Ariz. woman, 91, recalls child-acting career

By Ken Hedler

The Daily Courier

Published: Monday, Nov. 7 2011 12:05 a.m. MST

Lassie Lou Ahern, 91, poses in the “memorabilia room” of her Prescott Valley, Ariz., home on Oct. 25, 2011. Ahern's long career began in silent movies when she was just shy of 2 years old after she and her sister, Peggy, 94, met Will Rogers in their father's real estate office in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City.

The Daily Courier, Ken Hedler, Associated Press

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PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. — Former child actress Lassie Lou Ahern, 91, broke into show business the old-fashioned way: family connections and luck.

Her long career began in silent movies when she was just shy of 2 years old after she and her sister, Peggy, 94, met Will Rogers in their father's real estate office in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City. Rogers worked at the time at Hal Roach Studios, then in Culver City.

Ahern, who now calls Prescott Valley home, recalls Rogers advised Fred Ahern to take his children to the studio.

"He said, 'Your kids are cuter than anyone else I've seen over there,'" she recalled.

Ahern's anthology on the Young Hollywood Hall of Fame website, www.younghollywoodhof.com, shows a photo of her first appearance with Rogers in an unnamed movie circa 1922.

Ahern appeared in five movies with Rogers — whom she refers to as "Mr. Rogers" — and several with Charley Chase while working with Roach, who became good friends with her father.

Her "memorabilia" room in her Viewpoint subdivision home contains seven black-and-white portraits of her with Rogers and another photo of the Ahern sisters with Rogers.

"You see how he is looking at me?" she asked. "My mom (Elizabeth) said he adores me."

However, Ahern, a brunette at the time, said Rogers wanted blondes for a movie. She got the part by wearing a wig.

Ahern said she appeared in as many as 40 movies throughout her career, including "Call of the Wild" (1923) and several of the "Our Gang" and Helen Holmes flicks. She is most proud of her part as Little Harry in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," released in 1927.

The filmmaker sought little boys for the part, but did not like any of the candidates, Ahern said. So she ended up getting it.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" took a year and a half to produce and was the first movie that cost more than $1 million to make, Ahern said. She had three wardrobe changes, she recalls.

The actors spent three months on the Mississippi River from Jackson to Natchez, Miss., she said.

A year after the movie's release, Ahern earned the New York Critics Award for best child actor and an award as well from "Photoplay," a fan magazine.

However, her film career halted in 1929 when the talkies emerged. She recalled her "tyrannical Irish father" opposed her acting in talkies on religious grounds.

"They wanted a lot of noise," she said about the filmmakers. "The gangster era came in" with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.

Instead, Ahern said her father opened a dance studio, where she and her sister honed their moves. She danced with Peggy as the Ahern Sisters performed in hotels and nightclubs throughout the United States and Canada through 1939.

Ahern performed in some dance movies with Donald O'Connor during the 1940s. She later enjoyed several television appearances as well, including "Love, American Style," ''The Odd Couple" and "Oprah."

She maintained her showbusiness contacts by teaching dance for more than 35 years at the Ashram Spa in Calabasas, Calif. Students included actors Renee Zellweger, Faye Dunaway, Jim Belushi, Queen Latifah and William Shatner, singers Toni Tennille (who now lives in Williamson Valley) and Simon Le Bon, and model Cindy Crawford.

Ahern was a "fabulous choreographer and dance teacher - one of the best," said Mazie Feinstein, a former tap dancer who lives in Los Angeles and is the mother of singer, pianist and music revivalist Michael Feinstein.

"She can get anybody to learn to dance, which is really difficult," Feinstein said. "She just has that natural ability to bring out the best in people. She is very nice and very patient."

Feinstein, who has known Ahern for 35 years, said, "It is a shame that she moved so far, but she wanted to be near to her kids."

Ahern retired at age 85 and moved to Prescott Valley to be closer to her divorced son, John Brent, who lives "five minutes away."

Her daughter, Debra Hood, a retired professional dancer, moved in with her. Another son, Cary Brent, lives with his wife, Carol, in Buckeye.

The Brent name comes from her 22-year marriage to the late Dixieland drummer Johnny Brent, whom she met at age 17 while living in New Orleans. She never remarried.

Ahern reflected on a long, happy life.

"I loved everything that I did," she said. "I loved to dance. I love my three kids and - put it all in a nutshell - I love life."

Information from: The Daily Courier, http://www.dcourier.com

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