June Preston, Child Actor Turned Celebrated Opera Singer, Dies at 93


June Preston, the popular child actress of the 1930s and ’40s who appeared in films directed by Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and Raoul Walsh before becoming a world-renowned opera singer, has died. She was 93.

Preston died Wednesday at a nursing home in Montclair, New Jersey, after a battle with dementia, her daughter, Sabrina Pires, told The Hollywood Reporter.

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Born in Glendale on Dec. 29, 1928, Preston was spotted on the RKO studio lot when she was 3 and signed to a seven-year contract.

She made her screen debut as the daughter of Hilda Vaughn’s Mrs. Blewett in RKO’s Anne of Green Gables (1934), then appeared in a handful of other films that year, including Capra’s It Happened One Night, winner of the top five Oscars, including best picture.

Meanwhile, she began training at the Meglin Dance Studio in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. She sang, danced and acted in short films like Our Gang Follies of 1938 and on radio shows and was a regular at the Wadsworth Theatre in West L.A. (Other child stars to emerge as “Meglin Kiddies” included her “rival” Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Jane Withers, Virginia Grey and Ann Miller.)

She re-signed at RKO at 9 but was loaned out often to other studios and worked with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Maytime (1937) at MGM; with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew in Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940) at Paramount; with James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde (1941) at Warner Bros.; with W.C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) at Universal; and with Gene Tierney and Don Ameche in Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) at Fox.

June Preston in a promotional photo for RKO - Credit: Courtesy of Courtesy Sabrina PiresJune Preston in a promotional photo for RKO - Credit: Courtesy of Courtesy Sabrina Pires

June Preston in a promotional photo for RKO – Credit: Courtesy of Courtesy Sabrina Pires

Courtesy of Courtesy Sabrina Pires

Along the way, she had merchandising contracts for “June Preston Frocks” and other apparel — undergarments, swimsuits, snowsuits, coats, shoes, purses, hats, gloves, handkerchiefs, you name it — as well as a line of doll and toys.

A year after playing Ann Rutherford‘s daughter in Happy Land (1943), her final feature, Preston was discovered at age 16 by maestro Gustav Stern, a German conductor and vocal coach in Seattle.

She graduated from West Seattle High School in 1947 and began touring two years later. In 1952 at age 24, she debuted with a Metropolitan Opera company on a South American tour in the leading role of Mimi in La Boheme opposite Met standout Jan Peerce.

During the next decade, Preston performed in the world’s most prestigious opera houses and with symphony orchestras in the U.S., Europe and Central and South America. A soprano with a five-octave range, she was nicknamed the “Golden Voice,” and entertainment columnist Walter Winchell was an admirer.

Preston met Belgian concert violinist Saul Höuben while on tour, and they married in 1963. She soon retired from touring to raise her daughter.

In 1996, she was inducted into the West Seattle High School Hall of Fame and received a note of congratulations from George and Barbara Bush.

Survivors also include her son-in-law, John, and her sister, Lita. She will be laid to rest in a private ceremony at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.

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