LIMA — She lived over a grocery store as a very young girl in Lima, but later she would become a household name.
Helen M. O’Connell was born May 23, 1920, to Joseph and Mildred O’Connell. The family’s circumstances were humble. (Her father died young, and her mother later worked on the line at DWG cigars in town.) A sister, Jeannie Malloy, shared the following in a 1980s-era interview:
“Us girls were always singing around the house. There was always music in the house. Those were the days before television, so we listened to the Victrola or the radio. ... Helen just seemed to have a natural talent.”
That talent had a chance to shine after the family moved to Toledo. When O’Connell was but 16 years old, she left her family and her school to pursue a singing career. She first sang for two years with Jimmy Richard’s orchestra, a Big Band-era group, often on the road. She then went to New York with Larry Funk and his orchestra, and it was there that she was picked up by Jimmy Dorsey in 1939.
They were everywhere, including this area. An ad from Aug. 22, 1940, announced they would be at the Moonlight Terrace in Russells Point. Admission was 75 cents. They returned the following year, that time to Sandy Beach Park at the lake.
O’Connell would not be pinned down as just another girl singer, though. The first glimmers of her break-out potential came in 1942 when she appeared in film. “The Fleet’s In” received glowing reviews from Lima papers.
“Altho Dorothy Lamour, William Holden and Eddie Bracken head the cast of the ‘The Fleet’s In’ now at the Ohio Theatre, it’s little Helen O’Connell who renders a couple vocals with Jimmy Dorsey and the band that appeals to the Lima audiences,” reported a story from April 25, 1942.
Another account: “Very musical is the whole business with Lima’s own Helen O’Connell also doing a sweet job of thrushing. In fact, we think she has more on the vocal ball than the sarong swirler herself (Dorothy Lamour).”
In 1944, she married Cliff Smith. They had three daughters. O’Connell worked for 12 years to complete her high school degree while balancing family.
“It’s probably a record, but my trouble was every time I’d get started in high school again, I’d find I was going to have another baby,” she shared April 26, 1972.
O’Connell’s marriage to Smith ended in divorce. She had three children to care for and no husband to help. So she got to work singing, and another opportunity opened for her. She joined Dave Garroway’s “Today” show on Dec. 3, 1956. (This would later be a vehicle for another Lima native, Hugh Downs.)
“Helen O’Connell, the gal who makes ‘Today’ come in like a sunrise, returned to show business not so long ago after seven years off to be a mother. She came back for a pretty sound reason — she neded to make some money,” the story from Jan. 13, 1957, reported.
Her girls were ages 12, 9 and 8 at the time.
“ ‘They asked me what I was going to do,’ Helen says. ‘I said I was going to sing. Then they asked me, ‘Can you sing?’ ”
Her personal life stayed busy, too. A May 1, 1957, story reported she was to marry author Thomas T. Chamales — less than a month after meeting him. O’Connell didn’t plan on quitting “Today,” her own two-night-a-week television show or her singing gigs.
“This brave blond mother of three recently acquired a new husband who’s still amazed at the industriousness of his $100,000-a-year bride,” a June 3, 1957, story reported. But he seemed a bit flabbergasted: “I think we ought to stick together till we know what we’re like. I don’t believe in this business of being separated.”
The marriage did not last.
“Shortly after the couple married May 9, 1957, Chamales knocked her down and she had him committed to New York’s Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric observation,” a March 21, 1960, story reported. Police had been called five times in two years to their Brentwood, L.A., home because he was being physically violent. She once even hired a bodyguard.
When they were separated, Chamales died in a fire at age 35. A mislaid cigarette started a divan afire, and it spread while he slept.
O’Connell continued to work, staying busy with television projects and performance bookings. In 1969, she participated in the homecoming celebration for Neil Armstrong in Wapakoneta. In 1970, a story mentioned she was working on a new album — mentioned it casually because she recorded often. She also found time for another husband, composer Frank D. DeVol.
In 1972, she would co-emcee with Bob Barker the Miss USA contest, something she would continue to do for several years. Her work ethic had not slowed by 1974, when she flew from shooting Miss USA in Greece to Lake Geneva, Wis., to give a performance the very next night.
When she died Sept. 9, 1993, of cancer, her obituaries noted she had been giving public performances less than a month earlier. O’Connell is buried in California.
One critic summed her appeal up best, perhaps, after she opened in 1971 at the Rainbow Grill in Rockefeller Center, New York. His account:
“You could feel everybody in the place melt. Some of the men in the back had a twang that bespoke middle age even more than middle west. It is hard to associate Helen O’Connell with them. To begin with, she looks too young. Youth is present in the power of her voice, the easy way she makes every song her own and the incredible sparkle in her eye. The only clues that her vivacity is not just the freshness of a beginning are the depth of understanding, the soft-spoken authority that colors the songs. Only a woman who has been singing and growing can do that.”