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'The Barrymores: Hollywood's First Family'

The lives and times of the movie and theater acting family are the subject of a new exhibition at the David L. Wolper Center in USC's Doheny Memorial Library.

April 02, 2009|Susan King
  • The Barrymore Family. John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore pose with members of the Barrymore and Colt families in the Bel Air Hotel while taking a break from the filming of "Rasputin and the Empress" in 1932.
The Barrymore Family. John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore pose with members… (University of Southern…)

She was acting by the time she was 3 years old. Was there ever a question that Drew Barrymore wouldn't go into the family business?

Actually, it's more like a dynasty. Members of her family were performers before the American Revolutionary War. Her Oscar-winning great-aunt was Ethel Barrymore. Academy Award-winning Lionel Barrymore was her great-uncle. Her grandfather was none other than movie and stage great John Barrymore -- a.k.a. the Great Profile. Her grandmother was Dolores Costello, who had been in movies since she was a child along with her father, Maurice Costello, who was one of the top stars of Vitagraph Pictures in the early part of the 20th century. Even Drew Barrymore's father, John Drew Barrymore, who died in 2004, had a film and TV career.

The lives and times of this remarkable family are the subject of a new exhibition, "The Barrymores: Hollywood's First Family," in the David L. Wolper Center on the ground floor of the Doheny Memorial Library at USC. The exhibition, which opened to the public Friday and continues through July 31, features rare photographs, posters, letters, drawings and other related memorabilia. In addition to the Barrymores and the Costellos, the exhibition features other branches of the family tree, including the Lanes, the Colts and the Blyths.

The majority of the material comes from the family's archivist, Carol Hoffman, who wrote the 2001 coffee-table book "The Barrymores: Hollywood's First Family."

Hoffman's now-deceased husband Ralph had been friends with John Drew Barrymore in the 1960s but had lost touch with him until 1981.

"At that time he was living in Hollywood," she says of Barrymore, who battled numerous personal demons such alcohol and drug problems over the years. "His mother had died in 1979. John was living with all of this stuff in a small two-bedroom apartment with all the [Barrymore] memorabilia that Dolores had collected over the years, and also Maurice Costello's material."

It took Hoffman and her husband a few years to persuade Barrymore to let them help him. "He didn't really trust people," she says. "Yet over the years, he developed this trust in me. I became the family archivist as well."

The USC show features some 70 matted photographs with text, plus letters, albums, diaries and magazines. The treasure trove of photographs came from the original negatives John Drew Barrymore had found in a suitcase in the barn of his mother's Fallbrook avocado ranch.

The Cinema Library is supplementing the exhibition with items from USC's Performing Arts Archive, the Samuel Colt Archive and the MGM and Warner Bros. collections.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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