Tuesday, August 1, 2017

QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE

My family once rented a house right in the middle of somebody's farm.  Just the house and access to the well.  Not even the out buildings (except for the outhouse) were part of the deal.  My six year old self paid attention to the fact that I was supposed to stay in the yard and go nowhere else -- when my Momma was looking that is.  One day when she WASN'T looking I found a most miraculous thing.  Somebody had cut a sapling about five feet long and about an inch and a half in diameter, peeled the bark off, and trimmed one end to a sharp point.  I never found out who or why but I was convinced it had been left there just for me!  The remainder of  that summer (when I could escape from the watchful eyes of my Momma) was spent swinging out of a nearby tree spear in hand and fantasizing that I was SHEENA QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE!

SHEENA was introduced in 1937 as the first female comic book heroine with her own title (even before WONDER WOMAN who came along in 1941).  I was just learning to read so I hadn't seen those old comic books.  We had gotten a shiny black television bought by making payments out of a little book in 1956. I was all set to watch when this female version of TARZAN was made into a 26 episode TV series.  SHEENA was tall, she was beautiful, and she could kick butt!  She had a boyfriend named Bob who was supposed to be a Great White Hunter.  Bob was played by a handsome actor named Chris Drake but he was about as useless as a Ken doll.  He was constantly getting into quicksand or about to be eaten by a wild mechanical alligator or about to be killed by evil poachers or about to have his head shrunk by uncivilized tribesmen requiring the jungle savvy Sheena to swing in (usually accompanied by her chimpanzee Chim) and save him just in the nick of time!

 Elizabeth "Irish" McCalla was born December 25, 1928 in Pawnee City, Nebraska.  She was one of eight children born to Lloyd and Nettie McCalla.  The family moved quite a few times but returned to Pawnee City where Irish graduated from high school.  At age 17 she moved to Santa Monica, California on her own. She first worked as a waitress and later at an aircraft assembly factory where she made 80 cents a day.  A photographer she happened to meet asked her if she would model for pictures as Miss Navy Day.  She agreed and on October 27, 1948 she joined dignitaries in welcoming the aircraft carrier Boxer and the Navy's largest amphibian plane the Carolina Mars to Santa Monica. Thus began her modeling career.  Irish soon came to the attention of painter Arturo Vargas king of the pin-ups, who painted her as one of his Vargus Girls.  She posed nude for the December page in a Vargus Calendar.

In 1956, Irish was cast to bring SHEENA to life on TV after the preferred actress, Anita Ekberg, changed her mind about taking the part.  She always told people that she didn't know how to act but they liked the way she threw a spear.  SHEENA was an unusual show for the time when most women were portrayed as housewives not female superheroes.  At 5' 9 1/2" tall, it was impossible to find a lookalike female stunt double so she did her own vine swinging and tree climbing until she miscalculated and smashed into a tree injuring her knee.  After that, the producer hired male stuntmen wearing blond wigs to do the vine swinging. She was paid $365 per week plus thousands for personal appearances.



After the series ended, Irish took acting lessons and starred in some B movies including SHE DEMONS (1958), THE BEAT GENERATION (1959), FIVE GATES TO HELL (1959), FIVE BOLD WOMEN (1960), and HANDS OF A STRANGER (1962).  She did some guest appearances on various TV shows of the era but seemed to be typecast as SHEENA and had a hard time getting notable roles.  SHEENA was short lived on TV but was shown around the world in reruns for years.  The 1984 movie remake (starring Tanya Roberts) was not nearly as successful.  Irish was in demand for personal appearances (which she sat out for 15 years) at superhero conventions.  She could still fit into her leopard skin mini dress and pose for pictures as recent as 1996.

Irish McCalla was married three times.  First to insurance salesman Patrick McIntyre (1951-1957) who was the father of her two sons and  second to English actor Patric Horgan (1958-1969).  In 1982, she married Chuck Rowland a national sales manager for an auto glass firm and moved with him to Prescott, Arizona.  Though they separated in 1989, she remained in Arizona.

Painting had always been her primary interest.  She had her first painting in an Omaha museum at age 14.  After a bout with cancer in 1970, she decided to concentrate professionally on her painting.  She painted western scenes, seascapes, and Native Americans in oil. Many of them were converted to prints and collector plates.








 She painted more than 1,000 paintings and issued eight collector plates.  Her work was displayed in
the Western White House, the Los Angeles Museum of Arts and Sciences, and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.  She was president of McCalla Enterprises, Inc. which she formed with her sister to market her art and a member of Women Artists of the American West.  She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her role as SHEENA.

Irish McCalla passed away on February 1, 2002 in a nursing home in Tucson from complications from a stroke and her fourth brain tumor. She was survived by her two sons, two grand daughters, two brothers, three sisters and a whole generation of vine swinging, spear throwing little girls who were convinced they COULD because of SHEENA!
























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