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Acqua Blues

Goodbye, Dolly: Chris Williams bids Acquanetta "adieu."
Emily Piraino

She might have been a Midwestern orphan named Mildred Davenport. She may have been the great-granddaughter of the illegitimate son of the King of England. She even could have been a Native American, invited by President Franklin Roosevelt to act as America's goodwill ambassador to Mexico.

The only thing we know for sure about Acquanetta is that she's gone. The former B-movie actress and local legend, once dubbed "The Venezuelan Volcano" by Universal Studios, died August 16 at age 83 at an Alzheimer's care facility in Ahwatukee. She claimed to be a lot of different things, but Phoenicians mostly knew her as an exotic ex-movie queen, a philanthropist, and the slightly scary star of dozens of TV commercials for her husband's car lot, Jack Ross Lincoln Mercury. Phoenician Christopher Williams, an unemployed chef and Acquanetta's biggest fan, has stepped up to set the record straight about the lives and loves of the former Mildred Davenport.

New Times: Does anyone outside of Phoenix know who Acquanetta is?

Chris Williams: People who are movie buffs, like I am, know her. She was under contract to Universal for several years in the 1940s. And any Tarzan fan knows who she is, of course, because she starred in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. But her film roles were always so small that she never gained the fame of other stars of her day. She left Hollywood in 1951.

NT: You went to her funeral. Were there a lot of celebrities there? Did Johnny Weismuller show up?

Williams: No. I'm pretty sure he's dead. The only celebrities were Pat McMahon and Bill Thompson [who played Wallace on The Wallace & Ladmo Show].

NT: I was terrified of Acquanetta when I was a kid. I'd never seen a woman in a caftan before. What was her appeal?

Williams: She was very exotic, and her whole story is shrouded in mystery. There were so many different stories about where she came from.

NT: Like that she was born in Ozone, Wyoming, to an Arapaho mother and a French-English-Cherokee father. So how is it that she came to be raised by a white woman in Norristown, Pennsylvania?

Williams: I don't know. I've never been able to get more on that story. There've been no biographies of Acquanetta, and the information about her on the Internet is all mysterious stuff. And I think that's probably the way she liked it.

NT: She doesn't want us to know that she was really just a Midwestern orphan named Mildred Davenport?

Williams: Which is worlds away from "The Venezuelan Volcano." That was all movie company hype. I don't think she had any Spanish in her at all.

NT: Maybe she was born on a reservation and sold to the Davenport family!

Williams: I've heard she was adopted, I haven't heard sold. Now you've given me a new thing to research about her.

NT: I heard that, for her funeral, Acquanetta's sons put together a retrospective of her career, and there were all these film clips of her from the '40s, wearing teeny little loincloths, shaking her can -- projected above her dead body.

Williams: Oh, yeah. It was on the back wall of the church, and there were a lot of family home movies, too -- I rather enjoyed watching Acquanetta dancing to "Achy Breaky Heart." But there were some notable movies missing, like Arabian Knights and Rhythm of the Islands. There was no clip from The Lost Continent. And they didn't have any clips from Grizzly Adams -- that was her last film. She plays a Mexican girl in that one.

NT: A girl? She was 68 years old when she made that movie! Now, I read that she was a "successful model" in New York City. Is that "model" as in euphemistic for call girl?

Williams: There was this old rumor about a nude picture of her. She denied it for years. I have a copy of the photo, and it's very obviously not her. It looks like somebody badly superimposed her face on another woman's body. No, she really was a high-paid fashion model back then. She was even the pinup girl in the September 29th, 1944, edition of Yank magazine.

NT: Yank? Please tell me that's short for Yankee.

Williams: It is. It was a World War II magazine that showcased a lot of the models and movie starlets of the time.

NT: I remember her from the Jack Ross Lincoln Mercury TV commercials when I was a kid. Those were pretty scary.

Williams: Yeah. She'd give away an Acquanetta doll and a trunkful of groceries with every Lincoln sold. That's how they sold cars back then.

NT: It's kind of a cheap shill, though: A porcelain doll with every purchase -- of a $20,000 car.

Williams: Of course, but if you have a daughter, she'd see Acquanetta on Wallace & Ladmo, and it would be, "Mommy! I want an Acquanetta doll!"

NT: And you have an Acquanetta doll!

Williams: That's the best piece in my collection. It took me three years to find that doll. She was custom-made, by somebody who really puts a lot of attention into their work. Now, on mine, one of her legs is damaged, she's missing her earrings, and she's missing her veil and the guitar she originally came with.

NT: But I'll bet she's worth a fortune.

Williams: The last offer I had was $6,000. But I'm not giving her up. I told the Ross family, at the funeral, that they were welcome to see her any time they want, and they told me they would be in contact with me.

NT: You brought the doll with you to the funeral?

Williams: Oh, yeah. I wanted them to know that there were people in the younger generation who really liked Acquanetta and thought she was something special. I showed them the doll, and Jack Jr., well, tears just came to his eyes, and he touched the doll's face, and he said, "Everyone, come over here, you just have to see this!"

NT: What happened next?

Williams: There was just a silence while they all looked at the doll. There was a small gasp from one of the wives. And one of the wives said, "Oh, my God. We've heard so much about her, but we've never seen one." I don't think the family has an Acquanetta doll.

NT: How is that possible?

Williams: You got me. Lance asked some questions about how I'd acquired her and how she was cared for, and there were a lot of chuckles about how much I paid for her on eBay.

NT: She and Jack Ross brought a lot more to the Valley than just veiled señorita dolls. They helped build Mesa Lutheran Hospital, founded Stagebrush Theatre, and raised funds for the Phoenix Symphony. And in 1987, Acquanetta sold the Mesa Grande ruins to the city of Mesa for a nice chunk of change.

Williams: She got more than a million dollars, but she wasn't holding out for more money. When she was sure that the city was going to preserve it, then she agreed to sell it.

NT: I've heard she was a reckless driver.

Williams: I heard that, too, but I don't know -- it just doesn't seem like her to put people's lives in danger. Everybody just thought of her as somebody on the TV or in a movie, but there are a lot of stories about how kind and generous she was.

NT: And then there's the one my dad told me, about the time Acqua caught Jack Ross fooling around on her, so she filled his convertible with cement.

Williams: I've heard that story, too. I guess she had a temper when she was crossed. But whoa! Filling somebody's car with cement. That's pretty extreme.

NT: I'm guessing you have a signed copy of The Audible Silence, Acquanetta's 1974 volume of poetry about life and love and Indian jewelry.

Williams: I have one, but it's not signed.

NT: Have you read it?

Williams: Yes.

NT: I don't believe you.

Williams: No, I did read it. And I rather enjoyed some of it. Some of it I didn't comprehend very well. How's that for diplomatic? There were readings from it at her funeral. There are a lot of poems about death in there, so it was fitting.

NT: I can't help but wonder: Now that she's gone, who will replace her?

Williams: No one, in my heart. I have my favorite movie heroes, but nobody from that era comes near her. She's bigger than life, so exotic and beautiful. The more I learn about her, the more she grows in my heart. I'm not saying I fell in love with her, but we all have our favorites, and she's just so beautiful. She's one of a kind, and a great lady, too. No one can possibly replace Acquanetta.

E-mail robrt.pela@newtimes.com


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