Norabelle Roth Siegel/“Noreen Nash,” 1942
Today: She lives in Beverly Hills, Calif.
BEVERLY HILLS — An Apple Blossom queenship puts a young woman on the public stage. In Norabelle Jean Roth’s case, it put her on the screen.
Touring Los Angeles at age 18 to promote Washington apples, Roth met with talent agents from Warner Brothers and MGM, and eventually signed a performance contract with the latter studio. She turned up first as an uncredited showgirl in “Girl Crazy” (1943), one of 10 comedy-musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
Two more uncredited roles would follow before Jean Renoir’s “The Southerner” (1945), a Texas farmland drama for which she adopted her lifelong stage name: Noreen Nash.
“I’ve had these four names: Norabelle Roth, Noreen Nash, then Mrs. Siegel, then Mrs. Whitmore,” the 1942 Apple Blossom Queen said by phone last week from her home in Beverly Hills, Calif. “… I answer to everything. Just as long as they say hi, I answer.”
For purposes of this article, let’s call her Ms. Nash. The daughter of Wenatchee Bottling Works owner Albert C. “Al” Roth and former teacher Gayle Roth, she grew up with a love for both sports and performance. Skiing, badminton and basketball shared equal time with tapdance and ballet.
Not only was Nash bound for stardom after being selected as queen, she was also the first queen chosen after the U.S. entry into World War II. The festival went on hiatus from 1943 through 1945 in recognition of the war effort, although royalty were still crowned. When it restarted in 1946, Nash’s brother Al Roth Jr. — fresh back from war service as a paratrooper — was the chief assistant to festival chairman I.C. Kuchenreuther. Al went on to serve as director general of the festival in 1947.
When Nash was booked to visit Hollywood as part of her queenly duties, Liberty Theatre manager Morrie Nimmer arranged for her to meet Warner Brothers agents for a screen test. It posed a dilemma.
“I had looked into Stanford, and I had to make up my mind whether to come here, and try for a screen test, or go to college,” said Nash, now 88. “And I decided to try for the screen test, and I stayed on after that.”
Another meeting at Metro Goldwyn Mayer followed, and MGM offered her a stock contract as a showgirl — one of the dancers who filled out the ranks in classic ‘40s musical numbers.
It was a whirlwind year. Apple Blossom, Tinseltown, and marriage to Los Angeles physician Lee Siegel all came in 1942. The 33-year-old doctor was headed to war, and he and Nash married in December, six weeks after they met. (A heart murmur disqualified Siegel from service before he was due to ship out for Europe.)
Nash did some modeling alongside another Hollywood aspirant, Norma Jeane Baker, one day to be known as Marilyn Monroe. In 1944 her MGM contract ended, and she was free to shoot “The Southerner” with Renoir — then an expatriate from his native France, today considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Nash played the sympathetic daughter of a rough Texas homesteader, trying to bridge her father’s rivalry with ambitious cotton farmer Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott). Her stage name was adapted from that of the actor who played her father, J. Carrol Naish.
Nash and her family became lifelong friends of Renoir, who died in 1979. Today she calls him “the most fabulous person I’ve ever known.”
“He made everything kind of simple. He didn’t believe in perfection. That was the one reason that he had a terrible time with Hollywood, because he said that’s what ruined it — it took away the reality. He said none of the great works of art are ever perfect.”
Nash’s first son, named Lee like his father, was born in 1945, the year “The Southerner” was released. Nash signed with Eagle-Lion Films, a newly-constituted independent studio, and in 1948 starred in the noir thriller “Assigned To Danger.” It was an early film for director Budd Boetticher, later known for his gritty Westerns.
In 1955, Lee Siegel became the staff physician for 20th Century Fox. Her father Al Roth died the same year, and her mother Gayle moved to Los Angeles to live with her. The family kept a home just across the street from George Burns. Nash gave birth to her second son, Robert, around the time TV became a viable option for actors.
“Oh, I did so many television shows. I was in everything in the ’50s and early ’60s.”
In films, she was abducted by an invisible alien in “Phantom From Space” (1953); played a visiting movie starlet in George Stevens’ epic “Giant” (1956), starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean; and killed a man with an axe in “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold” (1958).
Nash bowed out of acting in the mid-1960s, largely on the advice of her school-age son Robert. She enrolled in history studies at UCLA, balancing classes with homemaking and a social life, and earned her bachelor’s degree in 1971 — the same year as Robert.
She spent subsequent years researching and writing a historical novel, “By Love Fulfilled,” published in 1980. A second novel didn’t find a publisher, but Nash wrote for magazines until her husband Lee’s death in 1990, at age 81, then shelved the pursuit.
“A few times I’ve thought about it, but then I thought, ‘No, I’ve done that — on with something else.’”
Nash’s son Lee Siegel earned his Ph.D from Oxford, and became a writer and professor of religion at the University of Hawaii. Her son Robert, a physician, is chairman of cardiac diagnostics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Nash’s brother Al Roth Jr. died in 1997 in Moses Lake, after building his own beverage distribution business there. Her mother died in 1998.
In 2001 Nash remarried to vastly prolific character actor James Whitmore. The two lived in Malibu until his death in 2009, at which point Nash moved back to be among old friends in Beverly Hills. She tutors a student in French and keeps busy with bridge, social luncheons and other engagements.
Might her career and life have taken this direction if not for Apple Blossom?
“Absolutely not,” she said. “Never would’ve happened. I would’ve gone to Stanford or whoever would’ve taken me, and I don’t think I ever would’ve come to Hollywood. … It certainly changed my life totally.”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123