ENCINITAS — Crowds at the grand opening of La Paloma Theatre on Feb. 11, 1928, were treated to an appearance by Hollywood starlet Mary Pickford, who was rumored to have ridden her bicycle from her home in Fairbanks Ranch to attend the gala.
Pickford, 29, was considered the world’s greatest actress and already a Hollywood mogul. A few years earlier, she and husband Douglas Fairbanks, actor Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith established United Artists, the first production company owned by artists instead of businessmen.
On the weekend of Nov. 6 to Nov. 8, movie history comes full circle when La Paloma hosts its first Mary Pickford Silent Film Festival.
“La Paloma was designed for silent films,” Jim Gilliam, Encinitas arts administrator, said. “Just as the theater was about to open, talkies were introduced.”
Hugh Munro Neely, curator of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education, will kick off the festival at 7 p.m. Nov. 6 with a welcome and introduction. When the lights dim, acclaimed silent film accompanist Robert Israel will take his seat at a grand piano at the front of the stage where he will provide atmosphere and emotional cues as the plot unfolds.
At one time Encinitas was a haven for silent film stars, Gilliam said, including Charlie Chaplin who owned a home on Neptune Avenue and Bessie Love who lived on Fourth Street.
Gilliam has high hopes for the festival.
“How many silent film theaters like La Paloma are still functioning?” he said. “The closest silent film festival is in San Francisco. If our community embraces this festival, it will continue.”
Judy Montague founded the nonprofit Encinitas Theater Consortium in 2008 to support and enhance the local performing arts community. After reading three books about Pickford, she decided to honor the screen legend with a film festival at the Encinitas library.
“I was interviewed for an article at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival last year and mentioned my idea for a Mary Pickford Silent Film Festival,” she said. “Everyone interested in silent films started contacting me.”
Among these was a representative from the Library of Congress to which Pickford donated her films years earlier.
Overwhelming support for a Mary Pickford Silent Film Festival prompted Montague to move the venue to La Paloma.
“Ms. Pickford was an amazing artist and person,” Montague said. “To this day, she is considered the best business mind in all of the film industry.”
Born Gladys Mary Smith on April 8, 1892, in Toronto, Pickford got into movies at the age of 6 following her father’s death. A boarder suggested to the mother, Charlotte Smith, that the family might earn money by putting the children on stage. When the family got involved in a production at a theater in the neighborhood, young Gladys was hooked. The playbill for one show promised: “Baby Gladys is a Wonder.” Over the next nine years Gladys appeared in vaudeville sketches, melodramas and road show productions throughout the northeastern United States.
By the age of 15, Gladys left home to audition for New York producer David Belasco. It was Belasco who insisted she find a new name. In the summer of 1907, she cabled her mother, “Gladys Smith now Mary Pickford — engaged by David Belasco to appear on Broadway this fall.”
In 1909 she auditioned for D.W. Griffith with the American Biograph Company. He gave her a small part in a scene for a film that was shot the same afternoon. At the end of the day he asked her to return at a standard pay of $5 a day. Barely 17 years old, Pickford convinced Griffith that she was worth twice the amount. “Mr. Griffith, I’m a Belasco actress and an artist. I must have 10,” she said. In January, Pickford moved to California with Griffith’s troupe.
From 1913 to 1916, after signing with Adolph Zukor, Pickford made 21 feature films for his Famous Players Film Company.
“Never content to be a sex siren or throw away moll, Pickford preferred the role of the underdog,” Montague said. “Whether she was facing a firing squad, crawling through a crocodile-infested swamp or avenging her father’s death, sweet Mary could always be counted on to provide her audience with thrills.”
A collection of memorabilia courtesy of the Mary Pickford Institute will be on display at the Encinitas library the month of November. This includes Pickford’s soft leather attaché case, household belongings and personal photos.
Also on exhibit is a letter written by Clark Gable on May 18, 1942. It includes this excerpt: “Dear Mary, It was good to hear from you again and to also read all those pleasant things you have to say about GWTW (Gone with the Wind). I guess a real ham never gets tired of hearing praise about himself or any picture he is connected with.”
The Encinitas library will present “Mary Pickford: A Life on Film” at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 prior to the 7 p.m. showing at La Paloma. The film is directed by Neely, who also serves as host.
For show information or to purchase tickets, visit the Encinitas Theatre Consortium Web site at www.etcinfo.net/. Tickets are $10.