In 1930, when my mother was 16, her sister Shirley was born. Unlike my mother, who had been named after her grandmother, Mary, Shirley was named after Shirley Temple, the most famous child star of the era. Considering her enormous popularity, maybe Shirley Temple felt like family to my grandmother. One thing I do know is that movies offered an escape for people like my grandmother during the Great Depression when stars like Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Mickey Rooney became familiar faces. So in 1930 when Max Factor sponsored a beauty contest at a local movie theatre in Dale Borough, a suburb of Johnstown, PA, where my mother grew up, it was front-page news. The grand-prize: an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood and possibly a screen test. My mother wasn’t the least bit interested, but her cousin thought she was beautiful enough to win and talked her into going. In the photo that was taken that evening, my mother could pass for Myrna Loy—the finger-waved hair, the smoky eyes, the pencil-thin brows, the dark red lipstick, all courtesy of Max Factor. The girls were required to read from a script, which I found among a box of mementos after my mother passed away. She came in second that night, but there was no trip to Hollywood for the winner. “It was all some kind of promotional stunt,” my mother explained. When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, my mother came out for a visit. On Hollywood Boulevard, I took her photo in front of the famed Brown Derby—Clark Gable is supposed to have proposed to Carole Lombard there. I remembered it from an episode of I Love Lucy called LA at Last. At Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, my mother examined the handprints of actors and actresses she’d loved as a girl. “Well, it took almost 60 years, but I finally made it to Hollywood,” she said. I was just happy to have obliged.
SEE IT HERE