Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Barbara Jean Wong, Radio Star

"Barbara Jean Wong" is not a name many might recognize today, but in the Thirties and Forties she was a star. That is, she was a radio star. Barbara Jean Wong appeared in several hours worth of radio shows during the era of Old Time Radio, everything from I Love a Mystery to Hallmark Playhouse.

Barbara Jean Wong was a fourth generation Chinese American born on March 3 1924 in Los Angeles. Her parents, Thomas and Maye Wong, operated a produce market. She was only five years old when she first started performing on radio. At the time her long black hair was styled in ringlets, and as a result she became known as the Chinese Shirley Temple. She attended the Mar-Ken School for Professional Children, where one of her classmates was Mickey Rooney.

Barbara Jean Wong's most significant role may well have been on the radio program The Cinnamon Bear. The Cinnamon Bear is what would later be termed on television a "mini-series" or "limited series." It was meant to air six days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The Cinnamon Bear centred on a pair of twins, Judy Barton (Barbara Jean Wong) and Jimmy Barton (Bobby La Manche) who journey to a magical world called "Maybeland" to retrieve the silver star that topped their family's Christmas tree. They are helped in their search by Paddy O'Cinnamon, also known as The Cinnamon Bear. The Cinnamon Bear first aired from November 26 and December 25 1937. It would be repeated most holiday seasons for literally years. It remains widely available to this day.

Another notable role for Barbara Jean Wong was Amos's daughter Arbadella on Amos 'n' Andy. Arbadella appeared in several episodes of the show and would usually play a significant role in the Christmas episodes, in which Amos would explain the importance of Christmas to Arbadella. Barbara Jean Wong also appeared several times on I Love a Mystery and later I Love an Adventure. On I Love a Mystery she played a variety of characters, most often such Chinese characters as P.Y. Ling and Lee Taw Ming. Barabra Jean Wong also played the daughter on The Smiths of San Fernando, the 1946 audition program (the radio equivalent of a television pilot) for what would become The Smiths of Hollywood.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, Barbara Jean Wong was very much in demand and appeared on several other radio shows. She made several appearances on the anthology show Lux Radio Theatre. She also appeared on such radio shows as Cavalcade of America, Hallmark Playhouse, Nightbeat, and Romance.

Barbara Jean Wong would also have a movie career, although her roles of any significance would be playing Charlie Chan's daughter in Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), Nan Ti in China (1943), and Iris Ling in another Charlie Chan movie, The Red Dragon (1945). In most of her other film appearances her roles are usually incidental at best. Barbara Jean Wong appeared in a few roles on television, including such shows as Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf, The Halls of Ivy, and Buffalo Bill Jr. After she married in 1950 her acted much less frequently. She provided the voice of Stormy in the animated film The Man From Button Willow (1965). In 1972 she guest starred on the TV show Anna and the King.

In addition to acting, Barbara Jean Wong was a dancer and as a child performed at various events in the Los Angeles area, including Hollywood Women's Club costume party in 1935.

Barbara Jean Wong earned degrees in drama and English at the University of Southern California and Columbia University. She taught elementary school in Los Angeles for 23 years before retiring in 1992. She was active in such community organizations as the Friends of the Chinese American  Museum and El Pueblo Historical Monument.

In an era when Asian Americans rarely appeared in movies and were perhaps even more rare on radio, Barbara Jean Wong carved out a career as a radio performer. She was a highly versatile actor, appearing in everything from adventures shows to comedies.

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