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From small Minn. town to silver screen, service will honor Francine York's life

Francine visit with parents. Courtesy photo / Mesabi Daily News1 / 4
Recent photo of Francine York. Courtesy photo / Mesabi Daily News2 / 4
Photo of Francine York when she was younger. Courtesy photo / Mesabi Daily News3 / 4
Francine York as a young child. Courtesy photo / Mesabi Daily News4 / 4

HOLLYWOOD — Actress Francine York's life — from her Iron Range girlhood when she acted in school plays to her success as an enduring Hollywood star — was indeed "A Trail of Stardust," appropriately the title of her yet-to-be-published autobiography.

York had been writing her story for two years, with author David Schecter of California, when she died of cancer in January at age 80. And she will be remembered at a service in Hollywood this month.

The service — complete with her beloved Slovenian pastry, potica — will be at Hollywood's famed Egyptian Theatre at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 23. "Wherever Lady Francine is, she is positively beaming because despite her fame and the Hollywood allure she had, she always remained a small town gal from the Iron Range," Schecter said in an email.

York, whose acting career spanned nearly six decades, grew up in tiny Aurora, Minn., as Francine Yerich, the daughter of Frank and Sophie Yerich. Schecter said York died one day before they were to begin final editing on the book. Her autobiography tells of a young starlet's introduction to a world very different from the world she had known in Aurora — of her experiences with a bold actress and roommate she called Miss Cha-cha-chaz, applying to be a "sweater girl" at Donaldson's in Minneapolis and a toboggan accident that caused a compression fracture of her back and an unexpected return to Aurora and a job at Allison's Cafe.

"One day, while I was working the lunch crowd at Allison's, the phone rang, and Ruth Allison told me that my father was on the line. I was stunned when he told me, 'I got a call from the sweater lady in New York. They want you to work for them, and they said you can make up to $500 a week on commission,'' In her autobiography, she wrote. "Although that sounded like a great opportunity, I really didn't want to do it. Despite being depressed about moving back to Aurora, it was a safe, comfortable haven protecting me from further failures, and I was deathly afraid of venturing out into the unknown again.

"But my desire to succeed at what I had wanted for much of my life had not been totally destroyed, and I was really torn. I asked, 'What should I do, Daddy?' And he replied, 'You go.' The hand of Destiny had steered me in a new direction.

"That night, the ladies from Jane Richards Sportswear took me out to dinner. In the formal dining room atop the hotel, a black waiter in a tuxedo carried a silver tray up to me. He then very elegantly lifted the silver lid and presented for my approval, a teeny-tiny piece of meat. He said, 'Miss ... Your filet mignon ... ' Well, I'd never seen a black waiter before, nor a tuxedo, nor a filet mignon. When I was later asked if I wanted a martini, not knowing what that was, I said, 'Yes.' I thought my head was literally going to spin off and land on the floor."

She continued:

"My life of sophistication had just begun. The girls started my training the next day. I would be modeling a fine-combed cotton garment called Nan White's Whit-Knit, the 'sweater top with wizard ways.' It sold for $2.98. ... Until then, I was pretty much a small town girl from a Minnesota mining town, but now I was at the center of this star-studded social life. ... I had to pinch myself."

In an email interview, Schecter said, "Francine remained a small town girl from Aurora throughout her life, despite her fame and celebrity status, and she mentioned the Mesabi Daily News in her memoirs a number of times, because she was so proud when the people she grew up with could read about her. Going back to Aurora helped keep her grounded through the decades."

He insists she loved the Iron Range.

"She always loved it when she got written up there, because it made her family who still lived there so proud. She saved all of those newspapers, too, as she sent me scans of many of them. One especially memorable time was when she returned as her parents were older and getting ill, and the paper did a story about her father's birthday party that Francine and her sister Deanne held in Aurora. Deanne Sassani died in 2004 at age 63."

He also shared one of his favorite stories about York.

"She was hired to do a commercial in 2001 for a new record album by somebody named 'Dylinn.' She had never heard of him, and when she went to the set couldn't understand what all the buzz was about. Then in walked the person who had recorded the album, and he was Bob Dylan. ... She had no idea who this person was. But she enjoyed working with him on the commercial ... although she still didn't really grasp who he was," Schecter wrote. "What really affected her was learning that he grew up in Hibbing, and she was so disappointed that she hadn't known this, as she would have loved to have talked to him about growing up on the Iron Range."

For the upcoming memorial service, Schecter began a Facebook page and described it as "a lovely event with many of her Hollywood friends bidding farewell."

The page also reports "an unexpected and delicious surprise" — potica from Patti Wood, one of York's friends from Aurora — and there will be tributes from several special guests.

"Francine would be so proud to be honored ... Finishing the book was the most important thing in her life, and at least she got to read it and loved it," Schecter said. "Up until the very end she had the same hopes, the same confidence, the same belief that things would work out.

"She was hoping the book would get her back in the public eye and she'd get more acting jobs... She was a truly brilliant actress who never really got her due ... But she was one of the best — a very realistic performer who you often didn't notice because she was so believable — she never looked like she was acting."

Before starting an acting career in low-budget movies and bit parts on television shows such as "Rescue 8" and "Route 66," York had modeled and was a nightclub showgirl.

She appeared on "Batman" in 1966 and played Venus de Milo on "Bewitched."

Her credits included "The Odd Couple," ''Green Acres," ''Love, American Style," ''Ironside," "Burke's Law" and "Days of Our Lives." In all, York had more than two dozen movie roles.

She played Sabrina, leader of a team of women assassins in 1973's "The Doll Squad," predating TV's "Charlie's Angels." In addition, York acted in 1964's "Bedtime Story" starring Marlon Brando and David Niven, "Tickle Me" with Elvis Presley in 1965 and "The Family Man" as Nicolas Cage's mother-in-law in 2000.