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Hoot Gibson Rides into Chicago as King of the Rodeo

When the Essanay Studios restoration project was shut down, those of us who had poured our hearts and souls and sweat into the project were left rather disillusioned and lost. Suddenly, this project we’d believed in so deeply was no more. And yet, there was all of this history just waiting to be shared and appreciated. Out of this loss, Chicago-focused silent film projects were born, including this very site. We were mostly working on our own, when, seemingly out of nowhere, the connection of all connections was made.

We had connected with film historian Kevin Brownlow.

We told him about our previous work with Essanay, and our current work focusing on Chicago’s film history as a whole. It was then that he brought King of the Rodeo to our attention. A western comedy filmed at the end of the silent era, he mentioned that the film was notable for our purposes because so much of it actually takes place in Chicago. Mr. Brownlow believed he had the last known print, and thought we’d be interested in getting it transferred and restored. While we began to investigate the project, we found out that Universal had renewed the rights for the film. We were disappointed, and I wasn’t sure if the film would actually see the light of day...until I saw it appear on the Music Box Theatre’s August schedule. I was so thrilled, I emailed Mr. Brownlow to let him know. His response, “And to think I thought I had the last print! I hope it is of outstanding quality.”


The Montana Kid (Hoot Gibson) loves racing horses, much to his father’s frustration. His father pressures him to return to college, but he won’t have any of it. With his pals Slim (Slim Summerville) and Shorty (Jack Knapp) by his side, he hoofs it to Chicago to take part in the annual rodeo. Along the way, he catches the eye of rodeo promoter Mr. Harlan (Joseph W. Girard) and his daughter Dulcie (Kathryn Crawford) who seems to love and loathe him. When the big day comes, his parents and grandfather show up, unannounced, and he aims to prove to them and Dulcie that he is the king of the rodeo. While he proves himself on bucking broncos and bulls, he truly impresses them when he chases a thief (who has made off with his good shirt and the profits from the rodeo) through the streets of downtown Chicago. In the end, he wins the prize, wins the girl and wins the respect of his father.


In 1925, John Van “Tex” Austin formed the first Chicago Rodeo held at Soldier Field. Sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, it was part of a larger scheme to use Grant Park Stadium to attract tourists to the city. While rodeos took place elsewhere in the country, organizers hoped to make it the most important championship contest of the year. Nine days long, the rodeo featured independent contestants $32,000 in prizes and daily attendance averaging between 50,000 and 70,000 spectators, peaking at 145,000.

Despite its incredible start, the rodeo began to lose its luster. In 1928, the contest’s sponsorship changed hands, and the City Hall took over. Despite prizes worth $33,000, it received far less publicity than it had in previous years. That didn’t stop the celebrities from making their way east, though. Former Selig Polyscope star Tom Mix was in attendance, and Universal star Hoot Gibson came into Chicago just before the rodeo’s opening day on July 28, 1928,  with a group of 60 people in tow. While Mix’s appearance was largely for entertainment value, Gibson came into town with something else in mind. He was going to make a movie.

Gibson and his company had chartered three private cars to carry their company and equipment from Los Angeles to Chicago. While Gibson planned to perform daring stunts for the spectators, and was treated as a guest of honor, the company’s focus was on getting great material for their new project. The cast and crew spent three weeks in Chicago, filming the principal scenes in and around Soldier Field, and downtown Chicago (notably on Michigan and Wabash Avenues) and thrilling spectators and pedestrians alike. The film was finished upon Gibson’s return to California, and released on January 6, 1929.

While it couldn’t compete with some of the other heavy-hitters of the late silent era, audiences still enjoyed it for what it was. Motion Picture Magazine said it was “Worth an evening if you bring the boy or girl friend along to hold hands with,” and Photoplay said it was “Hoot Gibson’s best contribution to art in a long time.” It was praised for its photography and direction, but it was largely eclipsed by Gibson’s later work and the coming of sound.


It was a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, yet the turnout for the Music Box screening of King of the Rodeo was impressive. No one was under the impression that we were about to see a film on the level of a D.W. Griffith masterpiece, yet we were all ready and eager to enjoy it. The story itself was a means to an end, but it was still fun and entertaining. The jokes still brought a laugh, the rodeo stunts still brought excitement, and the chase through downtown drew laughs and nods of recognition as we all attempted to point out each location. The 16mm print (though showing its age) was still in pretty good condition, and, as usual, organist Dennis Scott played beautifully.

I followed up with Mr. Brownlow to let him know about the outcome of the screening. His response, “I’m so glad you saw it and enjoyed it – and the material is safe in Chicago.”


Murder in the Windy City: The Story Behind “Chicago”

This post is part of an ongoing silent film in Chicago series written by Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub. Check out the excerpt below and then visit CMH for the entire article.

The story of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly has been told time and time again in the form of musicals, Broadway shows and films, but it began as a play written by a Chicago Tribune writer who spent part of her career chronicling the cases of the real life Roxie and Velma.

Read the entire article here.

The Diamond from the Sky: American’s Crown Jewel

This post is part of an ongoing silent film in Chicago series written by Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub. Check out the excerpt below and then visit CMH for the entire article.

The serial film was nothing new when the American Film Manufacturing Company released “The Diamond from the Sky” in 1915. In fact, just months before, the Thanhouser Film Corporation had wrapped up their hugely successful 23-part serial “The Million Dollar Mystery.” With a $10,000 reward offered to the movie fan who could offer up the best solution to the serial, “Mystery” left large shoes for “Diamond” to fill. But by the time the final installment in the 30-chapter serial aired, “Diamond” had out-earned “Mystery” at the box office, and a sequel was in the works.

Read the entire article here.

Flying High With Flying A in the Windy City: The American Film Manufacturing Company

This post is part of an ongoing silent film in Chicago series written by Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub. Check out the excerpt below and then visit CMH for the entire article.

Formed by Samuel Hutchinson and Charles Hite, the American Film Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1910 and held the distinction of being the only independent film company in Chicago. Hite had years of film experience already behind him, as the owner of the C.J. Hite Moving Picture Company, the C.J. Hite Film Rental Company and co-owner (with Hutchinson) of the H&H Film Service Company, so he brought a knowledge of the film industry with him that would prove invaluable.

Read the entire article here.

The Little Colonel Meets Poe: Henry B. Walthall at Essanay

This post is part of an ongoing silent film in Chicago series written by Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub. Check out the excerpt below and then visit CMH for the entire article.

Henry B. Walthall is widely remembered today for his performance as The Little Colonel in D.W. Griffith’s controversial “The Birth of a Nation,” and for his work under Griffith at the Biograph company. What often gets overlooked and forgotten, however, is that the southern gentleman spent a great deal of time in the midwest, making films for the Chicago branch of Essanay.

Read the entire article here.

S & A and the Windy City

This post is part of an ongoing silent film in Chicago series written by Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub. Check out the excerpt below and then visit CMH for the entire article.

Though not the first film studio to be built and based in Chicago, Essanay grew to be one of the largest and most popular of the Chicago-based studios. The sheer number of photoplayers, directors and screenwriters that it discovered, nurtured and propelled to stardom makes it one of the most important studios of the period. Although its time at the top was short-lived, its legacy lives on.

Read the entire article here.

Lions and Tigers and Colonel Selig

This post is part of an ongoing silent film in Chicago series written by Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub. Check out the excerpt below and then visit CMH for the entire article.


In the early days of silent cinema, Chicago was responsible for 20% of the total output of the US film industry. One of the biggest contributors to this staggering statistic was Chicago’s own Selig Polyscope Company. What was the reason for the company’s success? Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!

Read the entire article here.

Capturing Chicago with Musty Suffer

Until recently, Harry Watson Jr. was a largely forgotten clown of the silent screen. His Mishaps of Musty Suffer series, produced by George Kleine and Essanay, had been preserved but unseen by the general public since its original release in 1916/1917. Now, thanks to a successful Kickstarter project spearheaded by silent film accompanist/historian Ben Model, 10 Musty whirls are available on DVD, and one in particular has direct Chicago ties.

When the Chicago Motion Picture Exposition was staged in July of 1916, the industry’s biggest stars were in attendance -- including Musty Suffer himself, Harry Watson Jr. Watson and George Kleine arrived for the Expo just in time to enjoy Harry Watson Days, which was held July 17 & 18. In celebration, Musty and his ragtag group paraded around the city, with a convoy of cars and a band playing in the streets. He mugged for movie lovers old and young, drove around downtown, received a key to the city, and caused quite a stir. As Kitty Kelly, critic for the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Musty Suffer, roasting in his grease paint and putty nose, frolicked for the camera and exchanged airy persiflage with the juvenile populace drawn up admiringly.”

In addition to performing his famous boxing scene for the Expo-goers, Watson and co. also filmed scenes for upcoming “whirls” using special studios in the Coliseum (the Expo venue) and the beautiful scenery of Lincoln Park. Musty’s admirers followed them there, and as Kitty Kelly reported, “Some of them had a chance to get in the pictures themselves by riding on the little train, and some real sure enough actors were developed in the train’s driver, A.L. Gordon, who became suitably histrionic at Musty’s efforts to usurp his engine; [and] in the conductor, whom director Myll had intended to order keep still but didn’t because he acted so well.”

Amazingly, these exploits were recorded for posterity in the form of a promotional film called Capturing Chicago. Fortunately, this is one of the films that has been preserved and transferred for Ben Model’s fantastic DVD. It’s a clever and entertaining short offering great shots of movie-loving Chicagoans, great gags and fantastic shots of the City during the mid-teens -- when it was a major movie hub.

Want to see it for yourself? Check it out, along with the 9 other fantastic Musty whirls, on The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, available here. You can also learn more about the man behind the putty nose with Steve Massa’s companion booklet, available here.

Fairy Tales & The Chicago Children Players

When Frederick Russell Clark began his mission to create wholesome films for children, he knew he wanted to make them as accessible as possible. So, rather than seeking out children with film experience, he sought out the Chicago Children Players.

The Chicago Children Players had formed under the Junior Dramatic League, and served as an opportunity for children who loved to act to get on stage and act for their parents and children their own age. Their love of acting out fairy tales inspired Helen Hamilton to pen The Modern Mother Goose, and they performed it for standing room only audiences. When their play caused such a sensation, Clark was inspired to capture the play on film so that children across the country could enjoy it. Instead of hiring new actors to fill the roles, though, he hired the CCP themselves.

Scene from Modern Mother Goose. The giant is played by Fort Dearborn pres./director Frederick Russell Clark

150 kids between the ages of 3 and 16 were involved in the film adaptation of The Modern Mother Goose. Scenes were shot all over the city, including at the Fort Dearborn Photoplays studio and in the Elizabethan Room at the Congress Hotel. Although it was produced in the interest of creating better films for children, it raised some issues and questions with film industry officials. On at least one occasion, Chief Factory Inspector Oscar F. Nelson summoned Fort Dearborn’s officials to explain the presence of children in their studio. Of the 7 children present, 6 were under school age, and none were reportedly being paid for their services.

One way or another, the situation was resolved, and the film was released in the Midwest. It received a warm reception, and eventually (though gradually) made its way across the country, making a notable stop in Portland, Oregon in March of 1917.

Other filmmakers tried to recapture the success and magic of The Modern Mother Goose, with varying levels of success.  In September of 1917, the Wholesome Film Corporation teamed up with Helen Hamilton to produce Cinderella and the Magic Slipper. By this time, the Children’s Auxiliary of the Red Cross had been formed by Hamilton as an outgrowth of the CCP and boasted 500 members. The children had performed Hamilton’s version of Cinderella at the Strand Theater during Baby Week, and, once again, filmmakers saw an opportunity. Casting 100 children in the various roles, including Anna Spahn as Cinderella and Walker Wynekoop as The Prince, director Guy McConnell filmed the story in and around the Rothacker studio on Diversey and in Lincoln Park, Jackson Park and Garfield Park. The 4-reel film was well received by critics and audiences, with critics noting that the children were energetic and seemed to truly enjoy themselves. By the following year, though, the charm and novelty seems to have worn off.

In January of 1918, the Wholesome Film Corporation released a production of Little Red Riding Hood. Director Otis Thayer had managed to stretch the film to 5 reels, but only the last reel bore any resemblance to the titular story. Although filmgoers themselves seemed to have a pretty positive reaction to it, film critics panned the picture saying that its good photography couldn’t overshadow the fact that it had poor acting, poor direction and no story. The children who were lively and having fun in their previous production were now largely artificial and self conscious. Shortly after this, both the Wholesome Corporation, and the Chicago Children Players disappeared form the Chicago film industry.

Frederick Russell Clark and Neighborhood Films

“Local pictures are never-failing drawing cards for every type of theatre.”

This is the philosophy that Chicago’s own Frederick Russell Clark was operating under when he formed the Educational Lecture and Film Service (ELFS). It was 1917, and although the film industry was into its second decade of life, it had not yet been used in a local capacity. Clark, though, envisioned the ability to give exhibitors the means to take films of their neighborhoods and have them added to their regular programs. The subject matter would vary from graduations to church socials, from car accidents to fires, and, in many ways, would act as a predecessor to local TV news.

Of course, the medium was still relatively new, and the average exhibitor would not necessarily have working knowledge of cameras,  or at least have one at their immediate disposal. So, Clark aided them in that way, too. He devised a system that would allow for ELFS reps to be available in all cities to shoot assignments as needed. He also supplied lightweight cameras for those in need, and was working to negotiate for the films to play at one of the large theater chains in Chicago.

Children from the Fort Dearborn production of The Modern Mother Goose.

Although it’s not clear whether Clark was able to get ELFS off the ground, he was certainly no stranger to the industry.  Previously, Clark had established a reputation as president of the Fort Dearborn Photoplays Company.  He specialized in furnishing educational programs to schools and churches, as well as projectors. He focused on wholesome and educational films, planning, ultimately, to “picturize” the textbooks that were being used in schools. Clark sought to film lab experiments and other textbook activities and materials, as well as take the photos that would be included in each textbook to help make the learning experience as consistent as possible.

He also had a knack for producing kid-friendly films that starred kids. After seeing a performance of The Modern Mother Goose, Clark purchased the rights, and hired the child players to portray the play on the big screen. Using resources from the Rothacker Film Manufacturing Co. (including their cameramen) and local scenery (including the Elizabethan room at the Congress Hotel), he created a 5-reel feature that was suitable for kids. After the release of Mother Goose, he turned his attention towards Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, but it’s not clear if these productions were ever completed or released under his direction.

In 1917, Clark once again turned his attention to film, this time in the form of the Titan Film Corporation. In June, he announced he would be producing a series called Follies of the Week. Each installment would take a popular fad or sport and treat it in a humorous manner, usually with the assistance of a well-known stage star. Revenue from these 1–reel comedies was then to be passed along to the American Military Relief Association. The first was entitled Bucking the High Cost of Living (also credited as Knocking the L out of HCL) and featured Raymond Hitchcock.

Like his other endeavors, Clark’s Titan Film Corp. came to an end. When is not clear, but by February of 1918, the company was facing accusations from the Illinois Council of Defense that said it had failed to live up to an agreement that involved screening the picture The Garden of Allah in aid of soldiers and sailors. It was also accused of stockjobbing. By the following year, Clark announced the formation of the Clark Photoplay Company, but it, too, seems to have gone the way of Clark’s previous projects.

Despite his bad luck, Clark’s pioneering film efforts helped pave the way for televised local news, as well as children-focused productions.  


The Flaming Frontier & The Windy City

When The Flaming Frontier was released in 1926, not only was it received well by critics, it was received well by history buffs. The film, produced by Universal, starred Hoot Gibson and Dustin Farnum, and depicted an epic account of Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn. Moviegoers agreed that the political and historical circumstances surrounding the event were depicted accurately. So much so, in fact that the Chicago Historical Society took it upon themselves to give schoolchildren interested in history the opportunity to see it.

Sitting L-R: Caroline M. McIlvaine, Libriarian, CHS; Bessie R. Handley, Visual Education Instructor, Board of Education; Josephine Huchinson, Board of Education, William Liska, Assistant Director of Visual Instruction

Standing L-R: William A. Bush, Trustee, CHS; Dr. O.L. Schmidt, President, CHS; Dudley Grant Hayes, Director of Visual Instruction; Robert C. Fergus, Assistant Secretary, CHS

Members of the Historical Society had seen and raved about the film. Chicago Historical Society President Otto L. Schmidt said, “The story as presented is as faithful to fact as scenario and film science permits. It is a marvelous artistic conception.” Because the members believed the film to be entertaining as well as educational, they sponsored a screening for local school children. Schools that regularly attended the Chicago Historical Society’s Saturday morning lectures were reviewed and those that had the best attendance records were invited to send 15 of their students, along with their history teachers, to the Randolph Theatre’s scheduled Saturday morning screening.

Flaming Frontier screening attendees. Roosevelt Theatre, Nov. 1926

The turnout was impressive, much to the delight of Universal and the Historical Society, who could not help but sing the film’s praises. Society Librarian Caroline M. McIlvaine later wrote of the film, saying, Such a magnificent production as The Flaming Frontier indicates that the producer believes in America, has the courage of his convictions and almost unlimited financial resources. […] Given a few more pictures as this one depicting Custer’s heroic sacrifice in an unworthy cause and the tragedy of the Red Race, and Americans will wake up to the wonder of their own history which is stranger than the fiction so constantly portrayed.”

The world of the Chicago Historical Society and the Chicago film industry crossed paths on more than one occasion. We'll explore their relationship further in future posts.

Chicago's Lovely Lobby Girls

Spectacle and silent film went hand in hand. This is obvious in the films of D.W. Griffith and the Fox super productions featuring Theda Bara, but that spectacle wasn’t only reserved for the screen. Theater owners decorated entrances and lobbies according to the theme of the films they were showing. Some even expanded that theme to specially dressed ushers and lobby girls.

Grand Opera Houses' Civilization girls

When Thomas Ince released Civilization in 1916, Chicago’s Grand Opera House saw an opportunity to promote the film through specially dressed usher girls. The girls not only donned their costumes while in the theater, they also wore them to a movie ball held at the Sherman Hotel to promote the film and the theater. One of the girls, Gertrude Jacobs, helped coach and lead the girls with her cousin Victorine McNeill. Although the promotion itself was a successful one-off promotion, Jacobs managed to turn it into a career.

Helen Ketchum promotes Intolerance

After leaving the Grand Opera House, she joined Chicago’s Colonial Theater as an usher and lobby girl. D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance had been running at the theater since November of 1916, but when the film finally closed its run in March of 1917, the theater made sure it went out with a bang. Up until closing night, the Colonial decorated its entrance and lobby to promote the run. The interior included props inspired by the four time periods covered in the film, with lobby girls dressed in period clothing and costumes used during the making of the movie. Upon entering, eager moviegoers were greeted by the lovely ushers (including Jacobs) and by harp and violin musical accompaniment drifting through the lobby. When D.W. Griffith himself visited the theater, one of the lobby girls, Helen Ketchum, reportedly made such an impression on him that he offered her a contract. Although it was reported that she accepted the offer, there’s no evidence that she ever followed him west. In fact, she remained with the Colonial for its next promotion.

The lobby girls tour the Loop

Following Intolerance, the Colonial began running Joan the Woman. To promote it, the Colonial’s four lobby girls -- Ketchum, Jacobs, Frances Burton and Elizabeth Walters -- dressed in armor like Geraldine Farrar in Joan. The lobby was decorated like a luxurious marble hall, with reproductions of old world art, oil paintings of Farrar and other Joan cast members, and French and American flags. To promote enlistment and Joan the Woman, the lobby girls even took to the streets. Courtesy of an arrangement with Captain F.R. Kenney, the chief recruiting officer for the U.S. Army, the girls toured the Loop in their Joan of Arc costumes and distributed enlistment literature.

Helen Ketchum recruiting war bridegrooms

The following week, the girls donned their costumes once again, and targeted couples seeking marriage licenses. They encouraged the grooms to enlist and become “war bridegrooms” and follow Joan of Arc’s lead -- she loved a man, but loved her country better.

The Colonial Theater continued to bring spectacle to its pre-show productions. When the Selig Polyscope film The Garden of Allah opened in the fall of 1917, the entrance and lobby were once again decorated according to the theme. An illuminated cutout of a scene from the film was put on display, and Arabic music was wafted through the theater. A singer and dance in Arabic dress even took to the stage prior to the film, performing a song and kneeling as if in prayer. A camel and driver even took to the streets of Chicago to promote the film.

Although the promotions continued, the lobby girls themselves took a smaller role in them. Gertrude Jacobs continued as an usher, but Helen Ketchum, rumored to be D.W. Griffith’s newest find, never made her way to Hollywood and appears to have left the theater industry altogether.

Colonial's lobby girls dressed for Intolerance

Chaney in Chicago: The Story of 'Thunder'

It doesn’t carry the same reputation or notoriety as The Phantom of the Opera or London After Midnight, but Thunder is a MGM-produced Lon Chaney vehicle that’s notable for a number of reasons. Not only was it his last silent film and his penultimate film, it was also filmed in Chicago.

Thunder follows the story of Grumpy Anderson, a longtime railroad engineer who is obsessed with keeping his train running on schedule. Anderson’s obsession with the railroad puts others off, but when a blizzard and subsequent flood hit, he’s their only hope at getting desperately needed Red Cross supplies to the victims who need them.

Lon Chaney in 'Thunder'

Chaney played the role of Anderson and, aside from a mustache and grayed temples, Chaney didn’t use his signature makeup skills for the performance. The rest of the cast included Phyllis Haver -- a former Sennett Bathing Beauties who had hit the big time with the 1927 version of Chicago) and James Murray -- who had recently found acclaim for his portrayal of John in King Vidor’s The Crowd. Despite a stellar cast and promising storyline, the production faced problems from the outset.

Shooting 'Thunder' at the Northwestern Railroad Station in Chicago. 1929. (Chicago Daily News/Chicago History Museum Archives)

Filming began in the Midwest in early 1929. Manitowoc and Green Bay, Wisconsin played host to the cast and crew, as did Chicago, with many scenes being filmed at the Northwestern Railroad Station. The crew spent four weeks in the cold and snow. Chaney, who was already battling cancer, contracted walking pneumonia. His poor health suspended production for a week, but he trudged on, choosing to work days that should’ve been spent in bed. His determination to see the picture through was stymied when James Murray failed to show up on set. Despite reprimands, illness and cast changes, the $750,000 film was completed. Unfortunately, the film made greater headlines for the circumstances surrounding it than the story itself.

Lon Chaney on the set of 'Thunder' at the Northwestern Railroad Station in Chicago (Chicago Daily News/Chicago History Museum Archives)

Haver became engaged and announced that she was to retire from the screen with Thunder marking her final picture. Murray’s performance had garnered him critical acclaim, but his sudden success was too much for him to bear. Soon after this performance, he began to find solace in alcohol, and by 1936, he was dead. Chaney complained about the “flu” he had contracted as well as the illness he said he’d acquired during a fake oatmeal “snowstorm.” In reality, his throat cancer had advanced, and his health was in severe decline. He spent weeks quietly recovering before taking on his next role, but that film -- a talkie remake of The Unholy Three -- was to be his final film appearance.

James Murray in 'Thunder'

Although the film is an important marker in the careers of Haver, Murray and especially Chaney, it’s not a piece of film history that we can study easily. The film is considered lost and only a few fragments have survived. You can watch one of the surviving fragments below.

Peerless Annabelle: A Symphony in Yellow Hair

This post was originally published on Curtains on August 6, 2013. Read the original post here.

On her 80th birthday, Annabelle Whitford was on top of the world. She'd received jams, jellies, flowers, phone calls and telegrams from well-wishers across the country, and had entertained several photographers and reporters who had come to call, all within her small Chicago apartment. It was quite the change from the birthday Whitford thought she would have just a day prior, when the recently widowed former Follies girl felt as though she had been forgotten by the rest of the world. She felt lonely and hopeless, despite being, at one time, one of the best-known dancers in the country.

Annabelle Moore Whitford was born July 6, 1878 to Amanda Moore in Chicago, Illinois. Annabelle's biological father was out of the picture, but it didn't really matter. She and her mother were inseparable, and by the time she was in her teens, her mother had remarried. According to Annabelle, she was on stage by the time she was 11, and began to make a name for herself as a dancer. Her signature dances soon became the Serpentine, the Butterfly and the Sun Dances, and she soon became so well known (particularly in New York), that she was invited by Thomas Edison to be one of his first subjects to be recorded with the Kinetoscope. Edison's films of her dances became so popular, that she was invited back to the Black Maria to record new performances to make up for the prints that had worn out. Thanks to her growing popularity, she was also chosen to perform at the World's Columbian Exposition (aka the Chicago World's Fair) just months shy of her 15th birthday.

Although her performance at the fair would help boost her popularity even further, she soon found herself in the midst of one of the highest profile scandals to hit 19th century New York. In December 1896, Annabelle said she was approached by agent James H. Phipps to perform at a bachelor party being held by Herbert Seeley, grandson of P.T. Barnum, for his brother. Although Annabelle initially accepted the offer, Phipps told her to dance for the men without her tights. She was insulted, and although he later said she could wear her tights, she refused and told her stepfather, theatrical agent William S. Moore, about the incident. He reported the incident to the police who then raided the banquet where "muscle" dancer Ashea Wabe was performing. Although she wasn't nude at the time of her arrest, Wabe later admitted that she'd been asked to perform nude and that she fully intended to. The trial that resulted from the raid stemmed from public indecency, but because of the stature of the men involved, there was backlash against the police and Annabelle's stepfather. Annabelle herself testified during the trial, and had her testimony refuted by others, but her stepfather ultimately paid the price. On January 17, 1897, Moore died of pneumonia at just the age of 52. His doctor claimed that the notoriety the trial had brought him hastened his death.

In the end, the scandal did little to hurt Annabelle's career. She returned to the stage, pursued drama for a couple of years, and then made the transition into musical comedy where she again began to make a name for herself. She appeared in productions like The Sprightly Romance of Marsac and The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, before joining Eddie Foy in a production of Mr. Bluebeard in 1903. Although the show was well-received, its run ended in tragedy. On December 30, the company was preparing to end its run at the beautiful Iroquois Theatre in Chicago. The theater was packed well beyond capacity -- 2,000 audience members were estimated in attendance and many of them were children. At the beginning of the second act, an arc light shorted out, causing a curtain to catch fire. A stagehand attempted to douse the fire, but it was no use. The scenery and stage were soon in flames. Foy remained on stage trying to calm patrons as they attempted to escape. Some patrons were trampled by fellow audience members, doors failed to open, and other patrons were trapped in dead ends. Annabelle escaped, but was injured and admitted to a local hospital. Others were not so lucky. An estimated 575 people died the day of the blaze with dozens more dying in the following days. It was an event that Annabelle would never forget, and she would often participate in memorial services marking the anniversary of the tragedy in later years.

Annabelle's career was about to take yet another turn. Her roles in musical comedies, and her figure, soon got the attention of Flo Ziegfeld himself, and she joined the Follies of 1907. During her run with the Follies, she became a living version of many of the idealized "girl" types of the early 20th century. She often played the Gibson girl, the Christy girl and the Brinkley girl, and sang on stage. She was dubbed one of the most beautiful follies girls ever known, but only remained with the company for three seasons before embarking on her own vaudeville tour. Her career came to an abrupt end, though, when she married Edward J. Buchan, a stage electrician who would later become a surgeon. She retired from the stage and the screen, but continued to be very involved in the Chicago community. She was on the board of the Salvation Army and a member of the Women's War Relief Association.

She also continued to pursue her love for the stage, albeit vicariously. In 1939 she created a Follies-esque review featuring 40 grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Annabelle directed the cast, and the show included musical acts, skits and even a revamped version of the Brinkley girl routine from 30 years prior. Although the beauty Annabelle had embodied was now out of fashion, she didn't hesitate to speak her mind about the new generations' glamour girls. “The Gibson girl didn’t have to have a ‘mask’ of cosmetics, or a scanty costume to be admired; yesteryear’s belle had real beauty.” Even though she was in her 60s, she still only used cosmetics sparingly.

Members of the Women's War Relief Association: Mrs. Edward J. Buchan (Annabelle Whitford Buchan), Mrs. Norval H. Pierce (nee Drucilla Wahl), Mrs. Edward R. Fifield and Mrs. William M. Hight

Members of the Women's War Relief Association: Mrs. Edward J. Buchan (Annabelle Whitford Buchan), Mrs. Norval H. Pierce (nee Drucilla Wahl), Mrs. Edward R. Fifield and Mrs. William M. Hight

Annabelle and her husband had a lived a comfortable life together in a spacious home, but it soon slipped through their fingers. She lamented in an 1945 interview that when she agreed to be filmed by Edison she made a terrible mistake. “It was at this time that I made the greatest mistake of my life. For my performance, Mr. Edison offered me my choice of $15 or an interest in his new invention. I took the cash.” She lamented that a colleague had taken the offer of interest and was now a millionaire. Had she made a similar choice, her final years may have been happier. By the '50s, the couple was living off of a government pension of just $114 a month (she had earned $750 a week when she was with the Follies). When she was given the opportunity to pen a remembrance of the tragic Iroquois blaze, Annabelle donated the $900 check she received to a charity for underprivileged Chicago youth. When her donation was discovered, the couple was dropped from the pension program, and the charity was forced to return what was left of the donation, about $480, to the Buchans to live off of until they could reapply for the pension program. At one point, their small apartment didn't even have heat.

Shortly thereafter, Edward died, leaving Annabelle a penniless widow. As her 80th birthday approached, newspapers remembered the star who had fallen on hard times, and interviewed her. “No one comes to see me. it would be wonderful to hear from someone -- anyone, particularly on my birthday,” she told them, and people everywhere responded. Her apartment at 2401 W. Diversey was soon buzzing with activity, and reporters who showed up the day of the celebration were greeted with a joyful Annabelle. “Oh, the telegrams! The letters and telegrams! The reporters! My room is a bower of roses. And look! All kinds of jams and jellies. A Chicago woman brought them. Oh, what a day!”

Although her 80th birthday was a shining moment, it didn't change her impoverished state. She died November 29, 1961 at Augustana Hospital at the age of 83.

A reporter covering the Seeley Scandal once described her as a symphony in yellow hair, and thanks to surviving Edison negatives, we can still watch this symphony in all of her beauty. Watch excerpts from her Butterfly and Serpentine dances below.

Sunshine Film's Distress Signal

In May 1917, after experiencing some success with the release of single reel comedies starring the likes of Floyd Williams and Rose Burkhardt, the Chicago based Sunshine Film Company turned its attention to the release of its first feature film -- the 7-reel S.O.S. Unfortunately, the film itself could be considered a distress call from the studio itself.

Although short subjects were still good business for studios, features were quickly becoming a major point of focus for studios. by 1917, D.W. Griffith had been making features for three years, and even studios who had previously specialized in shorts, like fellow Chicagoans Essanay and Flying A, were concentrating their efforts on features. Sensing that features would help build their brand, Sunshine’s GM Kenneth Scoville began to craft the perfect maiden picture. He enlisted the help of former D.W. Griffith assistant director/actor William N. Buckley and Essanay leading man Richard Travers, along with scenario writer Mildred Considine and American Standard Motion Picture Corporation president Samuel Quinn and began to put the building blocks of the film together.

The $65,000 feature was to be called S.O.S., and Buckley and Travers were to co-direct it. It was to be a 7-reel film, detailing and embracing the idea of eugenic marriage. The scenario was penned by Quinn, and the screenplay was adapted by Considine. Eugenics was one of the hot topics of the period, with advocates and literature speaking in favor of it, and institutions being established in order to separate the inferior from the superior. Although the producers assured audiences and critics that it wouldn’t be blatant propaganda in favor of the practice, it would certainly embrace and show the advantages of it. Travers took the task of addressing the topic to heart and spent weeks in New York researching eugenics to prepare.

Though the company didn’t have a studio of its own, it rented studio space from William R. Rothacker’s Rothacker Film Manufacturing Company, as well as from the American Bioscope Company. The studio also used what resources it did have to help promote the film. It employed two Chicago-based artists to create a line of posters, heralds, window cards and lobby displays to help promote the film.

The film was set to premiere at Chicago’s Bandbox Theatre in the Loop in early June, when it encountered a major setback. Chicago’s chief of the police censor board, Major Funkhouser, had a reputation for refusing screening permits over a number of ridiculous reasons. So much so, that he was often a source of frustration for the film community. Following a trade screening of S.O.S., he refused to issue a permit to allow the studio to release the film. The studio was ready to take legal action when Funkhouser issued a pink permit, preventing teenage and juvenile moviegoers from from seeing it.

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Despite the expense, research and effort that went into the film, it failed to be a blockbuster release. Chicago’s own Louella O. Parsons, then a writer for the Chicago Herald, thought the subject matter was not appropriate for film. “S.O.S., Help, Help! The picture needs it. A combination of Unborn and The Black Stork. Eugenic marriage is the theme chosen to enlighten the ignorant. There is no longer any delicacy in handling subjects of this kind. Our young people nonchalantly discuss these topics and visit the theaters with no idea of impropriety. Perhaps knowledge is golden. I wish, however, it were flaunted less publicly and presented elsewhere than in moving pictures. Some one must prove to me wherein these example pictures. Some one must prove to me wherein these example pictures help. Until then I must enroll myself among those who feel no emotion but disgust.”

Although Sunshine restructured its board, employees and resources, and struck a deal for 10 more feature productions, the company soon disappeared and its principal players moved on.

Charlie Chaplin at Essanay

A celebratory dance and a hefty paycheck signaled the start of Charlie Chaplin’s stay with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, but his year-and-a-half stay with the studio produced more than that. It was the start of Chaplin as writer, director, actor and producer in total control of his work. It was the start of Chaplin as clown as well as an emotional actor. And it was the start of the actor as a major draw, not a nameless face.

You can read the entire post over at Classic Movie Hub by clicking here.

Edna Mayo: The Best Dressed Woman on the Screen

This blog post was originally published on Curtains on July 31, 2013. View the original post here.

Although she was a popular leading lady with the Chicago branch of Essanay, Edna Mayo’s fame and stardom were brief, as was her film career. She was in the public eye for less than five years, but she made quite an impression, and when she left the industry, fans were confused and wondered where she had gone. Her disappearance and life after film remain a mystery.

Edna Mayo was born in Philadelphia, but the specifics surrounding it are unclear. Although available sources claim she was born March 23, 1895, contemporary magazines claimed a March 27, 1893 birth date, (which gels with the ages and dates cited for major events in her career). She was an only child, and it was said that she was of a famous theatrical family, though none of her famous family members were ever cited in articles. Later, the press would refer to her mother as simply Mrs. J. Mayo.

After graduating from Girls College in 1909 at the age of 16, she pursued stage drama full time. Although she claimed she had been on the stage since the age of 5, her first notable work was in “The Social Whirl” which ran from April to September of 1906. She followed that up with parts in “The Merry Widow Burlesque” (Jan-May 1908), “Girlies” (Jun-Aug 1910), and “Help Wanted” (Feb-May 1914). When she wasn’t on stage, she was pursuing artistic hobbies, as well. She studied sculpture in New York at the Art Students League and, when she later moved to Chicago, she continued to study at the Art Institute.

Mayo made her move from the stage to film in mid-1914, after her run with “Help Wanted” ended. She was signed by Favorite Players to make “The Key to Yesterday” opposite Carlyle Blackwell. That arrangement soon fell through, though, and once the picture was over, she bounced to Famous Players, and even made a film under Pathe. By the beginning of 1915, though, she had set down roots in Chicago, joining the players at Essanay. In February, she made her Essanay debut with “Stars, Their Courses Change” playing opposite Essanay’s leading man Francis X. Bushman, and was touted as their new leading lady. She was quickly paired with the best the Chicago branch had to offer, acting opposite players like Richard Travers and Bryant Washburn.

Although she was still a relative newcomer to the world of film, she was quite a temperamental star. She had trouble acting with crowds watching her, was self centered, and was determined to have things her way. She talked of pleading with directors, begging, “Let me have my own way. Let me say what my feelings tell me to, and my action will amount to something -- otherwise never.” Although her fits undoubtedly led to some friction on set, it certainly allowed her to put out good work. She worked very consistently throughout the rest of 1915, even appearing in some gender-bending roles (a big deal for a woman who was once declared the most beautiful photoplay actress).

With 1916 came her biggest project to date. The 15-episode serial “The Strange Case of Mary Page” starred Mayo in the title role opposite the great Henry B. Walthall. The plot was intriguing -- Mary Page is on trial for murder, but she and her lawyer/lover are convinced she didn’t commit it -- and audiences responded favorably. The studio got scores of letters every day from fans who were convinced they had figured out the answer for the murder mystery element of the story. The series was quite an undertaking, and represented a first for Essanay, so the PR machine worked hard behind the scenes to make it a profitable endeavor. Ads were taken out in publications like McClure’s, McCall’s, Ladies World, and Pictorial Review to ensure that female audiences knew of it. They also used the elaborate, gorgeous dresses Mayo wore throughout the film as a selling point. The gowns were designed by Lucile, aka Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, and one piece in particular reportedly carried a price tag of $1,000. If they couldn’t attract female audience members purely on plot, they thought, they might get them because of the fashions.

Mayo bragged that she spent nearly everything she made on clothes, and her wardrobe choices led to magazines declaring her The Best Dressed Woman on the Screen. Though she splurged on gowns, she didn’t lead a luxurious lifestyle otherwise. She divided her time between work and her apartment on Sheridan. She wasn’t married and made it clear that she had no intention of marrying. Not only were all husbands bossy, she asserted, but it would disrupt her routine. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever marry. I’m so happy working, and leading my quiet little life between apartment and studio, studio and apartment. I don’t want to be upset and made unhappy -- even by happiness!”

Aside from “The Strange Case of Mary Page,” Mayo’s most interesting project of 1916 was “The Return of Eve,” released in September of that year. It featured Eugene O’Brien and was filmed around the Wisconsin Dells. It told the story of a modern day Garden of Eden, where scientists mounted an experiment that involved raising infants in the wilderness to grow up “naturally.” When the now-grown Mayo and O’Brien are brought back to civilization, they’re horrified and return to their former way of life.

Mayo and O’Brien received praise for their roles, but her acting opportunities began to dwindle. Rumors started to spread in mid-1917 that she had left Essanay, but she brushed them off, speaking instead of doing humanitarian work in the slums of Chicago. By December of that year, however, she was unemployed, and by January she had disappeared from the screen. A year later, she attempted to stage a comeback with the General Film Co. and “Hearts of Love,” but it didn’t work. “Hearts of Love” was her final film.

A couple years prior, Mayo had told fan magazine reporters that she had no desire to go back to the speaking stage, but it’s unclear what exactly she did do following her screen retirement. It seems her fan base and the world of film lost track of her. She appears to have moved back to California, though, and died in San Francisco in 1970.

Although Mayo was by all accounts a formidable actress, we don’t really have proof of it today. Her films are mostly considered lost, and we’re left only with plot synopses to judge her by. Still, we can’t help but hope that a copy of “The Strange Case of Mary Page” will miraculously reappear for film fans and historians alike to enjoy.

Jump over to my Pinterest page to see more of the ads for "The Strange Case of Mary Page" and other Edna Mayo pictures.

Myrtle Stedman: The Girl with the Sweet Contralto Eyebrows

This blog post was originally published on Curtains on July 12, 2013. View the original post here.

She had many nicknames during the height of her fame. The Voiceless Prima Donna. The Venus of the Movie World. The Girl with the Search-light Eyes. The Selig Girl. Yet the one Myrtle Stedman liked the most paid tribute not to her looks so much as her incredibly expressive face and her talent as a subtle, intelligent silent actress -- The Girl with the Sweet Contralto Eyebrows.

Although several dates would later crop up during her career, Myrtle C. Lincoln was actually born March 3, 1883 in Chicago. She claimed to be a direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln, but before she was a teenager, Myrtle was well on her way to claiming her own place in the spotlight. Her mother was a singer, and at 12 years old she joined the Whitney Opera Company doing solo dances. Not long after, the family left Chicago for Black Hawk, Colorado where Myrtle’s father pursued a career as a miner (some fan magazines claimed she may have tried the same). Eventually, Myrtle found her way back to Chicago and back to the Whitney Company. While there, she sang in opera, comic opera, and musical comedy productions.

It was around this time that she met and married an aspiring actor and director named Marshall Stedman. The couple were married in Chicago on January 23, 1900, Myrtle was 16 and Marshall was 25. The couple had a son, Lincoln, two years later and he would (secretly) follow in his parents' footsteps, as we’ll later see.

In 1910, Otis Turner of Selig Polyscope approached Myrtle and offered her a position with the company. Myrtle, who was tired of traveling for her musical engagements, accepted, and was soon one of the studio’s most popular stars, along with Kathlyn Williams, Winifred Greenwood, and Adrienne Kroell. During the three years she was with the company, Myrtle worked at the main studio in Chicago as well as the Western studios in Arizona and Colorado (not exactly giving her the travel-free life she was hoping for). Although Myrtle typically took the leads in westerns, leaving Kathlyn Williams with the dramas, she could easily play dramatic leading roles. Her son Lincoln would later note, in the early days of film you were expected to be versatile. “In the summers you rode the plains as an outdoor girl and when the snow fell and winter came, ‘society dramas’ were made.” Myrtle could certainly handle both.

As her fame grew, Myrtle began embarking on personal appearance tours. In 1912, she and Marshall performed for the prisoners at the Colorado State Penitentiary, and in 1913, she performed at the funeral of a miner who was crushed when a tunnel caved in. She also showed off her voice in tours around the country, singing for audiences and speaking about her career.

In late 1913, Myrtle left Selig. She joined Bosworth and then Morosco, and continued to do excellent work. In 1915 she became the first female elected member of the newly organized Motion Picture Board of Trade of America. She told the magazines she was thrilled and that she was ready to work towards the betterment of conditions affecting women in film, as well as legislation and censorship threatening the industry.

In 1916, she gave one of her most memorable performances -- that of the mother and her abandoned daughter in “The American Beauty,” and won great praise. Shortly thereafter, though, things started to slow down for her. Her contract with Morosco expired and she decided not to renew it. Instead, she toured the country with singing engagements, and for the next few years only took films roles here and there. Her personal life also took a turn when she filed for divorce from Marshall in 1919 citing desertion. She attempted a bit of a comeback in the early ‘20s, but was met with mostly irregular supporting roles. But she found herself back in the limelight in 1923 thanks to the success of someone else -- her son.

Just like Myrtle, there’s a lot of confusion around Lincoln’s date of birth. According to the 1920 census, though, Lincoln was born in 1902, and according to interviews he entered film at just the age of 9. Photoplay believed he made his debut in "The Old Swimming Hole," and since it was released in 1912, Lincoln would've been the right age. Although he was performing in films as early as 1912, he wasn’t being recognized as Myrtle’s son. In fact, as late as 1917, the fan magazines were claiming Myrtle and Marshall had no children (despite the fact that as early as that year, Lincoln’s name was also gracing the pages of Photoplay and the like as a player in films).

Myrtle and Lincoln Stedman

As Myrtle’s career declined, Lincoln’s began to really take shape and suddenly the two were gracing the pages of every major fan magazine. Myrtle, now 40 (though claiming younger), was aging very well, and suddenly the idea arose to cast her as a youthful matron in 1923’s “The Famous Mrs. Fair.” This started a new career for her. Now, she was the youthful mother and character actress, not the western lead, and it seemed to help her career overall. She was priase for playing age-appropriate parts, while her contemporaries were denounced for chasing roles that were no longer in their wheelhouse. Although she was fudging her age (and, presumably, Lincoln’s too), she spoke of embracing age. “Growing old isn’t something to be dreaded. It is something to be enjoyed. Age isn’t a thief and a robber. He is a friend. It’s only an exchange.”

Although she signed a 3-year contract with First National in 1925, and performed very consistently in supporting roles to younger players like Blanche Sweet, by 1929, Photoplay was lamenting the fact that she had, once again, fallen into the shadows. “Why [is Myrtle], though still playing, submerged in a dim background? Capable, attractive, but inconspicuous...” That same year she made her talkie debut in “The Wheel of Life” and, unlike other silent stars, continued to act well into the ‘30s. She retired temporarily, but soon returned to the screen, albeit in mostly uncredited supporting roles. She suffered a heart attack and died January 8, 1938 at the age of 54 (though the New York Times obituary said she was 50). Lincoln died 10 years later from a heart ailment.

Mary MacLane: A Correct Reflection of a Peculiar Woman

This blog post was originally published on Curtains on September 6, 2013. View the original post here.

Mary MacLane had been causing a stir for nearly 20 years by the time she joined the ranks at Essanay, and the sensation she caused helped bring the studio new attention. Unfortunately, the product of their partnership has been lost to time.

MacLane startled readers and publishers alike when she published her diary in 1902 at the age of 19. Her honesty about her love life and experiences intrigued and astounded readers and critics alike. As one newspaper wrote of “The Story of Mary MacLane,” “she ran the gamut of egoism and penitence. She was, according to her, the most beautiful as well as the ugliest girl in the world and on that range of arpeggios she strummed her symphony of life and its overtones.”

But after a while, MacLane’s popularity waned. She occasionally made headlines due to her eccentric and often erratic behavior. On at least one occasion, she disappeared without a trace, only to resurface days later. For the most part, though, she failed to do anything considered newsworthy. Then, in 1917, she published “I, Mary MacLane” and found herself back in the spotlight, and back in demand. Seeing an opportunity, Essanay co-founder George K. Spoor approached MacLane with the idea of turning some of her memoirs and life story into a film.

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It seemed a natural fit. MacLane’s memoirs already read like a vamp’s tale, and she had a great deal of publicity and controversy already surrounding her. As she detailed in an essay for Photoplay, her new role sounded like one she had simply fallen into: “Without effort, without volition, without, in short, wanting to, I -- I have become a ‘film star.’” MacLane agreed to the project and the seeds of “Men Who Have Made Love to Me” were planted. In December of 1917, Essanay announced it had secured MacLane as its next star, and emphasized the fact that no expense would be spared during the filming. Under Arthur Berthelet’s direction, the luxurious apartments described in her affairs would be recreated in painstaking detail, and MacLane herself would be dressed in the most beautiful gowns (no doubt, a decision intended to bring more women to the theaters, much like the tactic the studio employed with “The Strange Case of Mary Page”). Not only that, Spoor would expand his usual marketing plan to reflect this “ultra feature.” He rented billboards in more than 20 cities across the country, sent special sheets to national newspapers and magazines, and even outfitted Chicago buses with placards advertising the film.

But upon its release in February of 1918, the film got mixed reviews. Some critics noted that it was a “correct reflection of the peculiar woman” and that it would satisfy viewers’ curiosity about MacLane, but they were sure to emphasize that it “adds nothing to to the artistic achievement of pictures.” Motion Picture Magazine referred to it as a “visualized diary” and a “Hooverized love-feast” but “not dramatic entertainment.”

In fact, the film, which followed six of MacLane’s affairs, wasn’t as scandalous as MacLane’s works had been, or current vamp films starring the likes of Theda Bara were. Some critics even said it was prudish compared to popular vamps of the screen. Although the film itself may not have been much to write home about, MacLane’s erratic behavior certainly was. While the film was still in theaters, MacLane once again disappeared, leaving behind only a few belongings in her hotel room. She reappeared days later and revealed that she had checked into another hotel room under an assumed name. She had wanted to get away from the media attention and cover the “financial embarrassment” she felt (she was prone to overspending and her addiction to luxury caused her to lose money as quickly as she earned it).

MacLane was almost entirely out of the spotlight when she was arrested at her Chicago home in July of 1919. Alla Ripley, a designer, brought charges against MacLane after the gowns she designed for "Men Who Have Made Love to Me" disappeared without being paid for. At the time she was arrested, the papers said she only had 85 cents to her name.

MacLane never returned to the screen, and a decade later was found dead in her Chicago hotel room at the age of 48. She was penniless, and had succumbed to tuberculosis, a disease that had also claimed Marie Bashkirtseff -- a French writer to whom MacLane was often compared. Although MacLane’s published works have lived on and have been reprinted for new generations, the film, like so many other Essanay works, is considered lost.