Monday, July 15, 2019

Denise Nickerson talks Flipper, dentures and arithmetic, 1965

Denise Nickerson, perhaps best known for playing bratty Violet Beauregarde in 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, died last week following a “major medical emergency.” She was 62.

When Nickerson joined the cast of Dark Shadows in 1968, the 11-year-old found herself in the not-uncommon position of having more acting credits to her name than some of her adult co-stars. It's possible Denise kept track of her early stage credits (a few are documented in the story below) but it might be impossible to track down all of her work prior to joining the cast of Dark Shadows. A cursory glance at some of the press she received before turning 10 include performances with Betsy Palmer in Peter Pan, Maurice Chevalier, and Gypsy with Gisèle MacKenzie.

Below is an interview with Nickerson published in 1965 by The Miami News about the less-than-glamorous life of a child model and actor. It also mentions her upcoming appearnace on Flipper in the episode "Bud Minds the Baby," which aired March 20. (Note: The episode was directed by none other than Ricou Browning, who had the title role in Creature from the Black Lagoon.) You can watch the episode at the bottom of this post.

False Teeth Come In Handy For Big Little-Time Star
By Agnes Edwards, reporter for The Miami News
Published Jan. 3, 1965

Denise Nickerson doesn't smile a lot just now, she explains, " 'cuz my three teeth are out."

This may be cute in some 7-year-olds but it's not if you're a bigtime entertainer-model like little Denise.

"I ate a Jelly bean on Easter," she pointed to a conspicuous void where a lower incisor  had been, "and this one came out."

Exposing an upper central area that was even more conspicuous, she added, "This one someone took out." Another lower tooth had been loosened through some peculiar happenstance, and was noticeably missing.

When she's on a photographic assignment where it matters, Denise pops a spring partial into her mouth — presto, a big smile with front tooth intact.

Her false replacement arrived in time for Christmas incidentally, along with a bike.

"Everything started when I was 2 1/2," offered the charmingly precocious daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick H. Nickerson, Coral Gables, about her career.

She modeled for some utility ads followed by an educational film, and other advertising including a sun tan lotion, plus local fashion shows.

Simultaneously the brown-eyed, red-blonde lass took dancing lessons from Joe Michael, appearing in many of his local shows in jazz and tap specialties.

At Ruth Foreman's Studio M, Denise built up a repertoire that included "The Littlest Angel," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Eloise" and "Crazy Red" ("It's a funny name," she insists, "but that's what it was!") There too she won a year's study scholarship in acting.

Those who saw "Sound of Music" at Bary College recently will have recognized the most diminutive member of the cast, Gretel, impersonated by Denise Nickerson.

Her performance was carefully noted by Beverly McDermott, agent for Mercury Artists,who immediately corralled Denise for the little girl role of Tina in the televised "Flipper" series now on location in Miami and North Miami Beach.

She is a perfection-seeking student of voice instructor Ladislao Vaida of the University of Miami, and studies dance routines under Jack Stanly.

"My favorite number is 'Straw Hat And A Cane,'" confided Denise, which she often includes in her benefit performances at Veterans, Variety Children's Hospital and The Cerebral Palsy Center. Another popular song and dance act she does is as Rocky the Squirrel.

The report card of Gulliver Academy's star second grader is sprinkled generously with A's and A-pluses. "My best grade is in writing," admitted Denise, "but I like arithmetic better." Memorization is a snap.

Her goal is to become a movie star like Shirley Temple, and to go on stage in New York — "but not until after college, " she added. "When I grow up I'm going to Barry College — if it's still there."

When not biking or frisking with Dennis, her apricot poodle (who "is always getting into trouble" like the Menace variety) she drills her big sister, Patti, 20, in dance routines.

"Patti's pretty good," plauds Little Teacher. "Sometimes she wants to boss but that's all right."

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