Steady Work: Paula Winslow in Old Time Radio

Paula Winslowe

There are stars in every industry, the CEOs who make the big decisions, the outstanding salespeople who convince new customers to buy and develop new markets for the product, the daring researchers who create new products, the ambitious production managers who help the factory meet or exceed production quotas each month. These so-called stars are impressive, but overall probably less important to the bottom line than the countless working stiffs who punch the clock each morning, do the job they are hired for, and picking up their paycheck which will go towards expanding the economy as a whole. Being a worker may not be as glamorous as being a star, but without the contributions of the workers, the stars would never be able to shine.

Paula Winslowe was a typical Midwestern girl, born in Grafton, North Dakota, 1910, who would grow up to prove that a worker can, in her own way, shine as brightly as a star. Many of the wonders of the Twentieth century were late in coming to the Midwest, but every small town had a movie palace, and Paula’s high school sweetheart, John Sutherland, was as fascinated by what he was seeing on the screen as he was with the pretty girl in the seat next to him. John determined that he would become the next great movie director as soon as he could get to Hollywood while Paula decided she was going to become Mrs. Sutherland and support whatever ambitions he had. They married just after high school and made the move to Tinsel Town.

Paula Winslowe and William Bendix

While the young couple was adjusting to big city life in Hollywood, the movie industry itself was trying to adjust to the new phenomenon of talking pictures. The studios were hardly beating the bushes to find the Next Great Director, unfortunately for John, but he did manage to get a job with Disney studios as an animator, his first project was the Mickey Mouse short Beach Party (1931).

While John was looking for a job, the studios were coming to grips with the fact that many of their most photogenic actresses simply did not have voices which were suitable for talkies. An early solution was to hire a “voice double” to speak their lines which were later added to the film’s soundtrack. With a lovely contralto voice, Paula was well received as a voice double, signing with MGM. Of course, the studio would never admit that their most popular actresses were not using their own voices, so Paula was rarely given public credit for her work beyond a paycheck every week, and since she knew her husband would someday be the Next Great Director, that was credit enough for Paula.

One of her most notable voice doublings was for Saratoga (1937) after star Jean Harlow died suddenly of kidney disease during filming. Body double Mary Dees filled in for Harlow’s long shots during the remainder of the shoot and Paula was tapped to dub the star’s lines. Winslowe was gaining enough of a reputation for reliability around town that she was offered a job with KHJ, the flagship station of the budding Don Lee Network, joining the station’s company before the December 1936 merger with Mutual. Don Lee had been the West Coast outlet for CBS before merging with Mutual, and Paula appeared in “dramatized commercials” on several Tiffany Network programs before and after the merger. She also worked with Louella Parsons on Hollywood Hotel, Alexander Woolcott on Town Crier, was a pitch lady on Lux Radio Theatre and had a recurring role on Big Town.

Meanwhile, John was still at Disney and had moved from animation to the Story department where he received a greater exposure to the business side of animation. Frankly, the business end of things at Disney was not great at the time. Sutherland was working on the studio’s fifth full-length animated feature, Bambi (1942), while two previous films, Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940) had been box office disappointments. Dumbo (1941) had been a “financial miracle” for the studio, but a strike during production had killed the family atmosphere workers had previously enjoyed. Paula voiced Bambi’s mother in what would be her most famous film role, but Bambi lost money in its first release.

Sutherland left Disney on good terms before the strike, and Mr. Disney gave him strong recommendations and eventually helped him to open his own animation studio. He produced several live-action training films during the War, and later John Sutherland Productions released a series of industrial and propaganda films espousing the strengths of free enterprise. The studio was so prolific that Disney considered buying him out, but no deal was reached.

In addition to their professional success, John and Paula had four children. Paula’s biggest radio role was as Peg Riley on The Life of Riley from 1944-1951. The concept for the program had been created as a radio vehicle for Groucho Marx, but he was not a good fit for the role as it developed. Groucho would find radio success in other projects, and writer Irving Brecher reworked the script to fit William Bendix, who he had seen in Hal Roach’s The McGuerins of Brooklyn (1942). The reworked story revolved around a Brooklyn family who moved to California to find their fortune in the Wartime aircraft industry. Bendix’s Chester Riley would be the prototype of the bumbling sitcom dad, but Riley would have been nowhere without the wise and loving support of wife Peg. Few listeners realized how closely Paula’s own backstory paralleled Peg’s.

Paula continued to work in television and eventually retired with John to their home in Van Nuys. Paula Winslowe passed away at her home on March 7, 1996. She was 85. John Sutherland went to his reward on February 17, 2001, at the age of 90.

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