Tribute to an American sweetheart

Times Staff Writer

Blame it on Mary Pickford. If not for the silent screen star's insistence on bringing fellow actors to an event in her honor, most Hollywood types might still be banned from A-list soirees. "You are all suffering from something she started -- having to buy a lot of tickets to events that recognize all kinds of people in the industry," honorary Hollywood Mayor Johnny Grant told guests at the Women of Distinction Awards.

During the gala luncheon at the Annex at Hollywood & Highland, Grant presented actress Marion Ross with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Mary Pickford Award for her successful career and her service to the community. But not before he reminisced about "America's Sweetheart." "In the old days, the residents of Hollywood and Los Angeles didn't like movie people, didn't like them at all," Grant said at the May 22 event. But after Pickford became one of the most successful women in the country, area social leaders decided to honor her with a dinner at the Biltmore Hotel. "They said, 'Come, but don't bring any of your movies' -- which was what people in motion pictures were called in those days," Grant said. She refused to attend. They demurred. And the rest is history. "Mary took a bunch of actor friends, they had a great evening, and that was the first [star-studded] benefit," Grant said. "She was a very bright lady who possibly made the greatest contribution to the film industry of anybody that ever lived in this town."

Upon receiving the award, Ross, who for a decade played Mrs. Cunningham in the sitcom "Happy Days," said she was "no Mary Pickford." "But I've worked very hard to create a really nice, sweet image," she added.

Then she did some reminiscing of her own: When she was under contract to Paramount Pictures in the early '50s, a certain "dreaded" hairdresser would style her tresses and then slap her hand if, afterward, she touched her hair. Makeup masters the "Westmore boys" painted her lips "up to there" and penciled her eyebrows so that "not even my own mother would have recognized me," she said. "It was something! And now here I am with you. Hollywood has given me a better life, just as the Hollywood chamber tries to give Hollywood a better life," Ross added. "Thank you so much for this award."

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