“I’m an incurable optimist and a go-getter – it’s in my nature to focus much more on what makes me happy than what makes me nervous.” –Colleen Moore
One of the most memorable flappers of the 1920s was actress Colleen Moore. In fact, beloved writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” Moore was born Kathleen Morrison in Port Huron, Michigan, to Charles and Agnes Kelly Morrison. Moore’s family moved frequently, residing in cities like Hillsdale, Michigan; Atlanta, Georgia; Warren, Pennsylvania; and Tampa, Florida. Additionally, her family would typically spend summers in Chicago, where Moore’s Aunt Lib and Uncle Walter Howey lived. Howey, in particular, was well connected, as he was the managing editor of the Chicago Examiner, owned by William Randolph Hearst.
Moore’s childhood home still stands at 817 Ontario Street in Port Huron, Michigan.
At age 15, Moore already had dreams of starring in films. Moore kept a scrapbook in which she would paste various pictures of her favorite actors after clipping them from motion picture magazines. However, Moore kept a page blank, reserved for when she would one day become a star. Reportedly, she and her brother began their own stock company, performing on a stage created from a piano packing crate. Incidentally, Chicago’s Essanay Studios was located fairly close to the Howey residence. Moore appeared in the background of several Essanay films, typically as a face in a crowd. Since film producer D.W. Griffith was in debt to Howey for helping him get both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance through the Chicago censorship board, he was able to secure a screen test for Moore. Her contract with Griffith’s Triangle-Fine Arts was conditional, as Moore possessed one brown eye and one blue eye. Her eyes photographed favorably, so Moore left for Hollywood with her grandmother and her mother as chaperones and began her film career.
Two of Moore’s key passions were dolls and films; each of these interests would become prominent throughout her life. Though approximately half of her films are now lost, Moore is, remembered as a delightful silent film actress by film aficionados. Moore’s films would often feature her as a good girl putting on a bad girl façade, and always carrying out her roles with panache. Her aunts, however, took care to indulge her in another great passion, which is the focus of this article: dollhouses. They frequently brought her miniature furniture from their many trips, with which she furnished the first of a sequence of dollhouses. Interestingly, a few of these dollhouses exist to this day. Moore’s first dollhouse was fashioned from a cabinet, which initially held her collection of miniature furniture, and a cigar box. It was purchased by a woman named Oraleze O’Brien, who sold it again after her pet cat had kittens in it. Moore’s third house was allegedly given to the daughter of Moore’s good friend, author Adela Rogers St. Johns. A fourth dollhouse survives and remains on display in the living room of one of Moore’s relatives.
In 1928, Moore enlisted the help several professionals to help build a massive dollhouse for her growing collection of miniature furnishings. The professionals included Moore’s father as chief engineer, set designer Horace Jackson, and interior designer Harold Grieve. Cameraman Henry Freulich worked on the lighting, which was installed by an electrician. This dollhouse has an area of nine square feet, with the tallest tower standing several feet high and the entire structure weighing one ton. The dollhouse boasts many intricacies and challenges, as the electrician had to devise a lighting system that would fit minuscule light bulbs produced by a light company that made globes for surgical instruments; furthermore, a plumber had to ensure that running water would be accessible to all water fixtures in the dollhouse. Workers even wore masks to prevent them from inhaling some of the diminutive furnishings. This particular dollhouse was dubbed the Colleen Moore Dollhouse, on which Moore worked from roughly the Great Depression until her passing. It made its debut at Macy’s in New York and traveled throughout the nation, raising approximately one half-million dollars for children’s charities. The dollhouse showcases ornate miniature furniture and art as well as the work of beyond 700 different artisans, and has been a featured exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry since the 1950s.
The Colleen Moore Dollhouse or “Fairy Castle” possesses thirteen key rooms, including: the Magic Garden, Library, Small Hall, Chapel, Great Hall, Drawing Room, Dining Room, and Kitchen on the first floor; Ali Baba’s cave, the Prince’s Bedroom, the Princess’ Bedroom, and Royal Bathrooms on the second floor; and an Attic on the third floor. None of the rooms have actual dolls in them; visitors are to imagine their own fantasy residents.
The Magic Garden features the rocking cradle of Rock-a-bye Baby, which is in perpetual motion. The golden cradle is bedecked with pearls made from the jewelry of Moore’s grandmother, who believed that more people would visit the dollhouse than her grave. There is also a replica of Napoleon’s carriage in the garden, which was gifted to Moore by automobile designers from Detroit. When the dollhouse first debuted, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mother presented Moore with a gold plaque for the castle, which is still affixed to the dollhouse. The outside of the dollhouse is decorated with reliefs from stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Aesop’s Fables.
The Library is decorated with undersea motifs and features 65 miniature books from the 18th century, including a small Bible from 1840 that was presented to Moore by actor Antonio Moreno. In order to grow her collection of petite books, Moore commissioned modern printings of them. They were designed as one-inch, leather-bound squares with gold accents. Moore also invited authors of her day to sign the blank pages. She secured signatures from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Noel Coward, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edna Ferber, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos, John Steinbeck, and many more luminaries beyond just writers. The most valuable miniature book in the house features the signatures of Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon.
The Small Hall links the Library and the Chapel, with a mural portraying Noah relaxing after bringing the ark to land. The Chapel features designs inspired by the Book of Kells and possesses an ivory floor. Stained glass windows, a gold altar, and a miniaturized silver throne modeled after the throne at Westminster Abbey all decorate the Chapel. Handwritten musical manuscripts from Stravinsky to Gershwin are piled near a beautiful organ with gold pipes, not far from a Russian icon detailed with emeralds and diamonds from a broach Moore purchased. A vigil light is showcases a diamond from Moore’s mother’s engagement ring. Moore’s parents also gave her a small vial containing a crucifix that is over 300 years old. Playwright and congresswoman Clare Booth Luce gave Moore a gold medallion which possesses a sliver believed to be from the true cross. A stained glass screen also stands in the Chapel, taken from Lambeth’s Palace after a World War II bombing raid.
The Great Hall continues the fairytale theme of the dollhouse, featuring paintings of various fairytale and folktale characters. The Great Hall displays items from fairytales like a museum of sorts. Moore commissioned a retired glassblower to fashion Cinderella’s tiny glass slippers for the dollhouse. The chairs of the Three Bears are also showcased in the dollhouse under a glass bell to prevent them from being inhaled. All paintings in the Great Hall are miniature versions of actual works of art. Additional art decorating the Great Hall includes 2000-year-old Egyptian statues, a Roman bronze bust from the first century, and many more treasures given to Moore. Two silver and gold knights from Rudolph Valentino guard the entrance to the Great Hall.
The Drawing Room contains a chandelier made from Moore’s diamond and emerald jewelry, shining over two artistic contributions: Los Angeles architect George Townsend Cole’s “Cinderella” mural and illustrator James Montgomery Flagg’s portrait of Moore. Nearby, the Dining Room possesses a medieval theme with extremely detailed miniatures. Moore’s charm bracelets were re-purposed to create a collection of gold teapots arranged on a shelf. In fact, details on the dinnerware are so fine that many were painted by the use of a single-haired brush. The entire table service is gold, with half-inch knives bearing Moore’s initials. The Kitchen features the lone surviving piece from Moore’s first doll house: a purple wine glass.
Moore’s house becomes all the more fantastic as visitors examine the upper levels. Ali Baba’s Cave boasts gems from Moore’s collection, while the nearby royal bedrooms complete the fairytale theme. There is a bedroom for the Prince, and one for the Princess, with each being equally ornate. The Prince’s Bedroom contains a polar bear rug, which was fashioned by a taxidermist out of ermine and the vicious teeth of a mouse. The Princess’ Bedroom houses a collection of Bristol glass, with many pieces having been contributed to Moore from strangers. The Royal Bedrooms are near the Royal Bathrooms, decorated in alabaster and diamonds. The silver spigots are functional and able to produce a fine stream of water. Extra pieces of furniture are situated in the Attic to avoid clutter in the main rooms.
The Museum of Science and industry houses the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle in its own exhibit hall, which features additional miniature items from Moore’s collection, items used to store and transport pieces for the dollhouse, and information about her film career.
Though Moore is noted as a silent film heroine, she especially impacts young and old to this day through her Fairy Castle. The Fairy Castle is visited by a constant stream of awestruck children and details about the dollhouse are shared over speakers in the exhibit hall. According to the museum, it is seen by 1.5 million people annually and is worth roughly $7 million. If you are ever in the Chicago area, Moore’s Fairy Castle is well worth a visit.