Sondra Rodgers, 1903-1997

Trimble County native
found fame in Hollywood

The late actress remembered as
flamboyant person who enjoyed life,
family and home on the farm

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

Trimble County, Ky., is a long way from the bright lights of Hollywood or the stages of Broadway in New York City. Even today, cities such as London and Luxembourg conjure up images of glamour and glitz, while rolling hills and farmland dominate thoughts about Kentucky.

July 2007 Indiana Edition Cover

July 2007
Indiana Edition Cover

Sondra Rodgers left her family’s historic Trimble County home and traveled to all these places to seek her fame and fortune before there were even highways. As the 10th anniversary of her July 22, 1997, death approaches, Rodgers’ legacy as an actress, drama coach, writer and director continues to be remembered by those who knew her.
Born Feb. 3, 1903, as Fenella Jewell Rodgers to parents James and Lacy Rodgers, Sondra (as she later became known) grew up with her six brothers and sisters on the family’s farm, which was part of the historic Preston Plantation.
The 2,300-acre plantation was reportedly the place where Little Eva, a character in Harriet Beacher Stowe’s “”Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” crossed the Ohio River on ice floats to escape the whip of Simon Legree.
In 1907, James Rodgers bought the home site and 320 acres of choice, hilltop land. His son, Gayle Rodgers, took over the operations of the farm shortly after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Gayle, who was named Master Pastureman of Trimble County in 1951 for his innovative farming ideas, sold the farm in 1978 and moved to Liberty Farm just a few miles down the road.
Sondra spent her early years attending school in Milton, Ky., and doing her farm chores. For a brief period during 1915-1916, she attended Madison High School, in nearby Madison, Ind., at the same time famed Hollywood star Irene Dunne was there.
Sondra caught the acting bug at age 17. Her family was adamantly opposed to her becoming an actress, so her father insisted she change her name, family members recall.
“Our father did not want the Rodgers’ name used on stage,” recalled Gayle during a June family reunion to celebrate his 90th birthday. “She changed her name to Sondra Arleaux because she thought it sounded fancy.”
Years later, when she needed a passport to travel to Europe, she changed her name back to Rodgers.

Sondra Rodgers

Photo provided

Sondra Rodgers left
her family’s Trimble
County farm to pursue
an acting career in
Hollywood. Relatives
and friends say she
never forgot her roots
and visited home often.

“Sondra left her home, but she never forgot her family,” said her cousin Bill Gill, 68. “She always kept her ties to her family. She would return for visits often, and we were always invited to visit her, wherever she was.”
Sondra left for New York City but was deterred slightly in Defoe, Ky., at her Uncle Curt’s general store. While there, she met Forrest Dunavan, and they were married. She and Dunavan had a son, William. The marriage lasted for only a very brief spell, and Sondra took William back to the farm in Trimble County. He spent much of his childhood at the farm with his grandparents.
In a phone interview from Mesa, Ariz., William, who goes by Bill, said his life was different than other kids because he traveled quite a bit when he was with his mother.
“I considered my home the old Preston Plantation in Trimble County, but I stayed in numerous places around the country when I was with my mother,” he said.
Cherry Liter, Sondra’s neice who lives in Lexington, Ky., said Sondra would leave Bill at the farm with his grandparents when she was overseas or when she had financial downturns.
After finally reaching New York City, she began her career as a model. She was actually Max Factor Cosmetics’ first model. A year later, she was selected for the lead in a Broadway play, “An Amazing Career,” with actress Ethel Barrymore. The critical acclaim given her performance assured her of a career of her own.
“Critics said she gave a magnificent portrayal that gave luster to an otherwise dull play,” said Liter, who is Gayle’s daughter.
At that point, she signed a long-term contract with Shubert’s Theater in New York City. She worked with many other prominent actors there, including Al Jolson and Dame Sybil Thorndike. She acted in many Broadway plays over the next decade, including “Riddle Me This” at the Hudson Theater. Throughout that period and actually her entire decades-long career, Sondra took breaks and came back to Kentucky to visit her family.

Sondra and Gale Rodgers

Photo provided

Sondra Rodgers chats
with brother Gayle
Rodgers (left) during
a visit home on the farm. Standing with them is a man who was born in the last remaining slave
cabin left on the farm.

Apparently, she was somewhat flamboyant and liked to make sure people knew who she was. Gill said she would arrive wearing flashy jewelry and elaborate costumes.
“She had this unique cane with the head of Socrates carved on the top of it that she would use in her later years,” he said.
“When Sondra arrived for a visit, it was quite the production,” said her niece Nancy Rodgers, who resides in Madison and teaches math at Hanover College. “She had that ‘big Hollywood way’ about her; everyone focused on her when she was here.”
But all of her relatives agree she was a good person at heart, and she was very kind and generous. Many of them visited her when she moved to Hollywood, and some of them had extended stays with her. “No matter what she was doing, or where she was, her family was always welcome,” said Liter.
By 1934, Sondra went to London to study with famed Shakespearean coach Kate O’Roarke at the Old Vic Theater. While in Europe, she was featured in numerous BBC radio programs and produced her own radio series on Radio Luxembourg. She returned to the United States prior to the start of World War II and wound up living in Lexington, Ky., to write, produce and host an educational radio interview series for the University of Kentucky.
It was there she became good friends with then-Kentucky Gov. Happy Chandler and his wife, Mildred. Their friendship lasted a lifetime. When their daughter, Mimi Chandler, was asked to go to Hollywood to work as an actress, they only allowed her to because Sondra had promised to keep and take care of her. “Sondra never drank or smoked,” said Gayle. “She lived a clean life. She was a good person.”
After a brief stint in Lexington, Sondra decided to try her hand in Hollywood in the film industry. She worked under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Universal Studios and appeared in scores of major films. In 1944, Sondra landed a role in her first film “Lost In a Harem.” Recognized as an able character performer, she appeared the following year as Helen Roberts in “The Hidden Eye” and “Anchors Aweigh,” which was with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.
In 1946, she appeared with Lucille Ball in “Easy To Wed,” and “Tap Roots,” in 1947 with Van Heflin and Susan Hayward.
She also tried her hand at television, where she kept busy working in several popular series, including “Wagon Train,” “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” “General Electric Theater,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
In 1963, she again worked in film as Dora in “Tammy and The Doctor,” which starred Sandra Dee and Peter Fonda. Her final film role was in 1975 with an uncredited role in “Airplane.”
Also while in Hollywood, Sondra performed regularly in productions at the Pasadena Playhouse, a renowned theater under the direction of Lenore Shanewise, with whom she became steadfast friends.
Throughout her long career, there were times when she needed to support herself with work other than acting. “My mother was independent, self-sufficient and knew what she wanted,” said Bill. “She knew how to get things done.”
Sondra was an accomplished seamstress and loved to landscape and work in interior design. “She could sew anything from high fashion clothing to slip covers for furniture,” said Liter. Oftentimes, she would use her sewing talents to supplement her acting career.

Rodgers family

Photo by Konnie McCollum

The Rodgers family celebrated
Gayle Rodgers’ (sitting in center)
90th birthday party in June with
a family reunion at their farm in
Milton, Ky. They reminisced
about Sondra.

At the home of her close friend Raymond Burr, the star of the hit television series “Perry Mason,” she landscaped his gardens. During one visit home to the Rodgers’ farm, Sondra decided to redecorate the old homestead. “She just came in and took over,” said Gill “She swept into a room, gave orders and people just did them.”
Perhaps one of her greatest talents was her ability to coach aspiring actors. She gave private lessons to many of those would-be stars. In fact, she taught private lessons with actor Walter Mathau, best known for his partnership with Tony Randall in “The Odd Couple.” She became fast friends with Mathau and his wife, Carol.
She gave her students intensive training in speech and interpretation and taught discipline and professionalism. “She would always say, ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,’ ” said Jack Ramey, a former student and Nancy Rodgers’ husband.
Ramey was a professional actor at the 13th Street Theater in New York City during the 1980s. He performed a one-man show there for eight years. “Sondra was an excellent teacher,” he said.
Sondra remained active in the industry she loved even in her elder years. “She was always working,” said her grandson Jim Rodgers. “We didn’t get to see her a lot because she was always busy, but when we did, she doted on us.”
Sondra spent her last few years at a Hollywood nursing home, where she died. Although she requested there be no funeral, a memorial service was conducted at Forrest Lawn Chapel-Hollywood Hills, where she was placed beside her beloved nephew, Tommy Rodgers, Gayle’s son.
“To the people of Hollywood, she may not have been as famous as some, but to the people of Trimble County and to her family, she was a star,” said her son, Bill Rodgers.

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