She was born “Mary Frances Roberson” in Handley in 1918—104 years ago.
Twenty years later she was Poly High School’s answer to Central High School’s Ginger Rogers: She was in Hollywood, a film actress billed as “Punkins Parker.” The Max Factor cosmetics company proclaimed her “the real Miss America.” Hollywood entertainment columnists dropped her name. She dated Howard Hughes. And although her star never rose as high in the Hollywood heavens as that of Ginger Rogers, Mary Frances Roberson appeared in some big-budget films top-billed by stars of the 1930s and 1940s: Ray Milland, Betty Grable, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Lucille Ball, Victor Mature, Fred MacMurray, Lloyd Nolan, Donald O’Connor, Joan Bennett, Dorothy Lamour, Madeleine Carroll, Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, June Allyson, Lana Turner, Jean Peters, Esther Williams, Walter Pidgeon, Gig Young, Red Skelton. (Photo from fanpix.net.)
Mary Frances Roberson attended Poly High School (in the building that later housed Poly Elementary School) on Nashville Avenue in 1933-1935. She was in ROTC and on the yearbook staff.
The Robersons lived at 4609 Meadowbrook Drive while Mary attended Poly High.
Then Mary attended TCU. This is her 1937 yearbook photo. While at TCU Mary performed at Casa Manana in the Frontier Centennial in 1936 and 1937. Producer Billy Rose chose her to be a lead dancer. Then Mary headed to Hollywood and toured with Paul Whiteman, who had performed at the Frontier Centennial. While performing at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles she was discovered by Paramount Studios and signed to a film contract.
Mary made seventeen films between 1938 and 1954. Sometimes she was uncredited, sometimes she was billed as the second lead. She acted and danced. Mary broke into the movies with the stage name “Punkins Parker” but soon became “Mary Parker.” Clip is from the September 19, 1938 Dallas Morning News.
Mary’s dance partner in nightclubs, on Broadway, and in several films was Billy Daniel (1912-1962, born “William Baker”), also from Fort Worth. Clip is from the December 1, 1940 Dallas Morning News.
Mary appeared in five films in her first year in Hollywood. Her first film was Cocoanut Grove in 1938 with Fred MacMurray.
Also in 1938 she appeared in Artists and Models Abroad with Jack Benny.
She also appeared in Sing, You Sinners, starring Bing Crosby, in 1938.
In Sing, You Sinners, Mary cut a rug with Crosby.
Mary found that shedding her “Punkins” nickname came with a hitch: In St. Louis Blues, her first movie after the name change, she played a character named . . . wait for it . . . “Punkins.”
In 1939 the Hollywood Theater gave “Fort Worth’s own Mary Parker” (no “Punkins”) second billing under Dorothy Lamour.
In 1939 Hollywood columnist Fairfax Nisbet mentioned Mary in his writeup of St. Louis Blues. Clip is from the March 5 Dallas Morning News.
Even as Mary made movies she and dance partner Billy Daniel continued to perform on stage. In 1940 Mary was back before a hometown audience at the Worth Theater.
In 1941 Mary was dating Howard Hughes, and there were rumors of a possible marriage. Hughes was giving Mary flying lessons.
In 1943 Mary went over to MGM Studios. Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham reported that MGM planned to emphasize Mary’s acting over her dancing. Clip is from the July 18, 1943 Dallas Morning News.
In 1944 Poly High’s Mary Roberson and Central High’s Ginger Rogers appeared in a film together—Lady in the Dark.
In 1944 Mary appeared in MGM’s Music for Millions, starring Margaret O’Brien and June Allyson.
On May 19, 1944 Mary married Army Air Corps Lieutenant Richard Dixson of Fort Worth. MGM gave Mary two days off from filming Music for Millions to honeymoon. Mary and Dixson were married two years.
Mary’s sister Judy told Bill Fairley of the Star-Telegram in 1998: “When Punkins came home, she was just little Mary Frances again, in blue jeans and plaid shirts, playing with neighborhood kids.”
About 1947 Mary left Hollywood and returned to Fort Worth to care for her ailing father, a local attorney. After he died in 1947 Mary hosted a pioneer children’s show on WBAP-TV in 1949-1950: Mary Parker Playtime. She also hosted Dance Parade. On the air earlier was Bobby Peters. Clips are from the March 20 and 24, 1950 Dallas Morning News.
Mary posed with Bob Hope when he was in town for a charity event in 1949.
In the early 1950s Mary also appeared in four Hollywood movies but was uncredited. Her last film was The Great Diamond Robbery with Red Skelton in 1954.
In 1956 Mary opened Mary Parker School of Dance at 2408 Forest Park Boulevard. She gave lessons, and she and her dance partner, James Leito, performed locally. Mary later worked as an office manager for a physician.
Mary lived at 2815 Benbrook Boulevard, just a few doors from Boyce House.
For Mary Frances Roberson, the girl who went from the Poly ’hood to Hollywood, “The End” came in her hometown on March 2, 1998.
(The more, the Maryer: Michael Mitchell, who contributed to this post, has a Mary Parker website.)
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Great story. I remember the day that Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, anddd,TRigger came outside of SS Dillow. I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade I think.
Keep up the good work.
Thanks, Bob. I was not aware of Roy and Dale’s safety program from elementary schools. Apparently D. McRae never placed high. I have e-mailed you a clip.
looking at the tv guide brought back memories for me. Bobby Peters was wonderful for a lot of us kids. I was on the show a few times and we loved him a lot. One week Clayton Moore aka The Lone Ranger was there and every week Johnny Haye a cartoonist who amazed us watching him draw characters on the spot. Thank you so much for this.
Thanks, Robert Paul. I have a photo and recording made by Bobby Peters at http://www.poly67.com/nostalgia.html
Enjoy your interesting historical features. Thanks for providing them.
Thanks, Dixie. It’s always fun to learn more about our old East Side.
Looks great!-thanks for all of your help.
Thank you, Mike. Your two websites will keep Mary’s memory alive.