Evelyn Rudie captivated America as a pigtailed 7-year-old, playing the title role in “Eloise,” an episode in the first season of the famed “Playhouse 90” live television series. She received an Emmy nomination for playing the little girl who lives in New York’s swank Plaza Hotel, adapted from author Kay Thompson’s stories.
At 9, she had a high-profile film role, jerking tears as an orphan girl adopted by Robert Stack and a doomed Lauren Bacall in “The Gift of Love.” But by 10, she had turned desperate and caught a flight from L.A. to Baltimore without her parents’ knowledge, making headlines when they reported her missing and told police that she must have acted out a fantasy of dropping in on First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, whom she’d met previously. Little Evelyn told reporters it was all a publicity stunt she had concocted by herself, aimed at giving her flagging television career a jump-start. The Los Angeles Police Department investigated, just to make sure it wasn’t the parents, rather than the child, who hatched the idea.
But Rudie’s is one American life that has had a strong second act, albeit one not played out in front of the cameras. In 1969, she began running children’s workshops at the Santa Monica Playhouse; in 1973, she and her husband, Chris DeCarlo, a Vietnam veteran she had met at the theater, bought out its founding owner and became co-artistic directors of their own theatrical mom and pop shop.
And so it has continued ever since, with Rudie and DeCarlo acting, writing and directing plays and running educational programs; Rudie also designs costumes under a stage name, Ashley Hayes. In the end, the former child star did manage to reach a mass audience as an adult — slowly. The Playhouse website says its shows, education programs and international touring productions have reached 5 million people.
“From the beginning, I was always given a tremendous amount of responsibility as a professional actress — there were cameras rolling and thousands of dollars at stake — and I loved it,” Rudie told the Times in 1992. “That feeling of being valuable and validated and accomplishing something real that counted was something I thought every kid should have.... Mostly what we are trying to give the young people is a sense of self-worth, a love of theater, an opportunity to explore their own personalities and the different possibilities that are open to them.”