If Dolores Fuller had ever thought in the 1970s, 1980s, or early '90s about what she would be known for professionally in the 21st century, it might well have been for writing songs for Elvis Presley and Peggy Lee or perhaps managing Tanya Tucker early in the singer's career. Instead, she is best known (downright famous, in fact) for her 40-years-past career as an actress, her mid-'50s relationship with director Edward D. Wood Jr., and the three movies that she made with him. The films were scarcely seen and virtually unreviewed at the time of their release and for decades after. Considering that one of those movies -- Glen or Glenda -- was the first American feature film dealing with the subject of transvestism and drew much of its content from one corner of Fuller's relationship with the cross-dressing Wood, her recognition for them seems all the more improbable, especially for a woman who started life in South Bend, IN, during the era of silent movies.
Fuller was born there in 1923 (some sources say 1925), but her family moved to California when she was very young. Setting her sights on an acting career, she worked in school plays and later became a model, also succeeding in getting some television work in the early days of the medium. An attractive young woman (Fuller was a stand-in for Jayne Mansfield in the theatrical production of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter in the mid-'50s), she was a natural for set decoration on programs like Chevrolet Playhouse, Queen for a Day, and The Red Skelton Show. Not content to rely on her looks, however, she also studied acting in New York with Stella Adler. Fuller became a working actress, playing tiny roles in relatively high profile feature films, such as Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia, and getting larger roles in small movies, such as the notoriously low-budget Mesa of Lost Women.
According to Greg Douglass' fall 2000 article in Filmfax, Fuller met Edward D. Wood Jr., the legendary anti-genius director, when the latter placed an ad announcing auditions for a film planned under the title of The Hidden Face (completed as Jail Bait), which was to be produced by Howco, the same outfit that bankrolled Mesa of Lost Women. Wood and Fuller became entangled romantically very early on and they apparently were a good match for each other, despite the fact that she didn't understand his fetish for dressing up as a woman or his special fixation on her white Angora sweaters; they both loved movies and were fascinated by the idea of writing them and making them, and simply loved to talk film. Still, it was difficult for her when Wood put them both, along with his transvestism, into his semi-autobiographical film Glen or Glenda; the personal nature of the movie and the fact that it so closely paralleled their private life (which she wanted kept private) mortally offended the actress. Despite her unhappiness with that film, Fuller stayed with Wood for another two years and was also responsible for bringing future Plan 9 From Outer Space leading lady Mona McKinnon into the director's orbit; early in her relationship with Wood, Fuller had shared an apartment with McKinnon, which resulted in the actress playing a small role in Jail Bait. Fuller was to have been the female lead in Wood's Bride of the Monster, but in order to secure his financing, the director was forced to replace her with actress Loretta King, while Fuller was given a much smaller role. That decision -- coupled with Wood's increasingly erratic personal behavior -- led to the breakup of their romantic relationship. In contrast to most of the other people who moved in Wood's close orbit, however, Fuller had real talent and a real career ahead of her, even when she lived with Wood, she was represented by Paul Kohner, one of the top talent agents in Hollywood, and she was getting steady work on television as well as roles in films from major studios. Thus, she never fell, as others did, upon leaving Wood's orbit and, indeed, only ascended.
By the end of the 1950s, she'd started her own record company, Dee Records, and one of the talents that she discovered was a New York-born singer/guitarist named John Ramistella, who later became Johnny Rivers. Later on, her ability as a songwriter manifested itself through the intervention of her friend, producer Hal Wallis; Fuller had wanted to get an acting role in the Elvis Presley movie Blue Hawaii, which Wallis was producing, but instead he put her in touch with Hill & Range, the publisher that provided Presley with songs. Fuller went into a collaborative partnership with composer Ben Weissman and got one song, "Rock-A-Hula Baby," into Blue Hawaii. It was a beginning that eventually led to Presley recording a dozen of her songs. Fuller also had her music recorded by Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, and other leading talents of the period.
By the end of the 1960s, in addition to writing songs, Fuller had also moved into talent management and can take credit for discovering 13-year-old Tanya Tucker. Fuller's focus on acting receded rapidly as her music career took off, and for 30 years was best known in the entertainment business as a creative, behind-the-scenes personality. The 1994 release of Tim Burton's film Ed Wood, however, brought new attention to her onscreen career (or, at least, the part of it with Wood) -- although she is on record as not appreciating the portrayal that she received in the film from Sarah Jessica Parker. In 2000, she was the subject of a documentary on German television that focused as much on her music career as her work with Wood and was reported to be working on a Broadway musical based on her life with the director.