(Pictured above center, Betty Lou Gerson)
While the winsome pups in Walt Disney’s animated feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians may have stolen people’s hearts, actress Betty Lou Gerson stole the show as the immortal queen of mean, Cruella De Vil. Betty Lou once said of the wickedly divine Ms. De Vil, “Cruella was such an exaggerated character, and that’s exactly how I played her. She was a lot of fun, but I never expected her to become the cult figure that she became.”
Disney Legend Marc Davis, who animated the sweeping, swirling, chain-smoking villainess, credited Betty Lou for inspiring his pencil work. He said, “That voice was the greatest thing I’ve ever had a chance to work with. A voice like Betty Lou’s gives you something to do. You get a performance going there, and if you don’t take advantage of it, you’re off your rocker.” Not only did Betty Lou’s voice influence Cruella, but so did her physique. She recalled, “At the time, I was a slinky brunette with high cheekbones…”
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1914, and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Betty Lou first performed in a school play at the age of six. At 16 she moved to Chicago, where she eventually won her first role playing opposite Don Ameche in the popular radio serial First Nighter. Before long, she became known in the industry as the “Soap Opera Queen of Chicago;” among her radio credits were Grand Hotel and The Lux Radio Theater.
Betty Lou commented on her vocal quality, once, when she told this story. “My first husband used to make fun of my [Southern] accent. He called it a mid-Atlantic accent. He’d say: ‘I know you’ve left New York, but I don’t think you’ve quite arrived in England.’”
In the 1940s, she moved to Los Angeles and broke into film and television. She appeared in a string of B movies including Nightmare Alley, The Red Menace, and Undercover Girl, while her TV credits included The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, The Untouchables, and 77 Sunset Strip.
Betty Lou first worked with Disney in 1950, when she provided the “Once upon a time…” narration for the animated classic Cinderella. She also played an old crone in Mary Poppins. When cast as Cruella De Vil, Disney’s first comical and non-magical villainess, the role brought Betty Lou much notoriety. As she once said, “It’s very satisfying to know that 40, 50, or 60 years from now, that work is still going to be known and loved.”
Betty Lou Gerson passed away on January 12, 1999, in Los Angeles.