Posts Tagged ‘Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’

A visit to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1930

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

 STUDIOS

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A short sixteen years earlier, in 1914, the land was a bare, sandy waste of land. Now in 1930, the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studios were valued at $25,000,000.

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In 1914 a real estate man sat in his office. He owned hundreds of acres of land on the outskirts of Los Angeles and was confronted with the problem of selling them. As it lay, that tract of land was far from pleasing to the eye which increased the problem of selling it.

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Something had to be done to draw attention to the locations, to give it a glamour which would entice home-seekers. The real estate man decided to forget those acres for the afternoon and go to a movie. But as he was leaving he stopped—Movies! Motion pictures. A studio. Workmen would need land for homes.

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Thomas Ince, then a big mogul in motion pictures, was called and offered the land to build a studio. Where?” Ince asked.

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Culver City,” replied the real estate man.

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So out to the sanded wastes went Thomas Ince. He built one rickety stage which passed for a studio and began making Western pictures. Ince’s once rickety stage had grown to be three large glassed-in studios. A few years later, Samuel Goldwyn, coming west, bought the works; stages, land and all that went with them. The romance of motion pictures and the studio which eventually became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were under way.

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Under the Goldwyn regime at that studio Will Rogers first came to pictures. Also there was Pauline Frederick, who was one of the most beautiful actresses of her day. Helen Chadwick, Naomi Childers, Sydney Ainsworth, Madge Kennedy, Mabel Normand, Jack Pickford, Tom Moore and Geraldine Farrar, at that time the “Carmen” of them all. These and many more laughed and cried their way in and out of that old studio. Most are but faint memories today.

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Rupert Hughes, Rex Beach, Gouverneur Morris, Gertrude Atherton—writers which in their day were as big as any in their game—all saw service at that old Goldwyn studio. It was a training ground for the best.

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In 1924, Metro Studios and Louis B. Mayer joined hands with Goldwyn and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer organization and studio was born. It grew into a fairy city.

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There were twenty-two complete sound stages. Two of these were monstrous things of steel and concrete. One contained a complete theater, the largest hippodrome stage west of New York City, for theatrical spectacles in films. The stage in the theater was eighty feet long, eighty feet wide and eighty feet high. It had every modern device invented. This is what you see in MGM pictures whenever theatrical sequences are shown.

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Another stage, the largest in existence, one hundred feet wide and two hundred and fifty feet long, was a steel and glass semi-enclosed building for extra large exterior scenes, such as those shown in The Trail of ’98. The rest were ordinary, huge steel and wood stages made soundproof by being lined with a composition.

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In these studios daily could be seen John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, William Haines, Marion Davies, Ramon Novarro, Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford and a host of less famous players who were battling their way to stardom.

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A group of concrete buildings were to the left as you entered the main gate. The first three-story building was the one housing the executives. Irving Thalberg was one of them. Louis B. Mayer was another.

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Next there was a three-story concrete wardrobe building. In it were tailor and dressmaking shops, designers’ offices and storage space for the more and 10,000 dresses and costumes MGM kept on hand ready for a moment’s call. With Adrian and David Cox designing them, and “Mother” Coulter supervising the making of them, some famous costumes and styles went out to the world from this building.

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Just past the wardrobe was the publicity building and casting office. That small office was where so many came daily only to be told, “Sorry, nothing for you today.” Directly across from the publicity building was the commissary; a complete restaurant with dining room, lunch counters and soda fountain. It was run on a non-profit basis, being strictly for the convenience of the studio employees, the stars, extras, cameramen and directors. For years the minimum number of meals which were served there in any one day—except Sundays—was one thousand. And as many as seven thousand were fed in one day during heavy production. It was here that Louis B. Mayer entertained the entire studio at a turkey dinner each year during the Christmas holidays. Never had he had less than 2,500 guests. In addition, the commissary had its own ice and carbonating plant.

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Karl Dane and Gwen Lee point out the studios schedule

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Director’s Row was two stories and ran away from one side of the commissary. Here sat Robert Leonard, Sam Wood, Jack Conway, Harry Beaumont and other directors. Around the corner was the fan-mail department. Seven clerks handled an average of 38,000 letters a month addressed to the stars. They were in reality a miniature post office staff, sorting the letters and seeing that each star gets his sack-full every day. It was these men who addressed and sent pictures of the players to those who requested them.

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Strolling further about the fifty-three acre lot were stages back-to-back, stages stuck off in corners, and sets all over the place. There was a building for music and dance rehearsals; a recording building where the voices were recorded. Next a camera building and near it the projection rooms, where daily the “rushes” were viewed.

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Nearby was the big electrical building. The MGM studio used 2,500,000 kilowatts of juice a year. It had a “connected load” of 35,000 horsepower—more than enough to light a city the size of Reno, Nevada.

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Bungalows of the stars

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Around the corner of a stage were bungalows which nestled into the ground and looked like dream houses. They belonged to the stars. Then the make-up department, a little schoolhouse for child actors and more sets.

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More than 3,000,000 feet of lumber a year was used in building sets; 15,000 gallons of paint; 250 tons of plaster; 4,000 sacks of cement; 15,000 tons of rock; 600 bales of plaster fiber, and 300,000 feet of wallboard. These were for the building of sets only and did not include the materials used to build stages and buildings.

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The telephone system at MGM was a 1200-unit central switchboard. It was more than enough to adequately serve a city of 3,000 people.

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In 1930, out of the 120 buildings and its 2,500 employees, 50,000,000 feet of film was used for the output of motion pictures that was sent to theaters. In any event, it was a far cry from the dinky, rickety one stage that Thomas Ince first erected, to the ten thousand people who were on the lot at one time during the shooting of Ben-Hur (1926). In 1930, Culver City boasted 13,000 as her population. That real estate agent—Harry Culver—was now a multimillionaire.

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June Mathis: The Woman Who Discovered Valentino

Friday, December 5th, 2014

HOLLYWOOD PIONEERS

JUNE MATHIS; the woman who discovered Valentino

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By Allan R. Ellenberger

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June Mathis, a short, thickset, rather plain woman with frizzy hair, became one of Hollywood’s most influential women during the silent era. An accomplished screenwriter, casting director and film editor, Mathis was the only female executive at Metro Studios, and at one time the highest paid film executive in Hollywood.

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Born June Beulah Hughes in Leadville, Colorado on June 30, 1889, Mathis was the only child of Phillip and Virginia Hughes. Although available biographical records usually give her year of birth as 1892, census records appear to confirm the 1889 date. Her parents divorced when she was seven and while much of her childhood is vague, at some point her mother met and married William D. Mathis, a recent widower with three children. Ultimately she would take her step-father’s name.

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Mathis’ first public incarnation was as a child actor in vaudeville and on Broadway. Her stage credits include the hit play, The Fascinating Widow with the famed female impersonator, Julian Eltinge. For thirteen years Mathis toured in numerous plays and vaudeville shows. In 1914, she moved to New York and took a writing course and entered a scriptwriting contest. This brought her several offers to write scenarios until Metro Studios hired her in 1918. At Metro, she quickly worked her way up to becoming chief of the studio’s script department. Her scripts incorporated a wide range of films including An Eye for an Eye (1918), Hearts Are Trumps (1920) and Polly with a Past (1920).

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THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE

When Metro president Richard Rowland bought the rights to the popular war novel, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Mathis was placed in charge. It was through her influence that her friend and fledgling film director, Rex Ingram was hired as the film’s director. The film and the casting of Rudolph Valentino in the role of Julio, established both of their careers. Mathis picked Valentino for the role of Julio after seeing him in a small role in The Eyes of Youth (1919).

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Until Mathis cast Valentino in The Four Horsemen, he was relegated to mostly bit parts and walk-ons. Several people have taken credit for Valentino’s success but it was this bit of casting that launched the Latin Lover’s career. At Metro, and later Paramount studios, Mathis was responsible for a string of Rudolph Valentino films including Blood and Sand (1922) and The Young Rajah (1922).

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Mathis and Valentino maintained a very close relationship – some even suggested that they may have been romantically involved, but this is unlikely. In fact, actress Nita Naldi said that Mathis mothered Valentino and that they held each other in high regards. When Mathis’ version of the script for the ill-fated The Hooded Falcon failed to impress either Valentino or his wife, Natacha Rambova, Mathis ended their relationship.

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BEN-HUR

After negotiations with producers of the Ben-Hur stage play, Samuel Goldwyn bought the screen rights to General Lew Wallace’s religious novel. Mathis, who had previously been with Metro and Lasky, was now Goldwyn’s head scenarist and was given sovereign control. Not only would Mathis adapt the screenplay, she was in charge of production and her first executive decision was to make the film in Italy. After a nationwide search it was decided to go with Mathis choice for Ben-Hur, George Walsh and her pick for director, Charles Brabin. Neither choice, however, was popular with the public nor with many in the film industry, but this proved how powerful Mathis was at the time.

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Once the film company arrived in Rome, the production quickly began to deteriorate. Labor disputes delayed the building of many of the sets; Italian labor was inexpensive, but slow. Not only were the sets and costumes not ready, but the actors sat around or took advantage and made small tours of Europe. To make matters worse, Mathis was told to not interfere with Brabin on the set. Originally she believed that she was to supervise the production, but quickly learned that things were changing; Brabin would only allow her to approve or reject changes to the script.

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In the meantime, nothing on the set seemed to go right. The sets cost a fortune but still looked cheap. The script wasn’t completed, and a lot of time and money was being wasted. The moral of the entire company was at an all-time low, and it appeared that Ben-Hur would be the biggest fiasco that Hollywood had ever seen.

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During all of this, Metro, Goldwyn, and producer Louis B. Mayer were making plans to merge their studios. The first point of order for the new studio, now known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was to try and save the fast-sinking Ben-Hur. Mayer, who was appointed as the head of the studio, told MGM’s president, Marcus Loew, that he would only take the job if June Mathis, Charles Brabin and George Walsh were removed. They also insisted that the script be rewritten. These demands meant that they would have to start from the beginning.

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Mayer’s replacement for Brabin was director Fred Niblo, who felt the assembled cast was the most uninteresting and colorless he had seen and directly blamed Mathis. Walsh was replaced with Ramon Novarro and Mathis was unceremoniously fired and replaced by scenarists Bess Meredyth and Carey Wilson.

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In statements to the press, Mathis held Charles Brabin responsible for the problems on Ben-Hur. She insisted that control of the picture was taken away from her by Brabin and she could no longer associate herself with the film.

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During the few months that she was in Rome, Mathis met and fell in love with Sylvano Balboni, an Italian cameraman hired to work on the film. Mathis returned to Hollywood in August 1924 with Balboni in-tow, and married him the following December. Regardless of what transpired on Ben-Hur, Mathis continued to work. Shortly after returning from Rome she signed with First National where she scripted several Colleen Moore films including Sally (1925), The Desert Flower (1925) and Irene (1926).

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REUNION WITH VALENTINO

When Rudolph Valentino’s last film, The Son of the Sheik (1926) premiered in Los Angeles, Mathis was there and the two had a heartfelt reunion. It was only a few months later that Valentino died suddenly and Mathis offered her own crypt at Hollywood Cemetery as a temporary resting place for the dead film idol.

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Over the following year, Mathis developed health problems, including high blood pressure and was placed on a restricted diet by her doctors. That summer, she was in New York with her grandmother, Emily Hawks. On the evening of July 26, 1927, disregarding her doctor’s orders, she had a heavy meal before taking her grandmother to the 48th Street Theatre to watch Blanche Yurka perform in The Squall. In the play’s final act, Mathis suddenly cried out, “Oh, mother, I’m dying,” and threw her arms around her grandmother while sobbing convulsively.

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Attendants ran to Mathis seat and carried her outside to the theater alley alongside the playhouse and laid her on the concrete road. A physician that was in the audience examined her and announced that she was dead. Her grandmother was inconsolable, pleading with her to speak while Mathis’ body lay in the alley waiting for the medical examiner to arrive.

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The following week back in Hollywood, Valentino’s body was moved to the neighboring crypt to make room for Mathis. They lay next to each other in eternity to this day.

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THE FUTURE OF WOMEN IN FILM

While it’s true that only hard-core film enthusiasts recognize June Mathis’ name today, she hasn’t been totally ignored. For instance, you cannot mention Rudolph Valentino, director Rex Ingram or such film classics as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse without discussing Mathis’ and her contributions to film history?

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Without a doubt there have been a number of women among Mathis’ contemporaries who yielded various levels of power. These would include writers Frances Marion, Bess Meredyth and Anita Loos and of course directors Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner, among others.

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For some reason, shortly after the advent of sound, women seemed to lose much of their influence that they achieved during the silent era. The only women that seemed to wield any power were gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who, while not directly running a studio, could definitely influence the powers-that-be.

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Today it’s not unusual to see a woman in a position of authority or even running a studio. Examples over the years have included Amy Pascal, Chairman of Sony Pictures; Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television; Gail Berman, president of Paramount Pictures; Stacey Snider, co-chairman and CEO of DreamWorks SKG; Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment; Dana Walden, President of 20th Century Fox Television, and of course, there’s media mogul, Oprah Winfrey. June Mathis would be proud.

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Andreas Dippel at Hollywood Forever

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY

Andreas Dippel, operatic tenor and impressario

 

 

  

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Andreas Dippel, a once famous tenor in German opera at New York’s Metropolitan Opera house, was distinguished for his progressive and far-reaching vision. Dippel was born in Kassel, Germany on November 30, 1866. His family was not musical and he was destined for a business career. At 16 he worked for a bank and remained there for five years. At the same time he was developing his voice with singing groups and under the coaching of Mme. Zottmayer of the Royal Court Theatre of Kassel.

 

In 1887 he left home and tried his hand at being an opera singer. In the fall of that year he made his debut in the Stadttheatre of Bremen as Lionel in Flotow’s opera Martha, beginning an engagement that lasted, with one important interruption, until 1892. He sang several smaller roles in Bayreuth in 1889, and become a member of the Vienna State Opera in 1893. He sang there until 1898 in 27 roles, including Marcello in the Vienna premiere of Leoncavallo’s La bohème. During that period he also sang in London’s Royal Opera House.

 

He made his first American appearance at the Metropolitan on November 26, 1890, in Alberto Franchetti’s Asrael. Except for a concert tour, he did not sing in the United States after that season until 1898, when he became a permanent member of the Metropolitan Company, then managed by Maurice Grau.

 

For twelve years Dippel was one of the important figures in opera in New York, first as a tenor of exceptional versatility, able to jump into a part at a half hour’s notice, possessing a repertoire of 150 roles; then, from 1908 to 1910, as administrative manager of the company in association with the newly arrived Giulio Gatti-Casazza as general manager. When Dr. Lee De Forest approached the management of the Metropolitan management for permission to attempt the radio broadcast of opera, Dippel enthusiastically consented, even allowing Caruso himself to sing into the microphone.

 

Early in this regime it was apparent that all was not harmonious in the executive offices. The outcome of whatever disagreements existed was a superficially happy one. Dippel resigned in April 1910, to assume the management of the Chicago Opera Company, which he guided for three years through the difficult period of its beginning and early development. Again rumors of internal discord arose and he left the organization after receiving a year’s salary, $25,000, and other rewards for his promise not to re-enter opera in Philadelphia or Chicago for three years. Thereafter he tried various operatic ventures, none winning more than a temporary success.

 

 

 

 

In 1914 he formed the Dippel Opera Comique Company which produced the Broadway premiere of Lilac Domino at the 44th Street Theatre on October 28, 1914. It ran for 109 performances and then toured the United States. Rather less successful was Dippel’s next Broadway production, The Love Mill, which opened at the 48th Street Theatre on February 17, 1918 and closed five weeks later after 52 performances.  Dippel had his own opera school at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music in the 1920s.

 

In 1920 he was reported to be gaining a livelihood by selling life insurance in Chicago. In May, 1921, a large testimonial concert was given for Dippel at the Metropolitan, following a similar benefit in Chicago. Two years later, along with Hugo Riesenfeld, Dippel once again became an advisor to De Forest when he introduced on Broadway, the Phonofilm, or talking pictures. This scheme to give opera in motion picture houses in combination with “jazz” and a fashion show failed, as did his United States Grand Opera Company.  

 

In 1924 he divorced his wife, the Countess Anita Dippel of Vienna, whom he married in 1890, on the ground of desertion. Once again with De Forest, in 1925 they recorded in the Century Theatre the notable Wagnerian score of the German film Siegfried, arranged by Riesenfeld – the first serious attempt anywhere to utilize the then new sound-on-film for so significant a departure. From then on, Dippel always insisted that the sound-picture would eventually become the medium for the masses of grand opera.

 

Dippel was brought to Hollywood in 1928 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and worked in the studio synchronization department. The following year he was injured by a street car and spent six months in the hospital. While there he was taken from the studio payroll and was left without finances, yet he toiled indefatigably on his own on the different problems of multi-lingual films.

 

During the last few months of his life, unknown to most of his friends from whom he had gradually withdrawn, he had become destitute.  On May 15, 1932, Dippel’s body was found in his room at the Hollywood Hotel; the cause of death was heart disease. Because he was penniless, his funeral was placed under the direction of the Motion Picture Relief Fund and plans were made to bury him at Valhalla Cemetery where they normally placed indigent actors. However, several friends donated money to buy him a crypt at Hollywood Cemetery next to that of actress Renee Adoree.

 

Dippel’s funeral was conducted at Pierce Brothers Mortuary on Washington Boulevard and was attended by several score of intimate friends and associates, including Joseph Zoellner, Sr., Andres de Segurola and Mme. Sophie Traubman, who sang with Dippel in the Metropolitan; Charles Dalmores, formerly of the Chicago Grand Opera and Dr. Lee De Forest. His crypt marker was paid for by a friend and former student.

 

 

 

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Caryl S. Fleming at Hollywood Forever

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY

Caryl S. Fleming, an immortal of magic

 

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Caryl S. Fleming (above) does not find a rabbit in his hat (Photo:  IBM Ring #21)

  

The Magic Castle, located at 7001 Franklin Avenue at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, is currently observing the centennial of it’s headquarters which was built by banker Rollin B. Lane in 1909. To celebrate, I will post a biography of Lane and the history of the mansion on January 2, 2010, the 47th anniversary of the organization’s opening. Today, the last in a series of articles on magic and magicians in Hollywood, is about Caryl S. Fleming, a banker and one-time film director whose true love was magic!

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Since the early days of film, Hollywood has always been the land of make-believe where tricks and sleight of hand are evident in almost every frame. Hollywood has also been a friend to the magical arts – Harold Lloyd was a lover of magic and held meetings in his expansive estate in Beverly Hills. Other Hollywood celebrities such as Chester Morris, Sterling Holloway, Ramon Novarro, Johnny Mack Brown, Gene Raymond, Max Terhune, Bert Kalmar and Edgar Bergen also had an interest in magic.

 

Caryl Stacy Fleming is a name which may not be as familiar to the magically-challenged, but yet he was the major reason for the well-being of conjuring in the Los Angeles area from 1933 to 1940.

 

Fleming was born on October 13, 1890 (although his grave marker reads 1894, official records give his actual year of birth as 1890) at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the son of Frank Fleming and Grace Rosemary Stacy. As a child he moved with his family to Chicago, where his parents were divorced by the time he was 10 and his mother ran a boarding house on Michigan Avenue.

 

It was in Chicago that a family friend — the dean of magicians, Harry Kellar — sparked his interest in magic. He would spend time at Ed Vernello’s magic shop, learning the basics of conjuring.

 

Caryl S. Fleming

 

In 1910 he moved to New York and was educated at Columbia University. He soon found work on the legitimate stage and in early motion pictures. Around 1916 he married Constance Ethel Norton and they had a daughter, Marjorie Gladys Fleming in August 1917. That same year, he was employed by Film Craft Corporation in New York City as a motion picture director. His final film as a director was The Devil’s Partner (1923) which starred Norma Shearer. This was Shearer’s last film before being signed by Louis B. Mayer Productions (later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios).

 

Eventually Caryl and Constance were divorced and he left for California in 1927 while Constance and Marjorie remained in New York. By all accounts it was a bitter divorce and reportedly he never saw his ex-wife or daughter again.

 

In California, he became involved with banking and was a director of several institutions, while still devoting himself to the organization of magicians. He was president of the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians and the associated International Alliance of Magicians and was a member of more than fifty magic clubs.

 

He was one of the founders and a one-time president of Los Magicos which met on Wednesday nights, sometimes at his Beverly Hills home. Caryl was the perfect host and loved to manufacture gimmicks in quantity and pass them out to his friends. He was a true friend to magicians everywhere and wanted to have the whole world share the fun he had found in magic. A lover of animals and an ardent amateur photographer, he also dabbled in chemistry and developed a rope cement and several chemicals for use in card tricks.

 

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Caryl Fleming, 2nd row, far left with glasses. Bess Houdini in center front row. 

 

In October 1936, Fleming attended the tenth, and final, Houdini séance which was held atop the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. A close friend of Bess Houdini, Fleming sat in the inner circle with her and other distinguished magicians in a final attempt to contact her husband. However, no message was received from the great Houdini and it was announced that no further attempts would be made by his widow.

 

Many individual magicians were helped by Fleming’s counsel and directions. His advice was always constuctive, and usually in a humorous way. When he did not like some part of an act, he would say so and then do everything to help the magician change the act for the better. He was a stickler for accuracy. He credited audiences with having too much knowledge to allow a magician to get away with false claims.

 

On Labor Day, September 2, 1940, Fleming was entertaining at his Beverly Hills home (924 N. Beverly Drive). He was showing some card tricks to a friend, Joe Evedon when he suddenly complained of indigestion. He drank a glass of bicarbonate of soda but said that it didn’t seem to help. Then without warning, he slumped into Evedon’s  arms and died from a heart attack just a month shy of his 50th birthday.

 

Tributes poured in from around the country:

 

“Caryl S. Fleming was the true magician,” wrote Edward Saint, past-president of Los Magicos. “He recognized neither race, creed, nor color; and his magic vision drew no geographical borders. Anyone, anywhere in the world, if they had the love of magic in their heart, Fleming called them ‘brother.’ He was of the world, for the world, of magic.”

 

Bess Houdini wrote:

 

“Marble may coldly mark the name and passing of our friend Caryl, but the memory of his prodigious efforts and intense love of magic, the warmth of his handclasp, and his kindly friendliness is engraved on our hearts as one of the Immortals of Magic.”

 

Fleming’s funeral service was held on September 4th from Dayton’s Mortuary in Beverly Hills. Amidst an array of floral tributes, more than 250 magicians gathered to pay last homage. A Universalist minister spoke first (Fleming’s great-great-grandfather established the Universalist church). Then, Bill Larson (the father of Milt and William Larson, founders of the Magic Castle in Hollywood) spoke to those gathered:

 

“Caryl would have been successful in anything he wanted to undertake,” Larson said. “His achievements in the fields of the theater and motion pictures were pronounced. Retiring, he turned his genius to magic. In a few short years he built, in the West, one of the largest and most prosperous organizations of magic the world has ever seen.”

 

Gerald Kosky then gave the S.A.M. ritual and wand breaking rites. Later Caryl S. Fleming was interred in the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery.

 

 

Caryl S. Fleming grave

 

 

Caryl S. Fleming grave

 

 

Fleming left an estate worth almost $100,000 to his mother, Grace R. Glaser but bequeathed only one-dollar to his daughter Marjorie, who resided in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania. It was understood that a property settlement, making provisions for his daughter and former wife, was effected when the Flemings were divorced several years earlier.

 

 

Caryl Fleming and mother graves

Fleming’s mother, Grace is interred below him. She remarried shortly before her death in 1948.

 

In 1947, Fleming’s mother, Grace, married James E. Miller. When Grace died just a few months later in February 1948, she left her considerable estate to her new husband. Grace’s secretary, cousin and Irva Ross, Fleming’s fiance at the time of his death, all were named benefieciareis under an earlier will. They contested the new will, claiming that Miller, who also had an alias, had married the wealthy widow in order to obtain control of her property. The court awarded each of the three contestants a specific amount and allowed Miller to inherit the remainder of the estate.

 

The Caryl S. Fleming Trophy for the most original amateur trick of the year was soon created and awarded yearly. In 1938, Fleming had helped charter the International Brotherhood of Magicians Hollywood RING 21 which, after his death, was changed to the Caryl Fleming RING 21 and is still in existence today.

 

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A year after his death, a tribute in Genii magazine memorialized Fleming saying:

 

“Years will pass. But the name Caryl Fleming will remain firmly in the minds of magicians. We, along with hundreds of others of our conjuring craft, will see to that.”

 

I would like to thank Bill Goodwin of the Magic Castle for providing  biographical information on Caryl S. Fleming for this article.

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Margaret O’Brien’s Stolen Oscar

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Margaret O'Brien and her Oscar

By Allan R. Ellenberger

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 thirties and forties. Previous winners included Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland who was Margaret’s co-star that year.

 

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

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Joan Carroll, Lucille Bremmer, Judy Garland, Tom Drake and Margaret O'Brien 
in a scene from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

 

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 applauded Margaret’s 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.”

 Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis

 

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.

 

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 called and told her that she was dismissed 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 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 would attend memorabilia shows searching for her lost Oscar. Then, in early 1995, a friend saw that Oscar in a catalogue for an upcoming memorabilia auction. Margaret contacted the Academy legal department who acted swiftly in having the Oscar returned.

Margaret O'Brien and Allan Ellenberger

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 since she first received it, the Academy officially returned the stolen Oscar to Margaret O’Brien in a special ceremony at their headquarters in Beverly Hills. Once reunited with her award, Margaret told the attending journalists:

 

“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.”

Tod Browning’s FREAKS!

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

TOD BROWNING

ON THE MAKING OF 

Freaks!

 

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Freaks – the story of living torsos, pinheads, human skeletons, bearded ladies and little people was directed by Tod Browning, who made the successful horror film, Dracula (1931). The tale combines the strange reactions and code of loyalty of a troupe of so-called carnival “freaks” with a weird romance between the trapeze queen and the strong man, and a plot on the part of these to secure the fortune of one of the little people.

 

The films sideshow cast includes Johnny Eck, the half-man; the Hilton Sisters, Siamese Twins; Randian, the living torso; Harry Earles, little person previously seen in The Unholy Three and his sister Daisy, Pete Robinson, living skeleton; Josephine-Joseph, half man-half woman; Olga Roderick, the bearded lady; Elizabeth Green and Koo Koo, the bird girls and others.

 

 

Also in the cast are Olga Baclanova, the Russian actress who appeared in Grand Hotel; Leila Hyams, Wallace Ford, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor and Edward Brophy.

 

When the film was first previewed in Los Angeles, some horrified spectators got up from their seats and ran – did not walk – to the nearest exit. When it was taken to San Diego for a week’s trial run, the film smashed all house records. But it aroused the indignation of some San Diegans to the extent that letters – not “fan” letters – poured in to Browning’s office at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, the film’s producer.

 

“You must have the mental equipment of a freak yourself to devise such a picture,” wrote one irate woman. “Horrible,” said another. “To put such creatures in a picture and before the public is unthinkable,” wrote others.

  

From all of which, you may gather that Freaks is either a horror of horror pictures, or at least vastly different from the usual film. It made some people ill, fascinated others.

 

 

Why was Freaks made?

 

“First,” according to Browning, “because millions of people have seen these people in side shows and museums for years, and evidently like to see them. Now for the time, they have an opportunity to view the top-notchers all together.

 

“Second, because we have a human, inside story of their world. Something that could very possibly happen in life. Does happen in life. A normal woman marries a sideshow oddity because he has money. When she treats him cruelly they all get together and make her one of them.

 

“Impossible? Why? Randian, the human torso who has neither arms nor legs, is married, has two children and eight grandchildren. The bearded lady has been married twice, the bird girl once, the half man-half woman is married, and also the human skeleton. Do you think these people were married for love or for money? Well —

 

It was a great day in the sideshow world when the human curiosities were collected at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, according to Browning.

 

“Most of them had never met one another before and were tickled to death at the opportunity. Temperamental? Oh, sure, and jealous. We had a few battles. The bearded woman couldn’t get along with the bird woman. The human skeleton preferred to take his meals alone instead of going on a club agreement with three others. By the way, he gained three pounds on the free noontime meals at the studio while here. He left town weighing forty-three pounds to his 5’ 8” of height.”

 

 

The cast lived at an apartment house across from the studio. Most of them had nurses or managers to care for them. Were they difficult to direct? Definitely, according to Browning.

 

“You never could tell what they were going to do. They had to be humored like children. Once in a while they became upset, angry, and would try to vent their rage in biting the person nearest to them. I was bitten once. But considering everything, we had little trouble.

 

Browning found no reason why people would object to the film.

 

“Those who don’t want to see it don’t have to and those that do can. We are being perfectly clear in our advertising as to what it’s all about.”

 

 

The New York Times called Freaks a film not “easily forgotten” because of the “underlying sense of horror, [and] the love of the macabre that fills the circus sideshows in the first place. Tod Browning, the director, has brought all of it out as fully as possible, trying to prove that the ‘strange people’ are children, that they do not like to be set apart. But they know they are, and in the sideshow is a spirit of mutual protection that holds if you injure one of them you injure all.”

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MGM Studios…Then and Now

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios:

Then and Now

  

mgm-2.jpg

terry-018.jpg

 

 

(Top) Then: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in the 1920s
(Bottom) Now: Sony Pictures Studios in 2006

 

10202 West Washington Boulevard, Culver City

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