by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A United Press International syndicated article from this day in 1925 had the headline “10 Millions To Be Spent On Yule Cheer For Needy” explaining that
With customary lavishness, churches, fraternal organizations, the Salvation Army, social workers, welfare societies and hospitals are soon to settle upon the impoverished, money, food and clothing that forms a part of holiday giving.
Notably, the article quoted from the American Association for Community Organization, which reported that “the poor this year are less plentiful than last year, an evidence of national prosperity.” In fact, the 1920s was a period of intense economic activity and growth, though rampant stock speculation and other activities culminated at the end of it in the Great Depression, during which the poor were far more “plentiful” to an unprecedented degree in American history.
The article also noted that “while there is more poverty in the east that in the west, charities are better supported along the Atlantic,” with the result, it was stated, of “equalizing to some extent the problem of caring for the poor throughout the country.”
Today’s highlighted artifact is for a program for a charitable event: the “Twelfth Annual Benefit for the Christmas Dinner Fund of the Los Angeles Examiner.” The newspaper, part of William Randolph Hearst’s media empire, held its event on this day in 1925 at the Olympic Auditorium and it featured a program including many performances and speeches, including a significant turnout from the film industry.
The idea of holding massive Christmas dinners in California went back to at least the 1890s and those held by the Salvation Army in the Bay Area. Locally, a competitor of the Examiner, the Los Angeles Herald was hosting dinners for needy children by 1908. A few years later, the Examiner began sponsoring its holiday feasts.
The program stated that all of the proceeds from the event would go toward “the purchase of Christmas dinner baskets for the worthy poor of Los Angeles” and be distributed by an association formed for just that purpose on or before Christmas Day.
The idea of what constitutes the “worthy poor” is one that has been intensely debated. The late Paul Longmore, a graduate of Occidental College and Claremont Graduate University, and a historian at San Francisco State University who specialized in the history of early America and of the disabled, said in a 1997 interview:
over a long period of time various kinds of measurements and standards of eligibility are formulated, and this is why social welfare policies resorted to a medical definition of disability, hoping that it could provide some kind of scientific precision, and quantifiable measurement of disability, so that it could be effectively and objectively determined who was eligible. They’re saying that people with what we would now call medical conditions, people with these physical conditions, are probably incapable of taking care of themselves. So, they would be entitled to poor relief, to home relief. They’re the worthy poor, the dependent poor.
Longmore went on to suggest that:
There are two assumptions in the phrase “worthy poor,” I think. One is that there are unworthy poor people, who, it’s assumed, are poor because of some kind of willfulness, perversity, laziness, refusal to be productive and support themselves. They’re the able-bodied poor. They’re usually categorized that way, too. They’re not worthy of social aid in the form of poor relief, and they need to be disciplined and controlled, and forced back into the labor market. The other assumption is, that the so-called worthy poor are people who are incapacitated and incapable of supporting themselves, probably due to sickness, disability, or old age.
Obviously, attitudes about people in poverty were far different in the mid-1920s then they were seventy years later when Longmore made his comments and they have evolved in the twenty years since that interview.
Those participating in the benefit as performers and speakers were denoted as members of a “Roll of Honor,” specifically composed of people “of great hearts as well as great names.” The entertainment worlds of the theater and film included those “whose lives are dedicated to giving happy hours” through their performances, but their appearances in the event “give you a few more happy hours” as well as to “give a Merry Christmas” and a dinner.
The evening’s masters of ceremony were noted theater actor Lew Cody and major film director Fred Niblo, whose Ben-Hur, was a blockbuster film in 1925 and the debate of protrayals of Jews noted in a post on this blog last week about Hanukkah celebrations. The show opened with performances in a “Children’s Prelude” that featured “The Meglin Kiddie Revue”, a “wonder-child violinist, a pianist and the popular “Rin-Tin-Tin,” a German Shepherd rescued during the First World War in France by an American soldier and whose popular film career began in 1923 and ended with his death nine years later.
The adult portion of the program included “a Spanish dance” from actress Dolores Del Rio, whose first film was in 1925 and was three years from her signature role in Ramona. A “Bacchanal scene” from the recent film The Wanderer included its stars Greta Nilssen, Noah Beery, Ernest Torrance, William Collier, Jr., and Tyrone Power, the latter being the father of the major film star of the 1930s and 1940s.
There was also a “Pageant of Fame” featuring “those whose artistic achievements during the year have entitled them to a place in Filmdom’s Hall of Fame” including Cody and Beery; Monte Blue; Ricardo Cortez; Mary Astor; Mary Brian; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (whose father was a preeminent actor); Bebe Daniels; Laura La Plante; Antonio Moreno; Norma Shearer; Anna May Wong (a native of Los Angeles and a rare Asian actor at the time); and an actress just launching her career (she was in thirteen films in 1925) and destined for great stardom, Joan Crawford.
Colleen Moore, a major box-office draw, was featured in a fashion revue from the film Irene, which was released two months after the show. This was followed by an appearance by cowboy star Tom Mix and his horse Tony “assisted by 40 hilarious cowboys.”
A segment that featured a variety of dance performances, including ballet from Theodore Kosloff and “artists of his Russan Ballet”; Doraldina (Dora Spencer), billed as “the world’s foremost interpretive dancer” working with in rumba, jazz and hula styles; and the infamous Sally Rand, best known for her ostrich feather and balloon bubble burlesque dancing, who appeared in five films in 1925 and performed a “Dance Louisiana.” Rand, who continued to dance into her seventies, married a citrus farmer and died in Glendora in 1979.
Other program elements featured well-known comic Larry Semon; Mildred Harris, who was Charlie Chaplin’s first wife; professional wrestler Jim Londos, known as “The Greek Adonis;” and a series of military and patriotic dancers presented by movie theater impresario Sid Grauman. Also featured at the event was Adrienne Dore, who was Miss Los Angeles of 1925 and finished as runner-up in the Miss America contest that year and went on to have a short acting career between 1928 and 1934.
Among those involved behind the scenes, assisting general stage director Hal Crane, was the last listed “stage aid,” Hal Wallis. In 1925, Wallis, a former movie theater manager in Los Angeles, was head of the publicity department at Warner Brothers, but quickly rose to be head of production and then owner of his own production firm. Among his films were 1931’s Little Ceasar with Edward G. Robinson; The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn; The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca in 1941-42; Yankee Doodle Dandy (1943); a slew of Elvis Presley movies; and the later-career John Wayne vehicles True Grit (1969) and Rooster Cogburn (1975).
The rear cover illustration was a dramatic one, showing two children standing in snow and looking into a window at a holiday celebration in a fine home, with a caption reading “Let us change this scene—GIVE!” The event is an example of how the maturing film industry and charitable endeavors worked together to create a mutually beneficial relationship. Good works done by people on an honor “roll of great hearts” to create Christmas dinner baskets also meant excellent publicity for the industry and for stars who could improve their image with the film-going public.