Brookfield has long had its connection with Hollywood, California, ever since Mary Peck mentioned her home estate of Hollywood, here, to Daeida Wilcox, a fellow train passenger.
In the 1880s, Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox were planning their new subdivision to be named Figtown, in California, and thought the name Hollywood sounded much better. Consequently, the less attractive name was changed, as were to someday be the names of future screen stars Marion Morrison (John Wayne) and Frances Ethel Gumm (Judy Garland).
Thus, from an exchange of spoken words, was born the movie capital of the world.
Another instance where our Hollywood had an influence on its namesake occurred in 1929. At a meeting in Hollywood, Calif., Carl Laemmle (pronounced “lem-lee”), founder and former head of Universal Pictures, blandly announced that, in the 1890s, he had worked as a salesman for (Brookfield founder) Samuel Eberly Gross, selling land in his Hollywood, Ill. subdivision.
Brookfield’s most well-known theater had its beginning on Jan. 27, 1915. It was then that William Altier of Summit and Louis Senese of Brookfield were issued building permits to construct a theater in brick and concrete to cost approximately $8,000, on property located at 3723 Grand Blvd. This building still exists today.
N.A. Malanos owned theater equipment and brought it over to the newly constructed Brookfield Theater. He never owned this building, but was the manager for Altier and Senese.
By Aug. 5, 1915, the Empire Dramatic Company was playing at the Brookfield Theater, with silent movie interludes being accompanied by an offstage piano. From its very earliest days, silent movies were rarely completely silent. Helen Koenig, the wife of Brookfield Postmaster Charles Koenig, was one of the first piano players for the theater.
Presented along with movies in 1915 were vaudeville acts that seem intriguing even now, such as Prince KoKo, the Monkey (“the monkey with the man’s manner, doing everything that is possible for the human mind to conceive”); “Leo Persienta, with his celebrated $500 accordion”; and Astramondo, one of “Europe’s greatest transformer of characters”quicker than the mind can imagine [a quick change artist].”
In late September 1917, Henry Campbell was the new owner of the theater. Apparently he had a new style of operation that led him to being complimented for acquiring noteworthy movies for screening, such as the ones featuring Mary Pickford.
As of Dec. 1, 1917, the theater was also being called the Strand in print, although the “Brookfield Theater” name was still spelled out in a cement above the curved marquee. Over the following years into the early 1920s, the theater just evolved into being called the Strand Theater.
It seems to be around this time that advertising handbills were being given out. One such early type was the one distributed in late March 1917, about a “startling seven reel drama” titled “Charity?” starring Linda Arvidson (Mrs. D.W. Griffith). This movie was presented at a reduced admission price of 15 cents. It must have had something to do with the social problem of helping the poor and destitute.
The Brookfield/Strand Theater handbills were apparently never saved, but thrown out once the featured movies were no longer playing. Call them the equivalent of today’s junk mail or those ad sheets thrust at you while you’re walking on the sidewalks in downtown Chicago. Nobody saved the theater handbills for the future. Well, not by intent, anyway.
Many people were saddened when the Strand Theater closed forever in Jan. 1953, a victim of the popularity of television. Gross School student Barbara Newell was one such person, and, as she advanced into her years at RB High School, she was touched one day by remnants of the Strand’s silent movie past. Today she is better known as Barbara Hannah, and still recalls this special moment in her young life in the late 1950s.
“I was going home from the Brookfield Congregational Church [corner of Lincoln and Maple], along the north side of Lincoln, and I looked down in the gutter as I was going to cross the street,” Hannah said. “And I had a kind of timeless moment, because this little placard that said ‘Strand Theater’ was lying there, and I wondered if the theater was open again. I picked it up and read it, and it said ‘Billie Burke.’ So I knew it wasn’t modern.
“I took it home and my mother told me about remembering how she and some other kids [in the 1920s] would take the theater ads around the neighborhood and when they got tired of doing it, they would feed the rest to the local goat over on Sherman Avenue.
“I went out again to look around, and went over to the old parsonage that was going to be torn down [next door to the church], and saw the white crisscross fencing was off under the porch. I saw two wooden bushel baskets under the porch, with multiple placards in them, and I tried to take some copies of each kind, the best examples that were in there. I brought them home and treasured them.”
Hannah then put some into a frame, and hung them up on the wall in her room. She dated them from the 1920s, but didn’t place any real cash value on them.
“I wasn’t interested in them as antiques as much as them having been a part of our family memories from having gone to the theater.”
The old parsonage was razed soon after, and the left over baskets of placards, dating from Jan. 24, 1925 to Jan. 16, 1927, were carted off with the rest of the building. But because she had looked down, and cared to pick that first handbill up, some local theater history was saved.
In 1992, like Barbara Hannah, I happened to be out and about and saw the house at 3722 Forest Ave. in the last states of being demolished. Looking around the rubble to be taken away, I noticed several pieces of paper on the wet and muddy ground. They all looked of the same size, and, looking closer, I was shocked to discover that they were all marked “Strand Theater” at the top, and advertised movies that had expired past their play dates long, long ago.
I gathered up as many as I could, even partial copies, and wondered where they had come from. Then I looked at the still-standing hollow cement porch posts, with no porch on them any longer. Inside them were still more of the handbills, and I gingerly pried those out. A few porch posts were already gone, and I wished I’d gotten there sooner.
Rushing them home, I separated them into the best specimens, carefully washed and brushed the dirt off them, and let them dry naturally. I must have a couple hundred of them, dating from Oct. 23, 1926 to Jan. 9, 1927. As had been the case with Barbara Hannah’s, these film titles were “reruns,” too, such as the one for Sunday, Jan. 9, 1927, “The Last of the Mohicans.” Film records say it was released in 1922!
However, this was not the first time that the Hollywood’s silent movie era had suddenly and unexpectedly revealed itself to me. No, this had happened two years previously, on June 30, 1990. I was out that afternoon, going to garage sales, and I stopped at the estate sale at 3523 Hollywood Ave., in Brookfield’s own Hollywood section.
In the garage, I found an old suitcase full of sheet music, in poor condition. But there were some odd sheets mixed in, with old silent movie titles on them. There were famous names, too, such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, even Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish.
The price being asked for the sheet music was $1 each, but these were thematic music cue sheets”the kind used as guides for piano and organ players, when accompanying the film. They showed what music to play for action, and when title cards showed. I went through the entire suitcase a few times, making sure I got every one of the 67 cue sheets.
Pointing out to the man in charge that this wasn’t sheet music, I asked if I could have a “quantity” price on what I’d picked out. Since it was the end of the day, and he was ready to close up anyway, I offered the man all the money I had left”$8″and he accepted.
I didn’t know what the cue sheets were worth, but suspected that they were worth more than the 12 cents each I’d paid for them. Information on the sheets was hard to find, so I just put them away carefully in an airless, tightly sealed plastic bag. Every couple of years or so, I’d come across the cue sheets again and take a look at some of them, wondering what I had.
On Sunday, Aug. 13, 2000, I was watching a tape I’d recorded off of the American Movie Classics cable channel a few years beforehand, of Keaton’s silent movie masterpiece, “Sherlock, Jr.”
The intro, which I’d never seen before, was spoken by Vince Giordano, famous band leader of the Nighthawks, who had written a new score for the film. He said quite calmly that he had done this, because “the cue sheets for ‘Sherlock, Jr.’ are presumed lost.”
Sitting on the couch, I half-said aloud, “No they aren’t. I’ve got them.” I froze, as the enormity of my simple statement hit me. “I’ve got them. And they’re presumed lost?”
I then had the certain knowledge that I was in sole possession of lost silent movie history.
Answers are still hard to come by. I’ve tried to contact the UCLA Film Library and the George Eastman House’s International Museum of Photography and Film for more information, but it’s difficult to get much from them. I even tried the Silent Film Society of Chicago, but they have failed to return my calls. In short, they, like the films, have been silent.
Well, I’ll have my answers, sooner or later. An interesting sidelight to my investigations is that UCLA may have the most silent movie cue sheets in the United States (14 boxes, covering six linear feet”but no exact number of sheets), followed by Eastman House (over 100 cue sheets in their collection.) And I have 67. Unless further information turns up, it looks like I am the third largest owner of cue sheets in the country!
So, it appears that there still are remnants of the silent movie era in Brookfield, or, of all places, in our own Hollywood.
Go to garage and estate sales, and check the space at the top of your hollow cinder block porch posts (watch out for spiders.) Are some theater ads still hidden in there? Yes, it pays to keep your eyes open, when a bit of movie history from long ago could be right under your feet.