Philadelphia children’s TV show star has movie costumes from legendary collection in Allentown Art Museum exhibition
The exhibit is “Designing Hollywood.”
It’s really Gene London’s Hollywood.
The exhibit, subtitled “Golden Age Costumes from the Gene London Cinema Collection,” through Dec. 22, Allentown Art Museum, includes 60 vintage costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood movies, including those worn by Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Charlton Heston, James Cagney and many more.
London, a Philadelphia children’s television personality who has collected Hollywood costumes for decades, visits the Allentown Art Museum for “The Gene London Experience,” 12:30-3:30 p.m. Nov. 9. London will talk about his career, his collection and Hollywood, and guide a tour of the exhibit. “The Gene London Experience” will also be presented for Allentown’s “Third Thursday,” 5:30-7:30 p.m. Nov. 21.
Entering the “Designing Hollywood” exhibition is as if you are walking into a movie. The costumes are elegant and stunning. The detail work is amazing. Wall cards provide fascinating information. Film clips accompany some of the costumes, depicting the stars wearing them in scenes from movies they were in.
If London’s visit at the Allentown Art Museum members’ preview of the exhibit, Sept. 28, and opening day, Sept. 29, is any indication, he again will be more than happy to chat with fans and pose for selfies with them when he returns.
Fans of Gene London relate to him as a friend from his years of hosting “The Gene London Show,” also known as “Gene London’s Cartoons & Stuff,” “The Wonderful World of Gene London” and “Cartoon Corners,” televised 1959 - 1977 on WCAU-TV, Philadelphia.
The gift shop at the Allentown Art Museum has for sale posters of Gene London, a version of the apron he wore on the show, and copies of the Gene London Fan Club booklet.
London would greet the children who were guests on the show, sing the theme song, tell classic stories, voice each character and sketch scenes from the stories. As befits the show’s title, Disney and other cartoons were televised.
It was an era when TV markets across the United States had original programming for children. In addition to Gene London, Philadelphia children’s TV show stars included Sally Starr, Bill “Wee Willie” Webber, Pixanne, “Uncle” Pete Boyle, Chief Halftown and Captain Noah.
During his talk at the Allentown Art Museum, London seemed overwhelmed by the adulation of the estimated 120 who filled the auditorium. London spoke calmly and softly. After his talk, he listened to each person waiting in the long line.
He began his Allentown Art Museum talk by saying, “My real name is Eugene Yulish. I grew up in Cleveland. Everybody was poor during the Depression. But we could go to the movies. They had palaces for the movies.”
Pausing, he said, “I love the make-believe.”
In a recent phone interview from near Hollywood, Fla., where he was vacationing, London, 88, recounted his love of the movies, the influence of his mother’s aspirations on his career, and how he has collected some 60,000 Hollywood costumes.
Before his career in Philadelphia, London was on children’s shows telecast 1957 - 1959 in New York City, including “Johnny Jupiter,” a puppet show where he played Re-ject the Robot; “Tinker’s Workshop,” on WABC-TV, playing Tinker Tom the Toymaker, and NBC-TV’s “Today’ show with host Dave Garroway, for holiday-themed specials.
“I got better and better,” says London. “I thought I was hot stuff. I went into the program manager [at WABC].” “Farmer Brown” cartoons from the 1920s were telecast on “Tinker’s Workshop.” “I said, ‘Get better cartoons or I quit.’ He said, ‘You’re fired.’
“Then I went to the competition.” London called Dave Garroway at the “Today” show. “When I called, he [Garroway] answered the phone. That’s how different it was in those days.”
London had taught puppetry at Summerdale Day Camp, near Philadelphia. “The head counselor became my godfather. He was a school teacher in Philadelphia, Sam Browne. They [Browne and his wife, Ruth] talked me into coming to Philadelphia.
“I walked from Independence Hall to WCAU on City Line because I didn’t have enough money for the subway. Jack Dolph was the program manager there. I told him all the things I could do. He said, ‘Tell me a story.’ I told him “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ He called in the staff. I changed my voice for each character. Jack Snyder, the general manager, said, ‘Hire the kid. He’ll make us a fortune.’
“They had a set, a pub set, left over from a show and they painted flowers around it and made it look Pennsylvania-Dutch. And we did our first ‘Cartoon Corners’ General Store.
“The first show changed all the ratings. After the third show, it was the highest-rated show in Philadelphia.
“It won all kinds of awards. I just had a joyous time. Now it seems there are people all over the world and it’s just amazing how much affection pulls me in. It’s like being an old movie star from the golden age.”
After “Cartoon Corners,” London ran a collectible clothing shop, Gene London: The Fan Club, along West 19th Street, New York City, from 1992 until 2002. London also became a spokesman for Mikimoto, traveling the world to represent the jewelry firm.
“The truth of my life is that I love the movies. To me, the movies of the golden age [roughly the mid-1930s through the mid-1960s] are an extraordinary time in our country. It’s a 20th century phenomenon of our age.
“My mother’s dream was to be a movie star. She took me to the movies.”
Immigrants to the United States learned to assimilate during the early days of cinema.
“I learned to be Gene London the way immigrants learned English. I wrote a whole list for names. And when I wrote Gene London, that was it. So, Gene London was born when I was only dreaming about being a star.” He was 16.
“I learned how to act, how to change my voices, how to design, how to be a producer, almost everything, Hollywood taught me. Going to the movies was my learning course, my passion.”
London became friends with movie stars when they were in Philadelphia to be on “The Mike Douglas Show” (1965 - 1977).
“He [Douglas] loved movie stars. Everyone came to Philly. And then they came to my show. The kids would ask them questions. My first interview was Myrna Loy. She had grown older. And I thought that movie stars never grew old.
“Kirk Douglas was one of my favorite people. John Wayne. They came on the show as a star, but they became a real person.”
And then there was Joan Crawford.
“She [Crawford] had come to Philly to do an appearance at Wanamaker’s. She woke up very early. And she watched my show.”
“I lived in New York and I love flea markets and thrift shows. I found Hollywood everywhere. At one store, I asked, ‘Do you have any movie star garments?’ And she said, ‘Yes, we just got some from Joan Crawford.’
“There was a 1930s gown, silk chiffon, beautiful print of flowers, ruffles on the sleeves. I knew that all the stars had identification of the star and the number of the production on the costume. But this one had none.”
Meanwhile, after seeing London’s children’s TV show when in Philadelphia, Crawford wrote to London. He recalls what she stated in the letter:
“‘You could be a big movie star. If you want to see Louie B. Mayer, I will send you a round-trip plane ticket.’ She included a phone number. ‘Call me.’
“I thought someone was playing a joke on me. I crumpled up the letter and threw it in the waste basket.”
Later, when Crawford visited WCAU, London found out that the letter had been written by her, but that the unlabeled costume was not hers.
Soon after, a Palmolive soap box arrived from Crawford with a two-piece black silk jersey cocktail ensemble. London replied to Crawford with a humorous letter, thanking her and asking for her “dresses, gowns, shoes, hats, galoshes and suspants.”
London next got a call from Crawford. “‘Gene, where do I send the stuff?’” London recalled. And their friendship was born.
London’s New York City store was a success.
“When the soap operas began to end, I would buy their whole stock. I would buy all of the Broadway costumes when the show closed.
“They would sell the costumes for very little.
“It lasted until the World Trade Center collapsed. That was the death of fashion in New York. No one gave parties. No one got dressed up.
“And then I called Al Boscov. He said, ‘I’ll give you a studio. Come to Reading.’”
That’s how London’s Hollywood costume collection ended up in a climate-controlled warehouse in Reading, where London has purchased a house.
Al Boscov was chairman of Boscov’s, a department store chain of 50 locations, including a store in the Lehigh Valley Mall, Whitehall.
London said of Boscov, “He called me in the beginning of my career. He said, ‘I need customers to come to my store.’ He turned one of his rooms into an auditorium. I did shows free. He never forgot that.”
London bought Hollywood costumes in earnest.
“Debbie Reynolds was the largest collector. When she passed, I bought what she had. She was the first Hollywood collector. When MGM went out of business, she bought everything.
“You could buy a garbage bag full of major clothes worn by Clark Gable for $5.
“Costumes meant very little to Hollywood. But to make them cost a fortune.
“When Adrian [Hollywood movie fashion designer] saw Joan Crawford the first time, he put pads on her shoulders because she looked like a female Johnny Weismuller [who played Tarzan in the movies] to him and women had to be square-shouldered to face a world without men during the Second World War.”
Fashion on-screen became fashion off-screen. Says London:
“Joan Crawford wore a gown in ‘Letty Lynton’  and more than 50,000 copies of it were sold at Macy’s nationwide.”
London is still collecting Hollywood movie costumes. He notes that two versions of the same costume were typically made for a movie.
“I have a lot of Grace Kelly’s clothes. I have one she wore in ‘The Swan’ , an important gown from the movie [which is in the ‘Designing Hollywood’ exhibition]. I just bought the same damaged gown. My plan is to repair it.” London hires garment restoration experts.
London is curator of “Designing Hollywood” exhibition with co-curator Claire McRee, Allentown Art Museum assistant curator.
The exhibition includes an audio tour that allows visitors to hear London tell behind-the-scenes stories about many of the costumes.
The designer of the “Designing Hollywood” exhibition is Steve Gamler, Allentown Art Museum lead preparator. The colors, purple and gold, on the walls complement many of the costumes. Gamler, who designed and built the display platforms, created the crossing-spotlights design element that is carried through in the galleries, signs and promotional pieces for “Designing Hollywood.”
There are sponsors for more than 40 of the costumes by regional businesses and movie-loving individuals.
“Designing Hollywood: Golden Age Costumes from the Gene London Cinema Collection” is considered one of the most successful exhibits at Allentown Art Museum by officials there.
“That’s what I did it for, to bring people to the museum,” says London.
“Designing Hollywood: Golden Age Costumes from the Gene London Cinema Collection,” through Dec. 22, Allentown Art Museum, 31 N. Fifth St., Allentown. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Third Thursdays; noon-4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free Sundays. AllentownArtMuseum.org; 610-432-4333