An Autographed Hat Holds the History of Early Hollywood
Photographs of The Hollywood Hat by Kevin Mulligan
“Can I have your autograph?”
The streets of Hollywood have teemed with autograph hunters for a century now. Brandishing an autograph book or scrap of paper, these collectors good-naturedly accost stars wherever they find them — on the street, in restaurants, at the supermarket, at gas stations, in elevators, in their cars when stopped at red lights, and even in restrooms.
I’m not an autograph collector. Well, I wasn’t until recently when I bought a collection of movie star autographs at a Hollywood auction. There are nearly 400 of them in all, including Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, William Powell, Jean Harlow, John Barrymore, Janet Gaynor, Leslie Howard, Bing Crosby, Mary Pickford, Paul Muni, Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Ralph Bellamy, Irene Dunne, Spencer Tracy, Alice Faye, Jack Benny, Will Rogers, Loretta Young, Lon Chaney, Helen Hayes, Pat O’Brien, Joan Blondell, Jeanette MacDonald, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Wallace Beery, Myrna Loy, Jackie Cooper, Marie Dressler, Eddie Cantor, Shirley Temple (printed, not written — she was only 6 at the time), Jimmy Durante, Frank Morgan, Mary Astor, Robert Young, Constance Bennett, Charles Boyer, Nelson Eddy, Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Fay Wray, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Walter Pidgeon, Billie Burke, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Mickey Rooney. That’s star power.
The collection is unusual in that all of the signatures are on one vintage Stetson cowboy hat – on the crown, on the brim, and even under the brim. The signatures, executed by fountain pens (this was before the days of ballpoints), all date from the 1928-1936 time period. I immediately thought of it as The Hollywood Hat.
This was an interesting era in Hollywood history. In the late 20′s, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded, Grauman’s Chinese Theater started collecting footprints and handprints, WAMPAS Baby Stars were all the rage and movies went from silent to “talkies.” As I researched the names on the hat, I came to realize how the switch to talking pictures affected many of the hat’s signers. Like fictional George Valentin in The Artist, lots of big-time careers crashed with the advent of sound, including these hat signers — Eleanor Boardman, Norman Kerry, Pauline Starke, Antonio Moreno, Victor Varconi, Aileen Pringle, and most famously, John Gilbert.
Whose Hat Was This?
But the first question on my mind was “Whose hat was this?” I came up with Theory No. 1.
Theory No. 1: The Stetson hat was worn by one very dedicated autograph collector who spent years haunting Hollywood Boulevard. The doorman at the Brown Derby probably knew him on sight. And what a great gimmick. Rather than shoving pen and paper at a movie star, ask them to sign a ten gallon cowboy hat. Who could resist? Judging by the sheer number of signatures, no one.
As I made a list of every name on the hat, it slowly dawned on me that quite a few of the signers were contract players at MGM and, to a lesser extent, at Fox, the two studios on the West Side of Los Angeles. There’s hardly anyone from Warner Brothers, Paramount or RKO, all located on the other side of town.
I voted Theory No. 1 off the island and developed Theory No. 2.
Theory No. 2: The dedicated autograph collector hung out at the front gates of MGM and Fox, which are conveniently connected by a winding street called Motor Avenue. Local lore is that Motor Avenue was built to cut down on the commute time between the two studios; it only takes about 10 minutes to toodle up or down Motor Avenue.
But then I started spotting autographs of directors. Unless they’re Spielberg or Hitchcock, who the hell asks a director for their autograph? King Vidor, W.S. Van Dyke, Roy Del Ruth, Robert Z. Leonard, Thornton Friedland, Alfred E. Green, Archie Mayo, Eddie Buzzell. And I thought, okay, it’s time to tool up Theory No. 3.
Theory No. 3: The hat belonged to an insider — someone with frequent access to the two studios. Maybe they were an extra or maybe the hat belonged to a movie crew member. The only thing working against Theory No. 3 is an immutable law of Hollywood once behind the studio walls: don’t bother the stars.
The hat is a crazy quilt of signatures, and I kept seeing new names. On the underbrim, I was stopped cold by the signature of British playwright G. Bernard Shaw. What on earth is the signature of George Bernard Shaw doing on this hat? I know Shaw visited Hollywood in his lifetime. Once. In 1933. For three hours.
I asked myself again: Whose hat was this?
Over 90-percent of the names on the Stetson were actors and actresses, plus the aforementioned directors as well as a gaggle of World Heavyweight Boxing Champions (more about them later). And then, in the midst of all this celebrated celebrity, there were the John Hancocks of four men who worked in studio make-up departments. No set designers. No costume designers. No sound recorders or music arrangers. Just four make-up men. Curious.
Theory No. 4: The hat belonged to someone in the make-up department at MGM or Fox. Make-up people would have daily access to stars at their most relaxed and vulnerable, when they’re just sitting there with nothing better to do than autograph a cowboy hat.