Gloria Jean Schoonover was born on April 14, 1926 in Buffalo, New York. Her family moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania shortly afterward. Her father owned a music store; her mother, who had been a circus bareback rider, took care of Gloria and her three siblings.
Gloria’s singing ability was discovered at a young age, and by 5 she was singing in the Scranton area. At 12 she was taken to an audition by Universal director Joe Pasternak, who was looking for a new child singer to replace studio icon Deanna Durbin, who was being steered into ingenue and adult roles. Although hundreds of Shirley-Temple- perfect girls competed, natural-looking Gloria was chosen, and she and her mother were soon on their way to Hollywood.
In 1939 Gloria made her first film, “The Under-Pup”, which made her an instant hit with moviegoers. Happy with their young coloratura soprano, Universal cast her in “If I Had My Way,” which co-starred Bing Crosby. Next came “A Little Bit of Heaven,” which many consider her best film; then a co-starring role with W.C. Fields in “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” her most-seen film.
At this point in 1941, Gloria was at the pinnacle of her career, yet her star wasn’t soaring. She had outgrown her Little Miss Fixit roles, as Durbin had a few years earlier, but Durbin was in command of the older-girl roles for the better pictures. Unsure what to do with Jean, Universal moved her to the “Hepcat” movies, which appealed to the teenagers of that day. “What’s Cooking”, “Get Hep to Love”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, and “It Comes Up Love,” were all shot in 1942 and “Mr. Big,” and “Moonlight in Vermont” followed in 1943; all were stock B-films. Like many Universal stars, Gloria had a few seconds onscreen in the war-effort picture “Follow the Boys” in 1944. After that came the rather good “Pardon My Rhythm” with Mel Torme, who became a close friend. Then in “Ghost Catchers” she was teamed with popular comedians Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. The forgettable “Reckless Age” was next; its main distinction was as the first in which Gloria played a more mature role.
Gloria was to star in one of four episodes of Julien Duvivier’s “Flesh and Fantasy,” alongside such stars as Edward G. Robinson, Charles Boyer, and Barbara Stanwyck. But the movie was found to be too long and Gloria’s segment was cut out. Some additional footage was added and the result was “Destiny.” Gloria’s performance won rave reviews, but the actual movie met with only modest success. Gloria followed this with three more Universal films: “I’ll Remember April,” “River Gang,” and “Easy to Look At.”
At this point, on bad advice from her agent, Gloria decided not to the (bad) advice of her agent, Gloria decided to go on tour instead of renewing her Universal contract. The tour underperformed and she returned to Hollywood in 1947, but she found herself in negligible demand. Groucho Marx gave her a minor role in his film “Copacabana”; this appearance ultimately landed her four more: in “I Surrender, Dear,” “Manhattan Angel,” “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” and “There’s a Girl in My Heart.”
As the 1950’s began, Gloria made several singing shorts that aired during television’s early days. Other than that and a few guest appearances on TV series, her acting career was virtually finished. She appeared in 1955’s forgettable “Air Strike” and worked in a couple of films that were never released. Jerry Lewis found her working as a restaurant hostess and gave her a part in his movie “The Ladies’ Man” which was meant to re-launch her career, but her scenes didn’t make the final cut. Shortly after that, she was briefly married and became the mother of a son. At that point she virtually retired from the screen and went to work for the cosmetics firm Redken until 1993 when she retired.
Gloria was reintroduced to a limelight of sorts by the magic of eBay, where her movies, some of which are in the public domain, were being sold. With her sister Bonnie’s help (she handled the computer end of things, as Gloria didn’t do “Windows”) she got onto eBay and sold copies of the movies she appeared in, as well as signed photographs of herself (old publicity shots). Spurred by the popularity of these, she published her autobiography, “Gloria Jean: A Little Bit of Heaven” in 2005.
After her sister Bonnie’s death in 2007, Gloria moved to Hawaii, where she lived with her son and his family.