LONG BEFORE TELEVISION, VCRs and DVD movies came along, live theater and motion pictures fulfilled the entertainment needs for millions of Americans. Stage plays written hundreds of years ago entertained the masses, both on stage and, later, in the flickering images shown on the Big Screen.
Estimates vary about how many theaters were operating in America during the 1910s and '20s, but there were at least two to five thousand. That number jumps to as many as 10,000 if one takes into account the outdoor tents, grange halls and storefronts that were converted for one-night stands by traveling troupes. During this time, Sheridan had seven theaters: the Grand, Lotus, Orpheum, Pastime, Gem, Reel and Star (there was at least one opera house as well, the Kirby). The mining towns of Kleenburn and Monarch also had small theaters.
Offerings in these theaters ranged from one-man shows by such entertainment luminaries as Will Rogers to locally produced amateur plays and musicales. Some of the local shows were quite ambitious: over sixty performers were featured in Sheridan's 1925 amateur production of The Whirl O’ The’ Town. Most entertainment, however, was provided by traveling vaudeville acts and stock theater companies.
Theatrical productions were divided into two basic styles: vaudeville (variety shows) and the "legitimate" stage. On the traveling circuit, legitimate theater was represented by stock theater companies. Each company had a dozen or so actors, all of whom played dozens of roles in up to fifty plays a year, from the comedic to the dramatic. With minimal scenery and little music to distract the audience, the actors had to be especially good – and versatile! One day an actor might be playing a bit part in Charley’s Aunt; the next he might have the lead in Hamlet.
The presence of a stock theater company could mean a lot to a small town, as The American Magazine noted in 1915:
[Patrons] will see both farce and serious drama, and even a musical comedy or two, sung as well as usual, and five times better acted! In other words, they have a real theatre in the town at last, which is part of the community life, and is preserving and making available the drama there, as the public library preserves and makes available printed literature.
Taken somewhat less seriously was the vaudeville show. In this line of work, performers could be musicians, actors, singers, dancers, tumblers, magicians, jugglers, impersonators, roller skaters, comedians, animal trainers, contortionists and/or orators. Eula Kendrick's older sister, Mattie Wulfjen, went on the stage in the 1890s as an "elocutionist" – a public speaker using a great deal of gesturing and vocal production in her presentation. Oration, elocution and singing weren't the only vocal stylings to be found in vaudeville. Those specializing in vocalized sound effects could also get jobs. The team of John Orren and Lillian Drew performed "A Study In Mimicry" in 1918:
This is not in any sense a burlesque, or a descriptive sketch, but real imitations by two of the cleverest mimics now before the American vaudeville public. Mr. Orren does, in the order named, imitations of the following: Train Whistle, Orchestra Tuning Up, Sawmill, Three Different Tones Produced at Once, Chick, Rooster, etc. … Then Miss Drew whistles a bird imitation with piano accompaniment. The [act] closes with Mr. Orren's imitation of five dogs in an argument.
Though most vaudeville performers faded into obscurity, a few went on to fortune and fame. Al Jolson, James Cagney, Harry Houdini, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Milton Berle, The Marx Brothers, Donald O’Connor and Bob Hope all got their start in vaudeville and later become even more famous in movies, radio and television.
When moving pictures were first introduced to vaudeville theater audiences in 1896, they were an immediate hit. Within a few years, nearly 10,000 movie houses dotted the country. In Sheridan during the 1910s and 1920s, several theaters showed short films between vaudeville shows, including the Orpheum, the Pastime and the Lotus.
Like musical comedies and minstrel shows, movies were escapist fare, something people could use to take their minds off their troubles. With ticket prices starting at a nickel, it was affordable entertainment for most Americans. Although some conservative matrons felt it was improper for women to attend movies with men, films soon became popular entertainment for couples going out on their first dates.
Most early motion pictures were shot in New York City using small studios with painted backdrops and artificial light. In 1913, California's even climate and wide open spaces enabled Hollywood to eclipse New York as the motion picture capitol of America. Elaborate sound stages and backlots were built where producers, directors, actors and technicians created entire fantasy worlds. Whether the movie was a western, a war movie or a small-town drama, there was a movie set available to use as a backdrop.
Early movies were filmed without sound. Before talkies were introduced in 1927, dialogue appeared on the screen in written format. Most of the storyline, therefore, was conveyed by the movements and expressions of the actors. Music also helped move the story along. In most theaters, music was provided by live pianists who improvised melodies to go along with the on-screen action. If they couldn't come up with a tune on their own, the pianists played classical music or even popular tunes. With some films the pianist provided sound effects such as gunshots, whistles and bells. Still others came with complete scores for use by a small orchestra or band.
Almost as soon as there were movies, there were movie stars. Men and women alike would flock to the theaters just to catch a glimpse of the faces that appeared – most of them larger, prettier, and more interesting than any they could hope to meet in real life. The biggest heart-throb of the silent era was Rudolph Valentino, alias "The Great Lover." Born in Italy in 1895, Rodolpho Alfonzo Rafaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla struggled to make it big until 1921, when he was cast in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Although his was not the lead role, he proved to be so popular that the studio gave him top billing (much to the dismay of his costars).
Valentino had the type of good looks that were popular with female American moviegoers: tall, dark and handsome. Despite two failed marriages and an arrest for bigamy, Valentino was known as one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors. He was pictured on the covers of movie fan magazines and reporters dogged his every step. In 1922, he gave a sultry performance in The Sheik – a film that would cement his reputation as "The Great Lover." Valentino took this moniker in stride, stating in 1925, "Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams."
In 1926, fans were stunned when Valentino died of peritonitis at the age of thirty-one. There were riots in New York when an estimated 100,000 people – mostly women – clamored to get to the funeral home for one last glimpse of America's first matinee idol. Fellow actor John Gilbert summed up Valentino's brief career with these words:
The death of Valentino is a terrific loss to the screen. He brought it happiness, beauty and art as perhaps no other has. His loss can never be replaced; there was and can be only one Valentino; a great artist and one of the finest gentlemen it has ever been my privilege to term friend.
While Rudolph Valentino was "The Great Lover," actress Mary Pickford was "America's Sweetheart." Born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto in 1892, Mary's early life was similar to that of other stars like Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Gish: her father was a hopeless alcoholic who abandoned his family. Her mother, hoping to keep the family from destitution, put her child to work on the stage. After a brief but successful career on Broadway, Gladys – now known as Mary – started acting in flickers, the short moving pictures shown between acts on the vaudeville stage. There she met her lifelong mentor and future business partner, director D. W. Griffith. His skillful directing – combined with her soft good looks, expressive face and legitimate acting talent – soon made the little girl from Toronto an American sensation.
Between 1908 and 1933, Pickford appeared in well-over 200 motion pictures, most of them before 1916. In 1919, at a time when most women didn't even work outside the home, Pickford showed her business acumen by co-founding the first artist-owned film studio, United Artists. Eventually, she would go on to be the first woman to make over a million dollars a year, a good deal of which she used to support a variety of charitable causes from educational scholarships to war bonds sales in both world wars.
Mary Pickford was one of the most important figures in the first generation of American film stars. One of the most influential of the second generation was Colleen Moore, star of the quintessential Jazz Era movie, Flaming Youth. As author F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth and Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused that conflagration!"
Today, the name Colleen Moore is known only to a handful of film historians and silent movie buffs. In 1923, however, she helped change the face of both film and fashion forever. Until then, most actresses – at least the stars – looked like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish: blond, curly-haired, girl-next-door types that any man would be proud to take home to mother. Their dresses were long and demure, they wore little or no makeup, and they presented themselves with grace, modesty and obedience. Indeed, Colleen Moore started out that way. Between 1917 and 1923, Colleen appeared in more than thirty films, mostly in waif-ingénue roles similar to those played by Pickford.
But Moore had hopes of achieving stardom and was willing to do almost anything to succeed. In 1923, she was up for a part that she felt would help change her image of innocence and thus get her more work. Little did she know that she would help the entire country change its image! The sensational novel Flaming Youth was being filmed by First National Studio. Colleen's husband, John McCormick, happened to be head of production at First National, but not even he could help her get the part, saying she just wasn't the type. At her mother's urging, Colleen decided to cut off her hair. She later noted in her autobiography,
[Mother] picked up the scissors and, WHACK, off came the long curls. I felt as if I'd been emancipated. Then she trimmed my hair around with bangs, like a Japanese girl's haircut, or as most people called it, a Dutch bob. It was becoming. More important, it worked. Five days later I had the part.
Moore's effervescent portrayal of the Flapper in Flaming Youth and in movies throughout the 1920s struck a chord with young audiences. As Moore noted, "We were coming out of the Victorian era and in my pictures, I danced the Charleston, I smoked in public and I drank cocktails. Nice girls didn't do that before." Several other prominent Jazz Age actresses were known for their portrayals of Flappers, including Clara “The It Girl” Bow, the ultra-talented Louise Brooks, and Joan “Jazz Baby” Crawford.
Mary Pickford, 1916 (Private Collection)
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 1999 - December 2001
Detail from movie poster, 1916 (Private Collection)
State Historic Site