In April 1929, the Aces of Collegeland, the North Texas Stage Band, took a break to introduce their newly anointed Sweetheart. Tiny 3-year-old Nancy Gates appeared on stage in a white gown. It may have been her first onstage appearance, but it wasn’t her last.
Gates was born in Dallas, but she grew up in Denton. A 1932 Denton Record-Chronicle article on the Lee School Easter program reported 6-year-old Nancy opened the show with a soft-shoe number. Later that year, Nancy opened and closed the Denton Kiddie Review and performed a Russian dance solo. The paper called her a “child wonder.” Today, a dancer/singer/actor is called a triple threat.
When Nancy was 7, the North Texas Stage Band billed her as the “diminutive star deluxe” when she performed a song and dance to “Lazy Bones.” In 1935, the 9-year-old performed in A Kiss for Cinderella alongside Brenda Marshall and a Kiwanis Club Minstrel Show with Ann Sheridan. All three women were Denton residents who became Hollywood stars.
Nancy was an 11-year-old Denton High School student when she began her radio career with her own show at WFAA in Dallas. An RKO Studios talent scout discovered her and negotiated a contract with 15-year-old Gates in 1941. Gates returned to Denton as the featured singer in a 1942 North Texas Stage Band concert.
By 1942, a San Bernardino Sun newspaper article called Gates Texas’ gift to Hollywood. She made her national radio debut a year later alongside Orson Welles on The Orson Welles Show.
Although she had a couple of uncredited movie roles in 1941, Gates’ first credited movie role was in The Great Gildersleeve. She worked her way up to leading roles after a series of B movies.
When North Texas State Teachers College, now the University of North Texas, opened Vets Village in 1946, residents named streets after former Denton women who became Hollywood stars: Ann Sheridan, Joan Blondell and Nancy Gates. Gates returned to Denton, where her parents still lived at 2019 N. Bell Ave., to pay for the Vets Village playground.
Gates met husband William Hayes as a passenger on a plane he piloted while she attended the University of Oklahoma. He became an attorney and one of Hollywood’s top business managers. Their marriage produced twin girls in 1960 and two boys who became Hollywood producers.
Gates appeared in two Frank Sinatra films, Suddenly (1954) and Some Came Running (1958). She also starred in Comanche Station, a 1959 Western. “Because I’m from Texas, I get a lot of Western parts,” Gates said in a 1961 interview. “I’ve been on so many horses I’m beginning to feel like they are a part of me. The funny thing is I’m not much of a rider.”
Others took Gates seriously, but she didn’t. She was in constant demand for movies and television shows, but she turned down parts if they took her away from family. In a 1961 Desert Sun interview, she said, “Frankly, since my twin daughters were born last December, I do only one or two TV shows every six weeks, and really, it’s like a vacation. ... I like to do an occasional movie if it comes along, but my life suits me just fine.”
After making 34 films and 55 television appearances on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Perry Mason, Wagon Train and Mod Squad, Gates retired in 1969 at age 43 to be closer to her family.
Gates died in Los Angeles in 2019 at age 93. Her ashes were cremated and returned to her family.