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Showgirl Lucille Huntington still a Hoot

If you’re a baby boomer, surely you remember the Toni twins beaming their bewitching smiles from boxes of Toni Home Permanent. But Lucille Huntington, who was a Toni twin with her identical sister, Lois, confesses that, although the perms were gentle and never fried their hair, afterwards, she and Lois would have their hair professionally coifed for the advertisements. “We were only 16 and they had us looking like grown-ups.”

Certainly the media haven’t forgotten the twins. “We were on the front page of USA Today five years ago, where they said the very best advertising were the Toni twins ads. We still see cutouts of us in drug stores. It’s funny seeing yourself like that.”

Growing up in Chicago, in a family of eight children, who’d lost their father, wasn’t easy. “We witnessed Chicago mob activities and saw bodies stuffed in trash cans. My mother heard the bullets spray from the Valentines Day Massacre.”

But the duo relentlessly pursued a Hollywood career, sending money home to Mama. Under contract with Twentieth Century Fox, they danced and sang their way across the country. “Life magazine did a big four-page spread on us and we became the toast of New York City.”

Certainly no has-been, Huntington organized follies for the Monterey Symphony for eight years. She also gathered a group of mature women, called them The Satin Dolls, and they kicked up their legs at various fundraisers on the Peninsula for years. Not to mention, 25 years ago, she rounded up performers and started the Sonora Train Ride which became so popular that politicians and VIPs were begging to be on the list.

For the interview, the pert blonde wore a leopard shirt and showed off stacks of magazines – Life, Parade and Readers Digest - in which she and Lois were featured. Her Pebble Beach home was filled with collectibles from around the world, including choo choo trains.

Q: What is your fascination with trains?
A: My father was a union organizer, organizing trains. He called the first-sit down strike. I always just liked trains.

Q: How did you get into acting?
A: When Dad died, I had to quit high school to work, just before graduating. A troupe was going through town, from Canada Follies Gay Paree, that would pay us an unheard-of $17 a week. We had put our own tap dance routines together. We’d watch the shows put on for factory workers. We’d sneak up into the rafters and watch the teacher and we’d go home and practice. We had no formal training.

Q: What was your childhood like?
A: During the Depression, I’d go to school with no food for lunch. We lived by the railroad track in a big house, and kids said we were born in barns, since our name was Barnes. I was on the poor side of town, but the school was on the silk-stocking side. In 9th grade, my teacher told me to share a locker with Gretchen, a doctor’s daughter, and she refused to share. It was so humiliating.

Q: Your work in New York?
A: We knew a rabbi who told us to go to Lou Walters’ nightclub and audition. We checked into the cheapest motel in town, on 49th street near Broadway. They said to come over to audition in rehearsal clothes. We couldn’t afford them, so they gave us $10 to go get some. We were 16 and you could tell we were country hicks. We got a job in George White’s Gay White Way – that’s when gay meant happy. Lou was a really nice man and Barbara (Walters) was just a little girl running around. Big shots from Manhattan would come to see us . . . . By the way, my granddaughter is going to be on TV with Barbara. Anyway, then we went to the Copacabana. Don Ameche would come every time to see us. He was a real nice man. We had dinner with him.

Q: So where did you go from there?
A: We appeared in the Cole Porter production, “Something for the
Boys,” dedicated to World War II, and Ethel Merman was the star. We sang it and stood out in front. Porter loved us. He was the nicest guy I ever met. When our birthday came, he sent an individual telegram to my sister and to me.

Q: You actually turned down “Oklahoma!”?
A: Yes. It ran 12 years, the longest running musical on Broadway. But we didn’t do it because we weren’t sure they’d get the money to put the show on, and we had to send money home to Mom. We goofed!

Q: How did you meet your late husband, Henry Huntington II?
A: We met at a barbecue. Here was this guy with baggy pants, and the way he was talking was so intelligent that I thought he was a starving poet. He asked me what I always wanted to do. I said play the piano. The next morning, two men in white uniforms delivered a piano and he walked in behind them and started to play. He was actually a concert musician. I had army cots for sofas and paper drapes, and here he was a multi-millionaire . . . The headline in the L.A. Times was, “Pasadena Scion Cohabiting with Showgirl.”

Q: Were you always a show-off?
A: No. Because I was treated so terribly growing up. I used to pick up coal off the tracks that fell off coal cars. That’s how we kept warm in winter.

Q: Talk about your Lux soap ads.
A: They called us and said it was hard to find twins that can sing, dance and talk. They said we’d get Lux the rest of our lives, and after 20 years, I had so much in my garage I asked them to stop giving it.

Q: You called yourselves “double trouble.” Ever trick anyone?
A: (hoots) I rented a house in Newport Beach and invited five couples, including my sister and her husband. We were swimming, and Lois went up to my room to change. She was stark naked and my husband walked in and she was yelling and trying to cover herself up. He thought it was me and said, “What the hell got into you?” I never heard him swear in my life until then.

Q: Are you and Lois close?
A: Very close. But we’re completely different personalities. I was always manager of the duo. I always kind of took care of us. She’s very emotional.

Q: What are the pros and cons of being an identical twin?
A: We learned to get our own lives. I felt like a whole person, not a half. And I have to admit, being twins in show business drew a lot of attention to us. They wanted us to do a Doublemint ad but Lois wasn’t available.

Q: Your wish for the world?
A: That we’d all learn to get along together. We entertained the troops during WWII, and before they left, they were all happy. Then they came back in wheelchairs with limbs missing and were so much more serious . . . I received hundreds of letters from soldiers who would propose to me.

Q: In what ways are you kicking up your heels at aging?
A: Taking trips. I just came back from a Crystal Cruise on the Caribbean.

Extra! Inspiration

I had known Lucille through the social scene for several years before I interviewed her in her Pebble Beach home. More than once, I’d seen her dance on stage at fund-raisers. I marveled at her and her spunky, over-the-hill dance troupe, The Satin Dolls. I vaguely remember Lucille in a pink, bunny-style outfit (no ears), kicking up her fish net covered long legs; a far cry from the prim expression that beamed back from the Toni Home Permanent box of my youth.

I knew it would be a hoot to interview her. When I’d called her home to arrange it, her answering machine had this hilarious message with a tooting train. So I was prepared for the jovial story of her life.

Well, you’ve read it by now and have learned, as I did, what a strong and perseverant woman Lucille Huntington is. A girl who experienced the humiliation of poverty, she set her sights on a star and became one.

I knew she had to be one of the stars in my book, but I had done the interview years ago, and had no idea where she was or what she was up to. At 84, I assumed she’d be retired.

No way.

Like so many of the inspirational people in my book, she is still active in the community and volunteering for a non-profit for the arts. In her characteristically light-hearted manner, she said her “older” sister - “by three minutes” - was also doing well, and they are both virtually unwrinkled.

I took that to mean their skin and their souls.

 

 

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