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ODonnell went from Vineyard St. to Hollywood

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For the Madera Tribune

Walter Spec ODonnell, the Madera boy who made Hollywood stand up and take notice. Born in 1911, he died in 1986 and is buried in Arbor Vitae.

The atmosphere in Madera County Superior Court was tense on January 19, 1924. Several very important people had gathered there that day to witness the outcome of a fight which was to settle the fate of a young Madera movie star.

Judge Stanley Murray was set to decide who would have custody of 12-year-old Walter Spec ODonnell, the local prodigy of Ben and Henry Preciado, who had moved from his home on Vineyard St. in Madera to become an overnight Hollywood sensation.

The Preciado brothers, always at the forefront of entrepreneurial showmanship, had discovered the young Spec the previous year and convinced that the freckled-faced boy had the perfect personality for Hollywood, introduced him to Warner Brothers.

Spec knocked them down with his screen tests, and before the Preciados brought him home, the kid had a three-year movie contract. He would earn $25 a week in year one, $75 in year two, and $225 in year three.

Of course, Ben and Henry would be rewarded for their efforts. As Specs managers, they would receive 50% of the child’s earnings until the age of 21.

But then, as is often the case when people have dollar signs in their eyes, things changed.

It turns out that Specs’ parents were separated and his father, John ODonnell, had agreed to give custody of the boy to Maude ODonnell, his mother. It probably would have worked out well, but then came the Hollywood bonanza, and Mr. ODonnell changed his mind. He wanted to make sure the Specs’ money was spent wisely, so he went to court.

Now, John didn’t have in mind to take care of Spec himself. Instead, he wanted his good friend, Denver S. Church, a lawyer, former congressman, assistant district attorney, and future Fresno County Superior Court judge, to be appointed guardian of his son.

Mrs ODonnell, of course, objected and asked her own lawyers, Joseph and David Barcroft, to oppose her husband.

I have been taking care of the family since the separation of my husband and myself, she said in an interview with Madera Mercury. The boys at Preciado have done everything possible for me and the boy and to this day the money Walter has received has been used to keep him and further his interests. Right now, he’s getting huge publicity thanks to the efforts of the Preciados.

As for Spec, he had his own opinion on the ruckus his success had caused. I don’t know what’s wrong with him. My father didn’t want me before I made films, but now he wants me. The Preciado boys are the best friends I have. I’ll believe them better than anyone, Mr. Church or anyone, he said.

The scene therefore took place at the Madera courthouse. John ODonnell was there with the Denver church, and Maude ODonnell was there with Spec and his lawyers, Joseph and David Barcroft. Joining the crowded courtroom were Ben and Henry Preciado.

It didn’t take long for Judge Murray to assess the situation. He ruled that Ms ODonnell was the legal guardian of Walter Spec ODonnell.

In making his order, Judge Murray said he recognized the value of the efforts made by the Preciados for Spec. He noted that the little guy spoke of the care the Preciados took to ensure he had proper schooling and attention in Hollywood, where when he worked the company provided him with a teacher.

At this point, all parties seemed happy with the turn of events and indicated that all they wanted was what was in the boy’s best interest.

Walter Spec ODonnell continued to make big money in movies. From 1923 to 1978, he appeared in 191 films. He frequently worked for producer Hal Roach and was probably best known to those in his hometown of Madera for his roles with Mary Pickford in Little Annie Rooney and Sparrows.

Walter Spec ODonnell died on October 14, 1986 in Los Angeles and was buried in Arbor Vitae Cemetery in Madera.

I wonder if he has a star on Hollywoods Walk of Fame. I think he deserves it.

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