By Harvey M. Kahn
San Bernardino High School has produced a lot of talented people whose abilities have propelled them onto the national stage. Cardinal City still produces them, just not on the same level as former Tuskegee Airmen, physicists or leading ladies. Carole Landis crammed a lot into her 29 years before committing suicide in 1948. She is the only SBHS student to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Known as Francis Ridste when she graduated SBHS in 1936, she had already been married twice and divorced. Days after finishing high school, she dyed her hair blond, changed her name to Carole Landis and hopped a bus to San Francisco with hopes of achieving stardom. But before that she had already shown signs of being with it. At age 14, she snuck into the Miss Riverside beauty contest and finished fourth. At 8, she embarrassed family by jumping on the stage during a play and belted out a solo. Her biographers tell many more.
Landis told reporters she gained contracts at Warner Brother’s and 20th Century Fox to play opposite the biggest stars of her era because she was not afraid to take risks. As a member of Jefferson Elementary School’s chorus she performed before 2,500 persons at the San Bernardino Municipal Auditorium. She later sang lead in a Halloween assembly while attending Sturgis Junior High. As a teen she allegedly learned street smarts from local prostitutes who she waited on while working at a diner near 3rd and D Streets.
Months after arriving in San Francisco, she wanted
more than singing and dancing in smoke-filled lounges. Her biography says she soon realized Los Angeles was the place to be. Her good looks, outgoing personality and work ethic got her into 25 major motion pictures. She was cast by top directors like Darryl Zanuck and Hal Roach, playing opposite Bob Hope, John Wayne, Betty Grable and Caesar Romero. She was received socially by General Dwight Eisenhower, Ernest Hemingway and was the special guest of Dorothy Dandridge and Egyptian King Farouk.
Her life in San Bernardino as told by family conflicts from that of biographer Eric Gans and from Associated Press clippings. Court records show dysfunction between her mother and father. Some reports detail an early life of poverty, ditching school, bad grades, and problems with teachers. Yet others claim she was an honors student.
Landis and an older brother and sister were said to have been raised by their mother, living off Mt. Vernon Boulevard. Her father, Alfred Ridste lived near Marshall Boulevard and was a machinist at Santa Fe Railway. Landis wrote in her biography that as a young girl she took dancing classes in San Bernardino and attended a Catholic Church every Sunday.
All reports state that Landis was an excellent athlete. She organized softball teams and her football team at SBHS was disbanded by school administrators. Reporter Harold Heffernan wrote that between scenes while filming one movie about baseball, Landis insisted on taking batting practice. Heffernan stated that Landis threw and hit like a man, to the point where it ruined her makeup and upset directors. A poster dated July 4, 1941 said she appeared in a celebrity baseball game at San Bernardino’s Perris Hill Ball Park. Three months earlier she was the guest of honor at the San Bernardino Fire Department’s annual ball.
Landis’ career was just advancing when World War II broke out. Film production was slowed and the prime of her career was spent volunteering in Hollywood’s efforts to win the war. She did gain immense popularity by traveling with performers to entertain troops. While on USO tours of North Africa, Landis caught malaria and developed a chronic respiratory condition. She remained sick the rest of her life which perhaps contributed to her suicide. She also told reporters that she was in a hurry to get more accomplished before her 30th birthday, once considered the cut off age for actresses. She died of an overdose of sleeping pills eight months before she reached 30.
Her brother Lawrence Ridste, a fireman stationed at engine company No. 5 in San Bernardino, felt actor Rex Harrison was a person of interest regarding his sister’s death. The suspicious circumstances to her death made significant international news. Landis had two other older brothers who died from freak accidents when they were young.
By the time Landis was 23, she was respected enough that aspiring actors sought her advice. She could sing good enough that her voice was never dubbed. She was a good enough script writer whereby producers took notice. She could also design and make her own wardrobe from shoes to hat.
In a 1941 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Landis said she learned as a teen that she must not be afraid to take chances. “You must not wait for opportunity to knock on your door, you’ve got to go out and meet it. The idea is to progress.” At the time of her death she was studying voice, taking piano lessons and learning French.