IRISH McCALLA'S CHILDHOOD

THE FAMILY
On Christmas Day 1928 Nellie Elizabeth McCalla was born to a large, cheerful family living in Pawnee City, Nebraska (2000 pop. 1,033) .  One confusing photo of her first home published in the August 52 issue of Night and Day, and reproduced in Black and Feret's biography, claimed she was born in Seneca, Kansas and later moved to Pawnee City (see Other Childhood Photos below).  However, in the interview with Irish on the Audio-Visual page, Irish confirms she was born in Pawnee City.  I suspect that Irish's father, who had a restless streak (see below), moved the family to Kansas for a year or two when Irish was very young before moving back to Nebraska.

Irish's mother, Nettie Geiger McCalla, was Swiss-French and her father, Lloyd McCalla, was Irish. When Nellie arrived the couple already had four children - two boys and two girls.  The family would eventually grow to eight offspring: three brothers - Bill, Frank and Jack - and five sisters - Mildred, Anna, Nellie, Florence and Mary (see photos below).  "We were a typical, big Irish family," recalled Irish.  "We could fight like cats and dogs, but if you picked on any one of us, you'd have all of us on your neck."

Nellie's father, a skilled butcher who progressed to become a meat inspector, was a giant of a man standing 6 feet 3 inches (190 cm) tall and weighing almost 300 pounds (136 kg).  Sadly, he was an alcoholic and Irish confessed that she wasn't very close to him.  This obviously put a greater burden on Nettie and Irish later recalled that her mother ran the house very well, so it appears she was probably a very strong woman.  Her father liked to always be on the move, which meant that the family relocated frequently (Prevue).  In 1939 the family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, and Lloyd commenced work at Condon Bros meat dealers.  Nellie's older siblings attended North High school while she went to Washington Irving Junior High, where she completed the year's schooling before the family's next move.  In November 1941 the family lived in Marshalltown, Iowa after her father had decided to leave the meat packing industry to take over his father's ranch to raise horses (Starweek).  As usual, the venture didn't last very long and in September 1942 Lloyd moved the family back to Nebraska.  They settled briefly in Omaha before returning to Pawnee City where Nellie finished high school.  She said she was neither good nor bad at studies and loved dances (Black and Feret).
 
I feel it is important to discuss her name, because several times in interviews she said that Irish was her real name.  The Famous Iowans website, however, which appears to be based on a register of births, deaths and marriages, gives Nellie Elizabeth McCalla as her real name.  "Irish" may have been bestowed on her at school because of her family background.  She may also have felt that Nellie was not a particularly attractive name for a glamour model.  Whatever the reason, the name stuck and she continued to use that name for the rest of her life and throughout her different careers in modelling, television, film and art.  Why she claimed it was her real name is a mystery.
 
 

THE TOMBOY

The combination of having three brothers and spending virtually all of her childhood in small towns and semi-rural settings meant that Irish eventually grew into quite a tomboy.  She had a mean tackle, loved to play softball, baseball and football with the boys, and served as an assistant lifeguard.  She also confessed that dolls didn't interest her and that her happiest moments were spent running through the woods and climbing trees (Tease).  When I first read that as a child Irish had loved to swing in trees "like her favourite comic character, Sheena" I was initially very dubious.  It smacked of the kind of publicity concocted by the PR department to convince the viewing public that the star was "tailor-made" for the role.  My suspicions evaporated, however, when I read that on learning that Irish had been selected to play the part of Sheena in 1954, her mother had exclaimed, "They're paying you for what you did as a kid?".  Publicity published when the series was screening said that all of the McCalla children were avid Sheena readers ("I used to play among the trees and make believe I was Sheena, and that my brother was Tarzan.") (TV Radio Mirror)  Irish believed she was about about 12 when she read Sheena comics and, because she loved drawing, liked to copy the drawings of Sheena in the comics (Prevue).

 
 

ARTISTIC DEVELOPMENT
Her artistic temperament developed early as she loved both art and music.  She was attracted to drawing from an early age and has always described art as her principal interest.  When she was 14 one of her watercolours was chosen for an exhibit at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha (Ultra Filmfax).  Irish only studied art in her freshman year (first year of high school) at Omaha and felt deprived when she moved back to Pawnee City because there was no art institute there.  In high school she drew copies of Vargas-girl pin-ups with coloured chalk on big sheets of newsprint and traded them at gas stations for fuel for her boyfriend's car.  All of the gas stations in town, apparently, had Irish McCalla Vargas copies hanging in their offices.  When interviewed in 1994 she said that she still had an old sketchbook that was full of idealistic drawings that included Sheena-type jungle girls.  Irish also played tenor sax in the high school band and said that she ended up with that instrument because all of the kids in the family took all of the other instruments.  It is also a large instrument that obviously matched her height
 ("I always knew a boy liked me when he carried my sax home from practice.") (Prevue).
 

PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT
Her physical attributes began to develop early and she was 5 feet 9 inches (175 cm) by the time she was 14. She was so tall and skinny that the kids nicknamed her "Beanpole" and "High Pockets".  They made fun of her low voice as well.  She was also embarrassed by her looks.  Her eyes were slanted and she had wide cheekbones.  Soon afterward she began to fill out and by the time she was 15 Irish had a 39-and-a-half inch bust (see photos).  As a tomboy she wore a lot of her father's shirts and people thought that she was just gaining weight.  "Until they saw me in a bathing suit the following summer." she said.  " They looked, you know, like guys look!"  Irish jokingly blamed the development of her breasts on an accident.  She was trying to do a trick stunt on a pony, attempting to mount the animal from the rear the way her cowboy heroes did.  She hadn't realised that film horses are trained to stand still.  The pony bolted when she jumped on it and Irish fell badly, tearing the ligaments in her leg. She was on crutches for a year ("I swear they helped develop my bust.").  She also complained that her large breasts got in the way of playing baseball.

 When she was about 15 Irish began working as a waitress in her aunt's restaurant in Marysville, Kansas.  One afternoon she and some of her girlfriends decided to go skinning down at the river and they all stripped down to their panties ("I had already developed, but most of them looked like boys.").  They went to a spot where there was a rope tied to a tree where kids could swing and flip into the water.  It was a pretty secluded spot, but there were train tracks nearby.  Her girlfriends were paddling around in the water and Irish decided to swing out - just as a slow train was passing by!  All of the hollering and whistling of the young guys on the train flustered her and instead of swinging out over the water she swung out over a dirt embankment and was unable to drop and had to swing all the way back ("They probably saw as much of me as my family doctor.")  She was so embarrassed she almost couldn't go back to the restaurant because she knew that the railroad men ate there sometimes.  She did go, and of course the men were there and they did recognise her.  The girls had all sworn to secrecy because they didn't want their parents to know and Irish couldn't tell her aunt or she would have sent her straight home.  As she went to take their order one of the young guys began to make a comment, but one of the older guys, who probably had kids of his own, looked at him and firmly said "Quiet!"  Irish said that things were different then and decency was much more important, and the older guy's comments did the trick.  No one ever said anything ever again ("My aunt never did find out how much of a jungle girl I really was.") (Prevue).  It isn't surprising that she won a school beauty contest about this time (TV Star Parade).
 
 

BOYFRIENDS
Irish, coming from a strict Catholic family, wasn't allowed to date until she was 16 and nobody ever talked to her about sex.  She also had a fiery Irish temper.  In an interview she recollected that a footballer had tried to kiss her but she thought that it might make her pregnant so she bit him on the lip when he made his move.  The next day the poor guy's lip was swollen up like a football and she felt certain that her reputation was sizzling (Prevue.  Also see story of trading copies of Vargas Girl pinups for fuel for her boyfriend's car in Artistic Development above .
 

CONCLUSION
Irish always said that she hated the cold weather of Nebraska intensely.  She also wanted to get away from her father.  She graduated in mid-1946 when she was 17 and wanted to go somewhere warm ("Where it never had snow" - Femme Fatales) because she got pleurisy every winter.  She promptly sold her saxophone and moved to California where she began a modeling career at the age of 18 (see the full story of those years in the Modelling section.

It should now be obvious that all of the elements that would would eventually make Irish McCalla a convincing Sheena were falling into place during her childhood - the love of the outdoors, the lofty physical stature inherited from her father, the Amazonian facial characteristics, the try-anything mentality and and those abundant curves.  She would be well prepared when the opportunity finally came knocking at her door.
 

OTHER CHILDHOOD PHOTOS

IRISH BIOGRAPHY INTRO HOME

SOURCES
Prevue Pin Up Special 2 magazine, Aug-Oct 94
Starweek magazine, Aug 82
TV's Original Sheena Irish McCalla by Bill Black and Bill Feret, Paragon Publications 1992
Tease magazine No. 3, 1995
Ultra Filmfax magazine Apr-May 98
TV Star Parade magazine Feb 56
Femme Fatales magazine Jan 99

PHOTOS
• The photos of Irish aged 7, 14 and the photo of her aged 18 months sitting in the Flying Dragon wagon with her puppies in the Other Childhood Photos section are from Point magazine, Mar 54
• The studio photo of Irish wearing a white dress is a vidcap from my DVD of the Where Are They Now? documentary (see Page 2: The Personal Appearances Circuit - Again in the Final Years section).  Sorry, no age given.
• All other photos on this page are from Night and Day magazine, Aug 52

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2005-2007 Paul Wickham
This page was updated August 2007