Zoe Rae

Child star of the 1910s
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The Independent Online

Zoë Rae Bech (Zoe Rae), actress: born Chicago 10 July 1910; married Ronald Foster Barlow (deceased; one son, one daughter); died Newburg, Oregon 20 May 2006.

Zoe Rae was one of the earliest child stars of the silent film era. She made her screen début aged three in 1914 and, when she was signed up two years later by Universal, much ballyhoo surrounded the studio's latest acquisition, at least in the trade papers.

One item stated that the five-year-old was already a veteran with 100 photoplays to her credit. So enamoured of acting was Miss Rae, the article continued, that she even performed in her off-hours, putting on skits with the help of her parents, her servants - even her pets. "That," Rae said 90 years later, "is a lot of crap."

She was born Zoë Rae Bech in Chicago in 1910, the only child of George and Mona Bech. As a baby, Zoë had the bone disease rickets and Mona would spend hours each day exercising the little girl's legs so that they would develop properly. Almost from the time that Zoë was old enough to walk, Mona was determined to capitalise on her daughter's winning personality by putting her into moving pictures.

This occurred in March 1914 at the Chicago-based Selig Polyscope Company, one of the first movie studios built in the United States. The Los Angeles film industry was taking flight by 1915 and jobs were to be had by writers, carpenters, electricians, stuntmen, cameramen - and actors. Hoping for advancement, Mona persuaded her husband to stay in Chicago and continue to earn a living, while she and Zoë chased after fame and fortune.

They rented a room with kitchen facilities and a private bath in a boarding house on Pico Avenue. This was close by the American Biograph Company, for whom Zoë was to make at least a dozen short pictures. Biograph's best days were behind them since the director D.W. Griffith's recent departure and the studio would soon close its doors.

Fortunately, Mona received an offer from the newly opened Universal City Studios, located on 230 acres in the San Fernando Valley. This motion-picture empire was presided over by its founder, the German immigrant Carl Laemmle. In 1916 he signed Zoë to a five-year contract for $100 per week. By her ninth Universal picture, Bettina Loved a Soldier (1916), the rising child star would be known as Zoe Rae. Her nickname was "Little Zoe, the Universal Baby".

At Universal, she work with the directors John Ford, Rupert Julian, Elsie Jane Wilson and the actor Lon Chaney. "I was just fascinated by him," Rae said. "He was a very pleasant gentleman, in my eyes - and very dedicated."

Zoe Rae's filmography would come to include more than 50 documented titles, ranging from stark melodramas to breezy comedies, from one-reelers to feature-length productions, including A Kentucky Cinderella (1917), The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin (1918) and The Star Prince (1918). Her performances in these films inspired praise from critics and moviegoers around the world. Motion Picture Magazine called her "the greatest little emotional actress on record".

In 1921, George Bech declared that his 10-year-old daughter could not continue with her movie career until she had had the benefit of a proper education. After completing college in 1932, Zoe Rae dabbled in screenwriting and opened her own dance studio in Hollywood. This led to a life-changing meeting with a fellow dancer, Ronald Foster Barlow. The two married in the early 1930s and would remain so until Ronald's death, more than 60 years later. They had two children, a boy and a girl.

In later life, Zoe Rae was more interested in community work than she was in discussing her career as a child star. Even her closest friends had no idea that she had once been in motion pictures. This changed in 2005 when a website dedicated to the silent screen mentioned that the one-time "Universal Baby" was still alive. Perhaps because she was virtually the only survivor of her era, collectors began inundating the nonagenarian with e-mail requests for signed photographs.

Zoe Rae failed to see what all the fuss was about. She never did consider herself much of an actress. When she was shown a video of The Star Prince, she laughingly summed up her performance with three words: "What a ham!"

Lon Davis