An overnight star on the Seattle radio airwaves in the 1920s, sweet little Patsy Britten was promoted as a "baby 'blues singer,'" a "baby radio star," "a child wonder," and then the "Sweetheart of KOL." But that wasn't the half of it. After debuting on KOMO radio as a 19-month-old vocalist, by age four she had moved over to KFOA (and later KOL and KJR) and by age 6 was performing on her hometown's premier stages, including those of the grand Orpheum, Pantages, Palomar, Fox, Embassy, and Paramount theaters -- and then Britten was discovered by Hollywood. Between 1931 and 1932 she appeared with those lovably mischievous "Little Rascals" in three Our Gang comedy films, produced by the Hal Roach Studios and MGM Studios production machines. Then, after years of road travel and live theater gigs, returning to Hollywood as a member of the Dancing Accordionists, and filming a 1940 feature film, Universal Studio's Swinging in the Barn, Britten broke away from showbiz. She attended the University of Washington, served in the U.S. Navy, married, raised a family, and eventually thrilled her aging fans by participating in old-time-movie-oriented events in 2000 and 2001.
Born on October 18, 1923, at Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital, Patricia Jane Britten was the second daughter of Joseph George Britten, an auto salesman, and Lois M. Britten, who lived at 6216 Greenwood Avenue in North Seattle. Like her older sister Eudora (b. 1920?), Patsy was a preternaturally precocious child with an ear for melody. Boosted and promoted by Lois -- who might best be described as the quintessential stage mother -- it is little surprise that by 1925 Eudora was enrolled in KOMO radio's Aunt Bunny's Radio Hour club.
Then one day, as Britten would later recall, "Aunt Bunny invited some of the children to sing on her program" -- and Eudora was all set to go but, "my mother didn't have a sitter so she had to take me with her" (Britten, 1-2). The trio arrived, but then the 19-month-old child "cried because I wanted to sing too. So Aunt Bunny told my mother that I could be on the program too. I sang nursery rhymes" -- among them "Georgie Porgie," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and "Jack and Jill" -- and, "The radio station received a lot of letters asking about me. They decided to have me on regularly" (Britten, 1-2).
Throughout 1926 and 1927 the three-year-old pixie entertained KOMO's listeners by singing such cutesy tunes, and by 1928 -- after the five-year-old trouper performed in a vaudeville show sponsored by the women of St. John's Catholic Church at Seattle's Ridgewood Theatre at 78th and Greenwood -- The Seattle Daily Times hyped her as the "Seattle baby 'blues singer'" ("Blues Warbler"). All this exposure soon led to Patsy being invited to model clothes in fashion shows at the downtown Rhodes Department Store (2nd Avenue and Union Street).Song and Danz
It was in 1929 that Jessie Danz (1889-1973) -- wife of John Danz (1877-1961), Northwest theater magnate and owner of a string of rooms including the grand Pantages/Palomar at 1300 3rd Avenue -- stepped into the story. She spotted Britten in a Rhodes event, was charmed, and had the child audition for her husband at the 5th Avenue Theatre (1308 5th Avenue). He loved Britten, and asked her mother if she could begin performing right away. After performing one song with a pianist, she was hired for a weeklong engagement.
Then Jessie Danz pulled some strings to land Britten a gig singing with the house orchestra at the KFOA station, located in the Northern Life Tower at 1218 3rd Avenue. Britten proceeded to entertain her audiences by singing such wonderfully silly novelty tunes as Frank Crumit's 1928 hit "The Prune Song" ["No matter how young the prune may be / It's always full of wrinkles, We may get them on our face / Prunes get them every place ..."].
Before long Britten was also recruited to join the radio staff in presenting live dramas -- "while her mother held her on her lap and whispered cues in her ear" (Parker). Along the way, other opportunities arose: On February 13, 1929, to help celebrate National Drama Week, the Ladies' Grotto Club had Britten sing "I Faw Down and Go Boom" (accompanied by pianist Eva Forbes) at the Daughers of the American Revolution (DAR) Rainier Chapter House at 800 E Roy Street on Capitol Hill. On May 2, backed by pianist Marguerite Brady, she performed "Glad Rag Doll" at Broadway Hall.
In an effort to round out each daughter's emerging talents, Lois enrolled them in various classes. On June 6, 1929, they were both among the piano students of Edna Howard who performed a recital at the Holmes Auditorium at 85th and Greenwood. That same month, as a student at Mortimer Merrick's Merrick Dance Studio (1106 Broadway), Patsy was reportedly a hit at the Merrick Revue gig at the R-K-O Orpheum Theatre at 5th Avenue and Stewart Street. On September 16 the "petite radio entertainer" was among the many entertainers who performed at the Eagles Auditorium in a benefit show to raise funds for the Florence Nightingale Memorial Hospital in France ("Nurses Plan Music ...").
The year 1929 also saw KFOA recast as KOL, and Britten was one of its most popular on-air talents. By September The Seattle Times was describing her as the "petite radio entertainer" ("Nurses Plan Music ..."), a sobriquet that was amped up to "a baby radio star" in November ("KOL Staff Plans ..."). On the first of that month KOL presented a program featuring top local entertainers -- including famed Seattle songsmith Harold Weeks (1893-1967), who performed one of his many hits, "A Little Cabin in the Cascade Mountains." For her part, Britten sang Ethel Waters's 1929 hit "Am I Blue?" and Rudy Vallee's 1929 hit "Heigh Ho, Everybody!" Later Britten also joined the staff at Seattle's KJR. All this exposure led to her being hired to perform with Guy Bates Post in "The Masqueraders" at the President Theatre and in another show with movie star June Clyde (1909-1987).Boop-Boo-Ba-Doo
As the stock market crash of 1929 hit and the Great Depression began taking hold across America, one of that era's pop-culture diversions was a series of Betty Boop cartoons. The Boop character is thought to have been based on the persona of the New York singer Helen Kane (1903-1966), who became famous for her memorable squeaking of the lyrical hook "boop-boo-ba-doo" in the 1928 hit song "I Wanna Be Loved by You." The Kane cult grew to such an extent that contests were held to discover the best Kane imitators.
And thus it was on August 15, 1930, that Britten came to compete in Seattle against two other "diminutive 'boo-poo-pah-doopers'" -- 6-year-old Norma Nellis and 9-year-old Edith Barstow -- in a contest at the Metropolitan Theatre (4th Avenue and University Street) broadcast by KPCB ("Boopadoop!"). Backed by the Max Dolin Orchestra, Britten sang "I Have to Have You." With the audience demanding an encore, she returned singing Helen Kane's current hit, "Dangerous Nan McGrew," and won the contest prize, a Victor Micro-Synchronous radio.
Two weeks later, on August 30, little Britten was singing and modeling new fall styles in a "Back to School" fashion show at the Bon Marche department store at 3rd Avenue and Pine Street. As Britten recalled: "Because I was working so much, my mother decided to hold me back a year in school. ... I started 1st grade in 1930 at John B. Allen School" (Britten, 3).Our Gang
Gaining greater notoriety by the day, Britten was by now "popularly known among radio listeners as the 'sweetheart of KOL'" ("Six-Year-Old Seattle Girl..."), or "The Little Sweetheart of the Air" ("Young Entertainer ..."). Meanwhile Jessie Danz stepped up, tipping off George Hickey, the regional manager for MGM Studios, to Britten's talents. Hickey recruited the kid into Hal Roach's (1892-1992) ragingly successful series of Our Gang films -- of which 221 were produced between 1922 and 1944
"In the summer of 1931 arrangements were made for me to go to Hollywood. My mother and I traveled on a ship named the H. F. Alexander to Los Angeles in August" (Britten, 3). Arriving in Hollywood, they rented a home, and Britten did some screen tests, was hired to appear in the next Our Gang movie, joined the Actor's Equity trade union, and enrolled in the Commonwealth School. "I was in the 2nd grade. Of course while I was working I attended the Studio School. I was also taking lots of dancing lessons [at the Earle Wallace Studio of Stage Dancing] and working on radio station KHQ" (Britten, 3).
Soon she was introduced to her young Our Gang co-stars (the Little Rascals) and prepped for her speaking lines, and then on September 28 the cameras rolled. In her debut film, 1932's Readin' and Writin,' Britten was billed under her real name, "Patsy," and she rose to the challenge of acting on cue. In the movie, the Our Gang rascals attend a one-room schoolhouse presided over by "Miss Crabtree" (June Marlowe). When it is Patsy's turn to stand and respond to softball inquiries, the hijinks continue:
Crabtree: "What is an acre?"
Patsy: "An acre is a bad tooth"
Crabtree: "What is an escalator?"
Patsy: "It's a great big thing that lives in the swamps. They make suitcases out of them."
Hollywood and Home Again
In early December 1931, "My Dad came to Hollywood ... and insisted that we come home. We returned to Seattle by car" (Britten, 4). Weeks later Britten performed at the Newsboys' Union's annual Christmas-dinner event, held at Meves' Cafeteria at 4th Avenue and Pine Street. A prominent band, Cole McElroy's Orchestra, provided music while Britten, "one of the Hal Roach 'Our Gang' comedians sang and danced" ("'Newsies' Annual Christmas ..."). The guest speakers that evening were Ben Paris (1884-1950), owner of Seattle's hugely successful Ben Paris Restaurant, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist and would-be politician John F. Dore (1881-1938).
Meanwhile, during that holiday season the film industry again beckoned, and "After Christmas my mother and I returned by train to Hollywood" (Britten, 4). Over the following three months Britten would appear in two additional Our Gang films: Free Eats (in which the Rascals manage to help capture a family of thieves) and Choo-Choo! (in which Patsy and some other orphans sneak off a train and lure the Rascals into boarding it and taking their places).
Working in Hollywood was quite the thrill -- Britten also appeared on Al Jolson's (1886-1950) radio show, and as a member of Actors' Equity she was hauling in the grand sum of $100 per day. But: "Then my Dad again insisted we come home. He told my mother that if she didn't return home he would file for divorce and claim my mother had deserted my sister" (Britten, 4).
Back in Seattle by April 1932, Britten -- now a genuine celebrity in her hometown and beyond -- got right back on stage, performing whenever and wherever she could. Vic Meyers' Orchestra featured her at dances at the Trianon Ballroom at 218 Wall Street. Demand for her appearances took her on the road doing song and dance routines all across the Pacific Northwest. In Seattle alone, Britten appeared at least fifty times on the Palomar stage, many others on the fabled stage of the Paramount Theatre at 9th Avenue and Pine Street, and even performed as Mickey Mouse in The Mickey Mouse Club at the Coliseum Theatre (5th Avenue and Pike Street), the Metropolitan Theatre, and the Fun Zone in the Denny Regrade (later Belltown) neighborhood. Britten also enjoyed a weeklong engagement backed by Owen Sweeten and His Boys at the Fox Theater (7th Avenue and Olive Street), which later became the Music Hall Theatre, where on another memorable night she was backed by Vic Meyers' Orchestra. Still another time she was spotlighted at a big Christmas dance at McElroy's Spanish Ballroom at 3rd Avenue and Wall Street.
Britten finished second grade at John B. Allen School, and on June 6, 1932, she performed at Mayor John Dore's Inaugural Charity Ball (for unemployment relief) at the Municipal Arena (adjacent to the Civic Auditorium). That autumn she enrolled in third grade, and by year's end "my parents pursued a very nasty divorce while fighting over custody of my sister and ... I can remember my Dad telling my mother that as long I was making money he did not intend to pay child support" (Britten, 4, 5). Indeed, in response to Lois filing a divorce claim that contended he swore at and struck her, Joseph denied that and responded to the court saying -- as The Seattle Daily Times reported -- "what started the trouble ... was his wife's desire to place their two children ... 'in public theatres and dance halls as dancers'" -- he objected because "it keeps the youngsters from school and their household routines," and to "the expense of keeping the children in dancing schools ... through it all, Britten said, his wife insisted on having her way" ("Dancing Steps Lead Way to Divorce Court").Forever Young
In 1933, after the divorce, Lois and her two daughters settled into a different home in the Greenwood neighborhood at 6556 4th Avenue NW. They were still near the home of Britten's grandparents, Joseph and Katie Britten, at 6011 Greenwood Avenue -- "I remember spending many happy hours at their home" (Britten, 5). As her fourth grade classes began, the Great Depression was now in full swing, and while many men worked for 25 cents an hour, Britten was pulling in $5 to $15 dollars per performance, or $50 to $75 a week, at theaters. "I don't know how much money I made during this time but it was quite a lot. ... No one ever told me what was done with my money but I guess it was used to live on" (Britten, 5). One show Britten did on December 14 that year was at the Madrona Garden Theatre at 2815 E. Cherry Street for the Active Club of Seattle's fundraiser for needy families.
"I was still taking dancing lessons [now with Helen LeClaire at the Paramount School of Stage Dancing] and in early 1934 I started playing the accordion. ... In the summer of 1934 I went on my first tour. We were on the road for 7 months, from July 1st, 1934, to Feb. 1935. I had a private teacher who traveled with us. I was in 5th grade. We traveled by train" (Britten, 5-6). By that year of 1935 she was still being described as a "Child wonder" ("Many Prizes...") -- a fact that had begun to grate on the now-quite-experienced 12-year-old. Many decades later she would exclaim in exasperation: "I was six years old for years!" (Parker).
During this period Britten was starting to gain even more renown for her dancing than her singing. Her performance at Seattle's Music Hall Theatre at 7th Avenue and Olive Street on June 12, 1935, saw The Seattle Times describe her as an "acrobatic dancer" ("Singing Chef..."). Another time the Tacoma Times deemed her "a contortionist deluxe" ("Maylon Books ..."). Her specialty came to be known as "controlled rhythm" or "control dancing," as reported in the The Oregonian when she was booked in a five-act vaudeville production at Portland's New Rivoli Theatre. By the summer of 1937 Britten joined up to tour with "Texas Ranger" Gene "The World's Highest Swiss Yodeler" Howard and the Rio Grande Riders ("Bird Performing Heading ...").
Around 1937 Britten, now 14, began attending Seattle's Queen Anne High School as a sophomore and was among the performers in the school's Radio City Kapers talent show. But after only one year there, and spring gigs at the Ranch and Oasis cabarets, Hollywood beckoned once again and she headed back to California in 1938. While there she appeared in three prestigious Lux Radio Theatre productions, helping present stage adaptations of films before live audiences. Britten also did countless shows with the Dancing Accordionists group. Singing. Acting. Dancing. Playing accordion while dancing! No wonder Britten was billed as "Miss Versatility" in a stage-show held at Portland's Capitol Theatre during Rose Festival Week in June 1940 ("Another Fast-Moving Stage Show!"). Around the summer of 1940, Britten suddenly adopted the new stage name "Patsy Towne" and formed a duo with Bill Elliott. They appeared together in that year's Universal Studios film, Swinging in the Barn.Life after Showbiz
Of course the showbiz life, while exciting, is not easy. As Britten reflected long after the fact: "I was constantly on the road as a child and a teenager -- Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Spokane" (Parker). Not to mention gigs in places like Tacoma and Newport, Washington; Astoria, Oregon; and throughout Montana and Wyoming. For her the decision to try a different lifestyle was one that ultimately disappointed her mother. "The hardest thing I ever had to do was walk away from my mother and enroll at the University of Washington" (Parker). She did so in 1941, the same year that her sister Eudora married UW footballer Byng Nixon.
In 1944, Britten joined the U.S. Navy, serving for two years and also attending Hunter College in New York. Then she was assigned to serve at the Naval Air Station at Astoria, Oregon, and finally at Seattle's Sand Point Naval Station. In 1946 Britten married William J. Stotko. In time they had seven children and adopted three more. In 1951 the Stotko family began farming in Maltby, Snohomish County, before moving to Central Washington in 1974. After retiring in 1981 the couple spent winters in Arizona until William's death in 1991. Patsy then moved back to Snohomish County, settling in Monroe to be near her family. In 1993 she married Robert J. Bell, and they went on to enjoy 25 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren.
Seven decades after her Hollywood experiences, Patricia Jane Stotko Bell resurfaced to attend a July 21, 2000, event at the Sheraton Tacoma Hotel and Convention Center (1320 Broadway Plaza) at the invitation an organization of old-time-movie fans, the Sons of the Desert. A year later, while participating in the annual convention of the Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound on June 2, 2001, she was quoted recollecting those magic long-gone days as an early radio and movie star: "My memories of being in radio as a child are all good" (Parker). Eleven days shy of her 90th birthday, on October 7, 2013, the former star passed away surrounded by her family.