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Carmelita Pope, actress, Brando friend, was in many TV commercials, dead at 94

Carmelita Pope starred in movies, on TV and briefly overlapped on Broadway with Marlon Brando (seen here early in their careers) in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But many will remember her from the many TV commercials she did. | Provided photo

When Carmelita Pope’s acting career began taking off, she had to fend off gibes about the folly of pursuing a life in the theater.

“It’s such a terrible living,” an old friend from Chicago she called Bud would grouse. “Whaddya wanna do with acting?”

But she pursued her passion anyway. And after director Elia Kazan saw her in a film in which she portrayed the Chicago saint Mother Cabrini, she told The Palm Beach Post in 1997 that he promised her, “I’ll have something for you.”

“Something” turned out to be a new Tennessee Williams play that would earn a Pulitzer Prize and sear itself into Broadway history: “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She was the understudy to star Kim Hunter and her eventual replacement as Stella Kowalski in Kazan’s production of “Streetcar.”

She briefly got to play in “Streetcar” opposite her old friend Bud, who’d ribbed her about being an actor. The world knew Bud as Marlon Brando.

After marrying Chicago Tribune reporter H. Charles Ballenger, she moved back to the Midwest, where they raised their family.

And she built a new career in television in Chicago in the 1950s, when the city was a center for the new, live medium. Ms. Pope appeared in as many as 15 broadcasts a week. Known as one of the “First Ladies” of Chicago television, the shows she was a part of included WGN’s “Down You Go,” for which she was a quiz panelist.

She also appeared on the NBC network show “Today on the Farm” with country music star Eddy Arnold.

In the 1960s and 1970s, she reinvented herself as an advertising spokeswoman, promoting new homes, Oldsmobiles, Magikist carpet cleaners, Bell Savings and Wanzer Milk, known for its slogan, “Wanzer on milk is like sterling on silver.”

And with the peppy intro line, “Hi, I’m Carmelita Pope,” she pitched PAM cooking spray on TV by sliding eggs off skillets. “When you pick up a pan,” she’d say, “spray it with PAM!”

She estimated at one point that she appeared in 2,000 commercials.

Actor Carmelita Pope reinvented herself as a commercial pitchwoman. | Provided photo
Actor Carmelita Pope reinvented herself as a commercial pitchwoman. | Provided photo

The PAM ads became so ubiquitous that newspapers across the country started running articles to answer the question, “Who is Carmelita Pope?”

A lifelong animal lover, she transformed herself once more, becoming director of the Hollywood office of the American Humane Association. She used that position to criticize director Michael Cimino over the handling of horses and fighting roosters on the 1980 movie “Heaven’s Gate” and producer Dino De Laurentiis about the treatment of horses and a camel on 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian.”

Working to improve conditions for animals on movie locations “became a very gratifying job,” her son Bruce Ballenger said.

Ms. Pope died of heart failure April 3 at her home in Boise, Idaho, where she lived in recent years, according to her son. She was 94.

Carmelita Pope (center, in USO uniform) with (from left) her aunt Christina Bergamo, mother Marie, grandmother Consiglia Bartolomei, sister Clarissa Pope Mancuso and her father Nick. | Facebook
Carmelita Pope (center, in USO uniform) with (from left) her aunt Christina Bergamo, mother Marie, grandmother Consiglia Bartolomei, sister Clarissa Pope Mancuso and her father Nick. | Facebook

Young Carmelita grew up in an apartment in West Garfield Park and went to Providence High School. She was related to the family who ran Chicago’s famed Antoinette Pope cooking school. Her Italian immigrant father, the vaudeville performer born Nicholas Papa, was from Senerchia in the Campania region. Her Italian American mother Marie was a stage mom who delighted in the talents of Carmelita and her sister Clarissa Pope Mancuso, who also went onto an acting career, Bruce Ballenger said.

Her father later became a lawyer. But Ms. Pope’s son said her father’s career was circumscribed by the mob ties of his brother Frank Pope, who helped run Al Capone’s gambling interests and associated with other notorious gangsters, including Jack Guzik and Dean O’Banion, according to news accounts of the era.

Carmelita befriended another fledgling actress, Brando’s sister Jocelyn. In 1940, they appeared together at a summer playhouse in Lake Zurich. Marlon Brando, who grew up in Evanston and Libertyville, liked hanging around with the Popes, who had a “country home” near Wheeling. He’d hitchhike to their Chicago flat and stay three or four days at a time, enjoying their pasta and hospitality.

“The sun porch of their apartment was dubbed ‘Bud’s room,’ ” Bruce Ballenger said. “He often ate at her parents’, slept there. Her father would sort of step over him and say ‘Hi, Bud.’ “

Fledgling actors and Illinois friends: Marlon Brando and Carmelita Pope. | Provided photo
Fledgling actors and Illinois friends: Marlon Brando and Carmelita Pope. | Provided photo

After studying at the Goodman School of Drama and Marycrest College in Iowa, the young actress’s first break came around 1944, when she played Daisy Belle in a traveling production of “Maid in the Ozarks,” a popular Appalachian farce.

In 1945, she appeared in Broadway producer George Abbott’s USO show “Kiss and Tell.” It toured Europe soon after the Germans retreated. At her hotel in Milan, she opened her closet and found a surprise.

“This Nazi officer’s uniform was there with a loaded Luger,” her son said.

As the story was related to him, a hotel maid said the officer hadn’t returned his room key. Ms. Pope piled up furniture in front of the door till she felt safe enough to go to sleep.

Carmelita Pope appeared in “Kiss and Tell” on a USO tour of Europe after the Germans withdrew. | Facebook
Carmelita Pope appeared in “Kiss and Tell” on a USO tour of Europe after the Germans withdrew. | Facebook

Back on U.S. soil, appearing under the temporary stage name Carla Dare, she starred in the film “Citizen Saint” about Frances Xavier Cabrini, Mother Cabrini.

Carmelita Pope portrayed Mother Cabrini in the film “Citizen Saint.” | Facebook
Carmelita Pope portrayed Mother Cabrini in the film “Citizen Saint.” | Facebook

In “Streetcar,” the hardy Kim Hunter rarely took ill, but she liked Ms. Pope, according to Ballenger. So she called in sick one night to give her understudy her shot.

“Kim said, ‘Carmelita, I’m going to be sick on Thursday evening, and you’re going to play Stella,’ “ Ms. Pope told The Palm Beach Post.

That allowed her, if only briefly, to overlap in the play with her old friend Bud, her son said.

“She got a standing ovation from the cast and the audience,” her son said. “And Tennessee Williams, after that show, burst into her dressing room, wrapped his arms around her — never said a word — and walked out. She said that was one of the historic moments of her life.”

Talking about Brando’s early, rough-edged auditions in New York, Ms. Pope once recalled in an interview how, at one, “he had no material” prepared. “He just looked out there at everybody, and he said, ‘Hickory, dickory, dock’ and walked off the stage. And he got the job.”

From another understudy job, she used her $50 paycheck to buy her beloved cocker spaniel Honey Girl, according to the Tucson Daily Citizen.

Carmelita Pope. | Facebook
Carmelita Pope. | Facebook

She was walking Honey Girl in Chicago near the old Boul Mich bar on Michigan Avenue when she met her first husband. Shortly after she and Ballenger were married in 1949, they flew to New York: She had to be back in time for the 8 p.m. curtain of “Streetcar.”

Marlon Brando, who grew up in Evanston and Libertyville, enjoyed hanging out at Carmelita Pope’s house. Here, they were posing with bocce balls. | Provided photo
Marlon Brando, who grew up in Evanston and Libertyville, enjoyed hanging out at Carmelita Pope’s house. Here, they were posing with bocce balls. | Provided photo

Settling in the Midwest, they raised their sons on Glencoe Avenue in Highland Park. They divorced in the early 1970s, and she moved to Hollywood.

Her son said that, at one point years ago, before chlorofluorocarbons that once were commonly used in aerosol sprays were phased out because of environmental concerns, he questioned her endorsement of PAM, asking about the spray’s potential effects on the ozone layer.

“She nodded and smiled,” he said, “and said, ‘Bruce, the reason you’re in college is because of PAM.’ ”

Ms. Pope also appeared on the soap operas “General Hospital” and “Days of Our Lives,” in the 1977 TV series “The Amazing Spiderman” and on Los Angeles talk shows.

She married again, to Bill Wood, and they moved to Florida, where she took up golf.

Carmelita Pope. | Provided photo
Carmelita Pope. | Provided photo

After her move to Idaho, she volunteered at the Warhawk Air Museum and prevailed upon veterans to share their World War II experiences for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress.

She is also survived by another son, Howard “Buzz” Ballenger, and four grandchildren. Services were held Monday in Boise.

When she was raising her sons and performing on radio and TV, some Highland Park neighbors told her she was stretched too thin, her son said.

But in her later days, she told her family: “Here I am at 89, and I think work was pretty good for me.”

Carmelita Pope and her family. | Provided photo
Carmelita Pope and her family. | Provided photo