LOS ANGELES — Phyllis McGillicuddy strode out of the bathroom, heading toward a podium that overlooked a room packed with fans and friends alike. It had been a while since Phyllis left her home in suburban Glendale, where she lives with multiple cats and manages the Prescott Pictures Society, home to memorabilia from Hollywood’s Prescott Pictures.
On this particular evening, she was speaking at Skylight Books about the 25-year reissue of Day Magazine, which is devoted to remembering Hollywood starlet Priscilla Prescott. Appearing confused or perhaps just befuddled by the large number of people who had gathered before her, Phyllis, who is played by artist Lenae Day, presented a slideshow outlining groundbreaking moments in the life and career of Priscilla Prescott, matriarch of Prescott Pictures, including an excerpt from her breakout silent film Hot Tomatoes (1928) to her very last one, The Virgin Terri (1989). Originally released on April 10, 1989, the publication resembles a glossy commemorative issue of LIFE magazine, yet the Prescott family does not exist and every character is played by Lenae Day. But I do seem to have a memory of my mom and I eating breakfast one morning while discussing the Prescotts. Did that happen, or do I remember that from a poster that I saw in Day’s recent solo exhibition where she created a fake Hollywood museum devoted to the Prescotts’ legacy?
Therein lies the point of Day’s ongoing performative project that revolves around the Prescott Pictures, a woman-led production company that began in 1916 and continued through the year 1991. Recreating the memory of a family that never existed, the Prescott’s stories are actually a fictionalized collage of real Hollywood stories that reveal the absurdities of the entertainment industry’s history, consider the ways viewers romanticize celebrity personas, and speak to the power of mediated images. Yet here, Day imagines a world where women have agency, fame, and a masterful ability to manipulate the media.
“Instead of the Warner Brothers, it’s the Prescott Sisters,” Day tells Hyperallergic. “I wanted to reimagine Hollywood if there was a power family of women. To do that, I had to maintain the name which was difficult to do because women [typically] give up their last names.”
According to Phyllis, who narrates this hilarious Kickstarter video, Prescott Pictures was founded in 1916 by silent film actress and producer Norma Prescott, who stared in the fictional film The Golden Apple, and her producer husband Joseph Schearer. As Phyllis would most likely explain to anyone who inquired, though the company began with Norma, it was her sister Priscilla — not her third sister, Ursula — who would become the central starlet of the business. Priscilla’s break came with the 1928 silent film Hot Tomatoes, and continued on when she stared in Paradise (1930), which established her as an actress in the talkies, followed by Salome, which was shot sometime in the 1930s and 40s. According to Day Magazine, her career waned in the late 1940s, only to recover in 1950 with the film Little White Lies. More films circulated in the 1960s, followed by a five-year stint in television with Gossip Garden from 1972–77. But if you want the whole story, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the comprehensive magazine which is written in that grandiose tone of Hollywood rags. This is part of both the intrigue and repulsion of Day Magazine, particularly for a project that crosses so heavily into the entertainment world and at times seems a part of it all together.
Perhaps that is because the Prescotts are like any entertainment industry business in Hollywood — they like to keep it in the family. Norma produced films staring her younger sisters, Ursula and Priscilla. As happened during the time period, not all actresses made the transition from silent films to the talkies, and such was the case with Norma. Her sister, Priscilla, would ultimately become the most well-known star of the Prescott family, continuing to appear in films up until the selling off of Prescott Pictures to parent company Victory Vista Entertainment in 1991.
In her final film, the trashy 80s flick The Virgin Terri (1989), Priscilla plays Mother Superior, a woman who ditched prostitution for nunnery when she got too old to pick up men, and is now determined to teach young virginal Terri, played by her real-life granddaughter Tiffany Day-Prescott, to become a great prostitute so that she can use these funds to “save the convent.”
But silver screen drama aside, in order to ensure that Prescott Pictures kept with the matriarchal family name, Day constructed a variety of clever loopholes.
“Priscilla keeps her last name because it’s her performing last name,” Day says. “She has her daughter, Victoria Prescott, but her daughter is out of wedlock and in secret, and then she adopts her but pretends she is not her biological daughter. So it makes sense that her daughter would be a Prescott as well.”
Men come and go throughout Priscilla Prescott’s long life; in fact, she has five husbands, each with a name more ridiculous sounding than the one she married before him. And with each strangely named husband comes an intensely bizarre romance — Hamish Irons, for example, is a man involved in the soda business who Priscilla married after she began having an affair with him after her previous husband, Lester Day, left her for her daughter Victoria.
These types of scandal-heavy, ripe-for-gossip types of tales are not so far from the Hollywood reality. Actor Mickey Rooney, who passed away at age 93 just the other week, had a menagerie of eight wives, and died penniless. I brought this up to Day when we discussed the Prescotts in her living room, whilst her cats — who are also seen in Phyllis’ Kickstarter video — roamed about, begging for food. At times, we are more intrigued by the person behind the silver screen than the one that they are portraying. Such is the case with celebrity, where the line between reality and fictional story is constantly blurring and morphing.
“Wasn’t Mickey Rooney married to Eva Gardner at one point?” Lenae said, when I mentioned his death during our interview. “He was like 4’9”, and he was a child star.” To which she added: “One of my characters, Victoria, was a child star. She was Priscilla’s adopted daughter, but is actually her biological daughter but doesn’t learn that until she is 40.”
The reissue of the 25th anniversary publication of Day Magazine is available for purchase at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, or through the artist directly. Lenae Day as Phyllis McGillicuddy presented “Remembering Priscilla Prescott” on April 4 at Skylight Books (1818 N Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, 90027).