by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Three years ago, a post on this blog featured the program for the twelfth benefit given to support the charitable work providing dinner baskets to “the worthy poor of Los Angeles” by the Los Angeles Examiner Christmas Basket Fund Association, affiliated with that long-standing newspaper in the Angel City. That post had some discussion about what constituted a definition for “the worthy poor,” specifically, according to one analysis, those people physically and/or medically unable to care for themselves without some form of assistance. The “unworthy poor,” by contrast, would consist of those deemed by others to be willfully in poverty, through perceived laziness, dereliction, perversity, or other assumed reasons.
In any case, today’s post looks at the tenth edition of the event, held on 12 December 1923 at the Philharmonic Auditorium, the city’s premier performance venue located at the northeast corner of Hill and Fifth streets, across from Pershing Square. A lengthy roster of live performances was the basis for the function, which raised funds with the note that “the entire proceeds of this entertainment will be devoted to the purchase of Christmas dinner baskets for the worthy poor of Los Angeles, to be distributed by the Los Angeles Examiner Christmas Basket Association on or before Christmas Day, 1923.” There was a disclaimer that “as is the case at all benefits” the program could change without notice and that the order shown might not be followed “as in all performances of this kind delays frequently occur which can be avoided only be presenting those acts that are ready” while delaying those who needed “more time for dressing and staging than had been anticipated.”
As was the case in other years, the benefit was heavily weighted toward participation from prominent figures in the motion picture industry and it was noted that “in every sense this program is a Roll of Honor—a roll of great hearts as great names. Screenland and Stageland are lands peopled by men and women and children whose lives are dedicated to giving happy hours. Without them the world would lose for all of us much of the joy it holds.” With the benefit, though, “they will give you a few more happy hours which you will string on Memory’s golden chain and keep forever.” More importantly, “to thousands of poor little kiddies who are not here, they—with your help—will give a Merry Christmas ” through a holiday dinner.
The master of ceremonies was Fred Niblo, the prominent director and former actor best known for his recent screen triumphs with period action pictures like The Mark of Zorro (1920), starring Douglas Fairbanks, The Three Musketeers (1921, again with Fairbanks,) and 1922’s Blood and Sand, featuring Rudolph Valentino. Among the stage managers was prominent car dealer and radio station owner Earle C. Anthony, actor and screenwriter Harry McCoy. The staging directors were actor Walter Wills and actor and later director Eddie Sutherland.
As to what was referred to as a “mammoth bill,” it began with an overture performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Next was “Hugo Hamlin’s Toy[land] Minstrels,” a vaudeville act organized by a songwriter of some note, and with listings of “end men” like “Bones” and “Tambo,” one could only assume that this was a blackface minstrel act. Sure enough, in a performance several days later at Walter P. Temple’s Temple Theatre in Alhambra, a Pasadena Post article from the 17th reported that “Mr. Hamlin has the kiddies work in blackface and much comedy is to be found in the act, besides the singing and dancing numbers which these talented children revel in.”
The troupe was followed by twins Virginia and Maxine Loomis, who achieved some renown for the singing act, the vocal duo Newton Hall and Pluma Hope, another Hamlin protege, soprano Helen Peck, billed as “The Little Girl from Dixie,” vaudeville dancer Edna Torrence with her “Dance Egyptian” [Egypt was in vogue due to the discovery of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922], actor and “Cowboy Baritone of Screenland,” and Frank Braidwood, accompanied by “The Radio Girl,” Madeline Hardy.
Next on the roster were more prominent personages in film, including the immensely popular cowboy actor Tom Mix and his horse Tony, Baby Peggy Montgomery called “The Most Famous Little Girl in the World” but whose career was one of those all-too-familiar tales of great wealth (in 1923 she signed a contract with Universal at $1.5 million per year earned during a brief period of stardom followed by a hard fall from the heights of fame—known later as Diana Cary, she died this past February at age 101; Jackie Coogan, another world-famous child star, from such films as Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 blockbuster, The Kid, and whose fortune was also dissipated by greedy parents; well-known leading man Herbert Rawlinson; and the husband-and-wife team of actor/singer Adele Rowland and actor and pianist Conway Tearle.
What followed was “The Portals of Fame” described as “a colorful pageant of fame, and beauty, presenting only those whose artistic achievements during the year have entitled them to a place in Filmdom’s Hall of Fame.” Included were such prominent actors as Renee Adoree, Noah Beery, Enid Bennett (also Niblo’s wife, Monte Blue, Clara Bow (who was still relatively unknown), Bene Daniels, John Gilbert, Barbara La Marr (whose 1926 death was a sensation due largely to her alcoholism), Patsy Ruth Miller, Colleen Moore, Mary Philbin, Norma Shearer and, notably, Anna May Wong, a Chinese-American from Los Angeles whose leading role in the 1922 film, The Toll of the Sea, attracted much attention.
The continuation of entertainment included the popular, but now largely forgotten, comedian Larry Semon with “A Few Stories,” a pair of tango dancers “Impersonating Rodolph [sic] Valentino and Natacha Rambova,” these being the famed Italian actor and his costume designer wife (born Winifred Shaughnessy), the Zoellner Quartet, comprised of a father and his daughter and two sons and accounted “the Most Famous String Quartet in the World,” and which had recently established its base in Los Angeles, though it disbanded in 1925; and a music number performed by “The Wampus [WAMPAS] Baby Stars,” a campaign by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers to promote up-and-coming actors, with the roster including a couple who become well-known such as Eleanor Boardman (also the wife of prominent director King Vidor), Evelyn Brent, Laura La Plante (listed here as “La Plant,” her given surname and star of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary), and Jobyna Ralston, a leading lady in several Harold Lloyd films and featured in the classic Wings, also from 1927.
After appearances from Howard Truesdale, an actor who performed an “Ode to California, and actor and singer Wanda Hawley, who gave a “pianologue,” there was a staging of “The Fall of the Apache” with Charles De Roche (actually, De Rochefort), a French actor who played the pharoah Rameses in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic, The Ten Commandments, and two others. This was followed by the “Greatest Character Actor of the Screen” and “An Amazing Revelation” in Lon Chaney, whose Hunchback of Notre Dame was a sensation that year and the famed humorist Will Rogers, recently profiled on this blog for his mock campaign for president in 1928.
Then, there was the dancer and actress Olive Ann Alcorn; the acting sisters Ora and Evelyn Carew performing songs by “Gene,” actually Jean, Halvez, who was also a screenwriter for the famed comedians Buster Keaton and Lloyd; Katherine Grant, winner of the 1922 Miss Los Angeles contest and who was under contract to Hal Roach (she was a victim of a hit-and-run car accident in 1925 and never recovered, dying from mental health issues and tuberculosis a dozen years later just before her 33rd birthday)and actor Lew Cody (the future husband of Mabel Normand.)
One of the stranger performers was the mysterious “Mademoiselle Valdeo [de Cariche],” a dancer said to be a “premiere [sic] danseuse” from the Chicago Grand Opera Company born as Valdeo Parker and whose mother, Maude, passed herself off as a countess and as Valdeo’s sister, performing an “Oriental Fantasy.” After this was the actress and singer Carmel Myers; the very pppular Duncan sisters, Rosetta and Vivian, Los Angeles natives who had a big vaudeville act, but in which the former played “Topsy” in blackface to her sister’s Eva; a monologue from the prolific comedic actor Walter Hiers; and, finally, the offering of “Celeste,” a ballet of twenty-five dancers under the supervision of Ernest Belcher, a British-born choreographer whose daughter was the famed dancer and actress Marge Champion (she just died in October at 101 years of age–a step-daughter is the well-known actor Katey Sagal.)
The program also has a page of “In Grateful Appreciation” thanking “not according to the measure of our gratitude” but alphabetically “some of the firms and individuals . . . who contributed heavily of time and money to the success of this benefit and to the happiness of the poor of Los Angeles.” Among these was a scenery company providing stage sets; the Cinema Mercantile Company for a cyclorama stage curtain; “Dan” the Broadway florist for decorations and bouquets for sale to attendees; William Andrews Clark, Jr., the founder of the Philharmonic for a discounted rental rate for the facility; a taxi company for reduced fares; the Eureka Press for donating part of the costs for the program; a stage lighting and equipment company for their expertise in lighting; the Fitzgerald Music Company for the use of a concert piano, Sid Grauman and the West Coast Theatres chain and the California Theater for curtains and other items; Western Costume Company for costumes; and film production companies, publicity directors and theatre managers “who have given unstintedly of their time.”
A page headed “Let Us Change This Scene!” is something of a Christmas story in which children, on the holiday’s eve ask their mother “Do you think he’ll come?” while “Daddy—their good daddy” was “in endless sleep under a white blanket of snow on the path of Santa’s reindeers up north.” As mother wipes away tears, she tells her children “perhaps,” but, on Christmas Day, they wake to find that “there had been no magic in the night.” As their “wan little faces [are] peering out of the window” with “noses pressed against the glass,” with “puckered lips,” and “tears falling on the sills,” the little ones hear laughter, shouts, screams and “squeaks of joy” from other kids.
Each sounds is “a sharper pain” causing “a dull ache in two little hearts” and, after the siblings cry with “each face a glistening splash,” they go to their chores. The little essay asked “must little children have to be brave on Christmas?” and offered that the answer was to give to the basket fund to “help change the scene in that poor home” and so that “your kiddies never will have to be” brave as these fictional examples were. On the back cover is drawing of two young children standing in the snow looking in at a festive holiday scene with a passel of children playing with their presents by a Christmas tree with their parents standing at the back of the scene. A caption reads: “Home is a happy place / When Christmas lights each face.”
With this holiday season occurring under the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the loss of life and economic hardship that have transpired, looking at this program is a reminder of the great need there is to assist the poor, “worthy” or not, who are most vulnerable. For young children who are at risk because of the trials and tribulations of this year, we might well ask the same question: “Must little children have to brave on Christmas?”