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.

[VIDEO] January 1-7: Silent Film and Classic Hollywood Birthdays

Mae West and Her Eerie Letter of August 15, 1940

More from my great-grandmother Ida Mayer Cummings’ scrapbook:

A very interesting letter from Mae West to Ida dated August 15, 1940 stating her deep support for ‘the Jewish race’ and making a financial contribution to the Los Angeles Jewish Home. What I find so amazing about this letter is that it could have been written yesterday – check out that second paragraph: “But to-day, the people of the world have become brutal and cruel and given themselves up to destruction, murder and violence.”

Of course, we know what dots she was connecting: Hitler’s rise to power was tragically well established by then, and Jews were being viciously attacked and subjected to increasingly restrictive laws. Concentration camps, many of which were soon to become nightmarish extermination camps, were already in use. On the very day Mae West wrote her letter, Auschwitz’s ‘Crematorium I’ actually began operation; she could not have known this, but it is an eerie coincidence.

Remarkably, August 15th, 1940 was also known as Black Thursday, marking the day the German Luftwaffe mounted its largest number of sorties during Day 37 of the Battle of Britain. However, the Luftwaffe also suffered its greatest losses, leading the British to refer to it as The Greatest Day.

Sadly, the end of WWII was still years away, as well as the horrors Russian and Allied troops were to discover. In fact, the 70th anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and other death camps was just last year and spanned several dates across 2015.

And yet… with rising anti-Semitism across the world, and particularly in Europe, as well as terrorist attacks hitting people of all religions and cultures, it is chilling to see how little the world has changed.

I would like to finish on an upbeat note – it is the beginning of the year after all – so perhaps I can urge all of us to be more tolerant, more caring, and more helpful on a daily basis. As Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “No one has ever become poor by giving.” We are enriched by giving on so many levels, which was the secret my great-grandmother Ida realized. She was so deeply fulfilled by dedicating herself to helping others, and this is why I admire her so much.

Small gestures, such as Mae West’s letter and financial contribution, can make a difference. It is wonderful to read her letter many decades later and realize she was on the side of good, and took action so that it should succeed over evil.

I will look at Mae West in a different light from now on.

(Photos: A newspaper dated August 15th, 1940. A child after the bombings. An intrepid milkman does his rounds. Jewish families being pushed out of their homes and onto the streets prior to being transported to a concentration camp.)

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