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T hese days Britney, Brad and Beyoncé are all over the gossip magazines. But silent screen stars Barbara, Billy and Bebe were the rage back in 1923, when Richmond's National Theater threw open its ornate doors for the first time.
While "Her Reputation" lit the screen, some 20 musicians played in the pit, and Richmond's opulent new theater dazzled an overflow audience of 2,000 people. The four-story Italianate "palace" was a cultured pearl in the gaudy necklace of theaters that defined the north side of East Broad Street downtown.
After sitting dark for decades, the National -- its last incarnation was as the Towne cinema is scheduled to reopen early next month. Patrons will rediscover the old theater's aesthetic glories following an impressive $15 million renovation and reconfiguration into a concert venue and restaurant.
Ticket-holders will no doubt ooh and ahh at the expanse of the auditorium and the lacy, classically inspired plasterwork of Ferruccio Legnaioli, Richmond's own Italian-born craftsman his nymphs, putti and swags have been meticulously restored and repainted.
And patrons will hear whispers that the place is haunted by the ghost of a stagehand who hanged himself from the rafters in 1928. By the 1970s his spirit was reportedly still mischievously unscrewing light bulbs as fast as maintenance people could replace them.
The Movie Craze
There are few Richmonders who remember the National from its earliest days, a destination for live theater and vaudeville in addition to silent movies. In 1924 it wasn't clear whether films, which had skyrocketed in popularity, would continue to capture the interest and dollars of millions of Americans, regardless of background, income or entertainment tastes. What initially spurred the craze for movies was that tickets were cheap. And for millions of immigrants who flocked to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, silent films posed less of a language barrier.
While film popularity grew, Richmonders in the 1920s benefited from an unparalleled period of theater expansion. Humble, even makeshift, nickelodeons gave way to spectacular new theaters or movie palaces. Fueled by the growing popularity of automobiles, theater owners followed their audiences and built theaters in the suburbs.
Richmond hasn't let go of its early treasures. In addition to the National, three other remarkable and elegant 1920s theaters are being restored, expanded or used.
The Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Loew's) is being expanded and is scheduled to reopen late next year as CenterStage. The Byrd continues its run as a popular Carytown cinema and is getting a gradual makeover. The Landmark, owned and operated by the city of Richmond, has received some updates in recent years and is the showplace for some of the region's biggest productions.
If American cities needed more movie theaters in the 1920s to meet demand, they also needed fresh supplies of talent to feed their productions. Individuals with talent, ambition, a work ethic and good looks (in any and in various combinations) were recruited or attracted to New York and increasingly Hollywood. Some actors and actresses made as many as 100 films a year in the '20s but because the films were silent, they didn't need to learn dialogue. Neither did actors necessarily have to think for themselves: The big studios created on-screen and public personas and often names for their stars.
Still, it was a grueling industry.
Moviemaking in the '20s, in some ways, was akin to the fast-changing communications Internet industry, luring ambitious and talented young people to New York or the West Coast. Meanwhile, on Main Street America, civic leaders, courts and the clergy were trying to come to grips with the moral and social ramifications of ubiquitous communications media.
So who were Barbara, Billy and Bebe? They were Barbara La Marr, William Haines and Bebe Daniels, now all-but-forgotten silent-screen stars. But 75 years ago, each was wildly popular. And all of them had Richmond connections or claimed to have them. Each was talented, attractive and hard-working. One crashed and burned, while another was perhaps ahead of his time. And they were all part of a fast-paced industry that challenged Virginia's conservative values.
Silent-film producers, directors and distributors generally came to the field from backgrounds in retail, not entertainment. They knew how to package and what would sell. Talent was a commodity raw material. They wanted faces.
Actress Barbara La Marr (1896-1926), who claimed to be Richmond-born, had the look. But although La Marr was considered drop-dead gorgeous and was wildly popular with fans, she died at 29 from a lethal cocktail of high living, public expectations, exhaustion, drugs and at least five marriages.
A 1923 Hollywood directory (published the year before the National opened) gives La Marr's birthplace as Richmond and her ancestry as "an old American family which traces its lineage back to France and the days of Napoleon" (would Richmond society consider the Napoleonic era old?). The bio says that by age 16 La Marr was causing "lifting of the eyebrows in exclusive Virginia social circles" by performing a dance in bare feet that was artistic, perhaps, but quite "informal."
This may be fiction, because according to other sources, La Marr, whose real name was Reatha Dale Watson, was a ward of the state of California at 12 years old. She had been arrested in Los Angeles for underage burlesque dancing. The judge proclaimed her "too beautiful to be alone in a big city."
The moniker stuck as "the girl who was too beautiful."
La Marr changed her name for a fresh start and moved to New York, where she worked as a burlesque dancer. She apparently attracted a following and began a string of marriages. She married at age 15, but her husband died the following year. She immediately remarried Lawrence Converse, an heir to the shoe-making family. The marriage was annulled when it was revealed he already had a wife.
In 1916 La Marr went to the altar with Phil Ainsworth, but she divorced him after he was arrested and imprisoned in San Quentin for passing bad checks. So distressed at losing his teenage bride, he apparently banged his head repeatedly on his cell wall while crying her name until he fell unconscious.
La Marr's marriage in 1918 to burlesque dancer Ben Deeley followed. During this time she had some success as a screenwriter but was dancing onstage when film star Douglas Fairbanks spotted her. She was swept back to Hollywood.
In 1923, after divorcing Deeley, La Marr became close friends with Virginian William Haines, an up-and-coming movie idol who'd lived in Richmond. For some unknown reason, they had a falling-out.
By 1923 La Marr was a major star, appearing in successful silent films with Fairbanks as well as Ramon Novarro (another matinee idol). When La Marr had an illegitimate child, her studio spin doctors went into action, claiming she had adopted the boy in Dallas: "In a moment the siren was cuddling the soft bundle in her arms and, a short time later, she was taking it to her home to be her own little boy for all time."
Soon thereafter La Marr married Jack Dougherty. "I like my men like I like my roses," she once said "by the dozen."
La Marr worked hard, and during her relatively short career appeared in 30 films. She continued to write screenplays. But she also liked partying, and after she sprained an ankle on a set and was given morphine, she became addicted.
This was her downfall. Buoyed by drugs, she got by on just two hours' sleep a night. "Life is too short," she explained.
Her words were prophetic: La Marr collapsed while filming and died a few months later from tuberculosis. The studio press release cited "vigorous dieting" as the cause of death. La Marr's son, Marvin, was adopted by her best friend, comedic actress ZaSu Pitts.
The silent-screen star is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, Calif. "Richmond, Va." is etched in marble as her birthplace. But today, the chiseled letters are all but obscured by hundreds of pink and red lip impressions. Kissing her gravestone is apparently how fans pay tribute to the talent who claimed Richmond but was "too beautiful" for Hollywood.
Young, Handsome and Gay
What did La Marr know of Richmond? Was it because she was smitten with handsome William "Billy" Haines (1900-1973) and wanted to further impress him? Had he given her the brushoff in 1923?
Haines was born in Staunton, and his family moved to Richmond when he was a boy. He dropped out of public school at age 14 and immediately got a job at a DuPont plant in Hopewell. He later worked at Richmond Dry Goods Co. and then at Thalhimer's department store, where he was a salesman in the linens department.
By age 20 he'd moved to New York and worked as an office boy in an investment firm. It was in Manhattan that a film producer spotted him and offered him a film test. Haines won the "New Faces of 1922" contest (sort of a cross between "American Idol" and "America's Next Top Model"), and his movie career was off and running.
In Hollywood, Haines had a contract with Goldwyn Pictures Corp. (later MGM) and after a slow start emerged as a star in 1925 in "The Tower of Lies," which also starred Norma Shearer and Lon Chaney.
The next year he starred in "Brown of Harvard," getting great reviews and running away with the picture by playing a flip, wise-cracking collegian. The film was also important because it was on this set that he met Jimmie Shields, his stand-in. They became an item and perhaps Hollywood's first and, to this day, rare openly gay couple.
In 1928 his popularity continued to soar with "Show People" co-starring Marion Davies (the mistress of William Randolph Hearst). He made the transition into talkies the same year with "Alias Jimmy Valentine."
Joan Crawford, who had become Haines' best friend, was his co-star in "West Point." This silent movie opened Richmond's glamorous new Loew's theater on April 9, 1928. The film was accompanied by 12 musicians who were in the pit as well as an organist playing a 13-rank Wurlitzer.
Although local promotion stressed "Richmond's Own and Only Movie Star," Haines couldn't attend. His parents, however, who lived in Richmond, were opening-nighters. Haines later built his mother a new home in North Side, on Bellevue Avenue.
From 1928 to 1932 Haines was consistently among the top five male box-office draws. In 1930 he was the leading male actor the George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Denzel Washington of his day.
But in 1933 his film career began to crumble. He was arrested in a public bathroom with a sailor. Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: Get married in a highly publicized wedding or leave the studio.
"I'll give up Jimmie if you give up Mrs. Mayer," he replied. That wasn't going to happen, so Haines was out. (Mayer reached down the assembly line and appointed Robert Montgomery to fill Haines' roles.)
Haines, who already owned a Los Angeles antiques shop, expanded it into a major interior design firm, taking Shields along as his associate. "They are the happiest couple in Hollywood," Joan Crawford quipped.
Haines, who was a Republican, had a successful design career, working for Ronald and Nancy Reagan and remodeling the American Embassy in London for Walter Annenberg during the Nixon administration. He died in 1973 of lung cancer.
Three months later, Jimmie, distraught and alone, pulled on a pair of his partner's pajamas, ingested an overdose of sleeping pills and died.
Both men are buried in Hollywood.
Of course, an insatiable public gobbled up all the Hollywood gossip of the era. Press was hard to control. But in many cities and states across the country, civic and political leaders sought to control the content of the films themselves.
In cinema's earliest days, if a film was objectionable, the police stepped in. But by 1930 about 275 American cities had their own film boards.
In 1922 the same year that Billy Haines won his talent contest and Barbara La Marr was splitting up with her fourth husband, Virginia established a state board of censorship.
Although the administration of President Warren Harding had created a national censorship board, the "Hays Office," over the objections of many, Virginia established its own oversight group.
The Virginia Division of Motion Picture Censorship, initially part of the governor's office, later reported to the attorney general. The board consisted of three arbitrary appointees who supposedly represented various geographic parts of the state. Their task was to examine every inch of film shown in Virginia, including features, shorts and cartoons. Anything considered "obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman or of such character that exhibition tends to corrupt public morals or incite to crime" was suspect.
Opponents to the local censorship asked if North Carolinians, who did not have such a review board, were suffering harmful effects. Apparently not.
The board members were given comfortable accommodations at the Jefferson Hotel, and a car was sent around for them weekdays to take them to the State Office Building (now the Washington Building) in the southeast corner of Capitol Square. There, they spent most of the day in a screening room along with one of two full-time projectionists.
Each had a small deck with a lamp. Their comfortable wicker chairs were equipped with buzzers. The projectionist would announce the name of each film and the reels would run. If a censor took offense at a kiss, a gesture or an untoward word, the buzzer was pressed while the projectionist marked the offensive material. When the buzzer was lifted it was OK to continue (if only two board members were present and disagreed on something, the state superintendent of public instruction mediated).
The censors spent three to six hours a day in their screening room. Then they repaired to the director's office to discuss the changes, often referring to the script.
Few films were rejected outright. But if approval was withheld the film was returned to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America office in Washington, D.C., where the cuts were made. This done, the film could be distributed to Virginia theaters.
While the process slowed the distribution of movies to Virginia, the film board made money for the state because each review and change was charged to the studio. In 1935, after salaries and expenses, the film board cleared $250,000 (in current rates), which went directly into the state treasury.
From the beginning there was public outcry against censorship, led by editorials in the Richmond News Leader. Politicians cited moral issues, but others pointed out that the board was an important part of the political patronage system. The board often was defended as not costing the taxpayers a dime.
By 1963 three well-connected widows sat at the controls. One was the first woman to sit on the Democratic State Central Committee; another was a state senator's daughter; the third was the widow of a state Supreme Court judge.
In 1965 Virginia, Kansas, Maryland and New York were the last states to have censorship boards. Such reviews ended when a Baltimore theater owner showed a movie (about the Irish rebellion) that he hadn't submitted to the censors. He was arrested and fined. When he appealed, his case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision. Maryland law was found at fault for its lack of stipulation for quick judicial review of censors' work: This was a drag on the constitutional right of freedom of expression.
It followed that Virginia's censorship law was also dead.
Brush With Greatness
Most films weren't censored, however. Among the celebrated directors from the silent screen is D.W. Griffith. The Kentuckian was America's first major producer and director whose 1915 classic, "The Birth of a Nation," set high production standards. He established close-ups, fade-ins, fade-outs, long shots, montages and flashbacks, and was meticulous with editing and lighting.
The film however, created an outcry for its racist depictions of blacks. Stung, Griffith followed with "Intolerance," which celebrated acceptance of blacks.
In 1920s Richmond a decade that saw statues to Confederates Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury dedicated on Monument Avenue Griffith was no pariah. In 1923 he stayed in Richmond at The Jefferson Hotel while filming scenes for his sweeping historical film "America," which told the story of the American Revolution. Shooting took place for several days at Westover Plantation, once the home of Richmond's founder, William Byrd II, in Charles City County on the banks of the James River.
Richmond's Schwarzschild Jewelers loaned props for the set. After the movie crew left, the retailer giddily reproduced Griffith's thank-you note in an advertisement. "Connections to the glamour of the movies (no matter how small) have always been a thrill," wrote historian Kathryn Fuller-Seeley in her illustrated history, "Celebrate Richmond Theater."
The Speed Girl
Although she spent a brief time in jail, another actress of the silent screen era, Bebe Daniels (1901-1971), had Richmond connections but was less flamboyant than contempories La Marr and Haines. Her career took a steadier trajectory.
Daniels was born in Dallas and from infancy was often on the road with her parents, both touring actors.
For a time Daniels and her family lived near East Broad Street in Richmond with an aunt while her father, Melville Daniels, ran a dancing and elocution school. He earned additional income as an advertising salesman for a Richmond newspaper and produced plays for church groups and men's lodges.
"Stuttering and stammering positively cured" was how he advertised himself. His studio (above what is today the Elegba Folklore Society) at the corner of Broad and First streets, was a popular gathering place for Richmond actors. And although she was still a toddler, little Bebe was their pet. She reportedly recited nursery rhymes in a loud, distinctive voice "Little Bo Peep" was her favorite.
"She would dance and pose, and when requested to show how she could faint, she would fall limp and gracefully to the floor," Richmonder Ethel Kelley Kern recalled some years later.
After a year or two in Richmond, the Danielses moved to California, and by age 6 Bebe was touring in theatrical productions, including a roadshow production of Shakespeare's "Richard III."
Her first film role was in 1908 as a young heroine in "A Common Enemy." In 1910 she played Dorothy in a short film, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
In 1915 her big break came starring opposite Harold Lloyd in a string of zany, slapstick comedies. The press publicized the duo romantically as "The Girl" and "The Boy." Lloyd evolved into his famous persona with straw hat and horn rims. From 1916 to 1919 Daniels made an average of 36 films a year. And by age 18, she'd graduated to more dramatic roles and joined producer and director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount.
In 1921 Daniels was arrested in Los Angeles for speeding going 15 mph in a 10 mph zone. She served five days of a 10-day sentence behind bars. Unfazed, she turned the experience into "The Speed Girl," a loosely autobiographical film about the episode.
In 1924 she graduated from juvenile roles and played a noble woman opposite the legendary Rudolph Valentino in "Monsieur Beaucaire."
Soon after, she was dropped by Paramount with the advent of talking pictures. It was believed that only trained stage actresses would be successful in talkies.
But Daniels went to Radio Pictures (later RKO), which produced "Take Me Home," her last silent film. The next year she starred in the talkie "Rio Rita," a musical and one of the best-reviewed films of the year. Bebe Daniels was back on top.
Once on a promotional tour in Chicago, Daniels' jewelry was stolen from her hotel room. Mob boss Al Capone, a fan, sent out the word: "Return Miss Daniels jewels, or else." The jewelry was returned.
In 1930 Daniels starred in "Dixiana," a film that also introduced Richmonder Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. A series of films for Warner Bros. followed, and she made a big splash in "42nd Street" the Busby Berkeley musical.
Daniels made her last American movie in 1934. She retired from Hollywood and moved with her husband, actor Ben Lyon, to London. There, she had a successful radio career, including "Hi Gang," a radio show that was broadcast during the blitz of London in World War II. President Truman awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 1945 for her service. In the 1950s she made the reach to television with "Life With the Lyons." Bebe Daniels and the movies grew up together. The child who vamped on East Broad Street and began her career onstage had moved successfully from silent film to talkies to television.
She died in 1971 in London. Her remains are in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, not far from those of Barbara La Marr. S
The National opened Nov. 11, 1923. All 1,300 seats were filled for "Her Reputation," starring May McAvoy. Gov. E. Lee Trinkle and Mayor George Ainslie were in attendance.
The theater was handsome, luring middle-class folks out from under the shadow of Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimer's and over to the "wrong" side of Broad, so-called because of its theaters and saloons. It was one of the grandest buildings on Theater Row.
Barbara, Billy and Bebe, stars who once loomed large on Richmond movie screens, are gone, buried in Hollywood but available on DVD. Meanwhile, live and in person, we await the former silent screen theater's future offerings: Betts (Feb. 27), Blind Melon (March 5) and Benatar (April 15). E.S.