Atria Resident Marilyn Knowlden Shares Memories and Films Made as a Child Actress

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Scotty Beckett, Norma Shearer and Marilyn Knowlden in Marie Antoinette (1938)

Some of the residents at Atria Senior Living in Newport Beach remember having stood in long theater lines to buy tickets to such 1930’s A-list films as “Little Women,” “David Copperfield,” “Les Miserable,” “Show Boat,” and “Marie Antoinette,” starring such Tinseltown legends as Norma Shearer Betty Davis, Claudette Colbert, Charlie Chaplain, June Haver, James Cagney, and Frederick March.

As one of the more senior of the senior citizens at Atria, 97-year-old Marilyn Knowlden recalls that — unlike most movie fans — she never had to brave the weather to stand in line with the throngs to catch these celluloid classics, for she either starred or appeared in these movies, plus nearly 45 other films during a 10-year career as one of Hollywood’s more sought-after child actresses.

Knowlden doesn’t live in the past, her past still lives with her — evident by the many photos and other memorabilia of her once autograph-sought life that festoon her living room walls alongside family photos that also reveal other happy chapters of life after show biz.

Although her Hollywood era remains eight decades behind, some fans obviously have either grown to seniority with her, or film aficionados have discovered this one-time prodigy in film libraries. On one recent afternoon, Knowlden read and reread seven fan letters that just arrived from as far away as Austria, Germany, Italy and France.

Marilyn Knowlden

Born in Oakland in 1926, Knowlden was blessed with inordinate gifts: a photographic memory, a poet’s sense of creativity, and a dancer’s natural movements. She could read by age three.

Recognizing her potential, her attorney father (later in Hollywood, her theatrical agent), Robert E. Knowlden, enrolled her in dancing lessons when she turned three. Amazed at how quickly the child mastered choreography, her teacher then challenged her to memorize scripts. It wasn’t long before the little dancer also became the little actress. By age seven, the musically gifted Knowlden could also tickle the ivories competently enough that she regularly played piano recitals on local radio shows, while her singing earned her musical spots in several movies, including a full solo in the 1936 comedy film, “Easy to Take,” starring John Howard and Marsha Hunt — and, of course, Knowlden.

Knowlden broke into movies as a four-year-old, when she accompanied father to Hollywood on a business trip.

While there, recalled Knowlden, “Dad called Paramount to see if the casting director would meet me, but he said they wanted a mature eight-year-old for a part. Dad emphasized that I could memorize anything.”

On her “agent’s” third day of persistence, the director finally said to bring her in for a screen test.

If the third time’s a charm, charm was smiling that morning, for four-year-old Knowlden not only got the part, it was a leading role in “Women Love Once,” starring Paul Lucas. Four movie parts later, and confident that his daughter would have a “career,” the family moved to Hollywood for a few years, where she attended the Hollywood Professional School. From there, they segued to Beverly Hills High School, where she and her drama classmates produced two 15-minute scripts each semester for presentation on radio station KMPC. She graduated with honors, earning a full scholarship to Mills College in Oakland.

At age 14, Knowlden retired from her successful movie career to focus on her education, although she never abandoned her entertainment focus, having composed 70 songs, and musicals, along with countless poems, all of which will be published soon under the titles “Holiday Songs through the Years,” and “Holiday Poems Through the Years.”

Additionally, over the years, she has appeared in more than 20 plays.

Marilyn Knowlden with a photo from one of the movies she made as a child actress.

Two years after attending Mills College in 1944, with a major in music and drama, she met her husband, Army Captain Richard Goates. A new adventure script had been “written,” when she accompanied him post-WWII to his assignments in Japan and China.

Due to her background, and needing something to do, she became a radio announcer on the military radio station, XMAG, in Nanking, China. She returned to the U.S. several years later, with their first child. They went on to have two more children, plus a foster child.

She divorced Goates after 32 years of marriage, then married Eliseo Bernardo; that marriage also lasted 32 years.

Amazingly spry both physically and mentally, Knowlden today leads an active life. She plays bridge twice a week and socializes daily with her good friends; she speaks with her children every day. And once a month, Knowlden selects one of her films from her 50-DVD library to share with interested Atria residents, each performance enhanced by a memory-rich prologue.

It has been an entertaining life.

Editor’s Note: While researching this article, writer Richard Simon discovered that he and Knowlden lived on the same street in Hollywood while they were growing up, and attended the same grammar school, Cheremoya Avenue School.

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