June Preston, Hollywood child star promoted as ‘the next Shirley Temple’ who became a popular opera singer – obituary

June Preston in an RKO publicity photograph circa 1935
June Preston in an RKO publicity photograph circa 1935

June Preston, who has died aged 93, was a child star during the Golden Age of Hollywood, appearing in Anne of Green Gables and the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, as well as the popular Our Gang comedies; when her Hollywood career was over she went on to become a popular opera singer.

During the height of her acting career she signed a deal with a clothing firm resulting in the “June Preston Frock”. Marketed as the next Shirley Temple, she was sent on promotional tours. Other merchandise included dolls, board games, jigsaws, underwear, snowboots and swimming costumes.

“The marketing machine was truly turning,” she recalled. “I modelled June Preston dresses and slept under a June Preston eiderdown hugging my June Preston dolly.”

But she struggled to match the appeal of child-star rivals like Shirley Temple, Jane Withers and Edith Fellows.

She was born on December 29 1928, in Glendale, California, the family moving to Texas when she was four. One day, on a trip to Hollywood, she was with her mother on the RKO lot when she was spotted by a studio executive who was dining with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Dolores del Rio.

The party were impressed by her confidence and she was introduced to the director William A Seiter, who cast her as Mrs Blewett’s daughter in Anne of Green Gables in 1934.

June Preston
June Preston

Signed to a seven-year contract, that year she featured in half a dozen films, including as an uncredited “crying child” in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, the Bing Crosby musical Here Is My Heart and the romantic drama Have a Heart.

She began training at the Meglin Dance Studio in Los Angeles (other alumni – the “Meglin Kiddies” – included Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney).

In 1935 she joined Our Gang stalwarts George “Spanky” McFarland and Darla Hood in a handful of the popular capers, mostly as a dancer, and went on to a long string of small roles, mostly uncredited.

In 1938 she appeared alongside WC Fields in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. “He hated children,” she recalled, “and I was no exception.”

She continued acting into the 1940s, and was able to show off her vocal skills in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), with James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland.

In 1944, a year after final film roles in Heaven Can Wait and Happy Land, she was spotted by a German conductor and vocal coach, Gustav Stern, in Seattle, where her family had moved and where she went to high school.

June Preston then studied music at Seattle University, appearing in the 1947 campus production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, and was the lead soprano in the university’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem in 1949. The following year she toured Mexico giving recitals.

“[The broadcaster] Walter Winchell gave me the moniker ‘Golden Voice,’ ” she said. “Winchell was an admirer and an angel, just as long as you were on his side. He could be equally mean.”

Aged 24, June Preston joined the “Stars of the Metropolitan Opera” tour, playing Mimi in La Bohème, and the lead in Tosca. She then joined the chorus of the San Francisco Opera for two seasons, and in 1954 she toured the Caribbean giving recitals.

In 1961 at the Kiel Opera House in St Louis, she was a soloist in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, and subsequently embarked on a tour of recitals in Europe, including Barcelona and The Hague.

June Preston retired after marrying the Belgian violinist Saul Höuben in 1963. She is survived by a daughter.

June Preston, born December 29 1928, died May 11 2022