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Marion Davies Birthday Bash

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By Hector Gonzalez
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January 6, 2015 -- Charlie Chaplin comes every year, as does Joan Crawford. And of course 1930s-era gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wouldn't miss it for the world.

“We never know who will show up” to silent film star Marion Davies' annual birthday bash at Santa Monica’s Annenberg Community Beach House, said Kay Pattison, a docent with the Santa Monica Conservancy.

“All the docents are asked to come in period, and many of the visitors also dress up in costume. Lots and lots of them come all dressed up,” she said. “It's a lot of fun, and that's what we want it to be. We want to make it a happy day,” said Pattison, who this year is dressing as and taking on the role of Davies' sister, Reine, she said.

“We'll walk around the house and introduce ourselves and talk about our characters and their relationship to Marion,” said Pattison. “For instance, I will say I'm Marion's eldest sister, Reine, and we were very close. I like to talk about what Marion was like as a child and how she got to be how she was. I talk just as if I was back in the 1930s.”  

About four years ago, conservancy docents who regularly guide free public tours of the Beach House decided to throw Davies a birthday party as a more informal way to remember her life and legacy. A party seemed a fitting, Pattison said, since the many soirees the actress threw at the former 101-room mansion publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst built for her along P.C.H. were the stuff of Hollywood legend.

“What we try to do is to create a party atmospheres as if you were really at her birthday party, but of course nothing as lavish as she would’ve done and, of course, no booze,” she said.

There will be a non-alcoholic birthday toast, however, as well as 1930s-era music by Janice Klein and Shawn Reynolds, and presentations every half hour by writer Laura Fowler, who is researching a book about Davies, Pattison said.

This year's free party will be held at one of Davies’ legacies — her' 1928 Guest Home on the north end of the Beach House at 415 Pacific Coast Highway, on Jan. 11 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Davies' real birthday was Jan. 3, “but I don't think she'd mind” the late celebration, said Pattison, who has spent years researching the actress' life.

“We've all become enamored of Marion as we've gotten to know her,” said Pattison , who is the Beach House's “in-house historian” on all things Davies and regularly passes on her knowledge to new docents.

“She was a fabulous human being. I think she'd been forgotten by the world, until this Beach House opened and we started doing these tours. Since then there's been a growing interest in her.”

Last year more than 600 people made reservations for the birthday bash. And although only about 250 showed up, Pattison said it “shows you the growing awareness” of Davies specifically and of her era in general.

“People come because they're enamored of the old Hollywood, and certainly this Beach House represents the old glamour days of Hollywood,” Pattison said. “Every famous person in Hollywood came to the Beach House, plus Albert Einstein and Charles Lindbergh, President Collidge and President Hoover, the King of Siam, and on and on.”

Winston Churchill “paddled around” with his young son in the Beach House's pool, which was designed by Julia Morgan. The pool and Davies' Guest House are the only original elements left on the old Beach House property.

Public interest in Marion Davies, the real person, not the caricature portrayed in headlines, also has grown in recent years, Pattison said.

“You didn't have to be a big-wig” to be invited to one of her parties, Pattison said.

“She had regular people over. Anybody who worked on the set with her—I'm talking about the grips, the makeup people, the caterers—were welcomed at the Beach House every Saturday night for a party,” Pattison said. “And she paid people's tuitions to college, she paid their hospital bills, she started charities, she donated $2 million to UCLA to build the Marion Davies Children's Clinic. I could go on and on about this woman.”

While Davies was known as “the most generous person in Hollywood,” she also was “denigrated during her time” for being the mistress of Hearst, “a man who was married to another woman, and she was his mistress for 35 years,” Pattison said.
“It’s a really amazing story,” said Pattison.

Davies sold her beach-front mansion in the 1940s. The state later purchased the property and leased it first to Santa Monica then to the Sand and Sea Hotel. The hotel flopped, however, and the property became a private, members-only club. The Sand and Sea Club closed in 1991.

After a second plan to turn the property into a high-end hotel was voted down by residents, the former mansion sat idle. In 1994, the Northridge Earthquake sealed the old mansion’s fate; in the aftermath, most of the property was red-tagged.

The old structures remained shuttered and Davies’ story would probably have faded away and ended, but in 2005 “TV Guide” heiress Wallis Annenberg donated $21 million to fund a joint city and state plan to turn the property into a beachfront community center. In 2009, the Annenberg Community Beach House opened to the public.

Davies died in 1961, but the group of dedicated docents at her former home keeps her history alive.

“We get people from all over the world who come to Marion’s birthday party,” said Pattison. “I'm so glade that we have at least brought her back into the world's consciousness.”

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