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Golden-age gems: Collector’s trove of celebrity memorabilia on display

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By Chris Van Ormer

From vaudeville to radio to Hollywood, Mary-Jessma Wilson connected with entertainers.

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She collected their photographs, autographs and letters for decades. Now her autographed photographs, scrapbooks and quilts are on display in Inverness for people to enjoy until January, when the items will be sold.

“You never know what’s in Inverness,” said Steve Barnes, owner of Olde Inverness Antiques.

Barnes has the task of finding new homes for a huge collection of memorabilia ranging from the 1920s to the 1950s. He expressed admiration for the collector, Mary-Jessma Wilson.

“She was a pretty well known radio personality during World War II and before,” Barnes said. “Like David Letterman, everybody would come to her to be interviewed to promote whatever they had going.”

Born March 7, 1918, Mary-Jessma was the daughter of a vaudeville performer, Joe H. Wilson, who had an act with his brother, called the Wilson Brothers. They performed comedy skits using German accents.

An item in the California Digital Newspaper Collection gives an example of the Wilson Brothers’ schtick:

“I got arrested once — der chudge fined me ten dollars.”

“Vot vos de charge?”

“Der vos no charge. He did it for nothing.”

The oldest item in Mary-Jessma’s collection is her first scrapbook, a ninth-grade school project of hand-bound typed pages.

“It talks about her dad taking her to Hollywood, going to dance class and meeting the stars on the sets,” Barnes said.

In addition to her school project, Mary-Jessma created three other scrapbooks.

“One was a tribute to her father and brother, the Wilson Brothers, and vaudeville in general. People who appreciate scrapbooks will enjoy that,” Barnes said. “That was pretty much her introduction to Hollywood.”

Mary-Jessma spent her early childhood years travelling with her parents, or at their homes in Brooklyn, Mich., and Florida.

In 1941, Mary-Jessma started a scrapbook called “Hollywood Story.” She was in Hollywood during World War II helping the war bond drives by interviewing more than 100 Hollywood stars on radio, when she collected their autographed photographs.

“You are looking at 30 displayed of about 150 photographs that for the most part are addressed to her,” Barnes said of his exhibit. “They are either addressed to Mary or Mary-Jessma.”

The vaudeville scrapbook and Hollywood Story are on display in Barnes’ store.

“There was a third scrapbook titled “Webb’s Dawn Patrol,” which was the name of her radio show out of St. Pete on WSUN and that is in the St. Petersburg Museum of History,” Barnes said. “We’re proud to have two of the three.”

Mary-Jessma moved to St. Petersburg in February 1944 and signed a contract with “Doc” Webb for the radio show, “Webb’s Dawn Patrol,” featuring “Mary-Jessma and her Gang of Merrymakers.” The show was broadcast from the cafeteria of Webb’s City, a store that started in the 1920s and was touted as “the World’s Most Unusual Drug Store.”

Mary-Jessma interviewed stars of screen and radio on the program from 7:15 to 7:30 a.m. three mornings a week.

Hanging behind Barnes’ exhibit are two handmade quilts stitched by Mary-Jessma and her mother. The quilts, too, have star quality.

“People have seen this kind of thing before on Antiques Roadshow,” Barnes said. “The fabric was sent to each celebrity and they signed it. Then Mary-Jessma and her mom embroidered over every signature. Fifty of these on each quilt, two quilts. Hand stitched in great condition.”

In all, the quilters made four, but two were auctioned in the 1940s to raise money for war bonds. All four are covered in star-shaped pieces of cloth signed by celebrities.

“I do question the authenticity of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, though,” Barnes said.

Scrapbook pages are covered in signatures of the famous.

“Just on these two pages, for example, we’ve got autographs from Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson and my favorite: Gabby Hayes,” Barnes said. “Over here, we’ve got Eve Arden, Van Johnson, Judy Garland and Ann Rutherford, who was in ‘Gone with the Wind.’”

Then, there are letters to read, written by legendary Hollywood stars.

“This one is handwritten by Fred Astaire, talking about doing a movie, ‘Holiday Inn,’ with Bing Crosby (1942), and an upcoming film with ‘a swell dancer’ Rita Hayworth,” Barnes said. “Not too many people use that word.”

A letter on display from Bing Crosby confirms the veracity of Fred Astaire’s.

“October 15, 1941

“Dear Miss Wilson, Your letter is greatly appreciated. I am vacationing at the present time but I’ll be back on the job in November to start work on my new picture, ‘Holiday Inn’ at Paramount. My hobbies include all sports. Golf and, of course, my horse are my other great interests. My biography, the book called ‘Bing,’ is being forwarded along with an autographed photo. Best wishes, Bing”

Other legends who wrote letters to Mary-Jessma included such big names as Hedy Lamarr, Mickey Rooney, Joe E. Brown, Edward G. Robinson and Tyrone Power. She collected a rare letter from Orson Wells on Mercury Theater letterhead.

“She wrote to them and they wrote back and they appeared on her show,” Barnes explained.

While on her show, Mary-Jessma had photos taken and later autographed.

“She also had Disney connections,” Barnes said. “We have an early celluloid.”

It’s a cel from a celluloid cartoon film, “Saludos Amigos” or “Hello, Friends” in English, a 1942 animated feature package film produced by Walt Disney and released by RKO Radio Pictures. Donald Duck stars along with the first appearance of José Carioca, the Brazilian parrot character.

This particular cel is a very early cartoon painting on celluloid. It is one of the select few that have been released to art collectors. The remaining film was destroyed.

Barnes also has some work by Milt Neil, the Donald Duck animator, also called “The Duck Man.” His signature is on the back.

The Disney collection includes an autographed photograph of Walt himself.

“Walt’s picture has been authenticated as most of these on display have been,” Barnes said. “And that’s a rare one. Walt didn’t sign many. It was his artists and secretaries who signed most of his photographs.”

Of the 150 photographs in the collection, Barnes sent 46 for authentication and 43 came back as genuine.

Mary-Jessma withdrew from her broadcasting career into the business world as a secretary until a debilitating stroke forced her into retirement. She died in St. Petersburg on June 23, 1987. Having never married, she willed her entire collection to her caregiver, a woman from a family in the county. The collection was then willed to that family.

“It was stored for 10 years locally and now what do we do with it is the question,” Barnes said. “It will be on display for about six weeks, maybe to the end of the year. Just to be shown. After that, it will be priced out and found homes for.”

The materials will be divided into sub-collections. The Disney collection will be separate. Another small collection will be George Pal, a director of some early sci-fi films. There will be the vaudeville collection. Another collection will be all the autographs. The quilts will be separate, as will the Hollywood Story scrapbook.

Barnes said the quilts have no interest to autograph collectors because the signatures are covered in embroidery. He may sell them locally.

“But they are still a very unique piece of the golden age of Hollywood,” Barnes said. “I get requests, especially for the Disney things, all the time and I take a list. People can jump on that list and we’ll see where it takes us. If you enjoy Hollywood and old films, it’s a unique display.”

IF YOU GO
Olde Inverness Antiques is at 104 N. Pine Ave. in downtown Inverness behind Stumpknockers Restaurant. Call 352-344-0333.

Chronicle reporter Chris Van Ormer can be reached at cvanormer@chronicleonline.com or 352-564-2916.