Obituary: TV host Jackie Lynn Taylor Fries, 88, was a Little Rascal in ‘Our Gang’ films

05/05/2014 5:52 PM

05/06/2014 12:28 AM

Jackie Lynn Taylor Fries, a pioneering TV personality and show business veteran who was one of the Little Rascals in the beloved “Our Gang” comedy films, died May 5 with Alzheimer’s disease, her husband said. She was 88.

Known mostly as Jackie Lynn Taylor, Mrs. Fries spent most of her life in the public eye as a Hollywood actor, TV host, news anchor, motivational speaker and ordained minister. During a series of dynamic, high-profile careers, she attracted friends and fans with a vivacious charm and a desire to entertain, inform and inspire.

The Citrus Heights resident was best known to audiences around the world for her short-lived but standout role as one of the few girls in the Little Rascals. The group of youngsters was created by producer Hal Roach to appear in the “Our Gang” movies, which began in the 1920s as silent films and continued into the 1940s.

The enduring series is acclaimed by critics for its use of child performers who behaved naturally on screen and often were poor in real life and disregarded by rich, snobbish kids and overbearing adults. Also, in an era of racial and gender prejudice, the films accorded equal status among blacks and whites and boys and girls.

“We didn’t have scripts,” Mrs. Fries told The Sacramento Bee in 2000. “We played together. We were kids who worked together, who played together and who went to school together. We weren’t great actors, but we got along.”

The tall 9-year-old was a fresh face as the female lead in five “Our Gang” movies released in 1934. She debuted as Jane, the “girlfriend” of gang leader Wally Albright, in “Hi-Neighbor,” one of the most well-liked films in the series.

Like all the cast, she was replaced as she grew too “old” to be a Little Rascal. But she was proud that the episode – which was shown in clips at the Academy Awards – remained fresh and charming.

“I think that being a member of the Rascals has kept me young,” she told The Bee in 2001.

Mrs. Fries spent 15 more active years in Hollywood, including bit parts in 75 movies and performances in theater plays. By 1950, she was married to actor and drama teacher Ben Bard when she started a career as a host in the fledgling TV industry.

She interviewed big names in politics and entertainment for KTTV in Los Angeles as one of the first female TV co-hosts in Southern California. She went on to host the top TV show in San Diego and worked at stations in Bakersfield, Tulare and Stockton.

The San Francisco Examiner named her “TV woman of the year” in 1955. Three years later, NBC tried to hire her after a one-week appearance as a guest host on “Today,” but the San Diego station where she was working refused to let her out of her contract.

She was divorced when she went to work in 1965 as a TV anchor and reporter in Salinas and later at KXTV Channel 10 in Sacramento. She married Sacramento native Jack Fries, a former CBS journalist and TV anchor and producer, in 1966. She left KXTV and the news business to live with her husband in Los Angeles, where he worked for a TV news show.

When the couple was hired by a savings and loan company to give motivational speeches, audiences frequently asked Mrs. Fries about “Our Gang.” She wrote a book about the Little Rascals called “The Turned-On Hollywood 7” and began hosting the “Little Rascals Family Theater” TV show in San Diego and Los Angeles with her husband.

By the late 1970s, the couple moved to Missouri and went from “giving bad news on TV to spreading the good news” as ministers in the nondenominational Unity Church, her husband said. They led congregations in Missouri, Southern California and Nevada before retiring and returning in 1993 to the Sacramento, where Mrs. Fries counseled girls in Juvenile Hall and ministered with her husband as chaplains in retirement communities.

“She was magnetic when she got in front of an audience,” her husband said. “She liked to contribute and talk to people and help them feel good. She was a giver.”

Born Jacqueline Devon Taylor on June 29, 1925, in Compton, Mrs. Fries used variations of her name professionally and was widely known in ministry as Jackie Hope Fries. She won a child beauty pageant in Long Beach and got her start in show business when her mother, a nurse, took her to a Hollywood casting call.

She was inducted into the National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences Silver Circle and was honored by the San Diego Press Club for her pioneering work in broadcasting. After returning to Sacramento, she taught vocal classes with her husband at Sierra College in Rocklin.

Warm and gracious with people, she enjoyed talking about her early days in Hollywood to connect with seniors. In private, however, she told The Bee that she did not spend too much time in the past.

“It’s fine to look back,” she said, “but you have to move forward and live in the present.”

Mrs. Fries had a second marriage, to Eugene Valencia, that ended in divorce.

She is survived by Fries, who said a private service is planned. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Note: This story was changed May 11, 2014, to report that Mrs. Fries had a previous marriage to Eugene Valencia.

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