“I believe such passion, even passion born of fear and anxiety, is far better than a life of banality.” –Lori Nelson
Dixie Kay Nelson was born on August 15, 1933, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was the daughter of the superintendent of the American Metal Mine Company and the great-grandniece of John J. Pershing.
Nelson’s time in the entertainment industry began when she was two years old and appearing in local theatrical productions, receiving the nickname “Santa Fe’s Shirley Temple.” By the time she turned four, her family had relocated to Encino, California. Soon after, she would win the title “Little Miss America,” touring veterans’ hospitals, participating in additional theatrical performances, and modeling for local photographers.
Sadly, Nelson contracted a severe rheumatic fever at age seven, leading her to be bedridden for four years. Once she recovered, she returned to appearing in pageants once again and won the “Miss Encino” title at 17.
Nelson graduated from Canoga Park High School and pursued a modeling career. After an unsuccessful test for a role in Warner Brothers’ Kings Row (1942), Nelson worked with agent Milo O. Frank, Jr., to try and work in films. She trained with the studio dramatic coach at Universal-International and reenacted a scene for the front office. In 1950, she signed a seven-year contract with Universal-International. There, she took on the stage name Lori Nelson.
Nelson’s film debut came in Bend of the River (1952), followed by supporting performances in Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952), Francis Goes to West Point (1952), Destry (1954), and Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955). She also co-starred in Revenge of the Creature (1955) and Underwater! (1955). Nelson went on to appear in Day the World Ended (1955), I Died a Thousand Times (1955), and Pardners (1956). Nelson had lead roles in Hot Rod Girl (1956) and Untamed Youth (1957).
Nelson also worked in television on numerous occasions, including a co-starring role in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957). She worked in the sitcom How to Marry a Millionaire alongside Barbara Eden and Merry Anders, which was based on the 1953 film of the same name. She also made many television guest appearances, including roles on The Tab Hunter Show, Wagon Train, and Bachelor Father.
In 1960, Nelson married composer Johnny Mann. The couple had two daughters named Susan and Jennifer before divorcing in 1973. Nelson later married Joseph J. Reiner, who worked as a police officer. Nelson’s final film role was as Dr. Helen Dobson in The Naked Monster (2005).
Nelson passed away on August 23, 2020, at her Porter Ranch home after battling Alzheimer’s disease. She was 87 years old.
Today, there are few tributes to Nelson but some of her former residences remain. In 1940, Nelson resided at 4611 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, California. In 1950, the family lived at 14544 Haynes St., Los Angeles, California. These residences no longer stand.
Nelson’s alma mater, Canoga Park High School continues to exist as a high school but not in the same building that Nelson would have attended. The building was damaged in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and demolished in 1975. The new building stands at 6850 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Canoga Park, California.
In 1960, Nelson lived at 5044 Bellaire Ave., North Hollywood, California. The home stands to this day.
In the 1970s, she lived at 19764 Corbin Dr., Chatsworth, California. Her husband, Johnny Mann, registered this location in 1970 as Johnny Mann Productions, Inc., later registering Great American Choral Festival, Inc., at this address. The home no longer stands.
In 1973, Nelson relocated to 19558 Pine Valley Ave., Porter Ranch, California. She lived here with her second husband, Joseph J. Reiner. The home remains today.