The Blog

Adrienne Kroell: The Selig Coquette

This blog post was originally published on Curtains on June 20, 2013. View the original post here.

Adrienne Kroell was dubbed one of the most beautiful women in filmdom, and had a beauty contest trophy to support it. At one point, she was named the most engaged girl in all of Chicago, as she was receiving proposals on nearly a daily basis. Unfortunately, in just a matter of years, Selig’s coquette (as she was once called) would be retired from the screen and largely bedridden.

Although she would always call St. Louis her home, Kroell was actually born December 13, 1892 in Chicago. Her father, Charles, was an electrical engineer originally from Germany. Her mother, May, was a Chicago native, and Adrienne was their first child. The family got their start in Chicago, but later moved to St. Louis, which is where Adrienne was educated. Although she believed she could succeed as a singer, her parents urged to become a teacher. “To please them, I took the normal exams, though I never intended to be a teacher. While going to high school I studied music, and the vacation after I was graduated I took up stenography, six weeks after I began the course, I had finished and obtained a position as secretary of the St. Louis Horticultural Society,” she later told an interviewer.

Of course, secretarial work was not her calling. She soon became involved with the St. Louis Suburban Stock Company, and performed with the company in the evenings while doing secretarial work during the day. It was around this time that she won the 1907 International Beauty Contest hosted by the St. Louis Republican. She was advised to go to Chicago to try for a position in a musical, and went to try out for producer Mort Singer. When he told her his secretary had just quit and he was too busy to see her, she quickly offered her services as a secretary and was hired. She continued performing, and eventually left the position to take a role in the production “The Honeymoon Trail.”

From 1908 to 1910 she was involved in “musical comedies,” performing in productions like “A Stubborn Cinderella” and primarily identified herself as an actress in “comic opera.” That would all change that year when she made her real foray into the film world. Although she did a short with Selig Polyscope in 1909, she bounced between the big three Chicago studios -- Essanay, Selig and American Film Manufacturing (Flying A) -- before finally settling on Selig in 1911. She quickly became their leading lady and was dubbed the Selig coquette because of the roles she so often played. In 1912, she told the Toledo News that the image she portrayed onscreen was quite different from her real life persona, “I don’t know why I so often have to be THE girl,” she jokingly lamented, but no doubt there was some truth in what she said.

Although the next few years saw her as a consistent and capable leading lady, and a clever and versatile actress, she got a taste of the ailment which would bring about her too-early retirement. At the end of 1913, Kroell was stricken with rheumatism, putting her out of commission for some time. In early 1914, she made her triumphant return to Selig as leading lady, boasting she had been completely restored to health. Unfortunately, her poor luck was just beginning.

In early 1915, she was involved in a train wreck near Homewood, Illinois. She only suffered a sprained ankle, but it was major news to the fan magazines. A few months later, her family would suffer a major blow. Charles Kroell died May 31, 1915, just a couple days short of his 52nd birthday, leaving Adrienne as the primary breadwinner for the family of six. In addition to her film work, she began to do theatrical engagements, including balls for the film industry, which allowed her to showcase her voice for the first time in a number of years. After embarking on a limited singing engagement at the Wilson Theater in December 1915, she left for the West Coast for a few months. Although no official reason was given, it’s reasonable to suspect that her arthritis was beginning to reappear.

By mid-1916 she had returned to Selig to appear in their production of “Two Orphans,” starring another Selig leading lady Kathlyn Williams. She faded from the spotlight for a time, again, only to reappear with Famous Players. She was only with them for a short time before she was again stricken with rheumatism. In April of 1917, the fan magazines reported she had been recovering for the past three months under the care of physicians from the Mayo Clinic. She had returned to St. Louis and expected to be able to re-enter the film world, but it didn’t last. By the end of 1917, she had retired from the screen.

By 1920, she was living with her mother and her sisters. When the census was taken for 1919, she didn’t claim any income or occupation. In fact, she and her mother were being supported by Kroell’s younger sisters who were working as bookkeepers and clerks in Chicago. In the years following, her mother died, and she relocated to San Diego to live with her sister Rosalie and brother-in-law Paul. In 1929, she listed her occupation as teacher of the dramatic arts, but it’s unclear how much teaching she was able to do. By 1939, she was basically bedridden due to her condition, and living with her sister’s family with no source of income.

It, no doubt, was a strain on Rosalie’s family life, but they made the best of it. Paul and Adrienne devised an apparatus that helped get her out of bed and into a chair so that she could sit up a few times a week for a short amount of time, but by 1942, she was back in Illinois and living in the Sturgis Convalescent Home in Evanston. In 1944, she made the news for the first time in nearly three decades. Ann Sturgis, the 17-year-old daughter of the nursing home's owner, befriended Kroell. When she got a role in her senior play, she rehearsed by Kroell’s bedside and sought her advice. When the night of the play came, Kroell, with the help of the nursing home attendants, made her way to the auditorium, on a stretcher via ambulance, to see young Ann perform. It was the first time in years that she had been outside in the fresh winter air, and the thrill of it and the play left quite an impression on her. “I feel so much better. It just made me young again, “ she told the Chicago Tribune.

It was her last public appearance. Five years later, Adrienne Kroell died on October 2, 1949 from complications from arthritis. She was 56.

Unfortunately, like many early independent studios of the early days of film, most of the works by the Selig Polyscope Company are gone, giving us few opportunities to appreciate the work that Kroell and her colleagues did. Once again, we’re left with an unsatisfying and incomplete picture of one of the great players of the early silent era, but Kroell’s story alone gives us a glimpse at the stunning star she once was.