LIMA — VaLaire Jane Rilee was born on May 20, 1926, in New Orleans, Louisiana, where her mother, a professional dancer, and her father, a dancer, singer, comic and emcee, were performing in a vaudeville show.
Baby VaLaire was born 14 months later in Madison, Wisconsin, when VaLaire, who had been secretly tutored in dance by members of the show’s chorus, walked on to the stage and joined the show. “She dances with the chorus, with Mr. Stretar as her partner, and then, to cap the climax, does a real hula-hula shimmy,” a Wisconsin newspaper wrote of her 1927 debut. “She was enthusiastically encored by the crowd, which clamored for her again and again.”
Writing in a 2015 issue of the Allen County Reporter, a publication of the county historical society, VaLaire recalled, “That night when my mother and dad came offstage, they were told to wait and watch the stage, because something new was being put in the show. The chorus line went on stage and was doing their routine when the lead dancer came into the wings, opposite my parents, and led me on stage. I started to dance — and my parents nearly fainted!”
Years later, as VaLaire Orchard, she was a longtime, popular television and radio show host in Lima. VaLaire detailed how she got from vaudeville to Lima in “Whatever Happened to Baby VaLaire,” an article she penned for a 2015 issue of the Allen County Reporter.
The day after her performance in Madison, she wrote, her father informed the theater manager that Baby VaLaire really wasn’t part of the show. The theater manager, however, told her father that, since the newspaper article, some performances already had sold out. Without Baby VaLaire, the manager assured her father, the show wouldn’t go on.
“Even though I was born in New Orleans,” she wrote, “the child known as Baby VaLaire was born in Madison, Wisconsin, 14 months later and was often written up in theatrical trade papers as we traveled throughout the United States.
“When I was 3 years old we were playing a theater in southern California,” she wrote. “Someone from the Hal Roach Studio came backstage to talk to my parents. The studio wanted Dad to sign a contract for me to appear in some ‘Our Gang’ films.”
VaLaire recalled that she didn’t enjoy doing the “Our Gang” films. “At the theater, you went on stage, performed before a live audience and were rewarded with applause when you finished. Dad always joked that maybe I didn’t like to do film because there was no applauding when I finished,” she wrote.
“By the time I was 6, I was well trained in singing and dance — tap, toe and ballet,” VaLaire continued. “I loved it all but I couldn’t wait to go to school. I never had children to play with, and I wanted to be surrounded by kids my age.”
She found those kids in Lima, the home of her paternal grandmother, Laura Ellen Eagy Riley. VaLaire became a pupil at Franklin Elementary School. “The plan,” she wrote, “was for me to go to school and be back ‘on the road’ each summer.”
The plan didn’t set well with her mother, who, she wrote, wanted her in California so she could work in film. “I was so afraid I would be forced back to California and back in film when all I wanted so much was to go to school with other children.” Her parents, she wrote, eventually divorced.
VaLaire continued to go on the road with her father every summer. “I loved it. I had the best of both worlds. I loved school, and I loved the stage, and I had them both,” she wrote.
However, with the outbreak of World War II and the shortages that came with it, life on the road became more difficult. The summer of 1942 would be her last on the stage, VaLaire wrote, as her father retired from the stage, remarried, relocated to Lima and took a job at the Lima Tank Depot.
The following summer, VaLaire, who had just finished her junior year at Central High School, finding herself at loose ends, took a job as a lifeguard at Schoonover Pool. At the pool, she helped a Red Cross swimming instructor demonstrate different strokes, eventually becoming a Red Cross volunteer herself. She recently was honored for her nearly 75 years of volunteer work with the Red Cross.
“That senior year in high school was a year I didn’t want to end,” she wrote. “I was loving school, the activities, the friends — just all of it! I was elected head cheerleader and was still dating Art (Orchard). To me it was perfect.”
So, although “nearly everyone” believed she would return to the theater when she graduated, VaLaire wrote, she had decided to stay in Lima. On Sept. 30, 1945, she married Orchard, who was promptly drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. “When Art was discharged, we returned to Lima to begin civilian life and start our family — a real honest-to-goodness family just like I had seen others have,” she wrote.
In 1954, despite what she noted was a firm belief “the past was past and I preferred to leave it there,” VaLaire agreed to talk about the “Little Rascals” films (the new title of the “Our Gang” films) on an afternoon TV program for children. She also found herself helping the host, longtime friend Clif Willis, do a commercial for a local store.
Although, VaLaire wrote, “I have no idea what I said,” the manager of the store was impressed and asked her to do the commercial on a regular basis. “That was my surprising start of a career in television that lasted for 18 years,” VaLaire wrote, adding that “I worked directly for sponsors, not the station.” Each Saturday, for more than 16 years, VaLaire hosted “Blue Flame Theatre,” sponsored by West Ohio Gas Company.
In the early 1970s, VaLaire moved from television to radio, agreeing to a three-month contract to host a talk show — “It’s Happening With VaLaire” — on WIMA radio. “So now my TV career was over, and that three-month contract was the beginning of a 15-year career.” On the show, she interviewed everyone from Dr. William Fowler, a Nobel-prize winner from Lima, to actress Florence Henderson and another Lima native, Phyllis Diller.
After retiring, VaLaire and her husband traveled the world. “I’ve had an interesting, sometimes very exciting life,” VaLaire wrote. “Nothing, however, has been more wonderful and exciting than being married to the love of my life for 67 years.” Art Orchard died Jan. 13, 2013.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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