General Articles

Dear Van Johnson...

People who write fan mail are nice friendly folk. All they want is the shirt off their favorite movie star’s back

KATE HOLLIDAY March 15 1948
General Articles

Dear Van Johnson...

People who write fan mail are nice friendly folk. All they want is the shirt off their favorite movie star’s back

KATE HOLLIDAY March 15 1948

Dear Van Johnson...

KATE HOLLIDAY

People who write fan mail are nice friendly folk. All they want is the shirt off their favorite movie star’s back

DEAR GINGER ROGERS: "I have a great favor to ask of you. My husband is on the committee for the formal dance and as I have never owned a formal dress or wrap am asking you as a favor for you to send me something pretty of yours. I would prefer something that. would not leave my shoulders too bare. What. I mean is nothing strapless . . . If you also have a fur wrap yOU have thrown away it would be appreciated. Please letS me hear soon from you.''

Hollywood, fantastic land where screen stars must devote an hour daily to bundling their old fur wraps into the garbage, takes its fantastic flood of fan mail in its stride. Whether or not the Ginger Rogers lover who penned the foregoing went to the dance in formal attire is not recorded; certainly she didn’t go in a dress of Ginger’s, but just as certainly her letter st rikes no new high in the demands film fans make on their heroines and heroes.

The gift and favor seekers, despite their numbers, admittedly aren’t typical. The majority of letters ask for the usual autographed photo and contain the usual rave like t his one to Mark Stevens: “I simply swoon every time I see your pictures. I have now seen T Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now’ four times and I hope to see it again. Always your friend and fan . . .”

Such movie mash notes hit the Hollywood post office in the thousands each week. They come from small towns, from cities, from hamlets, from farms. Their postmarks are American, Canadian, English, French, German, Scandinavian, Javanese (nearly half from outside U. S., with Britain and Canada leading). They are written on fancy monogrammed notepaper, on penny postcards, on foolscap and are penned by men and women and children in every walk of life, from six to 106 years old.

Much of the mail comes from people who are just plain lonely. The latter point was conclusively proven during the war when screen mail multiplied approximately four times. The 20th Century-Fox Studios, for instance, recorded as many as 180,000 pieces of mail in one wartime month, a figure vastly helped along by one of its stars, Miss Betty Grable, who once got 50,000 letters in a single week. And 80% of these came from servicemen overseas, who not only asked a photo but also wished to pour out their troubles to someone who would—maybe —listen.

Peacetime has cut the total of letters and cards by about 50% but what’s left still amounts to a deluge. Each studio has a department which does nothing but open, read and answer letters. Usually, this is made up of seven or eight women who can tell at a glance what 99% of the communications are going to say and who put in most of their working hours merely addressing

the millions of envelopes

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Dear Van Johnson...

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which ultimately hold the asked-for pictures.

Do the stars really read their letters? The answer to this is, Yes and No. Let me explain.

There are two kinds of fan mail, the brief notes which only ask for a picture and the “unusual” letters. Perhaps 95% of the total is of the first type. It necessitates the afore-mentioned addressing of an envelope, the sliding of a photograph into same and a stamp.

The “unusual” letters are something else again. They have a good chance of being read by the star addressed. Letters of extremely good criticism, letters written by people who obviously have met or known the star, pathetic letters if they ring true, honest letters, letters from odd or well-known people, letters from charities—all these are “unusual.”

An example: Margaret O’Brien recently received two notes in the same envelope, in identical handwriting. The first was written for a child of eight who lived on a Missouri farm and could not go to school because of “a physical condition.” It told of the “pretty” dresses the girl’s mother made out of flour sacks, of a “playhouse” in one corner of a pigsty, of going to “the big house” to hear the boss’ wife play the piano. And the second came from the mother to explain that the child was an incurable spastic, that the family had no money besides the small wages earned by the father as a farm hand and added that anything Margaret could do would immensely cheer the little girl’s existence.

This was a pathetic letter which rang true. MGM’s fan mail department therefore sent it to young Miss O’Brien and her mother. And the star not only sent her fan a large picture of herself with a personal greeting hut also one of her own dolls as a special present.

Easter Eggs, Yet

“Unusual” letters, too, are those which come from fans who have written so often to one particular star that both the fan mail women and the big shot know them. Van Johnson, for instance, regularly corresponds with an Italian family in Maryland whom he has never seen but by now feels he knows intimately. They not only write all the news of their doings to him, but they send presents on his birthday, on Christmas, and one Easter dreamed up a production of colored eggs, each bearing the name of one of his past pictures.

Cornel Wilde has a fan who drives 20th Century-Fox completely nuts. He’s an ancient gentleman in New York who is so daffy over Mr. Wilde that he has had, to date, two copies of every still picture of him the studio possesses. And Cary Grant has since 1933 corresponded with an old lady who originally wrote that he reminded her of her dead son.

It’s almost impossible to tell which stars get the most mail. First, the studios either guard the information jealously or build up the figures for publicity purposes. Second, there is no central agency which can or will tabulate the town. There are other elements to the problem, too, however. For free-lance artists like Cary Grant and Olivia de Havilland get their mail directly and have secretaries handle it. Men like Crosby and Hope and Skelton have radio programs which bring thousands of letters to their broadcasting networks. Western stars like Bill Elliott, Autry and Rogers have their own classification. And a great deal of mail is received not at the

studios but at the homes of the players. So, if you ever see an item about someone topping everyone else in town for fan mail put it down to publicity and forget it.

Some flowery mail finds its way to Hollywood. Take the letter to Esther Williams sent by the staff of a Siamese I movie magazine called “SaiSampham.”

; It first, asked for some MGM publicity i releases and then went on,

“I have pleasure to inform you that Siamese people all in one has an inclination to loving you more than anyone else among the film stars of other countries. The result of competition voicing for your popularity among our readers manifests that the great number of votes goes to you, for which I believe that the expectation of seeing you on the screen is the one that will never be erased from our memories.”

Yipe!

Miss Williams, incidentally, is constantly being asked to chat about her specialty, swimming. She gets hundreds of letters wanting advice on teachers, on the best way to beat a fear of the water and so forth and also is on the receiving end of requests for “500 words about sport in general, to be read at the next meeting of our local club.”

If a star’s specialty is l’amour, the fans offer to marry the women (disregarding any other husbands they may have) and present themselves to the men. They pen long love notes, too ill-making to quote here, telling in detail what happens to them when they see Mr. Sinatra or Mr. Johnson or Mr. Boyer on the screen and recounting dreams they have had about these gentlemen.

Even Western stars get this sort of thing, with a different twist. Their take is usually from kids and a six-page letter recently received by Tim Holt from a 12-year-old girl included the following: “Timy, you are the best actor in all Hollywood. You can ride better than anybody. And, when you shoot at the outlaws, I practically eat the screen. I wish that there were still outlaws because I would like to catch some, too. My brother had a BB gun, but my father won’t get me one . . .” And so on.

Strangely, few of the letters are obscene. Only five or six a year reach any screen personality. They are turned over to the postal authorities.

The players’ personal affairs bring their own kind of mail. Errol Flynn got both sympathy and castigation during his trial for immorality a few years ago. Babies start avalanches of cards and gifts. And Van Johnson’s marriage to his best friend’s ex-wife, Eve Wynn, dropped his take almost frighteningly at first; but is now bringing forth statements like the following:

“I want you to know that my Van Johnson Fan Club doesn’t think it is wrong of you to marry Evie because her and her husband were not getting along. I’m very happy that you are going to be I a parent. I hope that you and Evie are very happy.”

The fan clubs arc both a joy and a horror to the stars and their studios. On one side, their blossoming measures the popularity of a new player. On the other, however, they take up endless and valuable time, for the kids who form them believe, rightly or wrongly, that group adulation deserves some sort of response from the idol. 'The letter from t he Van Johnson club president is a ease in point. The girl goes on: “The club would like you to fill out the following questions:

“Your real name, Name of wife, Color of eyes, Color of hair, Favorite actress, Favorite actor, Best friends,

; Favorite sports, Hobby, Age, Birthplace and date, Parents names, Brothers j or sisters names. Also please write a

short biography of your life so we can put it on the wall of our club house . . . P.S. Please write your autograph on a separate piece of paper.”

Then there are the letters suggesting names for unborn babies. There are the ones with the big news that the writer “has been told he looks exactly like” the star. There are the thank-you notes from youngsters who have had their pictures taken with some big shot, when the luminary was on a personal appearance tour.

Recently the Washington hearings have resulted in a barrage of statements about the industry’s so-called Communistic leanings. One sent to Bob Hope is typical: “If you and the rest of the un-Americans out there don’t like our country, why don’t you pack up and get out?”

The parts actors play result in mail, too, of course, some praising, some castigating. And the one element about this which amazes Hollywood is how often the public misses the point of a picture. For instance, after RKO’s “Crossfire,” a powerful onslaught on anti-Semitism, Robert Mitchum opened the following:

“Dear Sir: It was with great, disgust that I saw the picture you starred in, ‘Crossfire.’ This picture is nothing but an anti-Protestant attack and I think that no matter how much you got out of it the cost in self-respect was far too great.”

Then there are the letters which ask for things, like the plea for a cast-off evening wrap received by Ginger Rogers. Another Rogers devotee asked for a loan of $1,000 because . I am raising my granddaughter and I would like more than anything in life to send her to college.”

How much nerve can you have?

The Grable Photo

The picture side of the subject is big business. Several companies in Hollywood do nothing but make up fan photographs for the players to mail to their admirers. The Robert Miller Co., largest of these, estimates its production at 100,000 stills of varying size a month. These run from 2)4 x 4 inch snapshots printed 12 to the page at $12 per 1,000, to 8 x 10’s which set the star hack $60 per 1,000. Some stars order 10,000 or more pictures every month.

During the war, two particular shots caused no end of overseas commotion. One was of Betty Grable, her famous legs bare, her eyes peeking coyly over her shoulder and the other was of Esther Williams in the world’s most fetching bathing suit. 7Te boys asked for these by the million, and, in Miss Williams’ case, used to get a 5 x 7 at first and then re-order an 8 x 10 so that they could see more

Most of the ordinary run of mail, however, comes from kids, and much of it is completely incredible. The following is an example:

“Dear Mark Stevens:

“Well, Mark, this is the first time I have wrote to you, well I like to see you play in the movies very much well my girl friemes and boy friemes like to see you play in the movies to. Well I will tell you a little about me I am 15 years old I have a twin sister she is 15 years

old well we were bom in....... Well

I do not know much to say to you well I will close for now hopeing to hear from you very soon, from your friemes. ...”

Honest! I didn’t make that up. There’s a stack of Bibles right here with my hand on it.

And there’s a stack of letters just like that one being delivered as you read this to every studio in Hollywood It was thus in the beginning. It will be so until the end. ^