Spring Dell Byington (October 17, 1886 – September 7, 1971) was an American actress. Her career included a seven-year run on radio and television as the star of December Bride. She was a key MGM contract player appearing in films from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Byington was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado to Professor Edwin Lee Byington (1852–1891), an educator and superintendent of schools in Colorado, and Helene Maud (née Cleghorn). Byington had one sibling, a younger sister, Helene Kimball Byington. After Edwin Lee's death, Helene decided to send her younger daughter, Helene, to live with her parents, Arthur and Charlotte Cleghorn, in Port Hope, Ontario, while Spring remained with family in Denver. Her mother moved to Boston and became a student at the Boston University School of Medicine where she graduated in 1896. After graduation she moved back to Denver, Colorado, and began a practice with fellow graduate, Dr. Mary Ford.
Byington played in amateur shows in her school days and graduated from North High School in 1904, and shortly afterward, at age 14, became a professional actress with the Elitch Garden Stock Company. Her mother had been a friend of Mary Elitch. When their mother died in 1907, Byington and Helene were legally adopted by their aunt Margaret Eddy. Byington, however, was already of legal majority age and took her inheritance to begin an acting career in New York.
In 1908, Byington joined a repertory company that was touring Buenos Aires, Argentina. Between 1908 and 1916, the company performed American plays translated into Spanish and Portuguese in Argentina and Brazil.
Upon returning to New York, Byington divided her time between working in Manhattan and staying with her daughters, whom she had placed to live with friends J. Allen and Lois Babcock, in Leonardsville Village, New York (Madison County). She began touring in 1919 with a production of Birds in Paradise, which brought the Hawaiian culture to the mainland, and in 1921 began work with the Stuart Walker Company for which she played roles in Mr. Pim Passes By, The Ruined Lady and Rollo's Wild Oats, among others. This connection landed her a role in her first Broadway performance in 1924, George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's Beggar on Horseback which ran for six months. She renewed the role in March and April 1925 and continued on Broadway with an additional 18 productions in the ten years from 1925 to 1935. These included roles in Kaufman and Moss Hart's Once in a Lifetime, Rachel Crothers's When Ladies Meet and Dawn Powell's Jig Saw.
Films, radio and television
In her last years on Broadway, Byington began work in films. The first was a short film titled Papa's Slay Ride in 1931 and the second, and most famous, was Little Women in 1933 as "Marmee" with Katharine Hepburn as her daughter "Jo". She became a household name during The Jones Family series of films and continued as a character actress in Hollywood for several years. In 1938, Byington was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for You Can't Take it With You, which was won by Fay Bainter for Jezebel (in which Byington also had a role, as antebellum society matron Mrs. Kendrick).
During World War II, Byington worked in radio and decided to return when her film career began to dwindle after the war. In 1952, she joined CBS Radio to become the lead role of the widowed Lily Ruskin in the sitcom December Bride. In 1954, Desilu Productions produced a pilot of the show for a television sitcom, also starring Byington. The pilot was successful and the new hit sitcom aired in its first two seasons immediately following I Love Lucy. December Bride broadcast 111 episodes through 1959.
Byington guest starred as herself in the CBS sitcom, Dennis the Menace, starring Jay North, in the 1961 episode "Dennis Birthday", with character actor Vaughn Taylor also appearing in this segment.
From 1961 to 1963, Byington was cast as the wise, matronly housekeeper Daisy Cooper in the NBC Western series Laramie, starring John Smith and Robert Fuller. On Laramie, Daisy serves as a surrogate grandmother to orphaned Mike Williams, played by the child actor Dennis Holmes.
After Laramie, Byington guest starred as Mrs. Jolly on Dennis Weaver's NBC sitcom, Kentucky Jones. Her penultimate role before her death from cancer was in 1967 as Larry Hagman's mother on NBC's I Dream of Jeannie. Her final role was in 1968 as Mother General on ABC's The Flying Nun, starring Sally Field.
Byington and her series December Bride are profiled in The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms, by David C. Tucker, published by McFarland & Company in 2007.
Byington spoke some Spanish, which she learned during the time spent with her husband in Buenos Aires, and she studied Brazilian Portuguese in her golden years. In July 1958 she confided to reporter Hazel Johnson that she had acquired a "small coffee plantation" in Brazil the month before and was learning Portuguese. "Miss Byington explained that she first listens to a 'conditioning record' before she goes to sleep. An hour later her Portuguese lessons automatically begin feeding into her pillow by means of a small speaker."
Byington was fascinated by metaphysics and science fiction novels, including George Orwell's 1984. She surprised her co-stars in December Bride with her knowledge of the Earth's satellites and constellations in the night sky.
In August 1955 she began taking flying lessons in Glendale, California, but the studio made her stop because of insurance problems.
In January, 1957, she testified in the trial of the Sica brothers as a character witness in behalf of the DaLonne Cooper, who was a friend and the Script Supervisor for December Bride.
Marriage and engagement
Spring Byington married Roy Chandler in 1909; the manager of the theatre troupe she worked with in Buenos Aires. They remained in Buenos Aires until 1916, when Spring returned to the New York to give birth to her first daughter, Phyllis. Her second daughter, Lois, was born in 1917. The couple divorced in about 1920. Between then and the mid-1930s, she devoted her time to developing her career.
In the late 1930s, she was once again engaged to be married; this time to an Argentine industrialist. Following an engagement of a couple of years and several months before they were to be married, he died unexpectedly. Following this, she chose to devote her life to her career and family.
On September 7, 1971, Byington died of rectal cancer at her home in the Hollywood Hills.
For her contribution to the film and television industry, Byington has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for films at 6507 Hollywood Blvd. and one for television at 6233 Hollywood Blvd.