YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

INTERVIEW : Glitter Is Now a Warm Glow : Buddy Rogers starred in the first film to win best picture. With Mary Pickford he reigned over Hollywood's golden era. It seems like only yesterday.

August 20, 1995|Charles Champlin | Charles Champlin is a regular contributor to Calendar

'Looks a little like a hotel up there these days," Charles (Buddy) Rogers said the other afternoon, gazing from a sunny sitting room uphill toward the looming beige bulk of Pickfair, the legendary estate that Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. began to build at the start of their marriage in 1920, and that was Buddy's home for the 42 years of his marriage to Mary.

"When Mary was about to leave on her journey to heaven," Rogers recalls, "she said, 'Will you live on here?'

"I said, 'Lord, no; it's too big, too much for me to rattle around in without you.' She said, 'What you should do is take a piece of land down the hill from the house and build yourself a place of your own.' And that's what I did."

Pickfair more than any other home symbolized Hollywood in its unchallenged heyday in the 1920s, Hollywood at its most opulent, glamorous, enviable and fascinating, its stars as rich and famous and potent as royalty, with Doug and Mary themselves as their king and queen. But Hollywood has changed, and so has Pickfair under its subsequent owners. After Mary died in 1979, Rogers sold Pickfair to Jerry Buss, and it is now owned by financier Meshulam Riklis.

"He's alone since his wife [entertainer Pia Zadora] took their two kids and left," Rogers says, "and I believe he's trying to sell it."

The house that Rogers built after Pickford died is a few dozen yards down Pickfair Lane from the mansion. It is gated and elegant but not intimidating. Within, it is light-filled and livable, and crowded and aglitter with treasures from Pickfair itself--gifts received and objets d'art purchased (a set of Napoleon's china, watercolor sketches by Rodin), an entire Western bar, stools and all, with Remington paintings.

A kind of honors room off the entrance hall is filled with eight decades' worth of memorabilia accumulated both by an actress who was, at her peak, very likely the most famous woman in the world, and by her husband, a star personality in his own right.

There are Pickford's two Oscars (a best actress award for "Coquette" and a lifetime achievement award given in 1976) and the aviator's leather hat and goggles Rogers wore in William Wellman's 1927 silent classic, "Wings," the first film to win a best picture Oscar. There are scrolls, plaques, posters, portraits and a shiny key to the city of Olathe [o-LAY-thuh], Kan., where Rogers was born and raised and to which he returned a few weeks ago to be honored.

For all its accouterments, Rogers' home, where he now lives with his second wife, the former Beverly Ricono, is too bright and alive to suggest a museum, yet there is inevitably a sense of the past revisited, and a sense of lingering presences: Pickford herself, of course; Fairbanks, Chaplin, Swanson, Hearst, Griffith, Zukor, Mayer, Davies and Gary Cooper and Richard Arlen, pals from "Wings" who remained pals all their lives. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Pickford was his stepmother) is one of Rogers' closest friends and an occasional house guest. ("What a charmer," Rogers says.)

Going back to Olathe as a local lad made good was a thrill. "But," says Rogers, "what differences! Three thousand population when I was a boy, 80,000 now. Kansas City has reached right out to it and made it a suburb. I managed to find our little house, but that's about all. Couldn't find my grandfather's hotel. He charged $2 a night for a room and served a very good meal for 50 cents. This time I stayed at a motel for $75 a night."

His father published a weekly newspaper, the Olathe Mirror. Buddy had a Kansas City Star paper route and also delivered the Mirror on Wednesdays. His father later became probate judge of the county. "Married thousands of couples," Rogers says. "He became known as the marryin' judge."

Rogers was a member of Demolay, a Masonic order for young men, and at meetings in Kansas City got to know another young Kansan named Walt Disney. Disney later sought out Rogers in Hollywood, and Rogers tried unsuccessfully to get friends to invest in Disney's vision for a grand Hollywood studio.

How destiny lifted Rogers out of Kansas and into history seems as emblematic of the Hollywood '20s as "Merton of the Movies."

"The local theater man told my father that Paramount Pictures was making a national search for 10 men and 10 women to study acting at their studio in Astoria, Queens," Rogers recalls. He was then in his third year at the University of Kansas, ambitious only to be a musician and bandleader, which he became.

"I didn't want any part of it, but Dad said do it for him, so I did it for Dad. I sent off some photographs and thought that was the end of it. But darned if I didn't hear I was one of the 10. The only other one of the 20 of us who went anyplace was Thelma Todd.

"Well, there in Astoria we studied how to fall down without hurting ourselves and how to hold a kiss for three minutes without laughing. That's what I mostly remember."

Los Angeles Times Articles