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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Note: the Screen Actors Guild was born in the backroom of this club, in the name of all performers...

15 of the Guild's original 21 board of directors and officers at the Masquers Club

Seated left to right: Alan Mowbray, Lucile Webster Gleason, Boris Karloff, Ralph Morgan & Noel Madison.
Standing, 2nd row, left to right: Kenneth Thomson, James Gleason, Richard W. Tucker, Clay Clement, Alden Gay Thomson, Bradley Page, Morgan Wallace & Arthur Vinton.
Back row: Ivan Simpson, Claude King. Undated photo, circa mid-1930's.


Both idealism and outrage motivated the Founding Fathers and Mothers who created the Screen Actors Guild. Idealism, in that they believed they could succeed in doing, as Guild President Ralph Morgan once said, "the greatest good for the greatest number" by building a respected organization to protect actors. And outrage primarily over long, grueling hours and workweeks that they found intolerable in Hollywood. 
No other actors' organization had as yet proved able to see justice done, and the founders took matters into their own hands. They were a motley bunch in 1933—as young as 30 (Charles Starrett) and as mature as 70 (C. Aubrey Smith). British (Alan Mowbray, Reginald Mason, Claude King, Boris Karloff, Ivan Simpson, C. Aubrey Smith), and American. Contract players (Ralph Morgan, Lyle Talbot), former contract players, (Kenneth Thomson, Charles Starrett, Boris Karloff, James and Lucile Gleason), and career free-lancers. Young leading men still in their early film careers (Starrett, Leon Waycoff Ames, Lyle Talbot); and seasoned supporting players. Some had acted in silent films for years, while others came to Hollywood with the wave of interest in stage players for the new "talking pictures." 
All were members of the Actors' Equity Association, with extensive professional experience in the theatre and nearly all had appeared on Broadway. 
Most socialized together and were active members of one or more of three clubs in Hollywood: Masquers Club (all-male), The Dominos (Masquers Club' all-female counterpart) and the Hollywood Cricket Club (founded by C. Aubrey Smith). They were an action-oriented, motivated, gutsy group.
Research in this section was compiled and authored by Guild Historian Valerie Yaros

And now to the club itself, not affiliated while historically tied to the Guild.

Poster commemorating the founding of the Masquers in 1925

A Club Is Born

How did The Masquers Club get its start? Just who was responsible for it all, anyhow? Mr. George Read, one of the founders, and a lengthy clipping from the Hollywood News of June 30, 1931, tells of our borning.

To quote Mr. Read in part:
"Prior to the founding of The Masquers, several abortive attempts had been made to form an actors' club here. One of these was the ill-fated "Bears Club" that was ultimately killed off by some 'interests.'

"Then a promoter of Clubs from the east started a money-making deal (for himself) called, I believe, the Screen Actors Club. I was taken for $250 membership - then found that the "Club" owned (!) the old Japanese Embassy building in Hollywood, saddled with a $90,000 mortgage. Without my knowledge, I was made a member of the board of directors - and when I found what we were up against, I suggested to the other board members that we order the Club disbanded - which was done.

"The 'board' then walked out on the porch. There was Bob Edeson, Fred Esmelton, Alfonz Ethier and myself. I did a little cussing and remarked that Hollywood certainly needed an actors' or theatrical club like The Lambs, but I felt sure that The Lambs did not start out with a swank clubhouse and a big mortgage. Bob said, indeed not, that it started with a couple of rented rooms."

Masquers co-founder, Robert Edeson

A meeting was called at the home of Alphonz Ethier, a few days later, where the group met. The Hollywood News picks up the story here with this description of the meeting:

There was no hesitation, no lack of decision. Each man was thoroughly sold on the idea. It was all now a matter of determining the first steps.

"A club should be just like a courtship," stated Ethier. "If there is enough love, there is no need for money."

"You win!" announced Ned Sparks, who had joined the group. "Make it a club founded on love!"

"That's it" fairly shouted Edeson, "A Club of love and loyalty and laughter. We'll laugh to win!" And he held out his hand toward the others.

Each man unctuously extended his hand. Without premeditation, the five hands met - and clasped. They were as one. For an instant, there was a complete silence. Then Bob repeated, "A Club of love, loyalty and laughter - that's it! We'll laugh to win!"

Some of the members of the Masquers Club barely five months into its existence, pose on the porch of the clubhouse for what is probably the first "official" Club photo.
(Click here for a key to their identities).

"We'll laugh to win!" said all of them in unison.

And to this very day, "We Laugh to Win" is the motto of the organization.

Now came the problem of organizing, a clubhouse, dues, rules and the incorporation... and the big question: Could they get members? Two of the men, Read and Esmelton, wanted to look over an old house on Yucca street. Finding it locked they climbed in thru an open window. Within a few minutes, two policemen arrived, but a situation was averted when one of the police recognized Read.

A couple of days later, the "board" walked up to the house (with key in hand), inspected it throughout and sat on the stairs and talked. The first formal meeting was on the next day, May 5, 1925. Sitting on orange crates, they discussed their problems.

On May 18, another meeting was held, this time with 30 members. Among these was Ingle Carpenter, an attorney, formerly from the east. He told the members the necessity of being properly incorporated and offered to look after the legal work, gratis.

6735 Yucca St. (no longer in existence), the home of the Masquers Club for two years prior to purchasing its long-time location on Sycamore St.

Passing into faked unconsciousness, Sparks managed to gasp, "A California attorney doing something for nothing! Surely, there's a chance for prohibition."

Then came the choosing of a name. After days of argument and debate, a suitable one was suggested. The club would be known as "The Jesters." But no sooner had the wheels started rolling than an objection came from the Shriners. It seems that The Jesters was one of the unincorporated organizations in the Shrine.

Another meeting was held, this time over 100 members and, at the suggestion of Earle Foxe, the name "Masquers" was adopted. Now the work was to begin.

"The following week many things were happening" reads the Hollywood News. "Cyril Chadwick was a volunteer foreman for the cleaning and painting crew. Actors who received hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars weekly for their professional services, were busy with brooms, scrubbing brushes and painting equipment. Of course, these men could have donated enough money to have everything done but they elected to do it themselves. It was just the spirit of The Masquers asserting itself.

"Meanwhile, Esmelton, assisted by Ethier, purchased heavy oak tables, chairs and benches. These were followed by cutlery, dishes and other similar necessities. It wasn't long until there was a completely furnished and well decorated house -- with a kitchen and ice box -- even remotely approaching food.

"Everything was quite peaceful and serene until a couple of men who had seen service in France turned loose the familiar old army cry, 'when do we eat?'

"The first luncheon was a glorious affair. Esmelton, who had long been famous in both the theatrical and motion picture professions for his ability in preparing exquisite and delightful foods, prepared the first luncheon -- and it was the greatest sort of a success. It was so much of a triumph that he became the official non-salaried cook --- and he remained on the difficult job until The Masquers was averaging more than 100 luncheons a day.

"Finally, it became necessary to hire a club manager and steward. The dining room became too small for the crowd, so a roof garden was constructed, and was packed to capacity each day. And everybody knew everybody else, intimately, delightfully. It was bad form, and not at all the true Masquers spirit not to know a brother Masquer quite well enough always to address him by his first name."

Early meeting of the Club at its first location on Yucca. Harlequin #2, Douglas MacLean, is standing and shaking hands with a fellow member.

In the meantime, the first officers had been elected, and the official birthday of the club was declared to be May 25, 1925. With the growing membership the present site of The Masquers Club was purchased after two years at Yucca street.

"The whole thing got off to a wonderful start," writes Mr. Read "and a wonderful spirit --- from the very beginning. Masquers gave freely of their time, furniture, money and ideas. It just couldn't go wrong!! Fred Esmelton worked like a dog and watched every nickle for the first 2 or 3 years, and I did what I could to keep our finances on an even keel as Treasurer. We rocked along pretty well until Sam Hardy came along, and then that great guy put on big shows, made pictures and generally raised hell to give us a large chunk of money, which put us on a permanently sound basis."

So here we are! "We Laugh to Win."

"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be." William Hazlitt (1788-1830)

Some further insights into the origins of our motto "We Laugh To Win" are offered here.

1765 Sycamore St. (no longer in existence) Home of the Masquers for more than 60 years

While visiting Knotts' Berry Farm not long ago, Masquerette Dee Carroll saw the following on a 70 year old reading chart in the old school house there.

Sweet wind, fair wind,
Where have you been?
I've been sweeping the Cobwebs out of the sky;
I've been grinding a grist
in the mill hard by;
I've been laughing at work
while others sigh-
Let those laugh who win!"

R.L. Stevenson

The bottom of the chart had been torn but it is widely held to be the work of Robert Louis Stevenson. From an old friend, Masquer Kay E. Kuter, comes another possible derivation. He referred us to Othello's speech in Act IV, Sc I, Line 123.

--- "So, so, so, so:
They laugh that win."
It seems probable to us that Robert Edeson, our first Harlequin, who received his early stage training from his producer-manager father, and who himself was a Broadway star at twenty-one, could have been unconsciously paraphrasing either of the above quotes (which no doubt he was more than familiar with) when he embraced the other founding fathers and excitedly declaimed on that night 50 Golden years ago, "That's it! A Club of love and loyalty and laughter. We'll laugh to win!"

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