Jackie Coogan’s Million-Dollar Crusade
In 1924, child star Jackie Coogan embarked on a journey across the United States to raise funds and awareness for Near East Relief. The massively successful campaign raised more than $1 million in goods and cash.
Becoming "America's Boy"
Jackie Coogan was the first child film star in Hollywood history. Born in California in 1914, Jackie began acting as an infant. Famous silent film actor Charlie Chaplin discovered four-year-old Jackie on a vaudeville stage. Chaplin cast Jackie in his 1919 film A Day’s Pleasure.
Chaplin enjoyed Jackie’s work so much that he cast Jackie in the title role of the 1921 film The Kid. Jackie’s portrayal of the mischievous, adorable street urchin captured America’s hearts. Jackie went on to star as the beloved title character in Oliver Twist in 1922. The cherubic Coogan quickly became the most famous boy in Hollywood. He was fondly known as “America’s Boy.”
A Pint-Sized Philanthropist
Jackie Coogan caught the eye of a Near East Relief writer in 1921, when he donated a bundle of used clothing to a Near East Relief Bundle Day campaign. The New Near East magazine praised Jackie and other silent film stars like Frank Bacon and Otis Skinner for their generous clothing donations, while reminding readers that “it is never too late to bundle up a bundle for Near East orphans.”
Elegant movie palaces around the country celebrated Jackie Coogan Days to benefit Near East Relief. Children in Brooklyn, NY flocked to the Strand Theatre to see Jackie’s 1922 film Trouble. The price of admission was a used garment for donation to Near East Relief. Parents were encouraged to stay home while their children enjoyed a special day at the movies.
By 1923, the famous Jackie was starring in the circus-themed Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus. With the help of returned Near East Relief worker Miss Jessie Way, Jackie transformed the film’s production lot into a real circus for local children. Admission was “a bundle of clothing or shoes or two pint cans condensed milk.”
Guests enjoyed animal acts, music, acrobats, and side shows. A whopping 7,500 attendees contributed $3,500 worth of supplies for Near East Relief. The goods were sent to Constantinople for distribution.
The Children's Crusade
Jackie was a natural choice for a Near East Relief spokesperson. By the age of nine, he had built an impressive film career playing scrappy, lovable orphans. He had demonstrated a commitment to Near East Relief’s mission. Jackie could use his fame to appeal to American children as no adult ever could.
In 1924, Jackie Coogan embarked on a national fundraising tour on behalf of Near East Relief. Dubbed the Children’s Crusade, Jackie traveled across the United States in a private railroad car collecting clothing, non-perishable food, and financial donations.
Crowds of generous young fans greeted Jackie at every stop on his cross-country tour.
A Hero's Welcome
Jackie Coogan and his entourage descended upon New York City on August 16, 1924. A crowd of well-wishers greeted Jackie’s train at Grand Central Terminal. Jackie rode in a parade down Fifth Avenue and across the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn. He enjoyed a luncheon hosted by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce before embarking upon a second parade down a Brooklyn thoroughfare. The parade included themed floats and 20 busloads of New York City’s own orphans.
The parade ended in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where Jackie greeted 40,000 fans to celebrate Jackie Coogan Day. So large was the crowd that the Park borrowed a sound system from Madison Square Garden for the occasion! The Brooklyn Daily Eagle praised nine-year-old Jackie’s ability to sit through speeches by adults like Lt. Governor Lunn and Borough President Edward Riegelmann.
Children were asked to bring non-perishable foods like condensed milk and canned goods. The event was sponsored in part by Karo Corn Syrup, and any child who brought a can of Karo syrup received a free hat. Dozens of Boy Scouts loaded the donations onto trucks for shipment from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Jackie Sets Sail
Jackie departed for the Near East on the Leviathan on September 6, 1924. By sheer coincidence, the same ship had transported the first group of Near East Relief workers in February 1919. Jackie traveled to London, Paris, and Rome, where he received a blessing and a Golden Cross of the Order of Jerusalem from Pope Pius XI.
Jackie’s journey culminated in a visit to the largest orphanage in Athens. Jackie presented the Zappeion Orphanage with bills of lading showing that more than $1 million in cargo was en route to the Near East as a result of the Children’s Crusade. The Greek government presented Jackie with the Silver Cross of the Order of Saint George for his humanitarian work.
Jackie returned to the United States after three months abroad. He went on to a long and prolific career in film and television. He is now better remembered for his role as Uncle Fester in the television series The Addams Family, but for a generation of Americans, Jackie Coogan will always be America’s Boy.