Wonder Women: A Look Back at WOMPI

Image courtesy Dorothy Reeves

“[Those in the] entertainment industry, as a whole, are not great historians,” says Todd Vradenburg, executive director of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. “Everyone looks forward, and no one looks back a little bit and says, ‘Hey, what was this all about? Who were these people?’ and pays homage to those who built the platform we’re standing on now.”

Flip through the 100 years of back issues from Boxoffice Pro–or Boxoffice or The Reel Journal, as we used to be called—and you’ll see a name pop up consistently over the decades: WOMPI. Not a person, but a group: Women of the Motion Picture Industry. WOMPI serves as an important thread in the fabric of cinema industry philanthropy that continues today in the form of Will Rogers, Variety the Children’s Charity, The Motion Picture Club, and countless other groups, circuits, and individuals who donate their time and money to help others, both within the film industry and without.

WOMPI was the first group of its kind to be covered in the pages of Boxoffice Pro: a national (and, later, with the introduction of a Toronto chapter, international) group made up of women in the film industry—mostly from distribution, but some from the exhibition side as well. More recently, Boxoffice Pro has enjoyed a collaboration with another nonprofit group with a similar demographic: Women in Exhibition, founded in 2018 to support and uplift women in the global cinema industry, including those who work for cinemas, distributors, and vendors.

The group sprang from a luncheon hosted by two industry executives in Dallas in 1953; a group of secretaries at the event enjoyed connecting with one another so much that they decided to make the gatherings regular. Thus, WOMPI was born. Mary Pickford was in attendance at the charter membership luncheon in 1953, where she was presented with a scroll naming her WOMPI’s first honorary member. WOMPI’s Dallas chapter was shortly joined by chapters in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Memphis; the WOMPI “World Premiere” Convention was held in Dallas, Texas’s Baker Hotel on September 18 and 19, 1954. At its height, WOMPI boasted 800 members across chapters in 22 cities.

The story of WOMPI, from its founding in 1953 until its disbanding in 2013, is one of camaraderie, community, and charity: values that continue to be an integral part of the cinema industry today, and ones that are even more appreciated after a year-plus of virtual meetings and digital trade shows, a period that now thankfully appears to be coming to an end.

The keeper of the WOMPI legacy is Dorothy “Dottie” Reeves. Born in Missouri, Reeves moved to New York City in 1959 to work for United Artists, where she was as an assistant to legendary executive Salah M. Hassanein. In 1960, Reeves went to WOMPI’s Toronto convention and was inspired to create a New York chapter. “I met with a group of ladies in Toronto, and they gave me some ideas on how to go about organizing the New York club,” Reeves tells Boxoffice Pro. “When I got back to the city, I started contacting a few of the ladies I had been in touch with since I moved there that worked in the film business.”

Reeves’s first unofficial WOMPI gathering took place in a conference room in the United Artists building. “I set up a meeting, and the girls that came were really interested. I think it was about 12 [people]. So we decided to have another meeting, and they talked it up and went back to their offices. We had girls from Paramount and Universal and Warner Bros. We set up another meeting, and we decided that we were going to organize.” Reeves would go on to become WOMPI’s international president in 1967.

“Dottie and a couple of others would reference themselves as ‘the office girls,’” recalls Vradenburg, who began working with WOMPI upon joining Will Rogers in 1997. “There were women in the group who did not like that reference. But Dottie would whisper to me, ‘We’re just the office girls.’ And they were proud of that.”

These “office girls” would use their time, energy, and passion for the industry to earn money for those in need. WOMPI chapters were involved in charitable causes of their choosing, but the group’s main affiliation was with Will Rogers, which in 1958 was adopted as WOMPI’s primary philanthropic cause. That year, the group introduced their “Dimes for Dames” program, asking its members to set aside 10 cents a week—the cost of a price of coffee—to donate to Will Rogers. What with inflation, in 1977 “Dimes for Dames” became “Dollars for Dames,” which rolls off the tongue just as well.

WOMPI sponsored room #308 at the Will Rogers Hospital; they also purchased over 700 books and medical journals for the hospital’s library, as well as a defibrillator, a portable communication machine, and a piano. After the hospital’s closure in 1975, the WOMPI checks would go toward what Vradenburg calls “short-term assistance: accident, illness, injury, prescriptions, extra physical therapy sessions, occupational therapy sessions, glasses, hearing aids, things of that nature.” Vradenburg estimates that, over the 60 years of its existence, WOMPI’s contributions to Will Rogers total some $300,00.

“The checks were not huge, by any means,” says Vradenburg. “But they were consistent through the decades.” Adds Reeves: “Our members, every month—I still get notices that someone has sent a memorial or a donation to Will Rogers, even though we’re not an organization anymore.”

A large part of WOMPI was its annual convention, held in a different city each year and complete with banquets, meetings, and even (on occasion) costume parties. At the first WOMPI convention, held in Dallas in 1954, visiting delegates were escorted to the convention center by fire engines, and authentic Edith Head costumes were on display at the first-ever WOMPI “Champagne Hour.” Reeves singles out the 1967 convention in New Orleans as her favorite. “On Saturday night, they had an authentic Mardi Gras ball, with the king and the queen. Beautiful costumes. … [The Mardi Gras page] escorted me down and presented me to the king and the queen. And I remember, the convention chairman kept telling me, ‘Dottie, you have to learn how to curtsy!’”

When Vradenburg became Will Rogers’s executive director, he remembers exhibition icons Hassanein, Bud Stone, and Jerry Forman telling him: “‘Don’t forget about the WOMPIs!’ I was like, ‘What? What is a WOMPI?’…  But these historical board members said to me, ‘Don’t forget about the WOMPIs. They’ve been great to Will Rogers. Whatever they need, make sure we’re there to help them.’ I said, ‘No problem.’” Vradenburg was “really impressed” by what he saw when he went to his first WOMPI convention: “They ran their conference pretty much like a NATO-type meeting, or our annual meeting. They had officers’ meetings, closed-room sessions, bylaws sessions, special committee meetings. … They’re not just a group of people getting together to have a few chuckles. They take this work seriously.”

WOMPI’s 60th and final conference took place in Grapevine, Texas, with Reeves once again presiding as international president. Membership had dropped to below 100 women spread across six chapters in Dallas, Charlotte, Hollywood, Kansas City, Memphis, and New Orleans. With that number of people, says Reeves, “it’s hard to plan a convention”—though, even with a diminished membership roster, WOMPI was still successfully able to reach their 2013 Will Rogers fundraising goal of $5,000. On November 11, 2013, the remaining amount in WOMPI’s coffers was sent to Will Rogers, marking the group’s last official contribution: $43,224.18.

Reeves still keeps the WOMPI flame burning, sending out a monthly newsletter to former members. On a personal level, she plays the piano at a nursing and rehabilitation center in her hometown, though she regrets that she’s had to put that community service on pause due to the pandemic. “People that work in the film industry, they’re always doing things to better the country,” says Reeves. “And it’s all done out of their hearts. It’s all done for free, mostly. The people that work in the film business, they’re very giving of themselves.”

Image courtesy Dorothy Reeves

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