Remembering Ed Wood’s “Angora Girl”

“A story must be told!’ – Bela Lugosi as “The Scientist,” Glen or Glenda? (1953)

Earlier this Spring, fans of Hollywood’s Golden Age mourned the death of two-time Best Actress Academy Award-winner and eight-time bride Elizabeth Taylor. Aficionados of cult movies and “so-bad-it’s-good” cinema were saddened last week to learn of the passing of another actress: one whose career may never have reached the level of Taylor’s, but whose performances nonetheless earned her a devoted following. She also, like Liz, achieved notoriety for an off-screen romance. Dolores Fuller, best known as the angora sweater-wearing girlfriend/collaborator/leading lady of cross-dressing “worst director of all time” Ed Wood, Jr. and portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood, died on May 9th at age 88 from complications from a stroke.

Born Dolores Agnes Eble in South Bend, Indiana in 1923, her family moved to California in the early ’30s. This led to the accidental start of a movie career, because the motel where her family was staying was used by famed director Frank Capra as a location for his Oscar-winning 1934 romantic comedy It Happened One Night, and a 10-year-old Dolores appeared briefly as a child extra. By the early 1950s she had a handful of uncredited bit parts in films like the 1952 distaff western Outlaw Women and Fritz Lang’s 1953 noir thriller The Blue Gardenia. She also had found steady gigs on TV, showing off clothes and footwear (“I had a four-and-a-half size foot,” Dolores once said, “so I modeled the slippers in a little short artist’s smock”) on the daytime “hard-luck story” show Queen for a Day and working as Dinah Shore’s stand-in on the singer’s variety show. Fuller also by this time picked up the surname by which she was best known, thanks to a 14-year marriage that ended at about the same that she answered a casting call for a young filmmaker who was planning to shoot a picture entitled Behind Locked Doors. That filmmaker was, of course, Wood.

“I guess he interviewed a lot of young actresses,” Fuller would say later, “but I came in with an angora sweater, and he loved angora.” The two were immediately taken with each other. “When I got to the casting call and first laid eyes on the young Edward, I just thought he was extremely handsome, and his personality was bubbly and fun,” she recalled in a 1994 Fangoria magazine interview. Soon they were living together, with “breadwinner” Dolores, as she put it, earning the lion’s share of their funds with her TV work while Ed worked on a script for what was originally intended to be a biodrama of sex-change recipient Christine Jorgensen. The project would evolve into Wood’s pseudo-autobiographical 1953 paean to transvestism, Glen or Glenda?, and it was during this time that Fuller would learn of her boyfriend’s “other life.”  “He was writing one evening and we were having a glass of wine together, and he said he’d like to borrow my white angora sweater,” she stated. “I said, ‘Why do you want to borrow it?’ and he said, ‘Well, it helps me write, I feel so much more comfortable. I hate men’s hard clothes, I like soft, cuddly things. It makes my creative juices flow!’ Well, we were all alone and I saw no harm in it…that was my first inkling that maybe he had a fetish. But I didn’t realize it went any further.”

In Glen or Glenda? (also known as I Changed My Sex and I Led Two Lives during its exploitation circuit run), writer/director Wood (under the alias Daniel Davis) plays the titular roles of a cross-dressing man, about by marry, and his drag alter ego. Fuller, as Glen’s fiancée Barbara, is to put it mildly none too happy when she learns of Glenda’s existence (which must have felt to the actress like art imitating life), and in one of many unintentionally funny moments, she stands up and slowly unbuttons the angora top she’s wearing, removes it, and hands it to Glen. Interestingly, there is an alternate take of this sequence where Barbara takes the sweater and throws it at him…which, Fuller would later say, was more in keeping with her feelings about the movie!

The failure of Glen or Glenda? to rise above B-movie status did not deter the indeftigable Wood from continuing to write and direct such cinematic stinkers as the 1954 crime drama Jail Bait, in which Fuller played the sister of a young hood who seeks help from his plastic surgeon father after shooting a vaudeville theatre guard during a botched robbery (read our own Dr. Strangefilm’s review of Jail Bait here). It was due to an all-night shoot on Jail Bait, Fuller said, that she missed a Dinah Shore Show work date and was let go. Dolores did, however, get a chance to expand her genre resumé apart from Wood around this time when she played one of the deadly, man-hungry “spider-women” created by mad scientist Jackie Coogan in his Mexican lair in the shocker Mesa of Lost Women. It may not have been an actual Ed Wood movie, but trust me, it was just as bad.

1955 found Ed and his repertoire–which, along with Dolores, included Conrad Brooks, Paul Marco, and stars Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson–at work on the sci-fi/horror “opus” Bride of the Monster. According to Fuller, Wood had created Bride’s lead female role–daring reporter Janet Lawton–for her, but was forced by a lack of funds to give it to actress Loretta King, who put up $60,000 for the film (a charge, it should be pointed out, that King always denied in interviews). Whatever the reason, Fuller played a small cameo in the movie as an office worker, but the tensions from the role-changing and, Dolores said, Ed’s worsening problems with alcohol led her to end their professional and personal relationships and move to New York, where she briefly studied at the Actors Studio with Stella Adler.

Fuller’s acting career may have essentially been over by 1960, but a whole new world of show business success opened when she took up songwriting. Thanks to a friendship with film producer Hal Wallis, Dolores was able to get her work to the company that supplied songs for Elvis Presley’s movies. She co-authored several compositions for the King, among them “Rock-a-Hula Baby” (heard in Blue Hawaii),  “I Got Lucky” (from Kid Galahad), the title tune for Spinout, and “Do the Clam” (from, of all things, Clambake). Other noted performers, including  Nat King Cole, Shelley Fabares and Miss Peggy Lee, recorded songs by Fuller, and she helped launch the musical careers of Johnny Rivers and Tanya Tucker.

By the 1990s the Ed Wood oeuvre had attained cult status among moviegoers, and their home video popularity, combined with release of Burton’s Oscar-winning  film (which Dolores generally liked, although she took exception to some parts of Sarah Jessica Parker’s performance…particularly the smoking), introduced Fuller to a new generation of fans. She would make affectionate cameo appearances in a few low-budget horror pictures —The Ironbound Vampire and The Corpse Grinders 2, for example— in the ’90s, and was a guest at monster movie/nostalgia conventions across the country. Yours truly was fortunate enough to meet Dolores at a Chiller Theater show in New Jersey circa 1994-95, and I’m happy to say that she was friendly, outgoing and a delight to talk to (see the autographed photo to the right). In the course of reading her obituary, I found out that in 2008 she co-authored an autobiography entitled A Fuller Life: Hollywood, Ed Wood and Me. Needless to say, I plan to purchase this book as soon as possible.

“Not in my wildest nightmares did I ever think I’d see the day when Eddie’s movies would be popular,” Fuller told a Kansas City newspaper where she visited there to appear at an Ed Wood film festival. “Ed always said he’d make me a star. I just didn’t realize it would take 42 years.”