A Hollywood murder most foul…

June 10th, 2018

Ann McKnight was a 23-year-old dancer and film extra, and one of the hundreds of hopefuls that arrived in Hollywood each year, eager to break into show business.

Ann was born in New Britain, Connecticut on November 19, 1906. Her father, John McKnight was a traveling optician and her mother Annie, was a housewife. Ann’s siblings included Mabel, Ada, Edward and Milton.

After Ann’s father died when she was young, her family moved to Denver, Colorado to live with her older married sister Mabel. In July 1924, Annie remarried to Harry Steck. Ann, along with her sister Ada got the acting bug and moved to Hollywood in October 1927 to try to make it in the movies.

Changing her name to Joy McKnight, Ada found a bit part in the film, Bitter Sweets (1928) starring Barbara Belford and Ralph Graves. However, that appeared to be the extent to her film career other than some possible uncredited extra and bit roles. Yet, in the 1930 Census, she labeled herself as an “actress.” Ann, too, only found extra work and possibly some dance gigs at the local clubs. Finally, she found work as a drug store clerk.

[Note: IMDB.com wrongly confuses this Ann McKnight with another who was a film editor. Their biography and death date is for the McKnight who was murdered in 1930, yet the films listed and birth date are for McKnight, the film editor (it’s not known when she died).]

Instead, both sisters found husbands and were married. Joy wed Jack Hoskins and had twins, Joy and Jack. Ann fell for the charms of William Henry Burkhart and married him on March 27, 1928. From the beginning, Ann’s marriage was filled with physical abuse. In addition, Burkhart was reportedly an alcoholic and took drugs.

Burkhart’s abuses were continuous until finally in July 1929, Ann left Burkhart and lived with her sisters’ family at 933 ½ La Jolla Avenue in West Hollywood. Ann filed for divorce, but Burkhart made threats, telling friends that if he couldn’t have her, “nobody else shall because l will kill her first.”

Burkhart intimidated and stalked Ann over the next few months. Finally, in March 1930, he set a plan in motion to get her back.

On several occasions, Burkhart met with Ann, eager to mend their marriage. Reportedly, Ann told her husband that if he rented an apartment and bought a car, she would give him another chance. He convinced Ann to meet with her on the evening of March 24, 1930, promising to surprise her. She agreed.

That afternoon, Burkhart resigned his position as a bookkeeper with the Los Angeles Gas Electric Company. Then, using a fake name (Charles G. Thompson), and counterfeit checks, he purchased a Ford coupe, and, under the name C. L. Burns, he rented a bungalow apartment at 6742 Franklin Place, one block north of the Hollywood Hotel. He told the landlady that he would return that evening with his wife.

Site of bungalow apartments at 6740 Franklin Place where murder of Ann McKnight was discovered. (click on image to enlarge)

At around 6:30 pm, the couple arrived at Franklin Place where Burkhart introduced Ann to the landlady who was sprinkling the lawn. A few minutes after they entered their apartment, the landlady saw the front door “jerked open” and Ann standing there between the door and screen door. Burkhart came up behind her, placed his arm around her and pulled her back into the apartment as she let out a “moaning cry.” Within the hour, they left in the Ford coupe and went driving while imbibing freely on wine tonic.

Three hours later, Burkhart had returned and knocked on the apartment door of his Franklin Place neighbor, James Thompson and his wife, who were playing cards with another couple. Burkhart introduced himself as their new neighbor and asked for a match. He admitted that he had been drinking, but added, “you might think that I am stiff, but my wife is stiffer.”

After Burkhart left, the Thompson’s and their guests heard a noise, like the falling of a body. Burkhart returned only a few minutes later. “May I speak to you as a friend?” Burkhart asked Thompson and his guest. The three men walked through Burkhart’s apartment and out the rear door to the alley where Ann was laying on the ground. Burkhart explained that his wife “had passed out drunk” and he needed their help to get her into his car.

Murder site photo of Ann McNight’s body: Warning: graphic. (Pinterest) (click on photo to enlarge)

Thompson knelt and checked for a pulse. Noticing blood on her blouse he remarked that she “didn’t look drunk.”

“Well,” Burkhart explained, “she always acts that way when she gets drunk.”

When Burkhart left to move his car closer, Thompson and his friend went inside and called the police. When they returned, they saw Burkhart dragging Ann’s body to the coupe, leaving a trail of blood on the cement behind her.

Aerial view of McKnight murder site at Franklin Place and Highland Avenue. (click on image to enlarge)

 

When the police arrived, they called an ambulance. Burkhart lit a cigarette and told them it was no use, adding, “She is dead.” Burkhart once again claimed that he was drunk but insisted that his wife was “dead drunk.” Officers observed that he did not appear drunk and one even accused him of being “spasmodically” intoxicated, or simulating drunkenness. Later, a stomach pump produced little alcohol.

When he was searched, officers found a fully loaded .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with blood on the handle in Burkhart’s pocket. “You can’t prove I shot my wife,” Burkhart blurted out. Until then, Ann’s cause of death had not been concluded. “Is your wife shot?” an officer asked. Realizing he had made a slip, Burkhart claimed he heard the other officers discussing it.

Ann McKnight Burkhart’s death certificate (click on image to enlarge)

An examination of the Ford coupe found blood and two bullet holes; it was apparent that Ann was killed in the auto at least two hours earlier.

The autopsy determined she had been shot five times; in the arm and chest, and three times in the back. Based on the crime scene evidence, police determined that Burkhart had sexual intercourse with Ann after she was dead. When confronted by police with this observation, Burkhart said nothing but only hung his head.

At Burkhart’s arraignment, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but later dropped the insanity clause and pleaded not guilty.

Several days later, Ann’s body was interred in a plot at Hollywood Cemetery, just several feet from the wall that still separates the cemetery from Paramount Studios. A wooden cross showing Ann’s name, and birth and death dates, was placed on her grave.

At Burkhart’s trial, Ann’s sister Joy Haskins testified that he allegedly said that no one else would have her sister even if “I have to spend the rest of my life in the penitentiary.”

Burkhart chose not to take the stand in his defense but based on witness testimony and police and ballistic reports, the jury found him guilty of premeditated murder. “I hope Joy is satisfied now,” Burkhart said, knowing that his sister-in-law had campaigned heavily to have him jailed. He later said that Ann’s family was responsible for turning her against him and convincing her to get an abortion shortly after they were married.

William Burkhart’s mug shot at Folsom Prison. (click on image to enlarge)

After the verdict, Burkart’s attorneys filed an appeal with California Governor James Rolph who was sent several petitions to pardon the convicted man. In his letters to Rolph, Burkart claimed he did not recollect killing his wife. He said that drinking and taking morphine tablets that day had dulled his memory. “I was riding around, and I didn’t know who I was with, where I went, or what I did. My mind is blank as to what happened that evening. The next I remember I was in jail; terribly sick and dizzy,” he wrote to the governor.

Burkhart’s mother, Sarah, knowing that her son was facing a death sentence, wrote to California Supreme Court Chief Justice, William Waste, begging him to “save his life”:

“…as I told you his wife is gone, and it will not bring her back, but it will make so many sad hearts so happy just to know he lives,” she pleaded with Waste. Likewise, Joy Haskins asked the governor to consider life imprisonment instead of death, but only because Mrs. Burkhart pleaded with her daily. “…for the sake of his aged mother,” Haskins wrote, “I will be willing to signe [sic] some [thing] for life sentence, but not to help him get out in a few years.”

After nearly a year and five reprieve requests from Governor Rolph, the California Supreme Court upheld the jury’s original decision that “the killing was the product of an abandoned and malignant heart [and] was premeditated finds ample support in the record and warranted the infliction of the death penalty.”

Attorneys made one more attempt to prove that Burkhart was insane, but the physician at Folsom Prison reported that the prisoner’s “emotional reactions are good” and he “does not show any delusions, hallucinations, or abnormal mental processes.”

Remarkably, Governor Rolph made a sixth attempt to save the condemned man from the gallows but Chief Justice Waste informed him that he would not recommend any further reprieves.

Burkhart finally accepted his fate and was scheduled to be executed at Folsom Prison on January 30, 1932, nearly two years after he planned and implemented the murder of his wife Ann McKnight Burkhart. The evening before his execution, he wrote letters to his mother and a sister, both living in Los Angeles.

On the morning of his hanging, Burkhart was nervous as he faced the prospect of the long walk down the corridor to the death chamber. He asked for a glass of water before being taken from his cell, not saying anything during the walk or while on the gallows. Rev. B. H. Householder, Methodist minister from Sacramento, gave him his final spiritual solace.

Burkhart’s execution marked the end of one of the longest and most varied series of appeals in the history of capital punishment in California at that time. Five attorneys, at various times prosecuted appeals for Burkhart, the State Supreme Court refusing three times to recommend commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment.

Location of graves at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (click on image to enlarge)

Though William Henry Burkhart had finally paid the ultimate price for the murder of his wife, there would be another affront committed against the murdered woman. In the area where Ann’s body rests, there used to be a road just a few steps away.

When William Burkhart was executed, he was also interred at Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever) and remarkably his body was buried in a plot directly across that road from Ann, lying just a few feet away from his murdered wife. Most likely a last request from the convicted felon performed by his family. However, the road that once separated them, was filled in several years ago and new graves now rest between them.

Ground view of grave locations at Hollywood Forever (click on image to enlarge)

One last travesty; Ann’s grave is now unmarked because the wooden marker that was placed on it at her death in 1930, has since rotted and disappeared decades ago, yet Burkart has a permanent flat granite tablet to mark his grave.

Approximate location of Ann McKnight’s unmarked grave.

Grave marker of convicted and executed murderer William Henry Burkhart.


Lon Chaney in the 1930 Census

May 9th, 2018

Lon Chaney’s home in 1930

LON CHANEY

203 South Mansfield Avenue

Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California

 Rent, $225

HOUSEHOLD RESIDENTS*

  1. Lon F. Chaney (head), 47 / Colorado / Actor / Movie studio
  2. Hazel Chaney (wife), 42 / California / None.
  3. John F. Jeske (chauffeur), 39 / Germany (1912) / Chauffeur / Private family.

* Information includes relationship to head of household, age / place of birth (year of arrival in this country, if applicable) / occupation / industry.

The preceeding text is taken from my book, Celebrities in the 1930 Census (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2008). The directory provides an extensive listing of household information collected for over 2,265 famous and infamous individuals who were alive during the 1930 United States Census. Please note: The above photographs do not appear in the book.

Miriam Hopkins review by Leonard Maltin

April 12th, 2018

MIRIAM HOPKINS: LIFE AND FILMS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL

by Allan R. Ellenberger (University Press of Kentucky)

“A compelling actress who was equally at home in heavy dramas and sophisticated comedies, Miriam Hopkins is due for rediscovery and this book may serve as a linchpin. Author Ellenberger had the cooperation of the actress’ daughter, son-in-law and grandson as well as many friends and colleagues—not to mention a 100-page file maintained by the FBI. Her friend Tennessee Williams referred to her as “a magnificent bitch,” a role she seemed to relish when pitted against her supposed rival Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance. With pages of sources to verify his extensive research, Ellenberger has tried to bring the public and private Miriam Hopkins to life in this welcome biography.”Leonard Maltin

 

Spend eternity near Rudolph Valentino

April 8th, 2018

ATTENTION Rudolph Valentino fans. Anyone desiring to spend eternity near their favorite silent film idol, an opportunity has opened up for an empty crypt just two rows from The Sheik at Hollywood Forever Cemetery that is for sale by the owner.

Available crypt for sale just two columns over (click on image to enlarge)

There probably will never be another opportunity to get this close to Valentino as most (if not all) full crypts in the Cathedral Mausoleum are taken.

Serious-inquiries-only can contact me for the telephone number, or you can stop by Valentino’s crypt to get it.

Robert Coogan and Maurice Chevalier

April 1st, 2018

Robert Coogan and Maurice Chevalier

Miriam Hopkins: Belle on wheels

March 22nd, 2018

Miriam Hopkins: Belle on wheels

By Mark Burger (Yes!Weekly)

MIRIAM HOPKINS: LIFE AND FILMS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL by Allan R. Ellenberger. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 424 pages. $45 retail.

University Press of Kentucky’s stellar string of show-biz biographies – which have included such recent releases as Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly and Alan K. Rode’s Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film – continues with Allan R. Ellenberger’s Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel, the first full-length volume devoted to the actress, as much remembered for such films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Old Acquaintance (1943), as her reputation – which preceded her, was not particularly positive, and was so well-known that the Harvard Lampoon once selected her as being “least desirable companion on a desert island.”

Call Hopkins a diva, a grande dame, or worse – and many did – this dyed-in-the-wool Southern belle (born in Savannah, no less) was no shrinking violet. Her frequent demands to producers and screenwriters to enhance (i.e. enlarge) her characters famously cost her the role that won Claudette Colbert an Oscar in It Happened One Night (1934). Despite a good relationship with filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, Jack Benny took it upon himself to convince producer Alexander Korda to instead hire Carole Lombard for To Be or Not to Be (1942), a resounding flop in its day but now considered a classic. Quite simply, Benny didn’t want to deal with Hopkins.

Once on the set, whether by concession or contractual obligation, Hopkins boasted an arsenal of tricks to flummox or upstage her fellow actors. Some, such as Joel McCrea (with whom she made five films and had a good rapport), took it in stride. Filmmakers Lubitsch, William Wyler (These Three) and Rouben Mamoulian (Jekyll and Hyde, Becky Sharp) sung her praises, as well.

Others, such as Edward G. Robinson (Barbary Coast), most definitely did not. On Jekyll and Hyde, in which Hopkins played the sultry barmaid Ivy, she repeatedly infuriated co-star Fredric March, who was playing both title roles, because she constantly tried to dominate their scenes. (March, however, could console himself with the Oscar he’d win for his performance.)

Ironically, some years later Hopkins and Robinson would share an unfortunate brush with the Hollywood Blacklist, although it didn’t hurt her career as much as his.

In Bette Davis, however, Hopkins met her match. Never mind Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; the real feud was Davis and Hopkins. That both were bypassed for the role of Scarlett O’Hara was perhaps the only instance in which they were simpatico (Hopkins, being a native Southerner, thought she had an edge on the role). Hopkins had starred in Owen Davis’ drama Jezebel on stage in 1933 and expected to reprise the role onscreen. She didn’t, Davis did, and won an Oscar.

They made two films together, The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance, and on both the battle lines were drawn early. They didn’t so much co-star as collide, with respective directors Edmund Goulding and Vincent Sherman acting as de-facto referees. In her later years, Davis took great delight in recounting how, during a performance of her one-woman show on the day Hopkins died, she said: “God has been good to us. He’s taken Miriam Hopkins.”

That few in the audience even remembered Hopkins was, undoubtedly, a further delight for Davis.

Perhaps that was a catalyst for author Ellenberger, who provides a well-written and well-researched account of Hopkins’ sometimes triumphant, sometimes troubled life. This is no hatchet job. The book is dedicated to Hopkins’ only child Michael and Michael’s wife Christiane (both deceased), and it’s clear that they opened the proverbial vault, providing Ellenberger – and the readers – with a clearer insight into Hopkins’ life, which included a contentious relationship with her mother Ellen and, oddly enough, a firm belief in astrology and mysticism. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hopkins would consult psychic before making important decisions. It’s also no exaggeration to say that she was wildly incorrect in some instances.

Despite being blessed with beauty, determination and talent, Hopkins’s career was undoubtedly curtailed by her behavior, yet in interviews, she always remained circumspect. Such behind-the-scenes gossip was not meant for public consumption, as she deemed it.

Ellenberger, whose specialty is vintage cinema – he co-authored The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol (2005) with Edoardo Ballerini and went solo with Margaret O’Brien: A Career Chronicle (2013) – evinces a clear affection and respect for Hopkins, and no small measure of sympathy. She was clearly a difficult woman and temperamental actress, and career-wise she was frequently her own worst enemy, but that doesn’t diminish the work. Hers was a fascinating life and career, and it’s all to be found in the pages of Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel.

Click HERE to read the review on Yes!Weekly website.

The official University Press of Kentucky website is kentuckypress.com.

See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2018, Mark Burger.

Serge Oukrainsky, choreographer and protégé of Anna Pavlova

March 7th, 2018

Serge Oukrainsky was born Leonide Orlay de Carva on December 2, 1885, in Odessa, Russia. Oukrainsky was educated in Paris and began his stage career in 1911 as a mime at the Theatre de Chatelet’s French Musical Festival. He arrived in the United States two years later with Anna Pavlova’s company, and remained with that troupe as a soloist and Pavlova’s partner until 1915, subsequent to her historic break with Michael Mordkin. In 1940, Oukrainsky authored “My Two Years with Anna Pavlova,” a memoir of the dancer’s latter career.

Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet trunk (1920s) Serge Oukrainsky Collection, Museum of Performance (click image to enlarge)

Andreas Pavley, Anna Ludmila, and Serge Oukrainsky, c. 1920. Source: Newberry Library (Barzel Collection)

He moved to Chicago, where he was the leading dancer, and director of the Chicago Opera Ballet until 1927. At the same time, with Andreas Pavley, he established the Pavley-Oukrainsky School of Ballet, which affiliated with the opera during Mary Garden’s reign as prima diva.

The Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet toured extensively in the United States, Mexico, Cuba and South America. In July 1931, Pavley died mysteriously when he plunged from the sixteenth floor of Chicago’s McCormick Hotel. Reportedly he had financial reverses and was unable to meet a blackmailer’s extortion demand for $100. Police claimed it was a suicide, but Oukrainsky and other friends insisted it was an accident. After Pavley’s death, he formed the Serge Oukrainsky Ballet.

In 1927, Oukrainsky moved to California where, until 1931, he served as the ballet master of the San Francisco and Los Angeles operas. He was the choreographer for the Hollywood Bowl and several films; in 1934, he taught ballet in Hollywood. He had been in semiretirement for several years when Oukrainsky died after a long illness on November 1, 1972 at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. He was interred in the mid-southern part of Chandler Gardens (Section 12) at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Margaret O’Brien’s Stolen Oscar

February 25th, 2018

Margaret O’Brien, on stage at Grauman’s Chinese Theater receiving her juvenile Academy Award for Meet Me in St. Louis

Oscar. The Academy Award. Regardless of its name, it evokes the same emotion of respect for those who have been fortunate enough to receive one. And for those lucky ones, whether deserved or not, it is the brass ring, the ultimate in praise from their peers.

And so it was for little eight-year-old Margaret O’Brien, arguably the most talented of all the child stars of her day – or since – who received the coveted award for most outstanding child actress of 1944 for her performance in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The special Oscar, which was a miniature version of the acclaimed award, was given sporadically in the 1930s and 1940s. Previous winners included Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland, who was Margaret’s co-star that year.

Robert Young and Margaret O’Brien in Journey for Margaret

Born Angela Maxine O’Brien, Margaret’s rise to fame was meteoric. When her photograph was seen on a magazine cover, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive signed her for a one-line scene in Babes on Broadway (1941). The powers-that-be at MGM saw the four-year-old’s raw talent and cast her with Robert Young in a war-time drama called Journey for Margaret (1942), from which she took her stage name. Small parts in three films followed until her starring role in Lost Angel, (1944) which was the first film written specifically for her.

At the request of director Vincent Minnelli, the studio cast her in the role of Tootie Smith in their new Technicolor musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. MGM had big hopes for this film and spent an astronomical $100,000 to build the St. Louis street on their back lot. Besides Margaret, the film included Judy Garland, Lucille Bremmer and Mary Astor, and introduced such musical standards as “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and the holiday classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Garland sang to Margaret.

When the film was released near the end of 1944, critics across the country praised her performance. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that she was the hottest thing on the MGM roster.

“Hers is a great talent,” the Reporter continued, “as distinctly outstanding as the greatest stars we have. The O’Brien appeal is based on her naturalness. She’s all America’s child, the type every person in an audience wants to take into his arms.”

But it wasn’t only America that raved. In London, the film was the biggest hit that city had seen in months. The Daily Express prophetically declared, “Her quiet, compelling acting, worthy of an Academy Award, steals the show.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shared that opinion and awarded her a Special Oscar for the Most Outstanding Child Actress of 1944. At the ceremony, which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on March 15, 1945, Margaret was given her Oscar by director Mervyn LeRoy.

The emcee for the evening, comedian Bob Hope, lifted Margaret to the microphone so she could be heard by the listening radio audience.

“Will you hurry up and grow up, please?” Hope said as he struggled with the young winner.

As LeRoy handed her the Oscar, he said, “To the best young actress of the whole year of 1944. Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” she replied. I really don’t know what to say. Thank you very much.”

However, she did know what to say. Her mother had written her an acceptance speech, but at the last-minute Margaret decided to improvise her very own thank you to the Academy.

Margaret O’Brien and her mother Gladys at the footprints ceremony in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater

During her career, Margaret O’Brien was bestowed with many awards and accolades, including the honor of placing her hands and footprints in cement in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese, but the Oscar would be her most prized and valued possession. Unfortunately, the little statuette would not stay around for long.

At the O’Brien home on Beverly Drive, Margaret had a separate room for her awards. One day in 1958, their maid took the Oscar and several other awards to her home to polish – a practice she did on several occasions. After three days, the maid failed to return so Mrs. O’Brien dismissed her and asked that she return the awards.

Not long after, Mrs. O’Brien, who was not in good health, suffered a relapse and died. Grief stricken, Margaret forgot about the maid and her Oscar until several months later when she tried to contact her, only to find that her phone was disconnected. The maid had moved and did not leave a forwarding address. Margaret considered the Oscar was gone forever. A few years later, the Academy graciously replaced the award with a substitute, but it was not the same.

Over the next thirty years, Margaret attended memorabilia shows searching for her lost Oscar. Then, in early 1995, a friend saw her Oscar in a an upcoming memorabilia auction catalogue. Margaret contacted the Academy’s legal department and they acted swiftly to have the Oscar returned.

Margaret O’Brien with her stolen Oscar that was returned to her by the Academy, and me in my younger days (no I’m not drunk it’s just one-of-those-pics) Michael Schwibs photo.

On February 7, 1995, nearly fifty years after receiving it, the Academy returned the stolen Oscar to O’Brien in a special ceremony at their Beverly Hills offices. Margaret told those attending:

“For all those people who have lost or misplaced something that was dear to them, as I have, never give up the dream of searching – never let go of the hope that you’ll find it because after all these many years, at last, my Oscar has been returned to me.”

 

Historic fires at Universal Studios

February 17th, 2018

A fixture in Hollywood for decades, the backlot is primarily designed to let filmmakers shoot New York, London, Paris and other places without having to leave Los Angeles. At Universal Studios, visitors can catch a view of the four acres of backlot on Universal’s behind-the-scenes studio tours by tram. The New York Street, which consists of 13 city blocks of buildings, have been the setting of commercials, television shows and feature films.

All the major studios have had fires at one time or another, but Universal seems to have had more than their fair share. What follows is a brief history of fires at Universal Studios over the years.

March 25, 1913

Universal fire at Gower and Sunset location. (click on image to enlarge)

Before Universal moved to their present location, they were at Gower Street and Sunset Boulevard. Early in the morning, the studio was destroyed by a fire that began in the film storehouse and was believed to have been caused by spontaneous combustion.

Several outdoor stages, dressing rooms, outbuildings, offices, the scenery storeroom and other buildings, all made of wood, were burned to the ground. For a time, the Hollywood branch office of the Sunset Telephone Company, and near-by residences were threatened.

September 29, 1917

A fire started from an unknown origin in the dry grass and spread to a two-story building on a western street just a short distance from the wardrobe building. Members of the Universal fire department and every able-bodied man fought to extinguish the flames. Sparks from the burning buildings were carried to one of the stages and set fire to many overhead diffusers. Actors helped to put them out.

Sparks also fell on the roof of the new electric light studio, which was constructed only a few weeks earlier, but a group of men quickly put it out. For a while, it was feared that the $4,000,000 studio would be seriously damaged, however, the loss was estimated at $10,000.

Not to waste the opportunity, cameramen trained their cameras upon the fire scenes which was placed in stock for use in future films.

June 3, 1919

A stubborn fire aided by a strong wind blowing into the San Fernando Valley was intent on destroying the Universal back lot. Unfortunately, being in an unincorporated district, the nearby Hollywood fire station declared Universal City to be beyond its jurisdiction. Actor Harry Carey, who was filming scenes for Rider of the Law (1919), gathered several cowboy actors to help fight the fire. They hauled a hose from the studio to the crest of one of the hills where there was a huge water tank and sprayed the hillsides from there. The blaze destroyed sets and equipment on three of the hills; damage was set at $5,000 and might have been more had not Carey and the other men acted so quickly.

May 25, 1922

A short-circuited electric wire, which whipped through an open doorway of a cutting room, ignited more than 100,000 feet of film. The huge coils of film flared instantly with flames sweeping through the room endangering near-by buildings. Padlocked metal boxes of film exploded with the heat, showering the vicinity with steel splinters that were embedded in the walls.

The explosion, smoke and fire caused a near-panic among the hundreds of studio employees. Actress Priscilla Dean rushed up a flight of stairs to the burning room, intent on saving the film of her picture, Under Two Flags (1922), which was being completed. She tripped on a flowing oriental robe (part of her costume) she was wearing and sprained her ankle.

At a loss of four cents a foot, more than 185,000 feet of film was destroyed including Under Two Flags and the footage for five other productions.

Tod Browning, who directed Under Two Flags, was about to leave for his home when the fire started. Irving Thalberg, director-general of the studio; Julius Bernhein, Leo McCarey and Arthur Ripley (film editor), all tried to reach the cutting room but were forced back by the flames.

Thalberg estimated that the property damage from the fire and the loss of film would amount to more than a half-million dollars.

December 23, 1922

Seven months later, another fire ravaged the studio under similar circumstances when an electric lamp short circuited and ignited more than a million feet of film. An explosion shook the building, knocking down a woman standing fifty feet from the source. Fortunately, the fire was prevented from spreading to the adjoining scenic shop where copious amounts of paint, chemicals and inflammable materials were stored.

The fire broke out at 3:50 pm and was battled by fire-fighting apparatus on the premises. Special effects man, Edward Bush and actor Norman Kerry, who was still dressed in his Austrian costume from Merry-Go-Round (1923), rushed into the building ahead of the fireman. However, both were overcome by fumes from the burning film and were carried out unconscious. They were attended to at the Universal City Emergency Hospital. Actors Herbert Rawlinson and Art Acord were among those who also aided in fighting the flames.

The studio was not seriously damaged, but a total of 1,100,000 feet of film was destroyed. This was footage for between thirty-five and forty films which was being edited, including One of Three (1923) from the Yorke Norroy film series starring Roy Stewart. It was estimated to cost approximately $250,000 to reshoot the pictures. The destroyed film was valued at about $100,000.

February 26, 1923

A “prop” fire became a genuine blaze and damaged a cabin set, singeing every actor in an episode of The Phantom Fortune (1923) serial. William Desmond suffered slight burns and minor lacerations when he dragged Cathleen Calhoun from the burning cabin with her costume ablaze. Esther Ralston suffered scorched hands, arms, and back. Robert F. Hill, the director, was burned about the neck and ears. Cameraman, “Buddy” Harris had his right hand severely burned. Three electricians and a property man also sustained minor injuries.

The fire was caused by flares used to simulate flames that ignited the woodwork of the set. All the injured were given emergency treatment at the studio hospital and sent home.

August 27, 1925

A fire broke out on the set of The Midnight Sun (1926) starring Laura La Plante and Pat O’Malley. Five hundred extras went into a panic, many of them trampled underfoot and two were slightly injured when a gigantic set of the interior of the Petrograd Imperial Ballet was swept by fire. Director Dimitri Buchowetski immediately jumped on the burning stage and shouted directions to the frightened extras.

The cause of the blaze was a sputtering, overhead-arc light, which came in contact with a huge drapery, part of the decorations imported from Paris for the production. Three days of shooting had to be reshot because of the destruction of the draperies which could not be duplicated. The estimated damage to the set was $15,000.

April 8, 1927

A fire started in an editing room when a lamp burned out and a spark flew into a stack of film. The fire, which threatened to spread, was confined to the single building, but the building was destroyed.

Many thousands of feet of film had to be reshot. Among the films destroyed was Reginald Denney’s Fast and Furious (1927). The loss due to the fire was estimated at $10,000.

January 7, 1931

A blaze started in a frame structure used for cutting short-length films. The cutters narrowly escaped when the room burst into flames. They were slightly overcome by fumes generated by the burning film but were revived in the studio infirmary. The studio fire department confined the fire to the one building. Damage was placed at $10,000 to the film and $5,000 to the building.

October 25, 1932

A brush fire broke out in the woodlands behind Universal and swept through fifteen acres of land destroying two film sets valued at $10,000. While the main stages and sets were not in danger, the sets destroyed were used in Frankenstein (1931) and the William Wyler film, A House Divided (1931).

Two uniformed men up front spray water on the Universal backlot fire while a line of men continue to pull a hose up the hillside toward the fire raging behind a veil of smoke. (September 1937)

September 8, 1937

A brush fire fanned by a stiff breeze burned over twenty-two acres on Universal’s back lot, destroying three houses used as a motion-picture set. A score of wild animals caged near a jungle set and several hillside residences were also in danger of the blaze.

One of the destroyed houses was an old type Spanish ranch that had been used in hundreds of western films. The other two were a part of what was known as the “Swiss Village” and were originally built in 1922 for a John Barrymore picture.

The wild animals included Universal’s famous black panther, the trained chimpanzee “Skippy,” and numerous lions, leopards and other animals. The collection was valued at $50,000.

The estimated damage to the back lot was $10,000.

December 23, 1954

A fire broke out on the set of One Desire (1955) starring Anne Baxter and Rock Hudson. The script called for Baxter to throw a book at Hudson and knock over a kerosene lamp. She did, and the flames swept up the drapes, however members of the crew were unable to contain the blaze as it whipped to the ceiling of the sound stage. The heat opened sprinklers over an adjacent stage and caused damage to other sets prepared for the same film.

September 25, 1957

An acre of permanent street-scene sets was destroyed by a fire that broke out on Universal’s back lot shortly before 5 pm. None of the street scenes involved in the fire was in use. A complete theater set on “New York Street,” a landmark for twenty years, was consumed in the fire. The heat melted and twisted the steel girder frame of the building that had been used in numerous films. The last film to use the set was the remake of My Man Godfrey (1957) starring David Niven. The damage was estimated at $500,000.

May 15, 1967

A fire started in a barn on the “Laramie Street” set and spread north and east over twelve acres of movie and television sets. At times, flames leaped more than 100-feet into the air. The “European,” “Denver” and “Laramie” streets were burned to the ground by the fire which roared out of control for more than an hour.

Wind-blown sparks showered upon the nearby Warner Bros. Studios causing at least one minor fire on the roof of the old casting building. Embers were carried as far as NBC Studios, two miles away and across the river to the Lakeside golf course.

Movie sets burn in a $1 million fire on Universal Studios’ backlot on May 15, 1967. Firemen battle roaring flames that raged out of control in studio structures. (LAPL)

The “European” set was originally built in 1930 for filming of All Quiet on the Western Front and had been used for countless films since. The destroyed “Laramie” set was used for the television show Laredo and the “Denver” street for The Virginian series.

The damage was set at $1 million.

 

November 6, 1990

A spectacular fire ravaged four acres of the Universal back lot and destroyed the New York Street; an adjacent alley set; Brownstone Street; a portion of the Courthouse Square where Back to the Future was filmed, and the Dick Tracy Building. Also, heavily damaged was the “King Kong” and “Earthquake” exhibits on the studio tour.

The New York Street set was used in the films The Sting (1973), and Dick Tracy (1990), among others. Beside the Back to the Future films, the Courthouse Square set was used in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The fire was set by a studio guard who was later sentenced to four years in prison. Damage was estimated at $25 million.

September 6, 1997

Improperly stored chemicals were blamed for a fire that destroyed the northern side of Courthouse Square. Once again, this building was spared.

June 1, 2008

A studio set is engulfed in fire at Universal Studios, June 2008.

A fire erupted at 4:45 a.m. on New York Street — a location that played host to scenes for such films as Batman and Robin and Austin Powers. Fueled by highly combustible facades and lumber, the fire rendered a sprinkler system on outdoor sets nearly useless.

The flames churned through the open-air wood and plastic construction and to the adjacent sets, incinerating the 30-foot animatronic “King Kong” tour exhibit, and damaging Courthouse Square, which played a prominent role in Back to the Future, To Kill a Mockingbird and Inherit the Wind. The blaze also engulfed the videotape warehouse, containing archives of television shows and movies dating to the 1920s.

The tragic story of Pierre Collings

February 8th, 2018

Time, fame and money trip lightly in Hollywood, and the men and women who have them one day, find themselves alone and penniless the next. So it was with Pierre Collings, screenwriter, whose screenplay of The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) won him two Academy Awards in 1937. Sadly, he would not survive to the end of that year.

The second eldest of five children, Lysander Pierre Collings was born on September 22, 1900, in Truro, Nova Scotia, where his father Otto was a mining engineer. Otto and his wife Martha were both American citizens, and when they returned to the states, they had Pierre naturalized as an American citizen.

Collings entered motion pictures as a messenger boy at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios when he was 17-years-old. Over time he became a cameraman [Alimony (1924) and Untamed Youth (1924)] at the Brunton Studios (now Paramount); an assistant director, and then a writer. Among Collings early scripts were A Woman of the World (1925), and Good and Naughty (1926), both starring Pola Negri; The Grand Duchess and the Waiter (1926), with Adolph Menjou and Florence Vidor; the Louise Brooks classic, The Show Off (1926), and the continuity for the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930).

Sadly, very little is known about Collings personal and professional life. In December 1926, Collings married Natalie Harris at New York’s Little Church Around the Corner. The couple was divorced in 1930. In 1928, Collings was to direct Alex the Great, but for unknown reasons the film was taken over by Dudley Murphy.

Between 1924 and 1930, Collings kept relatively busy writing screenplays, however between 1930 and 1937, he only produced two screenplays, one of which was as an uncredited dialogue contributor on British Agent (1934) starring Leslie Howard and Kay Francis. It could be during this time that some of his personal problems began. In August 1935, he was arrested for drunk driving.

The following December, he signed with Warner Bros. and was assigned, along with writer Sheridan Gibney, to write the screenplay for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), which was to star Paul Muni in the title role. During the production of the film, Collings mother, Martha died unexpectedly and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery.

The Story of Louis Pasteur would prove to be Collings biggest success professionally. Both he and Gibney were nominated for two Academy Awards for Original Story and for Screenplay. Reportedly, after finishing the screenplay Collings suffered a nervous breakdown and was not able to attend the ceremony on Oscar night. When Collings and Gibney won both awards, Gibney accepted the Oscars for his writing partner.

Soon after, Collings health improved enough so he could write the screenplay for a projected Warner Bros. film, Houdini the Great which was scheduled to star George Raft. For whatever reason, the project never materialized. After this, he had problems finding work again and started drinking and soon fell into more bad health and poverty. Stories circulated that he actually pawned one of his two Oscars in order to survive, but this cannot be confirmed. The following July, he was arrested on an intoxication charge that was filed by his landlady. He pleaded not guilty.

Pierre Collings died here at his father’s home at 12315 N. Huston Avenue in North Hollywood (PLEASE NOTE: This is a private residence. DO NOT disturb the occupants)

Pierre Collings death certificate (click on image to enlarge)

Collings was collaborating with songwriter Carrie Jacobs Bond on a screenplay based on her popular song, “I Love You Truly” when he died from pneumonia at his father’s home in North Hollywood on December 21, 1937. His funeral was held at Pierce Brothers Chapel and he was interred at Hollywood Cemetery near his mother.

Collings was already forgotten. The Los Angeles Times did not publish an obituary – only his name listed in the death notices. However, three weeks later, Lee Shippey, a columnist for the Times made this mention of him in his column:

“Little Pierre Collings, who wrote the script for Louis Pasteur, died the other day. His close friends tell me his decline in health resulted from heartache and despair because, after that truly great picture, he was given hardly any work. The producers thought one Louis Pasteur was great, through some accident, but the public wouldn’t stand for another picture like that – not when it could go to the next show house and see Ben Bernie. In fact, I think the sin of Hollywood is that it gathers genius from all the world and then says to it: ‘You mustn’t do your best or anything approaching it. Our public wouldn’t understand it.’” 

Pierre Collings grave at Hollywood Forever is located in Section 2W near the grave of Florence Lawrence.

Four months after Collings’ death, Charles Mackay, a wanna-be actor down on his luck, was living at Hollywood’s Mark Twain Hotel. Mackay had graduated from Washington and Lee University the year before, and decided to “try” Hollywood. His friends encouraged him, however, his father, a prosperous St. Louis broker, told him it was a mistake; he could go if he wanted, but “don’t come home for help.” Mackay ignored his father’s advice and intended to prove him wrong.

By April 1938, Mackay was down to his last quarter. His only way to pay for lodging was to work on a rock pile. He returned one evening to his room, sweaty, tired and discouraged. In hopes of finding a clean shirt, he looked through a closet that was reserved for the belongings of guests who left the hotel without paying their rent. In the closet, Mackay discovered a threadbare blue sweater, and wrapped in the sweater was one of Pierre Collings’ Oscar statuette.

Charles Mackay, center, is shown holding the Oscar given to Pierre Collings. At left is Donald Gledhill, secretary of the Academy, and at right is screenwriter Arthur Caesar.

Concerned that he would be arrested for stealing the Oscar if he tried to return it, Mackay walked Hollywood Blvd to think. By chance, he met Arthur Caesar, himself an Academy Award winning screenwriter for Manhattan Melodrama (1934). He told Caesar his story and the writer took him and the Oscar to the Academy’s office, where the secretary told him that Collings had died in poverty a few months earlier. It was assumed that, probably in need, Collings had been forced to leave the sweater and Oscar as hostage for his unpaid rent.

However, another story later circulated that Collings’ Oscar was somehow stolen by a thief who found it too hot to sell and ended up hiding it in the hotel’s closet.

The Academy gave Mackay $25, told him to clean up, and assumingly, kept the Oscar.

While researching this story, I contacted the Academy and was told that neither of Pierre Collings’ Oscars was in their possession, and there were no records of the transaction. It’s possible that the unclaimed statue is lying in a box in the Academy’s attic or, since his father was living at the time, it was returned to him. In any event, both Oscars won by Collings appear to be missing.

If you watch the Academy Awards ceremony this year, when the award for Best Screenplay is presented, remember Pierre Collings – may he rest in peace.