“The Bride’s Bereavement or the Snake in the Grass” and “Stolen by Gypsies,” two Masquers presentations.
Organized in 1925, the Masquers Club was a social/fraternal organization founded by actors but open to others in the entertainment industry. As the original bylaws state: “The object of this club shall be the promotion of social intercourse among persons engaged professionally in drama, cinema, music, authorship, and the fine arts… .” They met for social times in their original clubhouse on Yucca Street before moving to their longtime headquarters at 1765 Sycamore Ave. in Hollywood, just below the Rollin B. Lane mansion. The group entertained itself with small productions of skits, plays and small holiday productions on their own stage and major shows at other theatrical venues around town.
While they did gather for social gatherings in their club, where they conversed, played cards, drank and put on shows, they also supported each other and society during times of hardship. The group embraced members in need, often providing a temporary home, offering a small financial pick-me-up, or providing help in times of distress and ill health. They made sure no member was forgotten and rallied around families at the time of members’ deaths.
The Masquers paid tribute to deceased members in several ways. They often paid tribute to former members during their Revels and sometimes held wakes or remembrances at the club. For certain members, the group organized Los Angeles memorials and funerals, such as they did with actor Raymond Hitchcock’s Nov, 27, 1929, funeral at Hollywood Cemetery, as revealed by the Los Angeles Times. All pallbearers were members of the Masquers: Robert Edeson, Sam Hardy, Wallace Beery, Richard Carle, Taylor Holmes, Jed Proudy, Ray Hubbell and Jacquers Pierre. Twenty members served as honorary pallbearers.
When former Harlequin Sam Hardy passed away, the group helped organize and dominated proceedings at his Oct. 18, 1935, funeral at the Little Church of the Flowers at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, with Masquers serving as pallbearers. The Masquers closed their doors during the service, and Sam Goldwyn even shut down the production of the Eddie Cantor film “Shoot the Chutes,” on which Hardy had been working. The Masquers loyally supported their brothers in life and death.
During their first seven years, the Masquers opened five of their Revels to the general public in order to raise money to pay their mortgage as well as help members in need. These productions were major affairs, often featuring performances by hundreds of their members, sometimes in drag. Members such as Perc Westmore, Constantin Bakaleinikoff, Henry Clive and Jack Warner provided makeup, musical direction, illustrations and even venues for the shows. Warner arranged for Warner Bros. Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard to host the Masquers’ second Revel. These productions often started at midnight and proceeded into the early hours of the morning, featuring elaborate parodies and spoofs of the film, theater and entertainment industries.
By the late 1930s, the Masquers contemplated a radio show featuring their members, a production to entertain listeners, give performance opportunities to members, and spread word of the club. The show, “Request Performance,” grew out of these discussions. Sponsored by Campbell’s Soup, the show ran Sunday nights from 9-9:30 p.m. on CBS. Growing out of a show popular with servicemen, the listening audience requested certain stars perform certain actions or shows, and the group worked to pull it together.
The Masquers with writer Mary Sharon, “the first woman to penetrate the fastness of this strictly male organization.”
Before the show could air, the Masquers provided a letter to AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio , stating they would pay performers the standard union performance rate and not exert pressure to force stars to perform. Radio journals estimated the show would require a $8,500 weekly talent budget. Beginning its 39-week run Oct. 7, 1945, “Repeat Performance” featured fast-moving, star-filled skits or performances. Basil Rathbone, Dick Powell, Nigel Bruce, June Allyson and others appeared on the Nov. 2, 1945, show. At the conclusion, Fred Allen requested that Jack Benny “take out Mary Astor and really spend some money,” per the Nov. 5, 1945, Variety. Robert Walker, Jeanette McDonald and Maureen O’Hara appeared on the Dec. 21, 1945, show, which had been voted “Best New Program Idea” that fall. Unfortunately, ratings never took off for “Repeat Performance,” and it ended its run on April 21, 1946.
The Masquers’ idea of honoring United States servicemen during World War II did take off, becoming a huge emotional and public success. The group organized the Masquers’ Servicemen Morale Corps, with chairman Edward Arnold announcing April 2, 1943, that the club would host weekly Saturday dinners featuring entertainment for service men and women through funds donated by members. These meals would honor service people graduating from basic training, those coming home after service, and those recuperating in hospitals. They truly honored those attending, seeing them awarded certificates for graduating from basic training, or decorated with citations through pinning of medals and ribbons.
Actor Charles Coburn hosted the first dinner April 10, 1943, with future hosts including Alan Hale, Ralph Morgan, George Raft, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Ned Sparks, Harry Rapf, David O. Selznick and Edward Arnold. A Marine wrote to Variety mid-May, 1943, thanking the Masquers for the dinner, saying he had never enjoyed something so much.
Around 250 servicemen and women attended the regular dinner which cost around $350 to pull together, some sitting at a glamour table with stars and celebrities, followed by elaborate entertainment, often lasting for three to five hours. Each weekly dinner was paid for by individual Masquers’ members. The first anniversary dinner, hosted by Ronald Colman and Arnold, honored vets returning from overseas and now stationed at Santa Ana Air Base Hospital, along with officers and men from the USS Kalinen Bay, an escort air carrier.
On July 28, 1945, the Masquers honored Lt. Robert H. Muller Jr. of 2508 St. George St. His PT boat had been hit by enemy fire in the South Pacific. Rear Adm. Ernest M. Pace Jr. presented Muller with his Bronze Star and Purple Heart before his bride of seven months, Helen Janet Muller, and his parents, who all proudly watched. 130 WAVES and Navy trainers were guests at the evening, presided over by Coburn and Edward Earle. Over 30,000 service people passed through the Masquers doors during their 139 consecutive Saturday night dinners.
The Masquers continued their devotion to servicemen following World War II, raising more funds to help those injured. In 1949, the group decided to produce “What Price, Glory” to raise funds to benefit the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Director John Ford told Los Angeles Times writer Edwin Schallert for a Feb. 27, 1949, article that the group first considered performing the stage production, “What Price, Glory?” in a condensed version the year before while presenting a vaudeville show, but Ford suggested doing the full production. Supervising his first stage production, Ford arranged Harry Joe Brown as producer, Ralph Murphy as director and original writer Laurence Stallings to help shape the show. Bringing together such stars as John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Gregory Peck, Pat O’Brien, George O’Brien, Ward Bond, Robert Armstrong, James Lydon, Larry Blake, and others to star in the full stage production, with Wayne and Bond making their stage debuts with the show.
Because so many stars were performing in the show around their film engagements, most performances would be one-night stands around the state, organized by George O’Brien. The group rehearsed at the Masquers, with a buffet supper and forma dress rehearsal Feb. 21-22, 1949, at the Masquers, with people such as the Van Heflins, Alan Mowbrays and Fred Clarke attending. Variety noted that “the audience applauded loud and long at both performances.” The Feb. 27 Los Angeles Times noted that Maureen O’Hara dressed in a studio trailer in the parking lot, while the men took over the dressing room and interior of the club. Pat O’Brien noted in the interview, “you couldn’t get such a cast to perform for money, but you can for war veterans when Ford is supervising.”
The troupe intended to give its first public performance at Los Angeles’ Philharmonic Auditorium a few days later, but original dialogue which contained cursing forced its cancellation and move to the smaller Wilshire Ebell Theatre. George O’Brien arranged performances for the troupe in Long Beach, San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco’s Opera House, and Pasadena at the Civic Auditorium. The Pasadena audience on March 2 was a little shocked at the language, but found the leads “acquitted themselves admirably,” per the Los Angeles Times. Injured and paraplegic soldiers attended the performances as special guests.
Charles Skouras of Fox Theatres allowed the group to perform “What Price, Glory?” on stage at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on March 11, 1949. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron even named March 11 as “Purple Heart Day” in honor of the performance, which played to an enthusiastic packed house. Ford’s theatrical production earned $33,000 for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The Masquers’ overwhelming generosity, compassion, and kindness entertained thousands while earning large sums for charity. The Masquers laughed to win, not only for themselves, but for all those in need.