FALL ISSUE 2010
Victoria and Manuel, our Creative Director, can gab for hours. They're like two peas in a pod talking about everything from sewing patterns to the latest indie film out on DVD, so it wasn't easy during our visit getting them into "interview mode." Manuel met Victoria working on a film. They've been bosom buddies ever since, and I can see why. She's incredible, and I couldn't wait to sit down and get to know her.
Victoria Carroll Bell has evolved from being one of Hollywood's Glamour Girls in the 60s, to one of television's great comediennes throughout the 70s and 80s, to a sophisticated stage actress in the 90s, to a serious painter and an animal activist today. The drop-dead gorgeous 69-year-old never stops growing and changing, pushing her boundaries only to find she has none.
Victoria and her husband, fellow actor and animal activist Michael Bell, were throwing an event at their home one evening to raise money for Valley Wildlife Rescue. One of their guests, a young entrepreneur, took notice of the artwork around the house. When he realized it was Victoria's, he decided to introduce her to Sally Walsh, the Gallery Director of Universal Art Gallery in Venice, California. When Sally saw Victoria’s work she said, "I really want you to do our next show." Victoria was beside herself. For the last 15 years, she had been commissioned to paint only portraits, and now she had the opportunity to focus on her true passion, The Nostalgic Era.
Her art work was recently featured among others in the Diverse Expression art exhibition at Universal Art Gallery, where it was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. On the night of the opening, over 400 guests came to see the exhibition.KM: How did it feel sharing your artwork with the public in a gallery setting for the first time?
VICTORIA: With so many years doing commissions, I was ready for a change, so this show came along at the perfect time. It was very eye-opening because I got a gauge of what people like as far as the area I've been working in; and that, even in this economy, people are willing to buy originals. My world has been fairly small in terms of the reactions my work has gotten. I get feedback from The California Art Institute where I still study. I work with other artists, and I see what's happening. And there's the response from whoever receives my portraits. This was really my "coming out."
KM: In your work, you focus mainly on what’s called The Nostalgic Era. What is it about that period and style that draws you?
V: It just spoke to me. It seemed such a time of innocence, and I'm sure there were as many problems, but at least the patina was one of innocence - and it was a simpler time.
I'm a romantic. I'm sentimental. And that's the way I paint. Romance is so undervalued in our society today. I look for it wherever I can. I'm not interested in cutting-edge. I appreciate it and there's an audience for that, and there will be an audience for my work. I have to say that the entire experience of doing the show was just delightful...it was – delicious. It was [she starts to laugh] de-lovely!
V: Ha! We almost went into a song and dance there for a minute!
KM: You really can't help it when that's what you've been doing your whole life!
Victoria was born in 1941 into a family of vaudeville actors, but it was drawing that really caught her fancy. Little did Victoria know that she would go on an incredible life's journey that would someday bring her full circle.
THE SHOW GIRL
V: I've loved drawing since I was a young girl. I was always sketching people. I love people. I love the nuances and how you can just raise the eyebrow a little bit or squint the eye, and it shows a laugh in the eye. I'm fascinated with faces. And people... My brothers both went to Chouinard Art Institute in L.A. When I was young, I would do their lessons with them at home, and I would draw beside them, watch what they did, and kind-of copy them. That was as close to studying as I got. When I graduated from high school, I was good enough to get a job illustrating children's books and drawing pictures for children's rooms. I was slumped over a hot drawing board all day long, so I decided to take some dance classes for exercise. I'd been studying dance on and off my whole life – and I was more a hoofer than a ballerina. In fact, I didn't take ballet until I was about 40. So I went to the Al Gilbert Dance Studio and, one day, my dance instructor Rudy Richards told me, "They're holding auditions over at the Moulin Rouge." This was the old Aquarius Theater in Hollywood. It was a huge, huge theater with a revolving stage. So I went and auditioned in this huge cattle call – hundreds of girls. They hired eight dancers, and I was one of them.
I was so green. [She laughs as she remembers.] We would open these doors and go down these stairs, and I would fall down them almost every night. I don't know why they kept me on! I don't know why! Fluff Charlton was the assistant choreographer, and I think she just liked me. It was embarrassing because there was this big clock that was supposed to be Big Ben, and we were in these long, heavy, beaded gowns with a slit up the side and huge feather headdresses, and all of these dancers were behind eight doors. We'd stand there with our hands on the doors and, with the music, we'd push our door open and step out like this [she demonstrates stepping out and falling down the stairs and laughs] and I'd pick myself up and...
KM: [Laughter] It's like a Lucille Ball moment!
V: And my brother was there for a couple of performances, and he would bring friends and he'd say, "Are you going to fall tonight?" And I'd say, "I'm trying not to!" To which he'd reply, "No! That's why I brought my friends! Would you please fall?" I honestly don't know why they kept me. We'd be rehearsing with the music and they'd say, "OK, you come in on the fourth bar," and I'd say, [Whispering] "What's a bar?" And someone would push me in! They got me through it.
KM: How long did you dance there?
V: Um, two years. I took the job because it was paying three times as much as my little art work job was paying. My dad had passed away, and I was taking care of my mom, supporting both of us, so I really needed the money.
THE GLAMOUR GIRL
Victoria's acting and dance careers took off. She soon became one of Hollywood's famous glamour girls and was featured in movies such as My Fair Lady (1964), The Art of Love (1964), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Spinout (1966), and Nightmare in Wax (1969); always playing very sexy roles from strippers to shapely nurses to buxom shoeshine girls. In the book Glamour Girls of the 60s Hollywood by Tom Lisanti, Victoria remembers being a Beach Bunny on the set of How to Stuff a Wild Bikini:
"What I remember most is the body makeup. The bikini girls would answer a 5:00 or 6:00 AM makeup call. Standing buck naked in a roomful of nubile nymphets was very humbling. We stood shivering in a cold room while we were sloshed with a big sponge and Sea Breeze, which is an astringent, mixed with the pancake makeup. That was applied over every inch of our bodies. Even inside our ears. It was just torture. I will never forget the scent of Sea Breeze. When filming in Technicolor, you had to have a certain pigment of color in the makeup so your skin would look normal on film. Thank God they have made advances in lighting and makeup. Those were the horse-and-buggy-days!"
V: [In thinking back to those days, Victoria laughs.] Now everything's shot in high-def! You can't win!
V: Art was never really out of my life, but it was at that point I realized that I had better learn how to REALLY dance. And then I realized that was an ephemeral career. One of the dancers from the show took me to an acting class, and, from there, I was soon cast in my first play. Now, my folks were in show business. They were vaudevillians. They traveled all over the country in the Keith Orpheum and Pantages circuit, but they retired after the crash, probably around '29-'30.
My dad worked at 20th Century Fox Studios, so I grew up on the lot, but I never entertained the idea of becoming an actress. But one thing led to another and, one day, a friend of mine, who had a commercial review, said, "There's a group of us getting together in this garage and we're just kind of working out and doing comedy stuff. Why don't you come?" And I said, "Ok."
I went, and it was so much fun, and I thought, "I've finally found where I belong." That was the beginning of The Groundlings. We rehearsed every night. Every single night. And whoever had money put it in the pot. It was a real communal effort. To see what it is now is phenomenal. Who would have thought - Jon Lovitz, Chris Katan, Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow would all come out of there.
Victoria began to enjoy a successful television career in which her acting talent and comedic timing shone. She guest-starred in a slew of the biggest shows in television throughout the 60s and 70s, which also led her to appear in films such as Hustle (1975) with Burt Reynolds, The Billionaire Dollar Hobo (1977) with Tim Conway, and The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). Then in 1978, she landed the role of Marie, Mel's girlfriend, on the hit show Alice.
V: Oh, Alice was great fun! Bob Carol and Madeline Davis did the Lucy shows, so that’s pretty good company. Vic Tayback, who played Mel, and I had been in a theater company called The Company of Angels together, so we were really comfortable with each other, and we had a chance to play off of each other and improvise. I’ll tell you who was so wonderful to me – Polly Holliday. She was absolutely sterling. And every once in a while she’d say to me, “You know, if you take just a second hesitation here, you’ll get your laugh.” I mean, THAT kind of wonderful, and I said, “Okay!” And it just reminds me, I worked with Lucille Ball and everyone said, “Oh, she is so tough.” Yes, but she knew her stuff, and when I worked with her, we were doing a variety show, and she also came over to me and said, “You know what? If you put the emphasis on this, you’re gonna really get it.” And I said, “Okay!”
KM: Oh, my God! You had Lucille Ball giving you directions!
V: Yes! Yes! And people would say she was bossy, and I would say, “Excuse me? She’s a genius at what she does.”
KM: People mistake that sometimes.
V: Especially in women.
KM: Mmm hmm!
V: A woman is considered bossy. You may think that’s a cliché, but it’s true. Because if a director came up, or a man came up, then he’s really instructive, or he’s really helpful. But if a woman comes up, then she’s a know-it-all, she’s aggressive, she’s bossy. But those ladies knew their business, and, believe me, I was all ears.
LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTER, LIKE GRANDDAUGHTER
KM: Are you working on anything right now?
V: Yes. I found an old photo of my mom. She was in a beauty contest, and it was one of those really long photographs. I guess it was folded and put away in my dad's things. And so I'm doing three panels – there's 47 women in the picture – this old black and white where there are some parts that I can't even see – but each one of them has such an interesting personality, and as I’m painting them, I think each one has such a story. I love it!
Then I’m getting ready to start a series where I’m going to use my daughter Ashley as a liberated woman. I’m going to combine a very old-fashioned dress – and I’m not going to reveal exactly what I’m planning because I want to reveal it in the painting – but it’s her as a modern, strong, forward-moving, earth-shaking woman, which I think the young women of today are. They have to be, not only artists, which she is, but also business women, very savvy about the world and how everything works.
I didn’t have to do that when I was acting. You probably didn’t either. You’re much younger, but I would go in and read for something. You’d get the script there, you’d go in, you’d read, and you either got it or you didn’t. It’s not like that now. She’ll get the script emailed to her, and she has to know the company and what kind of work they do and who’s doing what. Who’s releasing her film – she has to know the whole business side of it. She’s starring in a film called The Last Exorcism that just opened August 27th, and she deals with the production company and how the publicity is going to be set up, and they told her to tell them who she wants to meet because they would find out what films they’re going to do and have her meet with them. And I’m thinking, “God! It’s so…” And then they have to have a manager. You used to just have an agent, but now the managers are doing much more. And the big agencies are packaging everything now. Yeah. It's a lot!
THE WIFE, MOTHER, ANIMAL ACTIVIST
KM: You and Michael started The West End Playhouse in Hollywood. Are you still running that?
V: No. When Ashley was two she said, “Do you have to go out again tonight?” That just made us look at each other, and we thought, “No. We don’t. We really don’t.” And I was phasing out anyway, when she was born 'cause I was in my – I think 43 or 44 when she was born. And I really wanted to be a mom, and that’s when I said, “Ok. It’s time.”
KM: Did you wait that long on purpose? So you could have a career?
V: I never even thought about getting married until I met Michael.
KM: How did you meet?
V: Well, I met him 18 years before we actually started dating. We were on this Chuck Barris show on a panel. Some embarrassing thing, some beauty pageant, I don’t know. We were judges, and we were supposed to say clever things about the contestants, and he was so quick and funny – I was just …brain-dead. This crossing paths went on for 18 years. We’d be on the same show or see each other at a party. Well, we had a mutual friend, and Michael was doing voice-overs for Hanna-Barbera. One day, our friend asked me if I wanted to go and watch them record The Smurfs. I thought, “Hmmm. I don’t know.” And said, “Who’s gonna be there?” And she mentioned several people, and the minute she said, “...and Michael Bell,” I said, “I’ll be there.” [Laughter] And then we did a show together. I got some of The Groundlings folks to do a big fundraiser for animals at the Santa Monica Civic. And that was it. We’ve been inseparable from then.
KM: You both are big animal activists.
V: Really big animal activists. Michael works legislatively. He works with all the rescue organizations. We’re working right now on getting Billy the elephant out of the LA Zoo. He’s sick, he’s “zoo-chotic,” he’s in a small, confined area with many elephants; I think something like 13 elephants have died there. They’re not meant to be kept that way and CANNOT be kept that way. Another project – a sanctuary in Cambodia for elephants that will give the people of the country work and bring in tourists and give a sanctuary for the elephants and other wildlife there – protect them from the poachers, etc. It’s called Cambodian Elephant Sanctuary. A wonderful lawyer by the name of David Castleman is working with several people now; everything is in the fundraising process trying to get the money. The government is working with us. They’ve given us thousands of acres to build it. And there’s another organization called Elephants in Crisis that’s also trying to help raise money. https://elephantsincrisis.org/
COMING FULL CIRCLE
KM: When did you decide to return to your original love, art?
V: When our daughter started to go to grammar school, The California Art Institute was on the way, and as I drove by I would think, "I wonder what they're doing in there." So one day I went in and I thought, "OK. Here's my second home." And then I started studying very, very seriously and have been since '92…is that right? [She starts counting on her fingers] Yes, I think that’s right… [She laughs] I’m going to have to take my shoes off!
KM : You really like to take your time with your paintings. Why is that?
V: I do. It’s just the way I work. And when people ask how long it takes me, the first thing I say is 16 years because that’s how long I’ve been working in oils. I can’t say just the amount of time it takes me because it’s cumulative. Just out of my curiosity, I once timed myself. I found that it took me a total of 30 hours just drawing the picture and then about 175 hours of painting. It was a very complicated one, but then there are others that can take me only a couple of days. It depends on the style. I’ll first work out the composition and the values. Then I’ll probably do a sketch and then transfer that to the canvas. Then I’ll block in the darks, then some local color, depending on the subject whether I use many layers or glazes.
KM: What is your favorite style to paint in?
V: It all depends on the subject. I love it all – I don’t really have a favorite. I’ve used everything: pencils, pastels, charcoals, watercolor – ahhhhh! Watercolor’s so hard! And then I found oils. I love oils! They’re very forgiving. If I change my mind, I can just do something else. Watercolor…yeah…no, I love oils.
KM: Do you think you'll ever go back to acting?
V: If someone calls me up and asks me to do something, I’ll do it. My Groundlings group will occasionally ask me to do something. It was about four years ago that I did a pilot for Comedy Central, and I did a play at the Colony Theater about the same time. I played Sarah Barnhardt in The Ladies of the Camellias, a role I originated at the West End Playhouse. We did it at our theater 18 years ago and won the Dramalogue Award, and then we redid it at The Colony. And, oh, what a beautiful production it was. I think I would do theater now…I’m not sure I want to have to memorize that many lines...
KM: What else?
V: [Smiling] Wanna know my measurements?
V: My measurements are exactly the same as when I was 20…except everything is about 2 inches lower.
KM: [Whispering] OK, everyone, just for the record, this woman is literally a size 4! She’s tiny!
V: [Laughs] It’s the ballet classes! And I’m an 8-10!
KM: You look absolutely amazing – your skin is flawless! What are your beauty secrets? I always like to let the readers know how the gorgeous women we interview stay looking so gorgeous!
V: Oh, gosh! Um… Well, thank you! It must be the lighting! Oh, I shouldn’t say that – I’m told that’s very rude... [she starts over] Thank you! Um, being a vegetarian, being in a happy marriage – not exactly in that order!
KM: Starting out beautiful doesn’t hurt.
V: Oh no! I was dog meat in high school!
KM: Oh, I feel ya! I was a VERY late bloomer!
V: Me, too! I suffered! Well, I don’t do anything really special. I use an apricot cream at night that I get from Whole Foods. I think it works great. And that’s it. I think being vegetarian and getting good exercise are really it. And having a positive attitude – because nothing is more aging than bad thoughts and negative thinking.
KM: That’s a great quote right there.
With that, Victoria offers to take us on a tour around the house to see her work. We're not at all surprised to find that each piece has its own fascinating story...
FORD AND HIS LITTLE LINCOLNS - Victoria's favorite of her mother, father, and their siblings. Her mother is in the red dress.
V: They would do a scene called “Shadow Land” where my mother would be behind a scrim, and she would stand in front of a light and pretend to take a bath, and she would throw the sponge and towel and soap out at the audience. They would always have police in the back to make sure that nothing was going on – that she wasn't actually naked – and sometimes they claimed to have a nurse in the audience in case anyone fainted. And in some towns, they couldn’t do it because they had blue laws. In the picture, what I really like is their shoes. They were a top act, but they didn’t really make any money.
KM: Your mom is so fair.
V: Yes, she is. And my mom at 94 had fewer wrinkles than I have. She had a face like a baby’s butt. She had a few sags, but she was just really beautiful.
THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM
V: This is my uncle here in the middle. He was in special effects at Paramount. He worked for Cecil B. DeMille. He and his brothers worked on the railroad as kids and brought the family from Canada to L.A. And he always tinkered with things in the attic, my mom said. He created the first pneumatic, automatic octopus for the film Meet the Wild Wind, he parted the Red Sea for The Ten Commandments, and he made the first rain machine that wasn’t in a waffle pattern but looked like natural rain. He was really inventive. And I don’t think he went to school past the sixth grade.
KM: You all are like the founders of Hollywood – from one of the best times of Hollywood!
V: I’m just beginning to realize that. From Vaudeville to early movies! I mean, as a kid, you could just wander onto the lots of Paramount Studios and say, “I wanna work here.” And my uncle just started working.
V: This is a picture of my mother as a child. She was a horribly abused child. She was one of nine, and the mother was just a monster. My grandfather became kind-of a traveling evangelical preacher – he was ok. He would come and visit, then leave and another child would be born. Grandmother had been a lady-in-waiting to the last Tsarina Alexandra - Nicolas and Alexandra - and her father was Captain of the Guard. Her marriage was arranged for her, as they were done in the court, but she fell in love with my grandfather instead. They were smuggled through the forest and onto a cattle boat to Canada. Uncle George and Uncle Harry were working on the railroad when they were 11 and 12 years old. My mother was born in Canada but grew up here. So in the painting, I wanted to capture the loneliness and the feeling of a little girl that nobody really cared about.
MRS. O.K. FORD
V: That's my mom - 5'2", just a tiny thing.
KM: Do you have any more shows planned?
V: It will be awhile before I do my own show because I do paint slowly, and also because being a mom comes first. That’s really what I want. I love being a mom, which is also why I phased out the acting. But I was also in my forties, and I was getting to that point in my career in Hollywood, even in commercials, where I was playing “cougars” with the old connotation of an older woman with a certain amount of money who would lure in a young man and take advantage of him. She was needy and couldn’t have a healthy relationship – just one that she could buy. And I started to think, “Oh, gosh. This is really getting boring.” And fortunately, both of us did well enough to not have to worry about having to make the money. That’s why I couldn’t dissuade Ashley from entering the business, because we both did all right and we loved it. Knock wood. But I also think it’s important that a woman doesn’t have to have just one career. No one has to have just one career. I think you can follow many different paths. And mostly, to follow that fire that’s in your stomach or your heart, and I’ve always done that.
KM: Well, you know, when we were looking at your work, I paid attention to the way it was making me feel, and it gave me a sense of calm and safety. I felt comforted by your art. Maybe because things do seem so complicated now – it's just so much – and I stand in front of one of your paintings and take it in and just exhale.
*To view all of Victoria's artwork, please visit www.brenockfineart.com/artists/victoria.com
Having dedicated her entire life to artistry and entertainment in one facet or another, Paula is able now to draw on her many different skills to help create and contribute to Kougar Magazine. “Working in an incredibly competitive industry where one has to constantly find ways of building and maintaining self-esteem has given me the passion to help others do the same. It’s not easy and, hopefully, Kougar Magazine will bring a little support, relief, and even a smile!"