She was one of the glamor girls of Hollywood in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was said that the Sultan of Morocco claimed her beauty was proof of the existence of God. She starred in dozens of films, from comedies, to musicals, to dramas. Yet, at heart, she always remained a girl from Missouri, a devoted mother who sacrificed her career to move out of Tinseltown and settle in the backwoods of Thousand Oaks. Her favorite place to take her family was Ventura Beach.
This was film actress Virginia Mayo, whose local connections remain strong. Her daughter, Mary Johnston, still lives at her mother’s Thousand Oaks residence. Her grandson, Lucas Johnston, works in downtown Ventura at the Pacific Western Bank. And best of all, you can still catch her on the big screen. Her 1949 classic “White Heat” will be featured at the Ventura Film Society’s Festival 2010.
Mayo moved from Encino to Ventura County following her husband Michael O’Shea’s testimony in the infamous Friar’s Club scandal in the mid 60s. “She was afraid for her family,” says her daughter, Mary Johnston, “and the smog was so bad. She just decided to move her family out.” Mayo and O’Shea looked around for property, even thought about moving to Ventura. They finally settled in Thousand Oaks, considered by Hollywood standards the boonies.
Asked to describe it, Mary recalls, “I remember once, we met someone, a Portuguese guy, who was tending sheep out in the hills. That’s how remote it was.”
Mayo loved her new home. “She loved to paint, take drives, and travel, and she loved boats,” says Mary. “She could get glammed up for some Hollywood event. Then on the way home, she’d say, ‘Let’s go to Taco Bell.’ ” Still, Mary continues, “as much as she wanted to travel, she didn’t want to leave Thousand Oaks.”
Lucas remembers that “at home, she was just grandma.” For fun, they would all sit around as a family and watch her movies. Yet, she always kept that Hollywood connection. “She would take us on her cruises,” says Lucas. “That was my first glimpse of her celebrity status. We sat once with Barbara Eden and Phyllis Diller.”
Mayo had a varied career. She starred in lots of small films, but she also had some opportunities to work with big name stars. She was featured in the blockbuster “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which won seven Academy Awards. “She always got a kick out of Bette Davis saying she was robbed of an Oscar in that film,” Mary says. And then there was “White Heat.” As Mary recalls: “She always told me, those scenes with Cagney were no picnic. He was rough with her. Mom thought he was a very intense man, but a wonderful person to work with.”
Mary doesn’t mind talking about her mother’s movie career. “I love having the opportunity to have my mother’s career recognized,” she says. “I’m very proud of her. She worked hard and always tried to be cheerful.” Mary insists that “my Mother was grateful for having the opportunity to do this. Both she and my Father considered themselves very lucky.” Lucky for us, her films survive, as well as her family and their strong connections to Ventura County.
“White Heat” will be shown on Sunday, March 28, at 11 A.M. at the Elks Lodge in downtown Ventura. The family will be available for a Q&A session. For ticket information visit www.venturafilmsociety.com.