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A colorful life in the fast lane

Mike Steele, 91, got to kiss Marilyn Monroe on “The Jack Benny Program,” give away the bride to Frank Sinatra in the movie “The Joker is Wild,” and play the cowboy leader in a Gregory Peck western during his Hollywood career in the 1940s and ’50s.

After a checkered life of many interesting careers, Steele landed in Arroyo Grande from Hawaii a year ago to live with his grandson and granddaughter.

Born in San Francisco, Steele grew up during the Great Depression with a single mother and four siblings. He’s proud of saying that he was born in 1919, the year women got the vote. He’s been a champion of women all his life, even calling Hillary Clinton — whom he met at a fashion show — during her campaign to tell her “you can do it” and “it’s what you’re doing for all the other women.”

When Steele was 9 years old, he found his way to Sacramento to search for his birth father. The man he found sent him home, and soon Steele’s mother married his stepfather, giving him the male presence he longed for.

The spirited youth started working at a very young age. His older brother had him hawking newspapers in San Francisco at age 3 ½. He always had to work to help out the family.

Early on, Steele knew he wanted to be an actor and began to find work in carnivals. In 1939, he worked at the Golden Gate International Exposition, the world’s fair in San Francisco Bay’s Treasure Island. He approached his uncle, who managed shows, and said he wanted to be a “talker,” someone who talked to the fairgoers in “carny talk,” such as “Come right this way, ladies and gentlemen.” Steele was such a natural at this that he increased his uncle’s business right away.

Growing up a Seventh-day Adventist, Steele was disappointed that he couldn’t play football or baseball or be in the school band because of the religion’s rules that necessitated staying home for prayers from Friday evening to Saturday evening. He was eventually kicked out of the Adventist school for walking a girl home. He left the church.

Steele went to Las Vegas to get divorced and marry his second wife. While there, he began working for a dairy and officially changed his name to Mike Steele, as many actors did back in the day. He started “The Mike Steele Show” there to benefit the dairy. Hopalong Cassidy came to the show to endorse their products.

Among Steele’s many careers was fashion modeling. He had another show called “The Campus Party,” where he wore a suit and schools brought campus kings and queens on the show. Eartha Kitt made an appearance.

Steele moved to Los Angeles and appeared in small parts in many movies, most of them cowboy movies. He appeared on television in “General Hospital” and played the lover of a woman in one of the “Window” backyard scenes. Grace Kelly should have never left Hollywood, he remarked. He often played an American Indian.

Steele, who knew Ronald Reagan from being head of membership for the Screen Actors Guild, put on fashion shows for Reagan when he ran for governor of California and for president.

After such an exciting career, Steele and his wife, Carolyn, moved to the Big Island of Hawaii around 1970 and bought a large house. There, Carolyn pursued her career as an artist, while he worked in the library, driving the bookmobile for children. He loved this job as well as the others, but he was hit in an auto accident, causing extreme injury to his back and thus ending his working life.

Steele had two children. The first one by his first wife suffocated at six weeks old. Then in Hawaii, the second of his tragedies was his wife getting Alzheimer’s disease and dying five years ago. She was a prolific artist whose paintings abound at his grandchildren’s house. Because of this experience, Steele believes adamantly that “people have a right to die.”

Having macular degeneration has been very difficult for Steele, causing him to be unable to read. But now, having received a closed-circuit reader, which allows him to magnify printed pages, he is very thankful he can read again.

All in all, Mike Steele has led a fascinating life beginning in San Francisco, taking him all around California, Las Vegas and Hawaii, with a long road trip to Europe thrown in.

The South County Beat appears every other week. Anyone with story ideas involving interesting people in the South County can reach Gayle Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.

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