In the 1930s and '40s, Virginia Weidler was one of Hollywood's most popular child stars, appearing with Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable and Bette Davis in dozens of classic films. Though she was forced out of the business in her teens, and her star has largely faded in the pop memory, one Carroll County man is trying his hardest to make sure the former child star is not forgotten.
Pete White, of Eldersburg, founded the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society in 2012. This month, he and the other members of the society have convinced the city of Los Angeles to issue a proclamation celebrating the actress on March 21, what would have been her 90th birthday.
White said the actress first came to his attention five years ago, while watching 1939's "The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt," the first in a series of B-movie adventures starring Warren William. In the film, Weidler played the daughter of The Lone Wolf, a character who would be dropped from the rest of the series. White said her boldness and spunkiness caught his eye.
"I knew her from her role in 'The Philadelphia Story,' which is a big important film," White said. "But as I started reading her story, I learned more and more about her."
Weidler starred in about 40 films between 1934 and 1943, before leaving the film industry. White said one of the major reasons she stopped acting was that MGM, the company which owned her contract at the time, claimed she hit an awkward age at 15 and was no longer sellable.
White said that what makes the actress so compelling is that she was a very disciplined performer, particularly given how young she was.
"She was good at doing things in a scene where she's not the center of attention," White said. "I mean, she's the center to me, because I watch her all the time, but for other people, she'll be on the sides playing with something on the desk or staying active."
After leaving Hollywood behind, Weidler started a family and refused to talk about her previous career. She died at only 41 years old in 1968 because of a lifelong heart ailment.
"All of that added up to become one heartbreaking story to me," White said. "I started going to forums, like Turner Classic Movies, and asking people 'What do you know about Virginia Weidler?'"
White eventually reached out to movie critic Leonard Maltin, sharing with him the information White had gathered about the young actress and asking if he could fill in some of the gaps. He said after a few weeks he received a response from Maltin claiming "you already know more about her than I do."
In an effort to reach more film buffs who might have more information on Weidler, White created a Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society page on Facebook. Though he was posting pretty much exclusively to himself at the start, White said he was soon put in touch with Danny Miller, a movie writer for cinephile.com who shared many of the same interests. Soon Miller was boosted to a partner on the page and they began researching together.
The two managers of the society researched old newspapers, film magazines and other promotional materials, and together also began interviewing people who knew Weidler in life, including co-stars June Lockhart, Tommy Dix and director Gene Reynolds, best known for his work as a producer of "M*A*S*H."
"Everything we did and every person we talked to said she was the nicest person that anybody had ever met," White said. "That was a real big reinforcement that I was backing the right horse."
Soon they started a Tumblr page, which morphed into the official VWRS website, hosted at www.virginiaweidler.net. Though most people still engage with the group on Facebook — the current count of fans tops 900 — White said he appreciates having the website as it lends an air of respectability to the entire endeavor.
One of the first major achievements of the group was convincing Turner Classic Movies to host a marathon of Virginia Weidler films in their primetime slot.
"I think they mostly gave in because they were tired of hearing from me," White said. "After that screening though, the Facebook page jumped from 200 to 800 people all because she was on that one night in prime time."
Today, White posts on the site daily, hosting quizzes about Weidler's co-stars, and planning events and celebrations with the worldwide network of fans. Each year, for her birthday, he recommends fans watch a Virginia Weidler movie, think about her career and life and, oddly enough, eat cottage cheese.
"When she was 8 years old, they put her in a little book about child stars, where she said things like she wanted to grow up to become a racecar driver," White said. "One of the things she said was that her favorite food was cottage cheese, so that's what we eat to celebrate."
This year, White said, they wanted to do something special for what would have been her 90th birthday, and came up with the concept of the proclamation as a way to help the public recognize her contributions to film.
While they first reached out to her birthplace Eagle Rock neighborhood council, they were told that it would have to be established by the greater city council of Los Angeles. White said the council agreed to their plan, and even allowed him to write the proclamation himself. Currently the piece is being passed among the council, with each member signing it, at which point the proclamation will be in effect and sent to White.
According to White, most members of Weidler's family are not interested in participating in the Remembrance Society, her grandson Jonathan Krisel — a writer and director for the television show "Portlandia" — has been in touch with the group, and participated in an interview with Miller.
"He said the family doesn't quite understand why we do it, but they also don't have a problem with it," White said.
Once the proclamation is sent back to the society, White said, they plan on reaching out to Krisel to see if the family has any interest in the official document.
Though the family may not understand White's zeal for the actress, he said it's not a hard passion to figure out.
"When I first started, I wanted to feel better about what seemed like such a sad story," White said. "As I continued to do it, I discovered that I really like this person. Everybody I spoke to said she wasn't a back biter, she got out of Hollywood and didn't end up with a bunch of personal problems; she stayed a clean-cut, all-American girl."
Though Virginia Weidler is best known for her work in "The Philadelphia Story," in which she played Katharine Hepburn's teenaged sister, Pete White, founder of the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society who runs www.virginiaweidler.net, said he has two choices for his favorite Weidler films.
"Girl of the Ozarks" is a Paramount film from 1936, starring Weidler as a young girl from a poor family in the Ozark mountains who is about to become an orphan. White said it's a gritty look at the Depression, and how society shuns groups of people deemed lesser.
White's other recommendation is a 1939 MGM film "Bad Little Angel." In the film, Virigina again plays an orphan, but this time with a peppier, happier script. Based on the advice of the scripture, she flees to Egypt — Egypt, New Jersey, where she befriends the residents of the small town.