Ann Jillian: Keeping the Torch Lit

Here’s a salute to a performer I should have appreciated more in her heyday (the 1980s), but will ever after, Ann Jillian (Ann Jura Nauseda, b. 1950). Both Jillian’s life and the core of her career are reminiscent of the old time vaudevillians we’ve written about, and her mentors and role models were some of the biggest people in show business. As an entertainer she is fully in the mold of the singing comediennes who were vaudeville’s biggest stars. 

Jillian was the child of Lithuanian immigrants and grew up speaking the language. Born in Cambridge, Mass, by age 10 she was already a child actress in Hollywood, playing Bo Peep in the 1960 version of Babes in Toyland, and Dainty June in Gypsy (1962), as well as doing tv turns on such shows as Leave it to Beaver, Shirley Temple’s Story Book, The Magical World of Disney, The Twilight Zone, and My Three Sons. From 1963 through 1966 she was a regular on Hazel.

The ’70s (her 20s) were a lean times for her, although there was scattered work on such shows as The Partridge Family and Kojak, and she got voice over work on Saturday morning cartoons like Scooby Doo and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels. For a time she even went back to school and worked in a store.

Things turned around for her when she went back to her show biz roots, appearing in regional; productions of Sammy Cahn’s Words and Music and the show Goodnight Ladies. She also appeared in the first of many Bob Hope specials in 1978. Hope clearly loved her; she was to perform on ten of these specials through 1991. In 1979, she starred on Broadway in the burlesque tribute Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney, Ann Miller and Sid Stone, hearkening back to her Gypsy roots.

In 1980, Jillian was cast in the ensemble of the sitcom It’s a Living (which was called Making a Living during its second season, and then syndicated under the original title from 1985 through 1989 though Jillian left in 1986). The show had a bumpy history but it did further raise Jillian’s profile and enjoyed a cult following in syndicated reruns. It concerned a group of waitresses at a classy restaurant and piano bar atop a Los Angeles hotel. During this period, Jillian was also visible on the Bob Hope specials, as well as with Perry Como and Dom Deluise, a Dean Martin roast, and the obligatory Love Boat and Fantasy Island. In 1978 she starred as the title character in quite a good tv bio pic of Mae West, which we wrote about in this post.

During the hiatus of It’s a Living, Jillian was in the hit movie Mr. Mom (1983) with Michael Keaton and Teri Garr. I liked her in the movie a lot, but she was unrecognizable in a curly brunette wig so I never realized it was her! She also starred in her own sitcom Jennifer Slept Here (1983-84), and the tv movie Ellis Island (1984).

In 1985, Jillian was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she successfully fought, but since that time her life and career have largely been about raising awareness of the issue. She played herself in The Ann Jillian Story (1988) and then had a show Ann Jillian (1989-90). During the ’90s she starred in a series of made-for-tv movies. Since 2000, she has been off screens both big and small and works primarily as a live performer and motivational speaker.

To learn more about vaudeville, in which Ann Jillian no doubt would have been a big star, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,