Lillian Powell: a tribute

Born May 29, 1896, Lillian Powell was a Canadian actress and dancer who would go on to train at Denishawn, appear in experimental short films and find success in television, in a career lasting from the 1920s through the end of the 1960s.

After adopting her within the first year of her life, Charles and Eliza Powell moved Lillian from her birthplace of British Columbia to California, where she would grow up. Charles and Eliza eventually divorced, with Eliza keeping custody of their daughter.

Lillian and fellow Denishawn dancers 1918 (Image via New York Public Library)
Lillian and fellow Denishawn dancers 1918 (Image via New York Public Library)

After attending high school in Oakland, Lillian began studying dance at the Denishawn studio of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Hollywood. Bitten by the performance bug, Lillian began her career on stage, performing in ballets and other dance shows.

Her dance career led to a film career in the 1920s, when she began appearing in a series of silent shorts created by Hugo Riesenfeld, who was trying to find a way to synchronize filmed dance routines with live music performed by an orchestra. One of these dance films, the Bubble Dance, was found in 1976. It has since been resorted and is housed in Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive.

During the ’20s Lillian continued to perform on stage as well, taking part in a vaudeville act and continuing to tour as a dancer through the 1930s. She also taught dance in Los Angeles when she wasn’t touring. Though her film career never grew beyond those experimental shorts during these years, her stage and dance career was long, and she received much praise for her charm and grace as a performer.

Lillian in 1921 (Image via Hold This Photo)
Lillian in 1921 (Image via Hold This Photo)

But Lillian’s time on screen wasn’t over quite yet. In the 1950s, she began to act on television. For twenty years, Lillian found success in small supporting or guest-starring roles on programs including Dragnet, Adam-12, Father Knows Best and The Thin Man television series.

During this time she also took small, often uncredited parts in films including These Wilder Years, starring James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck, and Designing Woman, starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall. She did have a couple of credited roles — in Reform School Girl (1957) and The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961), namely — but Lillian never had a starring role in a film.

Because much of her work was on stage and therefore not recorded, Lillian Powell is largely forgotten by modern audiences, save for those who remember her small television roles. But she was a great talent, and TMP pays tribute to her today, on the 118th anniversary of her birth!


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