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The Motion Picture Television Fund, which celebrates its centennial Sept. 22, was conceived of by silent film star Mary Pickford.
Unlike many of the hedonists populating Hollywood 100 years ago, Pickford and then-husband Douglas Fairbanks — who together with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith co-founded United Artists — liked to set a good example: Prohibition-era soirees at their Pickfair estate in Beverly Hills served Ovaltine, not gin, and the couple often hosted philanthropic events for everything from war veterans to museums. In 1921, the film industry was undergoing a seismic upheaval with the arrival of talkies. Those from the silent era who could not adapt — hundreds of actors, directors and writers — suddenly found themselves unemployed. A concerned Pickford, then 29, set out gathering funds for them in collection boxes.
Not long after, using money left over from her work selling Liberty Bonds during World War I, Pickford founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund, providing basic health care and social welfare services for struggling showbiz folk. She was the founding vice president; 20th Century Fox co-chairman Joseph Schenck was president; and the Rev. Neal Dodd — a real Episcopal priest who played a man of the cloth in more than 300 films and was known as the “Padre of Hollywood” — served as administrator. In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Pickford introduced the Payroll Pledge Program, which deducted one-half percent from studio workers’ paychecks (if they earned more than $200 a week, or $4,000 in 2021) and funneled it to the MPRF. Two years later, the fund benefited from Pickford’s appearance at the 17th annual Los Angeles Automobile Show, when she emceed an MPRF charity raffle of a front-drive sedan during twin galas held at the Mayfair and Biltmore hotels downtown.
In 1942, she dedicated the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills. Pickford stayed with the organization (later renamed the Motion Picture Television Fund) until her death at 87 in May 1979 in Santa Monica. Her motto: “We see a need, and we fill it.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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