On this day in 1909, ‘Little’ Mary McAllister, whom Hans J. Wollstein calls “the First Baby Star of the Films”, was born in Los Angeles, the grand-daughter of two Scotsmen. Mary appeared in her first silent film short, Despair (1915), at the age of six and went on to make a total of forty-four films in her fifteen-year career. Newspaper mentions make it clear that she was quite the media darling, loved by children particularly but also doing her part for society as a whole. During the First World War, for example, she was made a (presumably honorary) sergeant in the US Army by President Woodrow Wilson in recognition of her work encouraging recruitment in Chicago. In addition to appearing on the silver screen, Mary starred on stage, most notably as the lead in a travelling production of ‘the Little Princess’, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s story.
When Essanay Studios folded in 1918, Mary went back to school, disappearing from the public eye just long enough for questions to begin about what had happened to her. But after graduating from Hollywood High she was back, no longer ‘Little’ Mary McAllister, destined to appear as an adult in 15 further films. Once again she was in the spotlight, appearing at various public events and now the focus of speculation about romances with costars. She was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars for 1927, and her future in cinema seemed preordained. Yet it was not to be. After a minor role in the 1930 film On the Level when she was only 21, Mary never appeared on screen again.
At this time, of course, silent films were being replaced by ‘talkies’, and several online biographies conclude that she was unable to make the transition to the new medium. In fact, it seems that Mary simply retired to lead a private life. She married businessman Robert Brigham in 1930, the year of her final film; she and Robert had two children, and the family evidently travelled extensively. Mary’s occasional appearances on stage after this were, according to author George Katchmer, “just for fun”. Her marriage appears to have ended in the early 1950s, just as her son’s was beginning, but she lived on for another four decades, dying of cancer in 1991.
Mary McAllister died in Del Mar, California, and was cremated.
Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013
‘Tiny Film Favorite Vies with Vaudeville Artists for Favor’, Nevada State Journal, 17 September 1917.
‘Little Film Star to Be Recruit Speaker’, Oakland Tribune, 14 October 1919; Nevada State Journal, 17 September 1917.
G. Katchmer, A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses (McFarland, 2009), p. 241.