Lillian Powell: From Denishawn to “Dragnet”

Lillian Powell (1896-1992) had a good name for a famous person, combining the first name of Lillian Russell, Lillian Lorraine, Lillian HerleinLillian Gish, Lillian LeitzelLillian Roth, Lillian Gale, Lillian Shaw and Lillian Bond with the last name of Eleanor Powell, William Powell, Dick Powell and Jane Powell. She shares both names with John Lennon’s first mother-in-law. It’s a good name, and with it Lillian Powell had two very different show business careers.

As it happens, this Lillian Powell was a star of the Denishawn Dance Company. Originally from British Columbia, she was raised by an adoptive single mother in three California cities (Ventura, San Diego and Oakland). Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn had hired her to dance with their troupe by 1918. She toured big time vaudeville with them for nearly a decade. In 1919 she starred in Shawn’s ballet Julnar of the Sea. In 1922, Hugo Riesenfeld filmed her and Martha Graham performing a couple of Shawn’s dances. In 1923 Powell performed Powell’s Bubble Dance in a Lee Deforest Phonofilm. By the end of the decade she had left Denishawn and was dancing with a small time west coast act called Jack Klein and the Californians. 

In the mid ’30s after vaudeville faded, Powell was a premier dancer with the Michio Itō company. The Tokyo born Itō had trained in Paris in Dalcroze Eurythmics. With the advent of World War Two, he was deported from the U.S. and his company disbanded. Throughout the 1940s and early ’50s, Powell was a phys ed teacher in the L.A. school system.

Then, when she was closing in on 60, Lillian Powell found a new lease on life and a new career as a supporting player in films and television. Her first such role was in The Rocket Man (1954) with Charles Coburn, Spring Byington, and Anne Francis (and co-written by Lenny Bruce! a family comedy!) Her particular angel in the industry was Jack Webb, who gave her a recurring character on his show Noah’s Ark (1956-57), and then cast her over a dozen times on Pete Kelly’s Blues, Dragnet, and Adam-12, as well as his 1961 film The Last Time I Saw Archie. Other TV shows she appeared on included I Married Joan, Father Knows Best, One Step Beyond, My Three Sons, and Wendy and Me with George Burns and Connie Stevens, among many others. She retired in 1970.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.  For more on early film history, see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.