That’s a Wrap at Mary Pickford’s Welcome Home Ball, 16 January 1915

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A little over a century ago, with Charlie Chaplin as her male counterpart in popularity among film stars, Mary Pickford was “America’s Sweetheart.”  Actually, she was born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada in 1892 and, after her father died at the end of the decade, she, her mother and siblings took to the theater.  At 15 she was on Broadway where impresario David Belasco changed her name to Mary Pickford.  In 1909, she began working in the burgeoning film industry as a way to keep busy and make money between stage work.

Quickly, Pickford’s wholesome attractiveness and her plucky energy endeared her to millions who saw her originally in many short films for the Biograph studio and directed by the legendary D. W. Griffith and later for the Independent Motion Picture Company owned by Carl Laemmle, Majestic Film Company, Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company and Paramount Pictures.

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Los Angeles Times, 15 January 1915.

By early 1915, she was massively popular and only Charlie Chaplin rivaled her in attention and income.  1914’s Tess of the Storm Country was a massive success and propelled Pickford to the heights of stardom. Her latest film, Cinderella, was released at the end of the that year and the Los Angeles Times enthused that

Little Mary Pickford {she stood 5’1″] , most popular of motion-picture stars . . . portrays every phase of the fairy heroine’s career, from pathetic cinder girl to bejewelled princess, with equal charm and winsomeness, and every scene is illumined and made more appealing by the beauty and grace of the beloved little film-star.

Early that year, after being away from Los Angeles and Hollywood for a period of time, Pickford returned to the area and the Times reported on 11 January 1915, “Mary Pickford, most beloved of film favorites, arrived in the city yesterday.  She will start work with the Famous Players next week.”  Continuing with the wondrous accolades, columnist Grace Kingsley observed

Little Mary is even prettier off the screen than in the pictures.  That wealth of curly hair is golden, her eyes are a deep gray, with leaf-brown shadows in them, and her complexion a clear ivory.  But, of course, this doesn’t at all really convey Mary, whose chief beauty after all, is her sweetness and naturalness, and a certain quaintly bright little humor all her own.

It was also stated that Pickford’s next film was to be Rags, produced by Famous Players and distributed by Paramount with a release date of 2 August.  The film does survive in three prints, including one at the Library of Congress.  She did, however, have four films made in 1914 that appeared before Rags was released and there were three others that were put out before 1915 was through.

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Times, 3 January 1915.

With her return to Hollywood from an extended period in New York, the star was the subject of “Mary Pickford’s Welcome Home Ball,” an extravaganza held at Shrine Auditorium by the Southern California Motion Picture Exhibitors Association, comprised of owners and operators of movie theaters in the region.

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Times, 11 January 1915.

Naturally, they had ample reason to fete the 22-year old star, whose movies packed their theaters.  Each attendee of the event received a dance card, one of which is in the Homestead’s collection and is the highlighted artifact for this evening’s post.

On 6 January, the Los Angeles Herald reported that

Mary Pickford’s return to California is to be celebrated by a great demonstration on the part of the Southern California exhibitors and movie fans.  January 15, at Shrine auditorium, a grand ball is to be given in her honor, at which her many admirers will gather to welcome her home.

On the 12th, the Times jokingly stated that there would be a slew of new dances for movies at the gala, including the “Chaplin Caper,” “Pickford Prance,” “Griffith Grab,” and others named for male stars of the time like Henry B. Walthall, a star of Griffith’s notoriously racist Birth of a Nation, and Wallace Reid.

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Times, 12 January 1915.

Actually, the card has space for writing the name of partners for twenty dances, with an intermission half-way through, to such tunes as “Back to Dixie Land,” “California And You,” “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” “Mississippi Cabaret,” “Love’s Melody,” “High Cost of Loving,” and “Tango in the Skies.”  The dances, however, were the One Step, the Hesitation, and the Fox Trot, with two dancers being “Extra” and the last a “Medley.”  There are two initials on the card, so it appears that the bearer only danced twice.

On the back panel is a note that that Meiklejohn School for Dancing, located at Spring and Eighth streets, would present a couple “in a series of modern dances during the evening,” while “a special added attraction” was the team of Graves and Priest (an interesting pair of surnames) who “will introduce the new four-step for the first time in the West.”  Also listed Louis N. Meyer’s Orchestra as the performers of the music for the evening.

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This and the following two images are of a dance card from the Homestead’s collection for a honorary ball held for Pickford on 16 January 1915 after she returned to Hollywood from New York.

Pickford’s career continued to grow and, in 1916, she signed a contract with Zukor that included her own Artcraft production unit, a salary of $10,000 a week, and a guarantee of half the profits from the films released through Artcraft.  Among these were The Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and she worked with Cecil B. DeMille and William Desmond Taylor during that era.

After a few films for First National after World War I, she teamed up with Griffith, Chaplin and her new husband, Douglas Fairbanks, to create United Artists, the first successful major studio comprised of directors and actors with control over their productions.  Among her films there was a remake of Tess of the Storm CountryPolyanna and Sparrows.

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Her first talkie for United Artists was 1929’s Coquette, for which Pickford was producer and also won the second Academy Award for Best Actress.  But, she only made four sound pictures, the last being 1933’s Secrets before retiring from acting, though she did produce two more films with Jesse Lasky three years later.  In 1945, she and third husband, actor Buddy Rogers formed a B-movie production company called Comet for United Artists, but only a few movies were made there and then she produced another trio of films for the studio through the end of the decade.

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Her later life, however, was increasingly reclusive and she was said to have been an alcoholic.  She remained in the huge mansion, Pickfair, that she and Fairbanks built in the 1920s (and which is no longer extant), until her death in 1979 at age 87, a few years after she received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

 

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