Thursday, August 1, 2013

Colleen Moore's Dollhouse (1935)

Good morning!

As I was checking UK gossip rag DailyMail's online presence this morning (as I have done, through time immemorial, while drinking my coffee and rubbing sleep from these eyes), I noticed, nestled deep down beyond all the fallout from Simon Cowell's adultery/paternity troubles, THIS sight for sore eyes:

Is it a still from some GoT rip off series, also involving castles, also involving dragons? It is not! This is silent movie star Colleen Moore's 1935 doll house, one of the most intricate in the world. Measuring a full eight feet long and standing twelve feet high at its tallest tower, this is no Michael's in-a-box creation, but the result of thousands of professional man hours from artisans all over the world. It's housed in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, IL, and didn't this spread in Daily Mail make me want to drive up to see the real thing!
I knew about Colleen Moore before I knew about her dollhouse. Her book, Silent Star, is one of my all-time favorite Hollywood memoirs, covering her ascent as a "flaming youth" flapper type in the 1920's and what Hollywood was like in those reckless Prohibition days. Black-beetle-bobbed like Louise Brooks and exclamation-point-eyed like Clara Bow, she's kind of a more approachable version of the former and a less explicitly sexy version of the latter. I loved her candid recollections of my one of my favorite eras of old time Tinseltown, and didn't I give a little gasp of recognition when she showed up, tiny and bespectacled but still full of verve, in Kevin Brownlow's 1980 documentary on silent stars and the industry that bore them! If you haven't seen this and you're interested in the time period, check it out on Youtube, it's out of print and you never know when it'll get pulled!

But I digress.

In 1935, with the aid of her father and a professional architect, Moore started work on what was to be one of her greatest legacies, the dollhouse. With murals painted by Walt Disney (!!), tiny tapestries in which the stitches are so small as to be unseen by the naked eye (!!), and outfittings that make even the most grand scale DeMille production look a little shabby (after all, his were in black and white!), the castle went on tour the year of its completion. One of the more amazing things about its construction is that it can be broken down into "200 individual pieces" for shipping purposes, making its nationwide exhibition a piece of tiny cake. According to the museum website:

In 1935 Colleen Moore's child-like fascination with her Fairy Castle was transformed by the Great Depression into a passion for helping children. She organized a national tour of the Fairy Castle to raise money for children's charities. The tour stopped in most major cities of the United States and was often exhibited in the toy departments of prominent department stores such as Macy's in New York City, The Fair in Chicago and May Co. in Los Angeles. A brochure from The Fair in Chicago promotes it: "A museum in itself—it awaits you—starting November 15th in our Eighth Floor Toyland. You will want to see it again and again." The tour was a huge success and raised more than $650,000 between 1935 and 1939.
Isn't that great? Just when you start to get a tiny nagging feeling about how extravagant having a dollhouse worth half a million (in 1935 dollars!), it raised more than it cost to build, and for charity to boot!

Some factoids from the online tour:

  • The Royal Doulton dinner service on the [kitchen] table is an exact replica of the set made for Queen Mary's doll house at Windsor Castle.
  • The five needlepoint "tapestries" in the room [above] depict the Knights of the Round Table. The "petit point" works were commissioned for the castle from Madame Jorey, a master needleworker in Vienna. It is almost impossible to distinguish the stitches without the aid of a magnifying glass.
  • There are many things in the Great Hall which are very old. For example, you can see in the back left of the room a bust of a woman on a green pedestal. This bust is Roman and about 2,500 years old. Next to this, on that table, are three statues of the Goddess Isis, which are more than 4,000 years old. The fourth, a Syrian vase, is more than 1,000 years old.
  • The silver throne [in the chapel] is a copy of the famous English throne in Westminster Abbey.
  • The books in the library are all real. There are more than 100; many of them are handwritten by some very prominent authors.
  •  Moore had a taxidermist use an ermine skin and the teeth of a mouse to create the miniature white bear rug on the floor [in the prince's bedroom].
Whaaa...huh? I'm sorry, I am super impressed by these details.

I was able to find this article, from a 1935 issue of Popular Science, in which the Depression era readers were wowed by the actually functioning electric organ inside the premises. They probably didn't even know about the vases in that one room!

So, what do you think? Isn't it an amazing piece of art? Do you have a fondness for miniatures or tiny replicas of things? What's the most impressive doll house you've seen? Let's talk! And then let's go see this dang thing person, it's killing me not to lock eyes with it.

That's all for today, but I'll be back tomorrow for Photo Friday. See you then!

Take a tour of the castle online here...more pictures here.


  1. Oh, LISA! I love this post more than I can say! You've surpassed yourself. The mouse teeth detail is exactly the type of information I NEED.
    Bless your eccentric heart, girl.

    1. Haha, I only hone in on the important facts! Like mice teeth!!

  2. I love Colleen but had never heard of her dollhouse! I guess we both need a trip to see Hollywood history in Chicago! I just sit in awe of the kind of wealth that allows for such capricious, albeit awesome, expenditures...can you imagine?!!! Thanks for sharing this!

    1. I was reminded of early, "non-cultured" Joan Crawford in the 1920's, with her pre-Douglas Fairbanks, Jr-marriage-digs. She had one enormous hutch completely filled with different kinds of dolls...china, cloth, every kind you could think of! I think I remember her having gotten rid of them later to emphasize a more "sophisticated" demeanor, but the idea of that being what she wanted most when she first had money is kind of sweet, kind of heartbreaking.

      Ditto on Colleen and her dollhouse-- what 30 year old movie star today would even think to create something like that? I love the still-intact childlike sense of wonder and whimsy it must have taken to dream a project like this up!

  3. Replies
    1. Right? The electricity and the working fountains in the bath are the most impressive to me right now, but that may change next look I get at it! A trove of wonders!

  4. i want to see it in person! i can't even really comprehend this! murals by walt disney??? the teeny tiny bear rug!

    1. Me, too! And it's only in Chicago. Next time I'm up north, it's on my sightseeing hit list.

  5. I'm amazed I've never heard of Colleen's dollhouse...I've been a dollhouse and miniature collector since I was itty bitty! At last count, I think ('think' is the key word here) I have 14 houses and boxes and boxes of furniture for tiny little occupants. The mouse teeth thing is one of the coolest things I've ever heard. You know what I always think of when I read stuff like this though? How exactly does one approach a great author or artist and talk them into doing work (in miniature) for your dollhouse? I'm just imagining Walt Disney pushing aside some Mickey Mouse sketches to painting tiny murals for a movie star. Crazy!

    1. Wow! That's quite the collection! So cool. I think Colleen Moore knew a lot of the authors for her dollhouse library. So many "summer reading list staples" of today (Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Odets) were just trying to make a buck as screenwriters back in the 20's and 30's, their genius as yet lucrative to them!

  6. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, and have seen this dollhouse numerous times. It is spectacular!! I was just talking to my daughter about it the other day, I took her to the museum on one trip back, to see it-but sadly she doesn't remember. It is truly amazing!



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