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Trouble Between the Mary Pickford Foundation and the Mary Pickford Institute

by Melissa Silverstein
March 30, 2012 12:52 PM
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Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

I know a bit about Mary Pickford from reading Cari Beauchamp's biography of Frances Marion Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.  Suffice it to say she was a very important person in early Hollywood.  She was one of the 36 founders of the Academy, and she was one of the founders of United Artists studio along with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and (her soon to be husband) Douglas Fairbanks.  She was a leading actress in the silent era and a significant producer.  She founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund that helped actors in need.

In 1958, she created the Mary Pickford Foundation to continue her charitable work which was varied but had a strong focus on helping people as they age.  She died in 1979.  The Foundation has continued her work and now has assets in excess of $17 million.

In 2002, the Foundation trustees who are all men and seem to have inherited their positions from family members (one current member's father was her lawyer and one member's uncle was her accountant), created the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education to honor her legacy and make people aware of her pioneering work in Hollywood.  The Foundation provided a significant amount of the Insititute's budget for a decade.  Keith Lawrence, one of the Foundation's board members conceived the Institute and was also the CEO of the Institute (at $100,000 a year) until May of 2011 when he resigned.  

That's when the trouble started.

All the info above is a lead up to the phone call I got this week from one of the staff members of the Institute calling to tell me that the Foundation has decided to defund the Institute completely.  The staff is very confused by this change in direction.  Several of the education programs have outside funding, but others including the archive, the research library, screenings and lectures will be greatly effected by the loss of funding.

I emailed the three men on the board earlier this week and asked some basic questions about this issue, but none have responded.  To give them the benefit of doubt, foundations do change directions.  That is their perogative.  If you look at the foundation documents (which were sent to me by the staff) the focus is very wide and they can do many things with the funds and not raise any flags.

But this is the Mary Pickford Foundation and none of the MEN on the board are movie people.  They also all make $60,000 a year for their 12 hours a week work and the staffers who work 40 or 50 hours a week make about the same.  I know the staff has pleaded with them to no avail so now they are taking their issues to the media and the blogosphere.

Here's why I care about this.  I care about this because Mary Pickford is a very important historical figure in Hollywood and it would be a huge shame if her legacy was erased.  This would be another example of men erasing women's history.  These board members need to come out from behind the screen and say what is going on, why they want to defund the Institute, and what they are going to be doing with the money in the future.  They have a fiduciary responsibity to the public as board members of a foundation.

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  • mike smith | March 31, 2012 1:27 AMReply

    If anyone wants to know more about the alleged not for profit foundation, the IRS filings are not hard to find. Just look at the financials of the foundation and the institute and how they allegedly produced films that some say don't exist. It struck me as very odd. Then all the sudden they break contact with the institute after people started asking questions about where the money goes. Some say to a nice house on the beach others say a nice ranch in Temecula.
    Ask Keith Lawrence (Resigned or ????), Henry & Pauline Stotsenberg (Foundation directors) , Gary Shoffner" (foundation lawyer/director)(714) 550-5010 or Jordan Susman (; (foundation lawyer)) about where it all goes or the alleged accusations against the foundation; or better, yet ask the students of the foundation what they have to say if you can find a student that will speak with you. Most will find it interesting at the least. We have lots of questions we can’t get answers to but they have lots of money or so they say on their tax returns. I agree, this could ruin the silent film devotion Mary had in mind, WHAT A SHAME! We want to know the facts.

  • me | March 31, 2012 5:30 AM

    these "students" that you mentioned are the son of one of the board members and his group of friends, there was no real goal of attaining students who really wanted to learn film making, it was a group of young hipster kids who got to play around on "daddy's dime", and there was plenty of footage that these "students" neglected to erase off of the computers of them just hanging out in the Pickford studio playing music and joking around, the foundation provided a budget for I believe it was 3 different projects for them to do (creative summer, creative fall and I think there was a 3rd one) and every time the group consisted of the same young adults. It was appalling to see what could have been a great opportunity for truly deserving kids or young adults be taken advantage of and taken for granted! the board of the foundation was unhappy with how things had been run under the past ceo and wanted him out of the picture and instead of giving the institute a chance to prove themselves without a ceo that created a wall blocking others ideas they shut it down completely. the institute takes real outreach steps in getting mary pickfords name and legacy out to a new young audience and the foundation is crazy to not support that, and if they do want to pull the funding they need to pick up the slack and take up that banner. Mary Pickford is an amazing inspiration and the behaviour of the men involved in this ridiculous fight is a slap in her face. just remember guys... she gave you your cushy job, so show some respect!

  • Katherine | March 30, 2012 8:50 PMReply

    Obviously both entities care about Mary Pickford and her legacy. Board retreat with an outside counselor(s) would do world of good. Clarify mission. Cutting off an institute that the foundation begat doesn't play well...Hope a resolution comes about. Mary Pickford deserves it.

  • mike smith | March 31, 2012 3:09 AM

    I hope the institution stays in business, its a shame to see her legacy fade away as if it never existed. Those intrusted with its protection should be ashamed if they allow this to happen.

  • Madeline Di Nonno, Executive Director, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media | March 30, 2012 6:30 PMReply

    Giant thx. Melissa for calling attention to this situation. We're currently partnering with The Mary Pickford Institute on a wonderful educational workshop. It would be such a shame to see the terrific work of the Institute fall by the wayside. All the best, Madeline

  • NLMO | March 30, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    Thanks Melissa - haven't seen this talked about anywhere else!

    Abby, from

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