Following the tradition of the famed New York clubs for male stage actors and their associates, such as The Lambs, founded in 1874 by Henry Montague, and The Players, founded by Edwin Booth in 1888, Masquers Club was founded in Hollywood in 1925. It would play a most important role in the founding of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. "We Laugh to Win" was their motto, and laugh these good fellows did, along with talking, eating, drinking, smoking, and game-playing in their clubhouse at 1765 N. Sycamore. Many Masquers were longtime members of The Lambs, The Players, or both. They put on performances called "Revels" with gusto: for example, where else in Hollywood could one see Frank Morgan as blustery Colonel Claghorne, with his brother, Ralph Morgan, as Frank's pure and sweet virginal daughter (yes, daughter) Breeze, in the "Pride of the Claghornes" sketch from Frank's Broadway hit, The Bandwagon? (Hopefully, nowhere else!)
Masquers Club, March 24, 1932: the three respectable-looking British gents seated together at the far end of the table, would be engaged in a bold enterprise just over a year later. They would be among the first actors in Hollywood to found the Screen Actors Guild in 1933, as members #8, #11, and #9, respectively. From left to right, they are: Claude "The Major" King, Ivan "Simmy" Simpson, and Boris Karloff.
June 22, 1933: (second photo) Masquers Club' 'Welcome Out' Dinner to $am Hardy. If the dark-haired actor in this photo (seated, second from right) looks a little tense, he has good reason. He is Kenneth Thomson, and has been plotting a secret little venture with actor Ralph Morgan, an attorney named Laurence Beilenson, and several other members of Masquers Club like Alan Mowbray, Leon Waycoff Ames and Jimmie Gleason, who were at Masquers Club that night too. In just eight more days (June 30), this daring group will be filing incorporation papers creating the Screen Actors Guild. Thomson will become the Guild's member #17, and the first Secretary -- a position that would evolve into the National Executive Director title of today. [Note: "$am" Hardy is not a typo. That's how the actor spelled it!]
But by the early 1930s, as the movie industry began to feel the gloomy effects of the 1929 stock market crash, some Masquers' laughter was replaced by more serious talk among members like Kenneth Thomson, Claude King, Ivan Simpson, Boris Karloff, Grant Mitchell, Berton Churchill, Charles Miller, Bradley Page, Alan Mowbray, and Ralph Morgan. Main concerns were the multiple cuts in many actors' salaries, combined with inhumane hours of labor (the latter largely brought with the longer working hours involved in making "talking” pictures). Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (founded 1927) had devised the first standard contracts for free-lance and day players, and offered arbitration to its members, a large number of actors found the Academy an unsatisfactory advocate. The official position of the Actors' Equity Association was that the Academy was actually a "company union" dominated by its producers branch. Something had to be done, and the discussions became too serious to hold at Masquers Club. Members began to meet in each others' homes, particularly Kenneth Thomson's.
An eight-week salary cut, announced by the producers in March 1933, through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, was the final straw: the hour had come for actors to stop griping to each another and take action. A small group of Masquers met at the home of Masquer Kenneth Thomson & his wife, actress Alden Gay. Four attendees at this meeting had long, significant involvement with Actors' Equity: Grant Mitchell was a founding member of Equity in 1913; Berton Churchill had been in charge of the New York headquarters for the 1919 Equity strike; Charles Miller was Equity's current West Coast representative; Ralph Morgan, Mitchell, and Churchill were long-time Equity Council members, and Morgan himself had briefly served as acting president of Equity in 1924. Adding a helpful dash of jurisprudence to the mix, Mitchell and Morgan (both of whom had been among 185 actors sued by the Shubert organization in 1919 for their roles in the Equity strike) had law degrees.
Sunday January 29, 1933: six months before the Screen Actors Guild's creation, Masquers Club held this "Revel" at their clubhouse. Seven sketches, and other entertainment were provided, and Kenneth Thomson was the stage director. Thomson performed that night, with Ivan Simpson, in a sketch he directed: Whom the Lord Loveth.
1932: classy Englishman Alan Mowbray (left) dons silly headgear for his art in this Masquers short film "Two Lips and Juleps, or, Southern Love and Northern Exposure" as Conway Tearle looks on. Many actor groups, like the Lambs in New York, and the Thalians, as well, produced short-subject films in the 30's. The Masquers
Club' series was co-produced with R.K.O. Radio Pictures, supervised by Masquer Edward Earle. They were primarily comic parodies of melodramas. Alan Mowbray would become member #4 of the Screen Actors Guild, and the very first Vice-President.
Although the final decision to incorporate the Screen Actors Guild came at Kenneth Thomson's home, the group never forgot the importance of Masquers Club clubhouse, from which the idea sprang. At some point in the 1930s (the exact date has never revealed itself), someone decided to gather as many of the 21 original members of the Board of Directors as possible to pose for a commemorative photo at the clubhouse. 15 of them made the photo shoot. The lovely clubhouse (originally the home of silent-film star Antonio Moreno), with its classic English Tudor architecture and rich wood paneling - an irreplaceable landmark in the history of the Screen Actors Guild - was demolished in 1985. An apartment house took its place on North Sycamore...but in our hearts and minds, Masquers Club clubhouse stands forever.
Today, Masquers Club is a small but still active organization with an information-packed website at www.masquersclub.org