Issue date: September 30, 1998

GUEST OPINION: A Star on the Alameda GUEST OPINION: A Star on the Alameda (September 30, 1998)

by Frank Helfrich

In the depths of the Depression of the 1930s, West Menlo Park was a neighborhood of quiet families with not a thing to talk about besides unemployment until an 11-year-old boy, whol lived right on the Alameda and attended Las Lomitas School, landed a movie contract with a major Hollywood studio in 1938.

Billy Cook, son of Lawrence and Janet Cook, had gained experience as a child actor with the Palo Alto Community Playhouse. His mother had had experience as an entertainment writer for a movie magazine and newspaper in Long Beach. (She had previously attended Baylor University and UCLA after arriving in the Los Angeles-area from Texas in 1918.)

On the advice of friends, Mrs. Cook took her son to Hollywood in an endeavor to secure screen and radio work. After two unproductive months in the screen capital, Mrs. Cook finally succeeded in receiving a small part for her son in the film "Hollywood Hotel." This led to increasingly important roles and regular employment on such highly popular radio serials as Scattergood Baines, the Phantom PFilot and Big Town, with Edward G. Robinson.

Finally, after interviewing hundreds of small boys for the moppet role in "Men With Wings," Paramount director William Wellman selected Billy Cook as the child star for Hollywood's first all-color airplane drama. This resulted in a seven-year option contract signed with Paramount Studios with the possibility of earning $500,000. The competition for juvenile roles in Hollywood at this time was very tight, with Shirley Temple leading the troupe and others like Freddie Bartholomew and Donald O'Connor.

Billy Cook stayed on in Hollywood for several years and performed with a number of leading actors including Bing Crosby, Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray and Donald O'Connor. Most notable was a picture in 1938, called "Invitation to Happiness" with Irene Dunne and Fred MacMurray, and also "Tom Sawyer, Detective."

In 1941, Billy Cook came home to Menlo Park between pictures to take part in a one-act skit, "Topsy and Eva." This play was written especially for a Lions Club show by his mother, Janet Cook. The play was part of the program for "A Nite in Old Menlo." Acting opposite Billy, who had the role of Topsy, was none other than Al Giannotti as Little Eva. The show was a great hit in Menlo at the time.

According to a column in the Country Almanac, in responding to inquiries from Hollywood for a book with a working title of "... Whatever Happened To ... Information was later supplied by Billy Cook's brother, Larry, of Atherton:

"After the movie career, Billy Cook went to Cal Tech and received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and then to Stanford for an MBA. He was a naval officer in World War II and later worked for TRW in Canoga Park. Sometime afterward he moved to Maine where he died in June, 1981. He was 55."

Lawrence H. Cook, Billy's father, was well known in Menlo Park. His firm, Cook Research Laboratories, Inc., founded in 1927, was one of the first companies to serve as a testing and consulting firm for water pollution research. From 1927 to 1936 he was chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Santa Clara. In the early history of the City of Menlo Park, he acted as a city magistrate. In 1973 he moved to Maine where he died in June of 1979. His wif0e, Janet preceded him in death in 1973.)

Frank Helfrich is a longtime Menlo Park resident and serves as treasurer of the Menlo Park Historical Association. 

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