Archive for the ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery’ Category

James Waller Somers: “He knew Lincoln…”

Friday, September 15th, 2017

It’s surprising how many Hollywood Forever Cemetery residents have a unique connection to Abraham Lincoln. There is Senator Cornelius Cole, a close friend who visited Lincoln on the day of his assassination. And Joseph Hazelton, who as a boy, was present at Ford’s Theatre on that night. Now we profile James Waller Somers, who knew Lincoln in his boyhood in Urbana, Illinois, and continued that friendship into adulthood.

James Waller Somers, the son of Dr. Winston and Mary (Haines) Somers, was born at Mt. Airy, North Carolina, on January 18, 1833. His father was a physician, and in 1843, moved his family to Urbana, Illinois. Somers became friends with Abraham Lincoln while in Urbana, one of the towns of the Eighth Judicial Circuit where Lincoln once practiced law.

“My recollections of Lincoln,” Somers said, “date back to 1843 or 1844, when as a boy ten years old, I arrived in Urbana, Champaign County, Illinois, with my father’s family from North Carolina. Urbana was then a mere village, containing a population of perhaps 150 persons. The Courthouse was a double, one-story frame structure, unpainted, and of primitive architecture. It was in the center of the village, surrounded by about an acre of ground enclosed. It was in this court yard I remember first seeing Mr. Lincoln. He was tall and ungainly but of very striking appearance.

“It was court week, and he was striding across the yard toward the Courthouse, in that peculiar manner characteristic of him, a sort of meditative shambling gait, head drooped forward and his hands behind him. He was lank and angular, with a massive head, covered with a short, stubby, dark-brown hair, brushed up in front, without any pretense of parting in the middle or anywhere else. He had a high forehead, thick lips, cheek bones of an Indian-like prominence, and a wart on the side of his face near his large nose, which was eliminated from his later photographs by the retoucher’s brush. His face was smooth shaven. His ears, hands and feet were abnormally large and his arms unusually long.”

At the age of 21, Somers studied law in the office of his uncle, William D. Somers, with whom he became a law partner after being admitted to the bar in 1856.

“When I was studying law with my uncle, Judge Somers, Mr. Lincoln frequently came into our little one-story office, near the hotel, to swap stories with ‘Uncle William,’ who was himself a good story-teller, though Lincoln far surpassed him as he did everyone one else. He used to sit on a rush bottomed chair with his feet on the rung, telling stories, hour after hour. He frequently laughed more heartily than anyone else, but the laughter was neither boisterous nor vulgar. His whole body swayed with merriment, wholesome and infectious, and his eyes would sparkle with amusement, while he ran his fingers through his close cropped hair, always standing on end.”

Originally a Whig, Somers helped to organize the state Republican Party and actively campaigned for Lincoln in 1858 and 1860. Henry Clay Whitney called Somers “the promising orator of our Circuit of the young men.”

By 1860, Somers had developed serious hearing problems which made the practice of law difficult. He wrote to Lincoln seeking advice on his future career. Lincoln responded on March 17, 1860, recommending that he resettle in Chicago where Whitney had offered him a partnership. Lincoln closed saying that his advice was given, “with the deepest interest for your welfare.” A week later Lincoln wrote a recommendation:

“My young friend James W. Somers I have known from boyhood and I can truly say that in my opinion he’s entirely faithful and fully competent to the performance of any business he will undertake.”

In 1861, President Lincoln appointed Somers to a position in the Department of the Interior, which led to a distinguished career of 25 years of public service in Washington.

During the Civil War, Somers received news that two of his nephews, both minors, had been forced to join the Confederate Army in North Carolina and were captured as prisoners of war in Elmira, New York. Somers asked Lincoln to have them released and sent to Urbana, with the assurance that they would not take an active part in the war.

“I was cordially received at the White House,” Somers said, “in his old familiar way. After talking a few moments on home affairs I stated my errand and he at once wrote an order to Adjt.-Gen. Fry of the War Department, directing the release of the young men and upon their taking the oath of allegiance to send them to their uncle in Urbana. In a few days my cousins were on their way West and did not again take up arms against the North.”

When Somers retired from the Department of the Interior in 1895, he moved to San Diego where his brother resided. In 1903, he moved to Hollywood to live with his niece, Mrs. H. G. (May) Condee at her home on what is now Cherokee Avenue. The library was adorned with some of Somers valuable collection, which included various portraits, busts and autographed letters from Lincoln.

On June 6, 1904, at 7:25 pm, Somers was returning from the post office and was crossing Hollywood Boulevard at Whitley Avenue when he was struck and killed by an electric cable car. At that intersection there was a strong arc light, and it was supposed that Somers confused it with the headlight of the electric car and, not being able to hear the warning bell, crossed the track just as the car came upon him.

J. W. Somers funeral was held at the home of his niece and interment was at Hollywood Cemetery.

The grave of James Waller Somers at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It is located in Chandler Gardens (Section 12), just a short distance behind the J. Ross Clark family mausoleum.

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Rudolph Valentino: an alternate ending

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

UPDATE: If you can’t attend tomorrow’s Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service at 12:10 pm (PST) at Hollywood Forever’s Cathedral Mausoleum, the committee has authorized for the first time, a live streaming broadcast via Facebook on the Group, We Never Forget Rudolph Valentino. Join in and enjoy!

 

What if Natacha Rambova had still been married to Rudolph Valentino at the time of his death? Where might he be interred today?

When silent film star, Rudolph Valentino died prematurely at the age of 31 in 1926, chaos ensued. From the moment his death was announced at New York’s Polyclinic Hospital, until he was laid to rest in Hollywood, riots, rumors and unrest followed the actors body.

And not unlike the circumstances regarding the death and burial of pop super-star, Michael Jackson, there were questions and disagreements over where the body of Rudolph Valentino would rest.

As Valentino lay dying at Polyclinic hospital, his brother Alberto was anxiously making his way from Italy and found out about his brother’s death when he arrived at the Paris train station. Later that day, Alberto released a statement affirming that Valentino would be buried in America.

“This is what he would have desired,” Alberto said. “He so loved America that I am sure he wanted to be buried there – rather, even, than beside our father and mother in Italy. He loved Italy, but he loved the country of his adoption and his success more.”

However, two days later, Alberto altered his decision, stating that he needed to discuss the matter with his sister Maria and Rudy’s American friends. Until then, no decision would be made.

Surprised by this turn of events, many wondered where Valentino would be interred. Rudy’s sister, Maria, told reporters by telephone from her home in Turin that she wished for her brother to be buried in Castellaneta (Valentino’s birthplace). “It is my desire that Rudolph be buried in Italy,” she said, “and I hope that my brother Alberto, now en route to New York, will agree to this.” Citizens of Valentino’s home town agreed and started making plans to welcome the body of their fellow townsman. A committee was organized to collect funds to erect a stately tomb in the town’s cemetery.

Valentino’s manager, George Ullman, still hoped to take his friend’s body back to Hollywood. “I think he belongs there and hope to so persuade his brother,” he said. Pola Negri (Valentino’s alleged fiancé) agreed, telling reporters that she too hoped Alberto would bring Rudy’s body back to the city where the actor had his greatest success. “Because he spent so many happy hours – his happiest hours – here, and because I am here,” she said. “I want him buried in Hollywood. But if his brother should wish him buried in Italy, to lie beside his father and mother – that is different. I can understand that.”

Valentino’s first wife, Jean Acker, sided with the Italian delegation. “I think he would prefer to lie by the side of his mother and father in Italy,” she said. “But I have no say in it. Who am I to say anything?”

Meanwhile, a contingent of Hollywood producers, directors, and actors cabled Alberto, urging that Valentino be buried in Los Angeles. “We, of the Hollywood motion picture colony, who knew, worked with and loved Rudolph Valentino, urge you to order that his mortal remains be allowed to rest forever here, where his friendships were formed and where he made his home,” they wrote. It was signed by thirty-eight Hollywood personalities, including Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, Antonio Moreno, Ramon Novarro, Norman Kerry and Louis B. Mayer.

Alberto was very appreciative of the honor and interest that Rudy’s friends bestowed upon his brother, but hoped they would not insist on an immediate decision. “I have communicated with my sister in Turin,” he responded by cable. “There are many factors that must be taken into consideration. I cannot reach a decision until I reach New York.”

Being Valentino’s next of kin, the decision was left to Alberto, and as everyone now knows, that decision was for Hollywood Cemetery where Valentino still rests to this day. However, what if Valentino had still been married to Natacha Rambova at the time of his death? The decision would have been hers. If so, where would his remains be now?

Rudy, Winifred Hudnut, Natacha, Richard Hudnut

At the time of his death, Natacha was in France with her family. The only hint of what her plans would have been if history had been different was a brief cable she sent to Ullman during the fight over where Rudy’s body would lie.

“Unless otherwise directed by Rudolph, we prefer cremation; ashes to be placed in temporary security,” she wrote. “Later could go to my plot in Woodlawn.”

Woodlawn Cemetery is in the Bronx section of New York where many of the city’s historical figures are buried. Silent film actress Olive Thomas was interred there by her husband Jack Pickford just six years earlier.

The huge family plot of Richard Hudnut at Woodlawn Cemetery where only he and his two wives are interred. Who else could he have been expecting? Natacha had her ashes scattered.

Natacha’s step-father, Richard Hudnut, the famed perfume manufacturer, had a huge family plot at Woodlawn, where his first wife Evelyn was buried in 1919 and where he and his second wife Winifred (Natacha’s mother) were later buried.

Ullman, of course, did not take Natacha’s offer seriously. First, he insisted that cremation was impossible since the Catholic Church did not allow it, and Rudy, who had drifted away from his childhood faith, had returned to it on his deathbed. Ullman recalled that several years earlier they had discussed cremation, and Rudy had said, “Well, when I die I’d like to be cremated and have my ashes scattered to the winds.” Ullman insisted that Rudy was joking.

However, to continue with our speculation, had the couple still been married, the chances are that Valentino would have been buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Hudnut family plot. Now the only question would be if the yearly memorial services that have taken place since the actor’s death would become a ritual at Woodlawn, or would his memory have faded as so many silent film stars of the day have?

 

 

 

In any event, the 90th Annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, August 23, 2017, at 12:10 pm, in the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where the actors body still resides. The public is welcome.

 

 

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The story of Rudolph Valentino’s borrowed grave

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

 

 

Once the late silent film star Rudolph Valentino had been interred and the obsequies completed, the thought of how the actor would be remembered was foremost in everyone’s mind. The city of Chicago, home of the infamous “Pink Powder Puffs” editorial, formed the Rudolph Valentino Memorial Association in the hopes of erecting a remembrance of some kind. The Arts Association of Hollywood proposed a monument that would be the forerunner of a series of memorials to pioneers of the film industry. A committee of local Italians, which included director Robert Vignola, Silvano Balboni, and his wife, screenwriter June Mathis, suggested the construction of an Italian park on Hollywood Boulevard with a memorial theater and a large statue of Valentino as its central feature. Despite those grandiose projects, no memorials materialized—and it slowly became apparent that the same would happen with Valentino’s final resting place.

Valentino and his manager, George Ullman

After Valentino’s death, a decision could not be made as to where the actor’s body would finally rest. George Ullman, Valentino’s manager, was confident that Alberto, the actor’s brother and the person who would have the final say, would consent to interring the body in Hollywood. The Mayor of Castellaneta, Valentino’s birthplace, cabled Alberto imploring him to have the actor’s body returned there for burial with ceremony. Valentino’s sister Maria, who at first wanted her brother brought back to Italy, later concurred with the Hollywood delegation, thanks in part to the suggestion of William Randolph Hearst. To solve the problem—at least temporarily—June Mathis offered her own crypt at Hollywood Cemetery’s Cathedral Mausoleum until an appropriate memorial could be decided upon or built.

A movement was started for the erection of a worthy memorial that women admirers wanted to be “everlasting.” Ullman and Joseph Schenck, head of United Artists and Valentino’s boss, formed a committee called the Valentino Memorial Fund with other producers, Carl Laemmle, M.C. Levee and John W. Considine Jr. Appeals were made to the public to donate one dollar each; memorial societies were organized in New York and Chicago, and were expected to extend to other cities around the world. Ullman sent out one-thousand letters to members of the film colony in which he expressed his feelings that the “success of the memorial will be a tribute not only to Rudolph Valentino, but to the motion picture industry, as a whole.”

The outlook appeared to be a success. Letters deploring the death of Valentino poured in by the thousands. Certain that sufficient contributions would be forthcoming, the committee authorized architects to submit designs for a mausoleum, with an estimated cost placed at $10,000.

However, the public response was not what they anticipated. A check for $500 came from an English noble woman. Other checks for $100 came from actors Ernest Torrence and William S. Hart. From the one-thousand letters that Ullman sent, fewer than a half-dozen replies were received. The committee collected approximately $2,500, half of which came from America; the major donations came from England, Germany, Italy, India, and South America.

Valentino and June Mathis

In the meantime, June Mathis died in New York (less than a year later). When Valentino’s body was placed in her crypt, Mathis had said, “You many sleep here Rudy, until I die.” Now that time had come; a decision had to be made about what to do with Valentino’s remains. As a good-will gesture, Silvano Balboni offered to have Valentino’s casket moved to his crypt next to Mathis’ until the Valentino estate ironed out its problems. On August 8, 1927, cemetery workers entered the Cathedral Mausoleum and, what proved to be one last time, moved Valentino’s remains to the adjoining crypt, number 1205.

Artist’s conception of the planned tomb for Rudolph Valentino at Hollywood Cemetery.

 

Artist’s conception of the front and overview of Valentino’s planned memorial.

While public memorials were still being considered, Valentino’s body lay in a borrowed tomb. Photoplay magazine published plans for a proposed tomb by architect Matlock Price in the November 1926 issue. The design incorporated an exedra, a half-circle of columns standing serene and dignified against a dark background and curving towards the observer. Within that half-circle, a “heroic” bronze figure of Valentino as the Sheik, seated on an Arabian horse, towered above the onlooker. Following the curve of the exedra, a broad bench sat under two pergolas running across the ends of the terrace, which was paved with red Spanish tile.

These plans also went nowhere, and a permanent mausoleum for Valentino never materialized. Ullman hoped that the City of Los Angeles would provide the plot for a grave at Hollywood Cemetery and the $2,500 that was collected could be used for a bust of the actor to rest on a granite stand.

The statue “Aspiration,” dedicated to Valentino’s memory, shortly after it was dedicated. It still stands today in De Longpre Park.

Instead, in May 1930, a memorial to Valentino was finally erected, not at Hollywood Cemetery, but in De Longpre Park in central Hollywood; the only one of its kind dedicated to an actor in the film capitol.

Ironically, fans still flocked to his crypt (reportedly, Valentino is still one of the most visited grace sites today). But not always reverently. Once, a marble pedestal that stood before his crypt was overturned and broken to bits. Some of the pieces were carried away by souvenir hunters. Tourists would come, gaze at Valentino’s marker, then break flowers from the baskets and hide them in their clothing, as keepsakes.

Some attempts to remember Valentino have been positive. In London, a roof garden at the Italian Hospital was opened and dedicated to Valentino. Paid for by British money, it was the first attempt to perpetrate Valentino’s memory.

Finally, in April 1934, after Valentino’s body lay in a borrowed tomb for almost eight years, Silvano Balboni sold the crypt to Alberto. Balboni returned to Italy and never returned to the United States; Valentino now had his own resting place.

An early memorial to Valentino at his gravesite.

One wonder’s why the funds for the hoped-for resting place did not happen after Valentino’s death. The actor’s estate at the time could not cover the cost; it would not be fluid for several years. But certainly, his fellow actors who called him “friend,” could have pooled their money, or, any one of them could have paid the cost on their own. It was a mystery then and remains so today.

Nevertheless, every year on August 23rd at 12:10 p.m. (the time that Valentino died in New York), scores of fans gather near his crypt at Hollywood Forever Cemetery to remember the man. Regardless of the circus atmosphere that once prevailed at these events during the past ninety years, whether it be reports of the actor’s ghost or the appearance of mysterious, dark-veiled women, it is hoped that somehow the spirit of Rudolph Valentino, the “Great Lover,” now rests in peace.

If you are in the Los Angeles-Hollywood area on Wednesday, August 23, 2017, drop by the Rudolph Valentino Memorial at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The service is held at the Cathedral Mausoleum and begins at 12:10 p.m.; the time of Valentino’s death in New York. Arrive early as seats go quickly. See you there.

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Eugene Plummer, the Last of the Dons

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

Eugene Rafael Plummer (Los Angeles Public Library)

By Allan R. Ellenberger

He was straight of stature, succinct of speech, and as well-versed in nature as he was in the old days when Hollywood was not yet a dream and Los Angeles was a dusty pueblo.  Eugene Rafael Plummer, the man for whom Plummer Park in West Hollywood was named, was born in San Francisco on January 8, 1852. His father, John Cornelius Plummer  was a Canadian sea captain and his mother, Maria, was half Spanish and half Irish, a mixture which gave the younger Plummer the fire and romance of old Spain and the devil-may-care temperament of the Irish.

When Eugene was 16, Captain Plummer moved his family to Los Angeles where he homesteaded 160 acres of land where the Ambassador Hotel stood. He later acquired property which is now bounded by Wilshire and Beverly Boulevards, and La Brea Avenue and Vine Street.

In 1828, the land that now encompasses Plummer Park was a part of the 4,439 acre Rancho La Brea, granted by Governor Echandia to Antonio Rocha. After several selling’s, the property was sold to Major Hancock in 1865 for $2.50 an acre. In 1874, Plummer acquired the official title to the Plummer Rancho comprising 160-acres between Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards and La Brea and Gardner Avenues.

That same year, on the three acres of land that eventually became Plummer Park, Captain Plummer’s sons, Juan (John) and Eugene built their home, a typical ranch house.

Plummer House, the home of Eugene Plummer that stood in Plummer Park for over 100 years. (Los Angeles Public Library)

In the early days Plummer’s home was the only habitation from Hollywood to the Plaza district and rattlesnakes, cactus and bandits were his only companions. Later, his home was the headquarters for the Vaquero Club, a group of adventurous horse riders.

In 1881, Plummer married Maria Amparo La Moraux and the couple had a daughter that they named Frances. As a court reporter for 25 years, she would befriend the pueblo’s Mexicans and act as their interpreter in court cases.

As early as 1922, the acreage was unofficially called Plummer Park. Six years later, options were offered by a committee of prominent bankers and businessmen to make it official. Plummer hoped to make around $25,000 from the deal but nothing ever came of it. In 1925, his wife Maria died and was interred at Hollywood Cemetery next to his father John.

By this time, Eugene Plummer was Hollywood’s oldest resident, and his homestead became its oldest residence. Each year, he would host the old-timers picnic which was open to as many of Hollywood’s original residents that were still living.

Gradually, Plummer’s debts continued to mount until he was forced into foreclosure. Ironically, Plummer once owned 142 acres where the Hollywood Bowl now is and sold it to a company named Burnoff & Teal for $2,400. In the 1930s, that same area was worth millions.  In 1935, Plummer Park was registered as a landmark. Finally, the county stepped in and acquired the Plummer land in 1937 for $15,000. Plummer was sad at the passing of his heritage, but never bitter.

Development of the park began the following year with the construction of a recreation building called the Great Hall/Long Hall at a cost of $65,000. The Spanish style structure, made of stucco and a red tile roof, included a dining room seating 300 persons. The building also had a library and reading room. The patio, adjacent to the kitchen, would seat 600 and was shaded by three ancient olive trees.

One condition of the purchase was that Senor Plummer be permitted to occupy the premises as long as he lived. The county designated him as the historical guide for the park. Plummer Park was filled with a fine collection of rare trees and plants. One pepper tree had a branch growing out horizontally over seventy-five feet in length. The limb was trained by Plummer by keeping a horseshoe on the end of it for many years.

The old frame home built by Plummer and his brother in 1874, was now used as the headquarters of the Audubon Society, and the office of the park superintendent. A modern home adjacent to the parks property became Plummer’s new home where he lived for the remainder of his life.

(Los Angeles Public Library)

In his later years Senor Plummer would sit beneath the shady pepper trees of Plummer Park, rolling cigarettes from loose tobacco, or break store-bought cigarettes into three lengths and smoke them a few puffs at a time in an old amber holder. Between puffs, he would conjure up memories of the “good old days” for anyone who asked.

Pepper trees were his favorites. “They kept the flies away,” he maintained. There was the time he chased a deer all the way up to what is now the corner of Hollywood and Highland and lassoed it. Nearby, in a little arroyo, he killed a giant brown bear after it had been gored in three places by a wild bull.

Once, in Laurel Canyon, he shot an antelope on the hillside but couldn’t find the bullet hole. “You scare him to death, senor,” said the old Indian who was with him. But it was later found that the bullet went right up the spine and lodged in the antelope’s brain. “Once in a million times,” said the Don concisely.

When Helen Hunt Jackson was writing “Ramona,” she used to visit Senor Plummer at his home for advice the early days of California. “If anybody is Alessandro, I am,” he said once during an interview, “for I showed Mrs. Jackson how young Spaniards and Indians made love.”

Senor Plummer welcomes actress Ruth Roland and banker G. G. Greenwood to Plummer Park.

Plummer delighted in wearing a tan leather jacket given to him by his friend Buffalo Bill. Another of his friends in the early days was the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, who was shot by authorities in 1875. Plummer’s presence at the park gave it an air that no other presence could.

The plan was to keep the park in its original state for a unique gathering place for groups and societies. Barbecues and songfests under the old peppers and the eucalyptus trees were planned as the whirl of Hollywood traffic sped by. Visitors were sheltered by the towering blue gums, the gnarled old olives and the gigantic cypress that Plummer planted with his own hand in the late 1800s. Besides the old ranch house, the servant’s houses, the old barns, the barbecue pit, the old windmill, and the rodeo grounds, it became a chapter of the past brought into the present for the public.

Year after year Senor Plummer continued to enthrall and entertain the visitors to his park. To the last his mind and memory remained keen and filled with humorous memories. Then, one day, the Don suffered a heart attack in his home at Plummer Park. He wanted to remain at his hacienda with his collections of saddles, boots and guns, but friends convinced him to go to the hospital where he sank into a coma from which he never recovered. Senor Eugene Plummer died on May 19, 1943. He was 91 years old.

Eugene Plummer’s death certificate. (Click on image to enlarge)

Rosary for Eugene Plummer was recited in the chapel of Pierce Bros. Hollywood Mortuary. Mass was celebrated the following day at St. Ambrose’s Church at Fountain and Fairfax Avenues. More than 300 persons, most of them descendants of some of California’s oldest families, attended the rites. Plummer was interred next to his father and wife at Hollywood Cemetery.

The Plummer Family marker at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The names of  Plummers’ father and Eugene’s wife Maria are engraved. For whatever reason, Senor Plummer was never marked.

The Eugene Plummer family plot at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

As for the Plummer House, it was known as the “Oldest House in Hollywood” and was designated as State Historical Landmark No. 160 in 1935. The Audubon Society continued to use Plummer’s old homestead to house their library and exhibits until 1980. Sadly, vandals set fire to it twice, and ruined the Audubon’s library and exhibits. The house was almost destroyed and stood abandoned and filled with trash for over two years. It was almost razed. Happily, the Leonis Adobe Association heard about the house’s fate and arranged with the county to move the front part to the Leonis Adobe grounds. The house has since been repaired and restored, and is now a Visitor’s Center and Gift Shop.

The old house that Plummer and his brother built was moved to Leonis Adobe grounds in Calabasas.

Plummer Park was once again in the news for the drastic changes that the city of West Hollywood planned. If you asked visitors to Plummer Park, or members of West Hollywood’s city council, who Eugene Plummer was, they probably wouldn’t know. Virtually nothing remains of the park that Don Plummer knew and loved, and sadly, there is only one plaque that mentions him. Hopefully, that will be corrected.


When in Los Angeles, visit Plummer Park at 7377 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood.

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The life of Thomas Smith Robson; an adventurer, practical joker and low class Bohemian

Friday, July 14th, 2017

By Allan R. Ellenberger

Thomas Smith Robson, the scion of a great English family, was the son of Robert Robson, Esq., Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Emily Jane Snowden. His brother, William Snowden Robson, was an English lawyer, judge and liberal politician and a Member of Parliament. There was no similarity between these brothers: while Thomas was a jolly, roistering, and mad-cap fellow, his brother William was the personification of English respectability. Both brothers were born at 26 Eaton Square, a somber but eminently aristocratic square of London.

In his early life, Robson earned a PhD at Heidelberg, Oxford and other institutions. He was an expert chemist, man of letters, a thorough student of law, and an expert linguist of several European languages. Robson possessed a splendid physique, lived only at night, and slept during the day. When he wanted an evening alone, he would order a dozen quarts of Riesling wine, and drink the entire batch before the sun rose. He eventually became an embarrassment, dimming the dignity of his family traditions, and was sent on his way.

In 1890, he arrived in Denver with fourteen trunks and a desire to do something unusual. Accordingly, he took up with an infamous army officer whose only asset was his military title. Breaking ties with his family, he spent his last cent getting to Montreal, where he and the officer bluffed their way into the most fashionable hotel on the officer’s signature. From there, they became reporters on the Montreal Star until they were found out and were driven from the town.

Robson then went to Boston and was hired as a waiter in a 10-cent lodging house. Evidently this was not strenuous enough, so he hitch-hiked to Roxbury in mid-winter, eating only green apples for ten days. He then met a wealthy New Yorker, who attempted to make him a general agent of a big colonization scheme. However, Robson would rather starve than work for another man, so he became a stove tinker, making his way to Montana on a stock train. On the way, he was taken care of by an actor who owned a large stock farm; he promised to give Robson a good salaried job for as long as he wanted it. Five miles before reaching the farm, Robson changed his mind and jumped off the train; away from the actor permanently.

Robson traveled to Northern California and stirred up a band of Indians living on a reservation, to do wild deeds; he stayed with them for many months. His next stop was San Francisco, but he remained there only a short time. In 1896, he jumped on a train for Los Angeles. There he met J.R. Carson, who ran the Old Curiosity Shop on North Main Street, Carson persuaded Robson to write home to his family. He did, and discovered that his father was dead, and that he and his brother shared the estate. He was not interested in money except for the good he could do with it, and the trouble he could stir up.

With his inheritance, he booked a suite at the Van Nuys Hotel, but then he rented a 25-cent room in a lodging house where he would sleep. He made a bet with friends that he could escort one of the most notorious women in the city to one of the best hotels. He won his bet by bribing the clerk with a hatful of money. A quick trip to San Francisco followed, and there he sent out invitations to his former cohorts, a collection of loafers and loungers that he treated to a royal banquet at the Poodle Dog, San Francisco’s first and most famous French restaurant. On the way back to his apartment, he lay down in a mud puddle in his evening clothes, defied the police and stopped traffic. A wrecking car crew, and a wagon load of officers put him to bed.

Returning to Los Angeles, Robson found that a sewer trench was open on Main Street, and as a practical joke, he hired a gang of men to fill it up in the middle of the night. Then he engaged several undertakers, and had horses and lines of funeral coaches sit outside a friend’s house all day. Another time, about a hundred boys rushed into a busy drug store in response to a fake advertisement Robson had enlisted in the newspaper.

Finally, bored with his antics, he started for England. Stopping at New York, he bought a hand organ and a monkey from an Italian street musician, and performed up and down Fifth Avenue until he was arrested and put in jail. In Paris, he threw gold around the streets, and gave away money to every homeless person he could find. One day, when someone gave him a bad Franc, he became angry. So to show his disdain, he emptied all his money down a sewer and was left penniless. Once he replenished his supply of money, he attempted a “scientific demonstration” of the insidious effects of constant absinthe drinking, and informed his friends that he was now engaged in a work that would benefit humanity. This experiment resulted in his being locked up in a private asylum.

Going to London, his brother William was not pleased to see him; his antics were not those of a dignified Member of Parliament. But Robson was offended by a speech his brother made, so he left for Venice. There, he tried to organize the gondoliers into two factions; soon they were insulting and fighting each other before fleeing in the middle of the night. Returning to Paris, he remained there for a year or two.

Finally, he returned to Los Angeles. He was in ill health and asked Benjamin Balmer for help. Balmer took him into his home and cared for him. Robson allegedly settled down except for an occasional night of his own when he would lock himself in his room and drink. However, he kept clear of trouble and the police.

Balmer claimed that Robson had unclean habits and was frequently intoxicated. In spite of this, Robson was well cared for by the Balmer family, and Mrs. Balmer would serve as a nurse for him. For the last two years of his life, he was a broken man and scarcely able to help himself. On January 12, 1904, Thomas Smith Robson died at the Balmer home at 465 Bixel Street. He was 49 years old.

Robson’s body was buried in the Chandler Gardens section at what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A large granite cross was placed on his grave.

The inscription:

“Sacred to the Memory of Thomas Smith Robson PhD (Heid) Youngest Son of R. Robson Esq. J.P. of New Castle Upon Tyne England. He Died at Los Angeles on 12th January 1904 Aged 49 Years. The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible And We Shall All Be Changed.”

Robson left a considerable estate valued at about $50,000 in England, personal property in California amounting to $9,490 and real estate valued at $3,450. Robson left his entire estate to his brother William in England. William hired an administrator in San Francisco to handle his brother’s estate. For the care and attention that the Balmer’s gave Robson, they asked for $4,000 from the administrator, and when they were refused, they brought suit. As a reward for his kindness toward Robson, Balmer was allowed $2,400 by the judge.

William Snowden Robson (1852-1918)

Note: Robson’s brother, William Snowdon Robson (1852-1918) was a Member of Parliament between 1885 and 1886. Robson married Catharine Burge, daughter of Charles Burge, of Portland Place, London in 1887. He was invested as a Queen’s Counsel in 1892. He again held the office of Member of Parliament between 1895 and 1910. In 1905, he was knighted and was appointed to the Privy Council. He was Solicitor General for England and Wales from 1905 to 1908, and Attorney General for England and Wales from 1908 to 1910 when he was made a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and a life peer with the title Baron Robson, of Jesmond in the County of Northumberland. He resigned as Lord of Appeal two years later. William Snowdon Robson died aged 66, at Telham Court, Battle, Sussex. In available biographies, there is no mention of his younger brother, Thomas Smith Robson.

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Unsung Film Pioneer: William H. Clune; theater and film producer

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

William Henry Clune

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By Allan R. Ellenberger

Film history is filled with many pioneering men and women, other than Griffith, DeMille and Chaplin. In fact, there are many that are little known or forgotten today. Hollywoodland will explore the lives of some of these great trailblazers. Today, we look at the life of William H. Clune. 

William Henry Clune was a pioneer motion-picture theater owner, whose name is associated with the early days of film production. Born in Hannibal, Missouri, on August 18, 1862, Clune came to California in 1887. His interest in railroading ceased with the successful termination of a real estate venture, which provided him with sufficient capital to enter the field to which he devoted himself—the motion picture industry.

Clune began with a film exchange in 1907 which distributed the films of the pioneer producers including the old Essanay, Edison, Biograph and others. While operating the exchange, he opened his first theater, a penny arcade on Main Street, in Los Angeles. This was followed by the building of Clune’s Theater on Fifth at Main Streets where the Rossyln Hotel now stands. His next venture was leasing the property on Broadway between Fifth Avenue, and Sixth Street, where he built Clune’s Broadway Theater. Then he took over the Clune’s Auditorium at Fifth and Olive Streets, later renamed the Philharmonic Auditorium. He also built Clune’s Pasadena Theater and Clune’s Santa Ana Theater. At one time, his chain included theaters in Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Bernardino, Santa Ana and San Diego. .

Clune’s Broadway Theater as it appeared in 1910. (Cinema Treasures)

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Clune’s Broadway Theater (later called the Cameo), as it looked in 1999 (lapl)

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Clune’s Auditorium, originally located at Olive and Fifth Streets
across from Pershing Square. It is now a parking lot.

Clune’s Pasadena Theater is believed to be the city’s first movie house. The building, no longer a theater, still shows the original name. (Hometown-Pasadena)

In 1913, Clune and his wife Agnes sold their Pasadena mansion at 1203 Fair Oaks Avenue at the corner Monterey Road. The site is now a Pavilions grocery market. At this time, Clune separated from his wife and moved into an apartment at the Los Angeles Athletic Club at 431 West 7th Street. Agnes and their son James took up residence in another mansion at 314 South New Hampshire Avenue.

In 1915, Clune assumed control of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Studios on Melrose. On the property, Clune built rental studios for lease to independent production companies. ..

Clune’s Studio on Melrose (now Raleigh Studios).

At this studio, Clune produced and filmed Ramona (1916), the famous book dealing with early California life. Following that, Clune made other films including The Eyes of the World (1917) from the story of Harold Bell Wright.

William Clune stood out in motion picture production. In his room on the twelfth floor of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, many of the largest movie deals made were negotiated. Clune had faith in D.W. Griffith, and backed the director financially and agreed to exhibit The Clansman, which was later retitled The Birth of a Nation (1915) at Clune’s Auditorium where the world premiere was held.

As the executive head of a chain of screen houses, Clune was an active and shrewd showman. For a number of years, he fought an enforcement of old city ordinances prohibiting electric sign displays. City bureaus complained against Clune’s electrical advertisements, but Clune refused to budge from his determination to “light up Broadway.” ..

Clune liked to use electricity to “light up Broadway” much to the dismay of the city council..

In 1924, Clune retired from the theatrical business, having sold all his theaters and leased his studios on Melrose to the Tec-Art Company. Retirement from film production did not mean retirement from active business as he had acquired large holdings in downtown real estate, dating back to 1900, and had many other interests.

Shortly after noon on October 18, 1927, William H. Clune died of a stroke in his apartment at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. His body was taken to the Sunset Mortuary at 8814 Sunset Boulevard and he was interred in the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery..

William H. Clune’s crypt (no. 994) in the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

In addition to his other activities, Clune was on the regional board of the Bank of Italy, a member of the Brentwood Country Club, Jonathan Club and Elks Club.

Clune’s estate was bequeathed to his son James, the president of Clune’s holding company. Thought to be a millionaire several times over, yet few were able to estimate his actual fortune. His wife Agnes, according to his will, was not named but received her share of the estate by a property settlement years earlier. Publicly, the only estimate of the value of Clune’s estate at the time said that it “exceeds $10,000,” but most experts determined that it was close to $6 million which in today’s exchange would be around $81.5 million.

At the studios Clune owned on Melrose (across the street from Paramount), Douglas Fairbanks made The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921), Walt Disney rented space in the 1930s and the Hopalong Cassidy television series was filmed here, as were Superman. Robert Aldrich filmed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Ronald Reagan hosted Death Valley Days. In 1979, the heirs of William Clune sold the film plant and it became Raleigh Studios. The studio that William Clune created is believed to be the oldest continuously operating film studio in Hollywood. ..

Raleigh Studios (the old Clune Studios) today…

 

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The unsolved Hollywood murder of boxer Eddie Diggins

Saturday, June 17th, 2017

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

During prohibition, speakeasies where bootleg liquor was sold, dotted the streets of Hollywood. One such establishment opened in March 1927 in a commonplace looking bungalow on the northeast corner of Cherokee and Selma, just one block south of Hollywood Boulevard. Called the Crescent Athletic Club, it was open only one week and already catered to some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities.

The site of the Crescent Athletic Club at 1626 N. Cherokee Avenue just north of Selma. (Google maps)

During the early morning hours of Saturday, March 26, 1927, the crowd at the Crescent was still in revelry mode when Charles Meehan, “an actor turned real estate man” arrived with his wife, actress Irene Dalton. Meehan, who earned most of his income selling bootleg liquor (for which he had been convicted five time), entered the dining room where film director Jimmie Sinclair, screenwriter Jack Wagner, and stuntman Billy Jones, was at a table with comedian Lloyd Hamilton and Eddie Diggins, a former light-weight boxer now trying his hand at acting.

At this point, Diggins had had three supporting roles under his belt in which he played a boxer in all of them opposite Billy Sullivan, the nephew of boxer John L. Sullivan.

Diggins was born in San Francisco on January 8, 1902 to Edward Ayer Diggins Sr., a physician, and his wife Bessie. He attended St. Mary’s College High School in Berkeley before trying his hand at amateur boxing. On June 28, 1921, he debuted as a professional lightweight against Joe Brown. Over the next seven years he fought against some of the greatest boxers of the day including Eddie Landon, Tommy Cello, Johnny Nunes and Harry Eagles. During his career, his record included 72 bouts, of which Diggins had 34 wins (11 KOs), 22 losses (2 KOs) and 16 draws.

Moving to Los Angeles in July 1924, Diggins boxed at several area venues: The Arena in Vernon; Hollywood’s Legion Stadium, and the East Fourth Street Lyceum A. C. where, in a fight against John Battling Ward, he broke his hand.

While his hand healed, Diggins became friendly with many Hollywood elite including actors Bull Montana and Lloyd Hamilton, among others; some from Hollywood’s darker side. Hoping to broaden his talents, he tried the movies by landing a supporting role in The Goat Getter as champion pugilist ‘Lightening Bradley’ who is stocked by a fighter he knocked out played by actor Billy Sullivan. Diggins followed this with two more films opposite Sullivan: The Patent Leather Pug and One Punch O’Day.

On Friday, March 25, Diggins and his wife Marian, met Lloyd Hamilton at the crowded Crescent Athletic Club. Charles Meehan and his wife Irene joined Hamilton, Diggins, Jack Wagner, Billy Jones, Jimmie Sinclair and others, at their table.

Shortly before 3 a.m. the next morning, an argument arose between Diggins and Jack Wagner in which the latter was knocked down. Later, Charles Meehan exchanged blows with Billie Jones, who reportedly had made an insulting remark about Meehan’s wife Irene. One thing led to another and according to Jones, “Everybody was pretty woozy. Everybody seemed willing to fight. I heard someone yelling ‘le’ go, le’ go,’ and after that all I remember is a lot of feet.”

The patrons in the other rooms flocked to the dining-room door to see what was happening. Legs were torn from heavy tables for clubs; bottles were hurled in every direction. Suddenly, someone struck Meehan over the head with a chair, while Diggins squared off for battle with half-a-dozen other trouble-seekers. Then the lights in the nightclub went out.

Patrons made a mad scramble for the doors and windows. Witnesses claimed thumps and crashes could be heard in the darkness. A woman said she heard “a scream of pain.” When the lights were turned on, Billy Jones was getting up from all fours and saw Diggins lying on the floor among broken chandelier glass with blood streaming from his chest.

In the darkness, Jimmie Sinclair had taken Irene Dalton by the arm and led her outside to his car. They drove around the block to allow the excitement to die down until Irene told Sinclair, “Charlie will get killed,” so they returned to the now nearly empty club. Irene found her husband in an adjacent room, unconscious with wounds to his head.

By now, Lloyd Hamilton had returned from the barroom and was holding a bloodied Diggins in his arms, trying vainly to revive the boxer. Within minutes, police had arrived and rammed open the front doors and rushed through the club. However, it was too late for Diggins who had died in Hamilton’s arms.

Detectives immediately concluded that Diggins’ wound was caused by a knife, but one could not be found in the surrounding debris. The club’s employees and lingering patrons were interviewed by the police and the place was searched for liquor (six gallons of wine, five gallons of alcohol and twenty-six bottles of gin were found).

Somehow, a drunken Charles Meehan was found collapsed in the alley behind the club. After reviving him, Meehan curiously told police, “I slugged him through the window,” repeating it several times before being removed in an ambulance.

Eight people, including Lloyd Hamilton, were interviewed at Hollywood’s central station on Wilcox Avenue. Hamilton claimed that when the fight started, he left the dining room because he “didn’t want to get mixed up in it.” After the commotion died down, he returned and saw Diggins on the floor. “I was trying to revive him when the police came in,” he said.

Not surprisingly, many of the witnesses had a lapse of memory, didn’t see what happened, or gave conflicting stories. Charles Meehan was briefly detained as a suspect but was exonerated at the coroner’s inquest.

After a police investigation, it was thought that Diggins wounds were not caused by a knife, but by a sharp piece of glass from a broken chandelier. Thus, his death was accidental. The clothing above Diggins wound showed two distinct cuts while there was only one small wound about an inch wide and an inch and a half deep below his heart. This indicated the death instrument was two-edged, sharp on either side but with two points, one shorter than the other and insufficient enough to penetrate the body.

District Attorney E. J. Dennison said he could find no evidence indicating that Diggins was murdered. “A knife is lacking as none was to be found at the scene or on any of the persons who were there,” he said.

Even though the police and district attorney believed Diggins death was accidental from him falling on a jagged piece of glass, seven members of the Coroner’s jury reached a decision that Eddie Diggins met his death from “a sharp instrument in the hand of a person or persons unknown to us, with homicidal intent.” The eighth member believed the “wound was caused by a piece of glass, accidental.” The autopsy surgeon testified that Diggins’ wound “could have been caused by broken glass,” but couldn’t confirm it. The word “homicide” was formally written on Diggins death certificate. Officially, Eddie Diggins death was ruled a homicide, and as such, is still unsolved.

During the investigation, several theories surfaced about Diggins death. One was that the mob had induced the fracas at the Crescent as a diversion, and they had covertly murdered Diggins. To support this theory, some witnesses claimed that six men had swiftly driven away during the brawl.

Pudgy-faced comedian Lloyd Hamilton supposedly became a scape-goat after the Diggins murder, reportedly being banned from the screen for two years. Strangely enough, Hamilton and Irene Dalton, a frequent co-star of the comedians and the wife of Charles Meehan, were married three months later and divorced in 1929.

Funeral services for Eddie Diggins was arranged by the Catholic Film Guide and held on March 30, 1927 in the chapel of the O’Connell Sunset Mortuary.

Interment was in Hollywood Cemetery in Section 6, Grave 0318. Eddie Diggins grave is directly across from the peacock pens on the north side of the cemetery. Diggins is in the third row from the curb.

The grave marker of boxer/actor Eddie Diggins at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Please check out a rare five-minute clip of Eddie Diggins from his last film, One Punch O’Day (1926) with Billy Sullivan. Diggins is the boxer in the dark shorts.

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Judy Garland’s new resting place is unveiled at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Monday, June 12th, 2017

The new Judy Garland Pavilion at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

The new final resting place of MGM superstar, Judy Garland.

Judy Garland’s crypt at Hollywood Forever, and the future crypts of her children and family.

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Marion Telva at Hollywood Forever…

Saturday, June 10th, 2017

Metropolitan Opera Singer Marion Telva

at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

 

 By Allan R. Ellenberger

American opera singer, Marion Telva was born on December 6, 1897  in St. Louis, Missouri to German immigrants, Herman and Elsa Toucke. There she received her vocal training and sang with the St. Louis Symphony. She went to New York in 1918 and sang in various churches and synagogues before being engaged by the Metropolitan Opera. She made her debut there as the Singer in Manon Lescaut on December 31, 1920.

Telva’s opera career was a versatile one, including such favorites as Faust, Aida and La Gioconda. Some of Telva’s regular roles at the Met included Mary in The Flying Dutchman; Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana and Brangane in Tristan and Isolde.  Many lesser known contralto roles included Tote Stadt, Snow Maiden, Don Quichotte, Bartered Bride, Jewels of Madonna, Louise, and Luisa Miller. The highlight of her career, however, was the 1927 revival of Norma, in which she sang “Adalgisa.” Others in that cast were Rosa Ponselle, Ciacomo Lauri-Volpi and Enzio Pinza, and the conductor was Tullio Serafin.

Telva left the Metropolitan Opera in 1931 after the last performance of Deems Taylor’s Peter Ibbetson the premiere of which she had sung in that year. In 1930 she was married to Elmer Ray Jones, president of the Wells Fargo Company (more about him in a future posting) at St. George’s Church, Stuyvesant Square. She was to have retired (at her new husbands urging), however, she returned to the Met in the 1932-1933 season to sing in a concert that was her final appearance there.

Her last major New York appearance was in the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in 1935. She also appeared in Los Angeles operas under the auspices of the Grand Opera Association.

Telva and her husband made their home in the Silvermine section of Norwalk, Connecticut and also had residences in Mexico City and Taxco, Mexico. The Taxco residence was a Wells Fargo property named Rancho Telva. Her husband died in 1961 and she passed away a little over a year later. She was 64 years old.

 

 Marion Telva’s grave marker in Section 6 at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

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Lillian Lawrence, leading lady of the legitmate theatre

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Lillian Lawrence was born in Alexandria, Virginia on February 17, 1868, however she grew up in San Francisco when her parents moved there when she was only two years old. Her first exposure to the theater was when she was twelve years old as a toe dancer at the old Tiovoli Theater in San Francisco. The following year she was chosen as one of thirty-two children to become a living chess piece as the Queen’s Knight in operetta, The Royal Middy at the Bush Theatre. A love of theater infected her, however her parents were opposed to her going on the stage, but when they recognized how much she wanted it, they conceded.

Lawrence remained with The Royal Middy after it was transferred to the California Theatre, and for three seasons she sang in light opera at that house in the company of which Emily Melleville was the prima donna. Then her voice failed, and she took her first engagement as an ingénue in a stock company in Oakland, California, where she remained and learned her craft for two years.

She gradually worked her way eastward, affiliating with groups in Dayton, Ohio, and New York, where for years she was prominent in local productions.  She eventually arrived in Boston, where she was a leading lady with the Castle Square Stock Company for five years beginning in 1897. She was immediately embraced by the theater-going public. By this time, she had a decade’s experience in major speaking parts, had trained her memory so she had over 100 roles at her command, and had bloomed into a captivating actress.

During the first decade of the 20th century she appeared on Broadway regularly. In 1919 Lawrence moved to Los Angeles to live with her daughter, Ethel Grey Terry who made her own niche as a film actress. Lawrence divided her time between films and the legitimate stage where she regularly appeared at the Majestic Theater in downtown Los Angeles. She played in numbers of film roles as power matrons for Universal, Joseph Schenck, and the Talmadge Film Companies. Her last legitimate stage role was with Taylor Holmes at the Playhouse in The Great I Am.

Lillian Lawrence died suddenly of heart disease on May 7, 1926 at her daughter’s home at 610 Alpine Drive in Beverly Hills. Funeral services were held at the Strother & Dayton undertakers on Hollywood Boulevard. Afterward her body was placed in a crypt in the fairly new mausoleum addition at Hollywood Cemetery. Just five years later, her daughter, Ethel Grey Terry died and her ashes were interred in her mother’s crypt.

 

Lillian Lawrence and her daughter are located in Building C, Crypt 308, which is behind the new mausoleum that was recently opened.

 

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