was nice to me. (Laughs). We were on location at either Big Bear or Lake Arrowhead. I didn’t have much to do in the picture, and I was there three or four days. He offered me the use of his car, just to drive around and see the scenery! ‘Borrow my car,’ he stated, and he loaned me the car! I had no problems, but then, he knew Ralph (Laughs). So, Jack Randall left me alone!”
Asked about any other locations, Virginia states, “Oh, I went to Lone Pine and the Iverson Ranch; the common ones, but not too often. Actually, Ralph would go on tours—sometimes three or four months long. I went back east with Ralph in 1939—for a month! I also went with him in 1940, but by this time, our little girl was born, so I stopped going after that one. Then Ralph went into the service during World War II. Incidentally, I named our daughter Carroll Byrd, after my maiden name, spelling it the same. She is horse crazy, even today!”
In between the westerns, Virginia appeared in at least seven serials, including the aforementioned “Dick Tracy Returns” and the original “Superman” in ‘48. “I played the mother of Clark Kent, who would grow up to be Superman. Mason Alan Dinehart III played him as a child. I knew his father, character actor Alan Dinehart, fairly well. He was very talented.” Her other serials were “Mysterious Dr. Satan” (1940); “G-Men Vs. the Black Dragon” (1943); “Daughter of Don Q” (1946); “Crimson Ghost” (1946) and “The Black Widow” (1947).
Virginia’s third western, “The Masked Rider” (1941), starred her frequent leading man, Johnny Mack Brown. “Johnny Mack was a wonderful guy; there was no trouble; he was extremely nice; very easy to work with!”
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for her next leading man, Don “Red” Barry of 1941’s “The Phantom Cowboy.” “Don Barry was very difficult. A little man; a short man, with a very big disposition! He used to stand on a box when we did our scenes together! One day, he didn’t have the box and I asked, ‘Where’s your box?’ Now I didn’t mean anything by it; I just wondered where it was, so we could shoot the scene. Don stormed to the main office, up to Herbert Yates’ office, the head of Republic. ‘That Miss Carroll doesn’t take her work very seriously.’ To which Yates replied, ‘Don’t ever worry about Virginia Carroll.’ I was married to Ralph Byrd, a big star for Republic at the time! (Laughs) It struck me so funny. I didn’t get mad about it! But that was Don Barry!”
“The Phantom Cowboy” was directed by “…little Georgie Sherman. A nice little guy.” Milburn Stone was the film’s heavy. “Milburn was one of the funniest men you’d ever know. This was before he became famous on ‘Gunsmoke’. He’d wait until I would get ready for my closeup. Then he’d make faces; cross his eyes and roll his eyes, making them go around and around like Harry Ritz! He’d break me up! And I was supposed to be crying or doing something serious! Years later, I saw Milburn at a party and he was still doing those things! (Laughs)”
Virginia’s next oater was over at Columbia, supporting “Wild Bill” Elliott and Tex Ritter in “Prairie Gunsmoke” (1942). “Bill Elliott was tall; also he was pretty quiet. I have a lot of stills of Bill and I and also of Johnny Mack and I. Tex Ritter was extremely nice; he’s the father of John Ritter, the comedy actor!”
When making “Raiders of the West” in 1942, Virginia sighs, “The shooting was so fast, I hardly remember Lee Powell or the picture at all. A girl has so little to do—a couple of days and my part was finished!”
Beginning in the ‘40s, Virginia began to mix leads with character/support roles, such as her part in the bigger budgeted “Bad Men of Tombstone” (‘49). “That was a small role—so I recall little about it. And I don’t recall Whip Wilson (“Crashing Thru” ‘49) at all! If I was working, it was fine; If I didn’t work, I didn’t care. Some parts I might only work a couple of hours! I was not ambitious, and Ralph didn’t want me to work. He was jealous.” Nevertheless, Virginia continued to appear frequently, bridging the gap from movies to TV. Then her husband Ralph Byrd died in 1952 at the youthful age of 43. “The newspapers said he died of a heart attack, but actually he died of cancer in the Veterans Hospital in Sawtell.”
Virginia did remarry, but reflects, “I’ve been widowed for most of my life. From 1957 until his death in 1969, I was married to Lloyd McLean, who was a cameraman at 20th Century-Fox. He did mainly process work. Like Ralph, he also died of cancer.”
As for friends in the industry, “I was friends with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and I was very good friends with Dale Evans. I did several movies and TV shows with Roy and Dale. In one of their TV things, ‘Desert Fugitive’, I played the heavy! Dale and I had a fight scene in it. We both laughed so hard, because we were such good friends. Also because her brassiere broke when we were doing it! It was really awful (Laughs). She said, ‘They’ll have to do something about this!’ (Laughs) Dale was full breasted, you see. She had, and has, a great sense of humor!” I loved Roy. My husband, Ralph, and Roy Rogers were under contract to Republic at the same time. Ralph came home one day and said, ‘I made a test with a young kid, but he needs to change his name. His name is Leonard Slye!’ Of course, his name was changed—to Roy Rogers. Everybody was so friendly in those days—there was no jealousy (except from Ralph in regards to my working!).”
“Roy and Dale were attracted to one another from the beginning,” Virginia remembers. “They had a tragic life, losing their only child, and two of their adopted ones were killed. It’s unbelievable, the things that happened to them.”
“My best friend back then was Maxine Doyle, who was married to director William Witney. I’m godmother to John Witney, their son,” Virginia smiles. “Ralph and I, Maxine and Bill, and director John English and his wife, who wasn’t in the business, palled around together.”
Where other actresses came and went, some relatively quickly, Virginia Carroll hung in there for twenty years, both in leads and support roles. A great compliment to a fine actress.
Virginia died at 95 in Santa Barbara, CA, on July 23, 2009.
Virginia’s Western Filmography
Movies: A Tenderfoot Goes West (1937 Hoffberg)—Jack LaRue; Oklahoma Terror (1939 Monogram)—Jack Randall; The Masked Rider (1941 Universal)—Johnny Mack Brown; The Phantom Cowboy (1941 Republic)—Don Barry; Raiders of the West (1942 PRC)—Lee Powell, Art Davis, Bill Boyd; Prairie Gunsmoke (1942 Columbia)—Bill Elliott, Tex Ritter; Heldorado (1946 Republic)—Roy Rogers; The Last Roundup (1947 Columbia)—Gene Autry; Spoilers Of the Forest (1947 Republic)—Rod Cameron; Frontier Agent (1948 Monogram)—Johnny Mack Brown; Overland Trails (1948 Monogram)—Johnny Mack Brown; Triggerman (1948 Monogram)—Johnny Mack Brown; Bad Men of Tombstone (1949 Allied Artists)—Barry Sullivan; Crashing Thru (1949 Monogram)—Whip Wilson; Riders of the Whistling Pines (1949 Columbia)—Gene Autry; The Blazing Sun (1950 Columbia)—Gene Autry.