Carol Ohmart: From Salt Lake to “Spider Baby”

I’m sure I’m not unique in having been introduced to Carol Ohmart (1927-2002) through her memorable performances in two key horror/exploitation films, William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959) and Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1968). These two arch, theatrical showcases by themselves would have been sufficient to assure Ohmart a place in show biz history, but her overall career proves just as fascinating.

Ohmart was of Utah Mormon stock, born in Salt Lake City, though she grew up mostly in Washington State. Her father was a retired actor who worked as a dentist as a second career. As an infant, Carol won a “most beautiful baby” contest. At three, she toured in a vaudeville act with her uncle. By 12 she was singing on the radio, and as a teenager she fronted big bands like that of Jab Garber and others. In 1946 (age 19) she won Miss Utah; she came in fourth at the Miss America pageant later that year. This led to modeling work, most notably for comic strip artist Milton Caniff, who based his Steve Canyon character Copper Calhoun on her. But she also modeled for photographic spreads and was featured in many national magazines.

From 1949 to 1951 Ohmart was one of three rotating hosts of the Bonny Maid Versatile Varieties tv variety show, along with Eva Marie Saint and Anne Francis. The ladies would take turns as m.c.s of the proceedings and pitch floor wax in commercials. The producers of this show clearly had a specific aesthetic “type”, eh? These three actresses could practically pass for sisters. Ohmart was also often compared to Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe, and even Marlon Brando. It was inevitable that work as an actress would be the next logical step in her seemingly non-stop upward progression. From 1953 through 1955, she played a slave girl in the Broadway show Kismet, eventually getting to replace one of the principals in a supporting role. In 1955 she did a spot on the Colgate Comedy Hour.

Paramount signed Ohmart to a seven year deal in 1956 and starred her in The Scarlet Hour, directed by Michael Curtiz. STARRED her. Her FIRST movie. That’s how much confidence they had in her. They spent millions promoting her and the picture, but the movie had no box office names in it, and her character was nasty and unspmpathetic. The movie did not fare well and she was let out of the contract. Talk about a botch job on the studio’s part! Hardly her fault. She next co-starred with Anthony Quinn in United Artists’ The Wild Party (1956), her last major studio release. That same year she married actor Wayde Preston, best known for starring in the TV series Colt. 45. The marriage only lasted a couple of years.

Ohmart went on to nearly 50 screen credits. Most of it was television work on shows like The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Perry Mason. And there were all few more films, almost all low-budget independent productions: Born Reckless (1958) with Mamie Van Doren, House on Haunted Hill (1959) with Vincent Price, The Scavengers (1959), Wild Youth (1960), One Man’s Way (1964) with Don Murray and William Windom, Caxambu (1967) with John Ireland, and Spider Baby (1968) with Lon Chaney Jr.

After 1967, Ohmart retired for a time and made Spritualism the main focus of her life. In 1973, she returned briefly to the biz, appearing in episodes of Mannix, Barnaby Jones and The FBI, and in the film The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974) with Robert Walker Jr and Cesar Romero. Around this time she was beaten and attacked by a gang of thugs, which led to a long-term dependency on painkillers that caused her to withdraw from acting for the final time. In 1978 she remarried and changed her name to Kariomar S. Traberth. At the time of her death she was living in Fort Collins, Colorado.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,