Madera County Historical Society
Maderan Walter “Spec” O’Donnell is seen here with Mary Pickford acting the part of Ambrose Grimes in the 1926 movie, “Sparrow.”
The atmosphere in Madera County’s Superior Court was tense on Jan. 19, 1924. Several very important people had gathered there on that day to witness the outcome of a fight that was to settle the fate of a young movie star from Madera.
Judge Stanley Murray was set to decide who would have custody of 12-year-old Walter “Spec” O’Donnell, the local prodigy of Ben and Henry Preciado, who had emerged from his home on Vineyard St. in Madera to become an overnight sensation in Hollywood.
The Preciado brothers, always on the cutting edge of entrepreneurial showmanship, had discovered young Spec the year before and convinced that the freckle-faced lad had just the right personality for Hollywood, introduced him to Warner Brothers.
Spec bowled them over with his screen tests, and before the Preciados brought him home, the child had a three-year movie contract. He would earn $25 per week in his first year, $75 in his second year, and $225 in his third year.
Of course, Ben and Henry would be compensated for their efforts. As Spec’s managers, they would receive 50 percent of the child’s earnings until he was 21 years old.
But then, as often is the case when folks get dollar signs in their eyes, things changed.
It just so happened that Spec’s parents were separated, and his father, John O’Donnell, had agreed to give custody of the boy to Maude O’Donnell, his mother. That probably would have worked out all right, but then came the windfall from Hollywood, and Mr. O’Donnell had a change of heart. He wanted to make sure Spec’s money was “spent wisely,” so he went to court.
Now John didn’t have it in his mind to secure custody of Spec himself. Rather he wanted his good friend, Denver S. Church, a lawyer, former congressman, assistant district attorney, and future Superior Court Judge of Fresno County, to be named his son’s guardian.
Mrs. O’Donnell, of course, demurred, and got her own attorneys, Joseph and David Barcroft, to oppose her husband.
“I have taken care of the family since the separation of my husband and myself,” she said in an interview with the Madera Mercury. “The Preciado boys have done everything possible for me and for the boy and up to date the money Walter has received has been used to keep him and to advance his interests. Just now he is getting an enormous amount of publicity through 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 the matter with him. My dad didn’t want me before I got in the movies, but now he wants me. The Preciado boys are the best friends I have. I will believe them better than anyone else — Mr. Church or anyone,” he said.
So the scene was set in the Madera Courthouse. John O’Donnell was there with Denver Church, and Maude O’Donnell was present with Spec and her lawyers, Joseph and David Barcroft. Joining the crowded courtroom were Ben and Henry Preciado.
It didn’t take Judge Murray long to size up the situation. He ruled that Mrs. O’Donnell was the legal guardian of Walter “Spec” O’Donnell.
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 fellow had told of the care that had been used by the Preciados in seeing that he had proper schooling and attention in Hollywood, where, when working, the company provided a teacher for him.
At that point, all sides seemed satisfied at the turn of events and indicated that all they ever wanted was what was in the best interest of the boy.
Walter “Spec” O’Donnell went on to earn a lot of money in the movies. From 1923 to 1978, he appeared in 191 films. He worked frequently for producer Hal Roach and was probably best remembered by those in Madera, his hometown, for his roles with Mary Pickford in “Little Annie Rooney” and “Sparrows.”
Walter “Spec” O’Donnell died on Oct. 14, 1986, in Los Angeles and was buried at Arbor Vitae Cemetery in Madera.
I wonder if he has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. I think he deserves it.