A 1925 ‘Tour’ of MGM Studios is Unearthed and It Features the Who’s Who of Hollywood’s Young Film Colony.

You are going to be as amazed as I was at this short film from 1925 showing off the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Just a year after its founding, the studio complex is massive, and not only is each department shown – wardrobe, sets, makeup, publicity, directing, writing, music, dispatch, executives, etc – the people behind the magic are trotted out individually and in teams. Hilariously, the directors are not at all comfortable and stand around awkwardly, but the actors all work the camera expertly. The ‘tour’ even visits the sets of two films and a young ‘Lucille Lesueur’ – Joan Crawford – is featured.

I absolutely love that my great uncle Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg show up right at the end, which is a true reflection of their approach: they were there to facilitate the best and the most talented to do their jobs and make films audiences would love.

ENJOY! This is such a treasure and a real treat.

 

That awkward moment when it takes Interpol to find your long-lost father…

If you have been following this blog or my Facebook page for more than five minutes, you will know that I am crazy about family history, which is pretty easy on the Cummings/Mayer side because their lives have been heavily documented. Still, I can only go as far back as my maternal great-great grandparents: Isaac and Leah Komiensky (later Kaminsky, and then Cummings), and Jacob and Sarah Meier (later Myer, and then Mayer).

sarah-mayer-portrait-watermark

Sarah Meltzer Mayer.

I have photographs of all of their headstones, and all but one are in the Jewish cemetery in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. In life, though, I only have a couple of precious photos of Jacob and Sarah, but absolutely none of Leah and Isaac. If I did, I would pore over every detail and do the usual inventory of facial features: what do we share – our nose, eyes, an expression?

For the descendants of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian Jews who fled the violent and deadly pogroms of the late 1800s, a lack of official state information is unfortunately the norm. During these brutal times synagogues were also torched and generations of records – births, deaths, and marriages – perished in the flames or were destroyed by other means.

Lion of Hollywood by Scott Eyman Louis B Mayer bioWhen bestselling author Scott Eyman was researching ‘Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer’, his biography about my great uncle, he sent a Russian-speaking researcher to Russia and Ukraine to see what she could unearth. Basically, she came back empty-handed.

So, much of what we know officially about my maternal family line comes from the forms they completed in the New World, when boarding a ship, docking in Europe, flowing through Ellis Island in New York. There is another official paper trail when they finally settled in Saint John, Canada, and again, decades later in the U.S., when they became naturalized Americans. Of course, they then lived very public lives so there are also plenty of news reports, feature articles, books and documentaries to draw from.

My father’s side of the family has been far more challenging. My dad left my mother and I shortly after I was born and it would be nearly thirty years before I would be reunited with any of his family, so I had precious little information. All I had been told was that his mother’s father (my great-grandfather) was a Tara Humara Indian from the high mountains of northern Mexico. His last name was Herrera. I knew nothing about his mother’s mother (my great-grandmother), not even her name, and absolutely nothing about my dad’s father and his family. Other than Mexico, there were possible family connections in New Mexico, Colorado and California, but trying to find someone with a fairly common Hispanic last name in these states is the proverbial needle in a haystack.

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With my grandmother, Mitzi Cummings Fielding.

By the time I was in my early teens, the urge to find my father and his family became overwhelming. Just on a physical level I knew I didn’t fit in. I was tall and skinny, all knees and elbows, with dark eyes and hair, but fair skin. My mother was a beautiful redhead with green eyes and freckles, and my stepfather’s family were short and stout. So who and where were my people?

After school, when I was alone, or sometimes late at night, I would sit on the hallway floor with the phone in my lap and a notepad and pen next to me and call ‘Information’. When the operator answered (remember that?) I would give my father’s name or his mother’s or sister’s, and then a fake address (if I had an address I wouldn’t be doing this!).

The answer, day after day, night after night, was always: “Sorry, no one by that name at that address.” If I wasn’t immediately hung up on, I would beg for a phone number for anyone with the same last name as my father’s. And I called them all. It was pathetic.

Often, people wanted to be of help but they just couldn’t change the fact they weren’t related. “Sorry, Honey.” I remember one older lady saying. “You sound like a nice girl and I’d love you to be my granddaughter, but your people aren’t my people.” Story of my life, I thought.

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Canberra is Australia’s capitol city and is several hours south of Sydney.

I searched for years, until I moved to New York at 19, and three years later I married an Australian, posted there by the Australian government. Shortly after our marriage we moved to Canberra, Australia’s capitol city and my husband’s hometown. In 1988, calling the U.S., much less obsessively compulsively calling Information, was too difficult and costly a habit to have for a young couple just starting out.

In my late 20s, now a mother of a three-year-old daughter, serendipity took pity on me and tapped me on the shoulder. Over coffee and cake, my new neighbour told me about her amazing daughter-in-law, Jane (not her real name), who had been seconded from our city’s police force to Interpol. You would think that I would’ve yelled with joy at that moment, spraying cake crumbs gratefully all over my host, but it wasn’t until I was driving around a few weeks later that the penny dropped. Interpol! Hang on! She could help me find my dad!

After spilling the beans about my search to my neighbour she gave me Jane’s number at work. Again, I pitched my life story and was relieved when she agreed to help, but all I had to offer were the only three facts I knew about my biological father: his name, his date of birth, and his height. Jane assured me, when you work for Interpol, or any police force, those three facts are an excellent starting point.

interpolOf course, in my mind, I imagined Jane would immediately punch this information into some database and voila! my father would be found. In fact, I expected to hear from her the next day – at the latest. So I watched my phone like a crazy person afraid to miss her call, but days, weeks, and months passed with no contact from her. Eventually, I forgot all about it. I was a busy young mother juggling home and work, with no time to think about those who were missing from my life.

Over a year later, Jane finally called me with a hit: an individual with my father’s particulars had been found in Washington State. I immediately pulled over to the side of the road. OK, I swerved to the side of the road. My heart was beating so hard I was sure she could hear it over the phone. After a deep breath, I asked as casually as I could: “What now?” Continue Reading »

Honey, I shrunk the cult film poster. Uh, and some museum masterpieces…

IMG_2174Like a lot of film nerds I know, I am crazy about cult movie posters and amazing publicity photos, but who has room to display full size versions? Or, to put it another way, I might have room to display ONE full size poster but I love them all!

Added to this, I have always had a love for little things – I once had an entire Pinterest account devoted to tiny chairs, and if you gave me a dollhouse for my next birthday outfitted with miniature toilet rolls, dinner plates, lamps, etc. I’d love you forever. All of this goes some way to explaining why Continue Reading »

Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson: The Child Prodigy Who Walked Away From It All

It’s Monday here in Australia so no wonder that my friend Scott sent me this peppy video of 8-year-old child prodigy Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson playing ‘Caldonia’ to a disbelieving audience of Van Johnson, Keenan Wynn and Patricia Kirkwood in MGM’s ‘No Leave, No Love’ (1946).

Frank was tiny when he showed unusual gifts for singing the blues and playing the piano. Neither of his parents were musical but the family of nine did own a piano that had been left at the house by an aunt. The story goes Sugar Chile, who was the youngest of the seven children, would climb up onto the piano bench and taught himself to play what he heard on the radio.

At the age of 3 he won an under 18s talent contest – you can imagine everyone’s eyes popping out of their head when a toddler was sat down at the piano and began to sing and play the blues. Naturally, he was in great demand to record and perform.

MGM offered the boy’s father a 7-year contract but turned it down. The same year ‘No Leave, No Love’ was released, Frank played ‘Caldonia’ for President Harry S. Truman at the White House, and shouted out “How’m I Doin’, Mr President?”, which became his catchphrase.

By 1950, he was touring with Count Basie and appeared on television and in a short film ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet’. The following year, he played in the UK, appearing at the London Palladium.

Frank was a sensation everywhere he went, but in 1952 he gave it all up.

“I wanted to go to school… I wanted some school background in me and I asked my Dad if I could stop, and I went to school because I honestly wanted my college diploma.”

Clearly he didn’t just have musical talents because young Frank finished high school at just 15, and would go on to receive a degree in psychology.

In 2002, with the help of the American Music Research Foundation, Frank ‘Sugarchile’ Robinson, now in his middle 60s, appeared at a special concert celebrating Detroit music. In 2007, he again traveled to Britain to appear at a rock and roll weekend festival. And in the last Dr Boogie show of 2013, Frank was the featured artist, and four of his classic hits were showcased. I am not aware of any more recent performances.

Contact me on my Facebook page if you know anything more.

You can read more about his life here: http://www.rockabilly.nl/…/messages/sugar_chile_robinson.htm

Here’s the Count Basie video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYLaE4Gj1oA

Continue Reading »

The Intersecting Lives of the Mayers and the Barrymores.

Over the years, the Cummings and Mayers had a bit to do with the Barrymores – their lives intersected through the ‘picture’ business, charitable events, and parties. But then again the ‘film colony’, as it was referred to, was really a tiny village with no degrees of separation for a core group of industry stalwarts and their families. Everyone knew each other and often had known each other from vaudeville and the early days of the silent movie business back east in New York and Boston.

In some cases, these relationships spanned two generations. In fact, Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Irene married David O. Selznick and L.B. would have to put aside his dislike of David’s father Lewis J. Selznick, who he had known as a silent movie distributor back in New York when it was the hub of the film business.

The first photo I’ve included shows Mitzi with John Barrymore and this fourth and last wife Elaine Barrie, who had actually changed her name from Jacobs. Barrymore and Barrie had a tumultuous relationship, to say the least, which ended in divorce just a few years later. A lot has been written about who did what to whom but I won’t go into that here, just to say that the Jacobs appeared to approve of their young daughter’s marriage to one of America’s most celebrated actors, whereas his brother and sister, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, did not. (I’ve included a photo of John Barrymore in Hamlet, 1922.)

The next photo shows Elaine with her mother Mrs Jacob and my grandmother Mitzi with her mother Ida. I think they are all attending one of Ida’s gala events for the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aged, which she turned into the must-attend event in Hollywood’s social calendar. It seems quite amazing today but my great-grandmother’s annual function attracted hundreds of VIP guests from so many walks of life, and for decades. Sadly, although Ida devoted her life to fundraising for the Home for decades, she is not even mentioned on their ‘History of the Jewish Home’. However, the pages features photos of Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple, who only took part in JHA functions because they were invited by Ida. What a shame – I will be in touch with them to rectify this.

Then there’s a photo of Mitzi and my grandfather Sol Baer Fielding and others being led down the stairs by Ethel Barrymore, and Ethel addressing an audience with the legendary George Jessel looking on. I can’t begin to tell you how much talent and influence is in that photo – Barrymore and Jessel embody America’s incredibly rich and diverse show business offering, from vaudeville and the early days of legitimate theatre all the way through to the studio system. Wow. (I’ve included a photo of a young Ethel Barrymore from 1901 in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.)

The final photo in this series shows my great uncle Louis B. Mayer at what appears to be a press call with the great Australia actress May Robson (Australia’s first Oscar acting nomination and also a supporter of the JHA), Irving Thalberg and Lionel Barrymore. I’m not sure what movie this would relate to – any ideas? (You can add to this post on Facebook here or tweet me here.)

For many, Hollywood has always seemed to be more of a mirage than a real place, but for a short, magical time, it was where remarkable lives were lived.

The Telegram to My Grandmother That Led Me to the Eleanor Powell/Glenn Ford Wedding and a Patent for the World’s First Commercial Pager…

Last night I was looking through my grandmother Mitzi’s scrapbook containing the many articles she had written for Photoplay, when I ran into a couple of telegrams from her editor Helen Gilmore. Here’s one asking if Mitzi can cover the Eleanor Powell/Glenn Ford wedding of October, 1943, but also from a different angle – from Ford’s perspective.

I love that this telegram gives a behind-the-scenes insight into making the story stand out from the other articles that would have immediately flooded the newspapers and fan magazines.

Because the couple were married on October 23rd and Photoplay was a monthly publication, it is very likely everyone would have had their fill of wedding photos and coverage from the daily papers. Also, Mitzi had already written an article about the lovebirds in January, which is very much Eleanor Powell’s story.

Strangely, I wasn’t able to find the story Helen Gilmore requested for the November issue. I don’t know if Mitzi ever wrote it, and it’s possible their wedding date was too late for inclusion in the next issue. Instead of a big double-page spread there’s just a tiny snippet about their romance and no mention of their marriage the month before. Hmm…

By the way, I did a little snooping to learn more about Helen Gilmore – the name sounded familiar to me – and what I discovered was that she had been a prolific stage and silent movies actress, appearing in over a hundred films and often in uncredited roles. She gave up acting in 1938 to become a magazine editor and began writing and editing for Photoplay in 1941, and did so for over a decade.

Interestingly, it was during this time that her husband Richard Florac invented the first commercially available pager. I’ve attached his patent, which was filed in 1950 but granted in late 1952. Doesn’t it look suspiciously like a modern cellphone? Perhaps it was from the profits of this invention that Gilmore no longer needed to work?

Who knows, but isn’t it amazing the things you discover when you find one little telegram pasted into a scrapbook!

(Photos: Helen Gilmore’s telegram to Mitzi; Eleanor Powell and Sgt. Glenn Ford marry in Beverly Hills; Mitzi’s January 1943 story for Photoplay; the brief mention in the November 1943 issue; Eleanor Powell and Mitzi in 1939; Helen Gilmore; an article about Bette Davis by Helen Gilmore; Richard Florac’s patent for the commercially available pager.)

Help solve this mystery: Did Louis B. Mayer Announce the Formation of AMPAS on January 11, 1927?

Yesterday there was some mention that my great uncle Louis B. Mayer announced the formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on January 11th, 1927. I was curious as to where that date came from – as we all know if something gets repeated twice it becomes fact, at least on the internet.

So I went searching this morning and poured through archived issues of Variety, which as many of you would know was THE entertainment industry bible for decades. Over dozens of pages, each issue covered the ‘Pictures’, ‘Vaudeville’, ‘Burlesque’, ‘Legitimate’, ‘Foreign’, and included ads, personal notices, letters, and gossip.

Everything was reported in Variety, including deaths, divorces, law suits, even a woman fainting from a gorilla suit used in a production (see photos attached). It appeared to be the lake into which every leak flowed, the editors must have had spies everywhere, or perhaps its reporters could shrink themselves to the size of a fly and take notes while sitting on a wall – possibly all of the above. Variety was also a weekly paper so there was plenty of time to gather every last tidbit into the next issue.

In any event, the first mention of anything remotely like the announcement is in the Wednesday, January 19, 1927 issue, which I’ve attached. The article states that Louis B. Mayer called a secret meeting and gave 48 hours notice. There’s no mention when it was held – the article is headed January 18, which could either indicate the date of the meeting or when the report is filed. It’s fascinating to read Variety’s heavy emphasis on settling industry disputes, which is no surprise because this issue is rife during that time. Nevertheless, my understanding is that LB’s intentions were twofold: lift the film industry’s credibility through one cohesive body and industry arbitration.

The reporter includes that the next gathering would be held in two weeks time, so I scoured every page and in the Wednesday, February 2, 1927 issue there is an article about a second meeting held on Sunday, January 30th. However, not much comes of it because uncle Louis is away with his family on a trip ‘back east’, and it is decided to reconvene upon his return.

Prior to the meeting reported on January 19th, uncle Louis invited Fred Niblo, Conrad Nagel and Fred Beetson to his house on 625 Beach Road and over dinner floated his idea. I’ve attached a photo of the very dining room where the men sat around and heard about LB’s grand vision. Was that dinner possibly on the 11th of January? That would have been a Tuesday night, which is possible, of course, but a Sunday night seems more likely.

The group photograph I’ve included shows several of the founding members of the now incorporated Academy, with Douglas Fairbanks elected as president and seated at the center. Uncle Louis is seated on the far left – as per usual, his approach was to take a back seat to those who were naturally suited to the role and/or the spotlight. He was a natural catalyst.

So did Louis B. Mayer announce the formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on January 11th, 1927? The short answer is I don’t know but so far the evidence isn’t there to back up this date.

Feel free to post below, tweet or reach me on Facebook if you have anything that might solve this mystery.

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