They offered me three thousand dollars to sing, but Mary Pickford took it right away from me. ‘But of course you don’t want it. We’ll put it right back in the fund.’ Never even gave me a chance to make a gesture. I might have offered them half of it—but what chance has anybody when Mary looks at them!
-Al Jolson, 1930
Mary Pickford, silent screen star, was a founder and the most enthusiastic booster of the Motion Picture Relief Fund (MPRF). MPRF was incorporated in 1924 and became one of the most important sources of relief for people employed or formerly employed in the movie industry.
Today the Motion Picture and Television Fund owns the Wasserman Campus Retirement Community and Long Term Care Center, the Saban Center for Health and Wellness, and Harry’s Haven (care for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia). But back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the MPRF had no buildings and was barely meeting its expenses in providing relief to members of the movie community. And the need was great. The variability of the movie business, combined with the effects of the Great Depression, spotty government assistance, and the lack of any kind of benefits, meant that many members of the movie community floated in and out of poverty.
Mary Pickford was a tireless force in keeping the organization alive. She gave parties and benefits at Pickfair, modified her will to include the MPRF and badgered other stars to do the same, and apparently had the original idea that probably saved the MPRF during its lean times–getting people employed by the movie industry to donate 1/2 of 1% of their salary to the MPRF. At first, this idea was met with some resistance, but through her and other’s persistent efforts, the studios eventually adopted the idea and deducted the amount from all paychecks.
Additionally, she had the original idea for the “Hollywood on Parade” films, 13 shorts produced by Paramount and starring many of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Ninety percent of the proceeds from these shorts went to the MPRF (many of these shorts are available on YouTube–I review these short films here). As the originator of the idea, she could have insisted on a prominent place in the first film. But her first appearance doesn’t occur until partway through the third film, in a charming sequence that provides a brief glimpse of her home Pickfair (and driving her fantastic car, which I think may be a Packard).
This post is about one of her lesser-known efforts: The Stars Screen Shop. It was a fascinating and noble failure, and highlights both Mary’s enthusiasm and imagination in supporting the MPRF.
The Screen Stars’ Shop Opens
The Screen Stars’ Shop opened on June 20, 1930 at 1614 North Cahuenga Blvd in Los Angeles. The store was managed by Florence Turner, a silent screen star who had since fallen on hard times. The idea of the store was to sell the stars’ used clothes and other items to the public and (especially) actors and others in the movie community. Actors would benefit from expanding their wardrobe, especially important in the days when actors were often expected to furnish their own clothes when working on a movie, and the MPRF would benefit from the profits of the store.
So Mary’s job was to convince the stars to donate their personal items to the store. She was quite successful at first (and, of course, she donated many of her own clothes and personal items). Here is a partial list of items donated to the store.
- Mary Pickford—A flame-colored chiffon velvet gown trimmed with heavy gold lace, presented to her by Chinese royalty (sold for $15); evening dress; thirty other gowns; hats; slippers; embroidered dollies; costume jewelry
- Mae Murray–$250 caracul coat (sold for $65); white velvet evening gown; French hats; dresses; slippers
- Vilma Banky—Dozen pair of slippers; Pearls and buckles; Black velvet and beaded flesh chiffon dress;
- Ruth Stonehouse—vanity
- Mrs. Ben Shulberg—Spanish fan
- Greta Garbo—Three autographed pictures
- William Hart—Books written and autographed by himself.
- Vilma Banky–Black velvet and beaded flesh chiffon dress
Other stars who donated items included Douglas Fairbanks, Marion Davies, Ronald Colman, and Delores Del Rio.
The Screen Stars’ Shop Closes
The challenge for the Screen Stars’ Shop, and why I think it ultimately failed, is that it was trying to serve two purposes, which ultimately worked against each other. The main purpose was to help the movie actors enhance their wardrobes. In those days, actors often had to furnish their own wardrobe when working on a film. “[Mary’s] thought was to start a small thrift shop in which small-salaried players might add to their screen and personal wardrobes through the purchase of garments worn by greater luminaries. These garments, cleaned, mended and in good condition, were to be sold at a reduced price. The quality of material would be better than could be purchased at the cheaper stores. In this way, an extra girl who must necessarily have a wide selection of clothes, might wear a Paris importation for ten or fifteen dollars. And hats. And shoes. And wraps.”
All well and good. But of course the public also wanted to buy these clothes and other items, as souvenirs at discount prices. And the Shop also welcomed this business, as all money went to the Fund. “Customers got the habit of calling regularly to ask if any of Miss Pickford’s or Miss Banky’s or Miss Julia Faye’s clothes had come in.” And that business from the public came to predominate over the business from needy actors wanting to supplement their wardrobe.
In early February, 1931, a little more than seven months after it opened, the Screen Stars’ Shop closed its doors. As Hubbard Keavy put it, “it folded up because there was nothing to buy.” The public had raided the place. Today, at 1614 North Cahuenga Blvd, Los Angeles, is a True Tattoo shop. Almost certainly, the owners of the shop are unaware that the location of their business was once a small part of Hollywood history.
At the opening of the Screen Stars’ Shop, Mary spoke of her ultimate dream to build and maintain a comfortable home for the aged in the film business. The place would be run like a well managed hotel with a homey atmosphere.
That’s my dream. It may never be a reality, but personally I think it would be terrible for me to pass on and not leave something for me to pass on and not leave something toward establishing comfort for members of my profession who have not been as fortunate as I am.
Her dream, of course, was shared by many others in the film community who contributed money and time and energies. And that dream was realized on September 27, 1942, when three thousand members of the film community gathered in Woodland Hills for the dedication of the Country House.
Do you know of anybody who owns something once bought at the Screen Stars’ Shop? Tell us in the comments below.