Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Introducing Dorothy Ponedel: She’s Why the Stars Had Faces Back Then

Makeup by Dorothy Ponedel

In this season of family gatherings and warm family memories, Meredith Ponedel thinks back to her Aunt Dorothy. Meredith had lived with her father’s sister since her mother died when she was only three. The woman in whose Beverly Hills home she grew up had white hair and needed a walker, the result of the MS that struck her when she turned 50. There was little question in young Meredith’s mind that Aunt Dot was an old lady of no particular consequence. Still, there were those glamorous photographs that five-year-old Meredith had unearthed in the attic. When she began asking questions about her aunt’s past, an amazing story emerged.

Dorothy Ponedel, it seemed, had been a valued member of the Hollywood film community.

Born in 1898 to a Chicago cigar-maker and his wife, Dot Ponedel was faced early on with the need to help support her many relatives. In her teens she made the trek to Southern California with her mother, then sent for brothers and cousins, finding work for everyone within the fledgling studio system. She herself began as a dancer, doubling for Mabel Normand and other stars of the silent era. She played hookers and a hula girl, as well as what she liked to call “the First Tonto.” (In films like 1925's Galloping Vengeance she wore a wig and dark makeup to play an androgynous Indian guide.) In that wild and woolly era, she was fortunate to be feisty and outspoken. She staved off the advances of many a director, and (when asked to pose nude) retorted, “I want all my interesting points draped, or no go.”

Soon Dot discovered she had a special talent for movie makeup. By studying the light and shadows in the paintings of great artists, she learned to highlight the best features of Hollywood’s leading ladies. The penciled-in eyebrow look that dominated the 1930s was largely her doing. Unfortunately, the formerly all-male union of Hollywood makeup artists kept trying to oust her from its ranks. When she was under contract at Paramount, both Marlene Dietrich and Mae West refused to come to work unless she was permitted to remain a union member.

Always sociable, Dot entertained many glamorous stars in her home. Joan Blondell often visited, as did her favorite Hollywood pal, Judy Garland, with whom she shared a raucous sense of humor. Niece Meredith enjoyed these visits, though not the girly gifts the ladies sometimes brought her, like frilly underwear. Nor did Meredith relish lunching on Garland’s homemade Shepherd’s Pie. But her aunt made clear that, when celebrities came to call, “she didn’t want me to know them as movie stars. She wanted me to know them as people.”

As Dot Ponedel grew older, her illness made it difficult for her to work. Still, she liked having company. When Meredith was a student at nearby Beverly Hills High, Aunt Dot would sometimes summon her to come home in the middle of the day by staging a “crisis.” Meredith will never forget the day in junior high she was given the alarming news that her aunt had fallen from her wheelchair. She was driven home by the school nurse, who helped Dot back into her chair, but was shocked by the extent of the blood and bruises that covered her face and body. After the nurse departed, Meredith learned the truth: her aunt’s ugly wounds were nothing but makeup. She just wanted to have her niece around for the afternoon.  

Dorothy Ponedel died in 1979, but has not been forgotten, As Angela Lansbury once confirmed, “She walked onto the set and everybody smiled.”  

Judy Garland, at the time she shot "In the Good Old Summertime," surrounded by her entourage. Dot, wearing a white blouse, is just above her right shoulder. The ladies are studying photos of little Liza Minnelli
An early photo of Dot Ponedel on the Paramount Studios lot  Her hair color reportedly changed from week to week.


  1. Dot is not merely human, she is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing!

  2. It's my great pleasure, John. Meredith would like to publish a full-length biography of her aunt, and she's struggling to make that a reality. (Do visit Movieland again soon!)

  3. Meredith accomplished her goal of a biography of Dot, and it is superb.

  4. I'm so glad to hear this, Rick! Thanks for chiming in!