Billie Bird: From Vaudeville to the Verge of the 21st Century

February 28 was the birthday of Billie Bird (Berniece Bird Stowell, 1908-2002).  Bird was in show business for over 80 years, so there’s something skewed about using the photo above as our lead image. But it’s also pretty right. She was most widely known during her last couple of decades, one of Hollywood’s most castable little old ladies during the ’80s and ’90s. She was in John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles, Home Alone, and Dennis the Menace; she’s in one of the Police Academy movies; she’s in Ernest Save Christmas. On TV, she was a regular on the sit-coms It Takes Two (1982), Benson (1984-86), and Dear John (1988-1992).

But unlike a lot of performers who suddenly get their time in the sun during their silver-haired years, Billie Bird had an amazing career right down the line, beginning with her childhood. She was discovered at age eight by a travelling troupe while she was residing in an orphanage in Pocatello, Idaho. Though we don’t know about her family background, we do know that the area has a high percentage of Native American and Mormon folk; it’s not unlikely she had either or both in her parentage. Pocatello was a stopover on the so-called “Death Trail”, the section of the country where distances were great between towns, and the towns were small and rough. A town like Pocatello would definitely attract small time vaudeville, stock companies, and the like. Billie joined one of these as it passed through town and toured several seasons with them. Different times back then. That was pretty much my childhood dream!

When she got older she formed a duo called the King Sisters with a friend. The act reportedly toured the big-time Keith-Orpheum circuit, including their flagship venue the New York Palace. (This is apparently a different act from the Six King Sisters, which later performed with the Horace Heidt Orchestra.)

When vaudeville broke up in the early 30s, Bird performed in regional theatre in musicals and farces. By 1943, she was in Los Angeles, where she began performing in nightclubs. For well over a decade she was a major burlesque star in Hollywood and Las Vegas, bringing her vaudeville skills to bear in an act featured comedy, a strip, and her musical ability on four very diverse instruments: guitar, clarinet, bagpipes, and vibraphone. There are more details about these early years, and tons of terrific photos at this website. 

In the early fifties she began to break into films, initially as an extra. Her first film was the Gary Cooper western Dallas (1950). Some other early appearances include The Mating Season (1951), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) and The Joker is Wild (1957). Occasionally she would get a larger speaking part in B pictures, like Unwed Mother (1958) or in episodic tv guest shots. Cool stuff she was in during the ’60s include the all-star Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966) with Ferlin Husky, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, and a whole mess of top country movie stars. She also has great turns in two Neil Simon comedies. She’s a drunken neighbor in Barefoot in the Park (1967). And she has a historic moment in The Odd Couple (1968) — she’s the cleaning lady who says to Felix, “Goodnight!”…to which he despondently responds “Goodbye!”

In 1966, her husband Eddie Sellen died. Sellen had been a silent movie organist and later a songwriter and bandleader who accompanied Billie during her nightclub years. It’s likely that her stepped-up acting career over the next three decades had to do with his passing. At such times, people often respond by throwing themselves into their work. By the early ’70s she was clearly developing a reputation and she started working a lot, on shows like Adam-12, Ironside, The Waltons, etc etc etc., leading to the credits we wrote about above. She often would show up as an old family friend or relative on sit-coms. She played Jack’s aunt on Three’s Company and Marion’s mother on Happy Days, and had similar turns on Newhart, Cheers, Remington Steele, Hardcastle and McCormick, The Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, Who’s the Boss?, Murphy Brown, The Wonder Years, etc etc etc. Her last bit was on the short lived 1997 sit-com George and Leo starring Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch (both of whose one previous sit coms she had worked on). By that stage, she was nearly 90 — time to retire! She passed away five years later.