Tim Lilley

Author Tim Lilley wrote a terrific series years ago called Campfire Conversations.  The series was devoted to interviewing John Wayne’s friends and coworkers and was extremely thorough.  Through the years he often heard mention of the mugs that John Wayne gave to them.  The following is an article Tim Lilley did about the mugs and in our opinion is the most comprehensive we have seen.

Mug Shots

A Modest Look at a Most Desirable Collection

By Tim Lilly and pardners’

“…These mugs are like awards for me… You’d probably get them a month, or maybe two or three months after the picture was finished.  They would come in the mail and it would be a nice thing to remember the movie which you worked on”  (stuntman/actor Dean Smith)

“Personally, I valued them greatly.  Everyone that I know, who had any John Wayne mugs, felt the same way about them.  They were truly ‘inimitable’, ‘regalos especial,’ from ‘mi compadre’, that always brought back memories of ‘the good ole days’ making films with friends.”  (actor Tom Hennesy)

Among fans they are reverently referred to as the “Holy Grail” of John Wayne collectibles.  Among many of the cast and stunt professionals to whom they were given over the years, they are proudly called “our Oscars.”  We are referring to the souvenir mugs which John Wayne used to give out to cast and crew as mementos of their collaboration on a John Wayne film.

This generous and unique tradition (“I’ve never known of any other star, director, or producer that did the same thing,” asserts Tom Hennesy) was started by the Duke around the peak of his ascendancy to major stardom – in the very late 40’s or early 50’s.2

The fact that the tradition starts around the time Wayne was working on the film FLYING LEATHERNECKS is more than a mere coincidence in timing.  One of the major props in that film are the ceramic mugs which each member of Marine Aviation Unit VMF 247 has to identify him.  One side of the white, gold-handled mugs is blank, but the front but the front side bears the units logo, the head of a snarling black panther encircled in a red target.  And the cups are personalized.  Above the logo is each flier’s first name or nickname (“Cowboy,” “Griff,” etc.), making the cup an important form of identity in the group.  When one of the fliers is lost in combat, the cup is placed on the desk of Wayne’s Major Dan Kirby who uses the cup as a reminder that he must write to the dead man’s family.  In the script, the mugs signify a symbol of the unity that the desperate group of fliers need to sustain their efforts in unrelenting combat.  Whether used for holding a cold beer or one’s daily coffee (they seem to work fine for both), the cups are an important part of each aviator’s personal effects.

One thing John Wayne never forgot during his half-century of making films was the debt a star owed to all the professionals whose talents helped to create a moving picture show.  The mugs, from FLYING LEATHERNECKS through THE SHOOTIST, were tokens of appreciation for all involved in the team effort.  As production on a film neared its end, Wayne would make sure a list was compiled of all the film’s participants, from principal costars through stunt players, from the director through the whole crew to the pre-production hairpiece stylist.  Duke’s trusty secretary, Mary St. John, would take care of the details of ordering and sending out these tokens which became treasured souvenirs of movie making experiences in a John Wayne film.  The mugs would usually arrive a few weeks after the shooting had wrapped on a film.  The local press became aware of Wayne’s gift-giving and made reference to it in various Hollywood news columns.  Here are a couple from the ‘50s:

The cast and crew of BIG JIM McLAIN just received their gifts from John Wayne – gold-handled coffee mugs, very handsome.

(Louella O. Parsons in the Los Angeles Examiner, 8-13, 1952.)

John Wayne gifted the crew of BLOOD ALLEY with beer mugs, as he always does at the end of a picture. He started this with FLYING LEATHERNECKS two people have the complete set of six mugs – Wayne (sic) Overlander, his make-up man, Mary St. John, his secretary.

(Sheilah Grahm in Hollywood Citizen News, March 17, 1955.)

Ms. Grahm’s description of the souvenirs as beer mugs suggests that many of the Duke’s recipients were not constrained by the definition of coffee mug.  Also, if newspaper reports or studio releases are accurate, it was not uncommon for hundreds of the mugs to me ordered for a single film:

John Wayne is gifting the 300 members crew of THE

SEA CHASE with beer mugs, carrying a picture of the ship used in the film.

(Sheilah Grahm in Hollywood Citizen News, December 22, ‘54)

The business which was commissioned to craft the mugs was owned by Bob Williams.  His Mug Shop, located in Santa Ana, California, created the heavy ceramic coffee style mugs.  They were distinctive in a number of ways.  The handle was painted solid gold glaze in a way sure to catch the eye.  Each mug bore a cartoon or sketch or picture related to the film.  Usually the title of the film was included in the artwork.  Often a saying from the film was inscribed. For instance, THE SEARCHERS mug contains the phrase “That’ll be the Day” below the artwork of Ethan and Martin crossing the plains.  THE WINGS OF EAGLES mug pictures a Navy ship and the legend “I’m gonna move that toe, Boy. I’m gonna move that toe.”  And of course, the McLINTOCK! mug would not be complete without proclaiming “Ho Macklin!” on its surface.  The most personal touch on the mugs was the simple inscription or dedication on the back which read “Jack from Duke,” or “Bob from Duke,” the first names of each recipient acknowledged by the actor.  And lest you think Duke had very little involvement or control in the process of creating the unique mementos, check out this interesting reference from Sidney Skolsky in the Hollywood Citizen News, October 10, 1956:

Continuing an old Hollywood custom, there was an end-of-the-picture-party on the set of THE WINGS OF EAGLES. John Wayne’s gifts to the cast and crew were coffee mugs, each inscribed with a water color of an aircraft carrier “From Duke,” with the exception of camera assistant Fuzzy Klein’s mug.  When Wayne learned that Klein’s first name wasn’t Fuzzy, he not only used Fuzzy’s real name but his (Wayne’s) real first name.  The coffee mug read: “To Milford – From Marion.”

    In the late fifties, Bob Williams moved his business to Tustin, California.  One of his craftsmen, a man named Ketcham, later started his own business in Long Beach.  Some of the later mugs (from the early ‘70s) were made here.  That is why a mug from a film like CAHILL, U.S. MARSHAL is stamped “Ketcham Originals” on the bottom, where the earlier mugs bore “The Mug Shop” name, and before that, were stamped “Bob Williams” over a Wallace China logo.  The artwork on these later mugs, on the whole, is not quite as distinctive as the style of the earlier mugs.  Some of them, too, have the gold painted handle in a more simplified manner with a thin gold stripe instead of a solid tint.  The size and weight of the later pieces are slightly less than the earlier ones.  It is interesting to note that Duke also had mugs made of some of his TV related projects.  One of our readers has a “Swing Out, Sweet Land” mug in his collection.  I have seen one with artwork and the simple inscription “Monument Valley” which may commemorate his participation in “The American West of John Ford.”  That the mugs held significance for the Duke is evidenced by the fact that he saved some for his own household.  Author Dan Ford, who in the mid-‘70s was taping interviews for his book Pappy, recalls meeting meeting Wayne at his house and conducting the interviews while sipping coffee from two of the Ketcham-made McQ mugs.

Duke continued to stay on good terms with the Mug Shop (located today in Santa Ana), even while farming out some projects to Ketcham.  One of the last things the Duke had the Mug Shop do for him was to craft special mugs for the Wild Goose, inscribed with the legend “This mug was stolen from the Wild Goose.”  Recent head of the shop, Mike Johnson, recalls some of the Duke’s personal visits to the establishment to oversee the progress of various projects.  Without fanfare, without his hairpiece, it might have almost been possible to miss this living American icon were it not for his size and presence which always drew a second look, and with it, recognition.  “His hands were the most remarkable characteristic” recalls Mike, “They were just immense!”

Back in ’94 The Big Trail happily crossed paths with the Mug Shop when one of our convention organizers, commissioned Mike to do a Wayne-style cup which we could make the nicest souvenir of our Big Trail Convention.  In a very limited-edition of 150, the Mug Shop came through with a beautiful memento with artwork of the Duke in his first big starring role.  These were snatched up by eager convention guests within the first few hours of the event.  The lowest numbered mugs were presented to our celebrity – Pilar Wayne, Harry Carry, Jr., and Dean Smith – to add to their already formidable JW mug collections.

Many of the rare originals still gleam atop the mantelpieces or curio shelves of those coworkers of John Wayne who received them as much as fifty years ago.  I have made reference in my “Campfire” series of telephone interviews with the Duke’s coworkers, that, on several occasions when I asked a stuntman or a supporting player in the Duke’s “Repertory Company” to name the film projects which he/she shared with the actor, I could literally hear the clinking of cups as the interviewed recited the litany of films emblazoned in ceramic.  In last year’s Trail Beyond tribute to Jim Burk, Jim’s wife Susie best summed up what these mementos have meant to the majority of recipients down through the years:  “A couple of years ago we were afraid that we might have to evacuate our home due to high waters; we have two rivers flowing through our property.  We decided to pack up the things that could not be replaced – photos, keepsakes, etc. – and take them to safe ground.  The first items to get packed were those mugs!  We are very aware of their monetary value and we’re both convinced we’d starve to death before we’d ever let them go.”

A John Wayne mug is one of the most difficult collectibles to obtain.  Even using a healthy figure of 300 cups per movie, and figuring Duke followed this tradition on the 40 or so films following FLYING LEATHERNECKS, that would give us a ball park total of about 12,000, a scarce number indeed for the millions of fans who would love to have one of the prized mementos in their own collections of JW memorabilia.  Figure that, due to the perishable nature of ceramic, some have been broken and lost forever.  “My father, Paul Fix, had a lot of mugs, of course,” Marilyn Carey informs us.  “Do you know what he did?  He got mad at Duke one time and threw them all out!”  Some have been lost in natural disasters like, like Tom Hennesy’s collection which perished in 1978 when his Malibu ranch burned down.  Some have been tucked away in a closet or chest for generations.  Many of the recipients (and now, many of their heirs) who still proudly display the mugs in living rooms and dens would never part with theirs, making them even scarcer.  So it is always a happy day when someone like a Paul Helmick, associate producer or second unit director on many of Howard Hawks classics, decides that he will pull them from the obscurity of his closet and, after an appropriate thought upon the Duke’s generosity, pass them on to fans for whom the mugs will be even more treasured.  When a gesture like this takes place, the collector has a chance to obtain a “mint” condition collectible.  Just as endearing, however, are those mugs which show a little wear and tear because they were used by their owners.  I’ve seen the cup from THE SEARCHERS which Ford-favorite film editor Jack Murray owned.  The gold on the handle is well-worn because Jack, for many years, drank his morning coffee from this memento of a great film of which he was justly proud to have been a part.

Scarcity makes the mugs expensive collectibles.  Anyone who has suffered through the Ebay auctions on-line knows the stampede caused at the auction of a rare mug.  About four years ago, The Big Trail had the privilege to help put out the word on the auction of the late cinematographer William Clothier.  From the listing made up by the family, it was easy to see that mugs for “lesser” films (e.g. McQ or CAHILL, U.S. MARSHALL) would easily fall into a $400-500 range, while “classic” titles, especially matched to an owner of celebrity status, could easily move the price to $1,500-2000.

Author Fred Landesman, while adding final notes and research to a manuscript which promises to become a major book on the life and films of the Duke, has kept an eye on the E-Bay auctions. Late this fall he spotted a couple of examples for us.  One of the early mugs, a souvenir of TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY which was given to Marie Windsor, sold for $2,509.00.  A FLYING LEATHERNECKS mug went for $1,358.00. If these formidable figures frighten you off, there is always the chance to find a bargain if you are vigilant.  Fred also noted that the IN HARM’S WAY mug owned by “Wild Goose” skipper Bert Minshall was offered at $250 (with a minimum), and, at the time he was monitoring the auction, there were no bidders at that price.  But a mug in the $250-300 range seems to be the exception to the rule – a bargain price in a market that more often sees prices like the earlier ones cited.

Like any collectible, the condition of the mug would affect the dollar value.  A “mint” condition mug would be more valuable than one with a crack or chips or worn artwork.  Also because of the personal nature of each mug, the name of the recipient could also increase the value dramatically.  A small percentage of the cups (maybe 20-25%) were made as “generic” with no specific name on the back to be given out to those from the production who may have inadvertently been left of the list or to be used as promotions of the latest film.  A number of these probably ended up at the Wayne household, too.  These generic mementos would be less valuable to most collectors than a mug from the same movie with a recipient’s name.  “To Bill from Duke” and if Bill happened to have been an electrician on the set or head of the catering services, the collectible would have a certain value, one which could easily double or triple in value and desirability if “Bill” happens to have been a Bill Holden or a Bill Clothier.  That being said, the reality is that most John Wayne collectors would give a right arm to obtain one of these mugs in any form or fashion!

That is why it’s a real thrill when a fan like you or I gets a chance to purchase one of these mugs, especially if it is verified as coming from the personal collection or estate of one of the members of the “Repertory Company” of regular contributors to his movie efforts.  Of all the items related to the Duke’s great career, his personal and unique tradition of bestowing the mugs upon all those who helped fashion his films make these prized collectibles special indeed.  “I think it was a unique custom” reflects Marilyn Carey who was familiar with the mugs collected by husband Dobe Carey and by her father Paul Fix.  “Later on, you heard of others doing similar things like with the cast of “Gunsmoke”.  But when Duke started the idea, I think it was unique.”

I hope this article, in some small way, gives you the vicarious pleasure of seeing these collectibles first hand or holding them in your own hands for close inspection, if you’ve never had the good fortune to be up close and personal.  The mugs remain, after a half-century of existence, tangible reminders of a remarkable career and a testament to the generosity and thoughtfulness of John Wayne, actor.