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The First Child Star

Updated on June 6, 2011
Photo from The Hollywood Megastore
Photo from The Hollywood Megastore

First Stage Child Star

The phenomenum of the child star did not begin in Hollywood but rather on the stage. In the mid nineteenth century an American girl with English immigrant parents, called Lottie Crabtree, was a huge sensation, not least because she had a very pushy stage mother. It was the tme of the Gold Rush (which her father had joined, abandoning the family) and from a very young age New York born Lotta was dragged around mining camps to entertain the miners. By the age of nine she was already featuring in variety theatres in San Francisco.

Lotta had many talents; she could play the banjo,sing, dance and act and by the time she was a teenager she was being toasted as San Francisco's Favourite daughter.. The young performer didn't rest on her laurels though and eventually moved on to become "The Nation's Favourite". As the NewYork Times put it, she had; "The face of a beautiful doll and the ways of a playful one could wriggle more suggestively than Lotta." By the time of her retirement in 1945, she was an extremely wealthy woman.

Perhaps because she was too busy performing, Lotta never married and spent her retirement as a near recluse. Or it could be she just enjoyed her independence (she was president of the Professional Woman's Association) which was an unusual state for women to be in back then, as few jobs were available for them. Lotta lived in a hotel and spent many hours painting seascapes with her trusty dog at ther side and a cigar between her teeth. After her death, her multi-million dollar estate was divided up between various charities.

Lotta Crabtree
Lotta Crabtree
Jackie Coogan in Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid"
Jackie Coogan in Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid"

First Movie Child Star

Jackie Coogan is generally given credit for being the first movie child star, for although Mary Pickford had been a hit before him, her fame as a child came primarily through the stage and she was already a teenager by the time she made films.

Coogan was born in the US in 1914 and began his career in silent films at the age of three in the film Skinners Baby, (although his name did not appear in the credits). He also worked in vaudeville and it was there his talents were discovered by comic genius Charlie Chaplain, who was impressed with Coogan's abilities as a mimic.

The Kid

The Kid, made in 1921, was Charlie Chaplin's first feature length film in which he featured as actor/director and one of his most successful. It was the second highest grossing film of 1921 and it also made Jackie Coogan a star and set the benchmark for all subsequent child actors. His performance as Charlie Chaplin's six year old adopted son and partner in crime was highly praised by the public and critics alike.

Coogan's total earnings as a child were said to have been around the $3 to $4 million dollar mark, which in today's terms would transalte to around $40 million to $100 million. However Coogn's parents (his mother, Lilian and stepfather, Arthur Bernstein) failed to organise his financial affairs with due care; they are said to have squandered the money on liuxury items for themselves. The former child star sued them in 1938 but ony managed to retrieve a fraction of his original earnings. However, when he fell on hard times, his old friend and mentor Charlie Chaplain offered him financial assistance.The case led to Coogan's Law which offered greater protection to child performers and over the years the screen actors guild pushed for improvements and refinements to the legislation.

Jackie Coogan had showbiz in his veins;both his biological parents had been stage performers and he continued to perfom in television as a character actor after WWII (where he served as a glider pilot), although he we would never regain the superstardom he'd know as a child actor.

Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in the 60's television series, "The Adams Family"
Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in the 60's television series, "The Adams Family"


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