That’s a Wrap: “Programme of Grand Photoplay Festival,” Los Angeles, 10-12 July 1915

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The local film industry, the topic of Sunday’s “Through the Viewfinder” presentation by Los Angeles Public Library photo collection librarian Christina Rice, grew rapidly after it was established in 1909.  One of many examples is today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, a “programme” for a “Grand Photoplay Festival” held over three days at Los Angeles Stadium, south of downtown, in July 1915.  The document stated that the event was a “civic and public recognition of the photoplay as Los Angeles’ Greatest Industry.”

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This and the four following images are from a program in the Homestead’s collection for a “Grand Photoplay Festival,” held at Los Angeles Stadium, now the campus of Jefferson High School, from 10-12 July 1915.

It was also held to combine the filming of scenes for an adaptation of the famous Georges Bizet opera, Carmen, with a “public welcome of the world’s famous operatic artist” and the movie’s star, Geraldine Farrar.  To maximize attendance, the festival took place during the national convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the biggest of the many fraternal orders that existed in America at the time (Walter P. Temple, for example, was an Elk.)

The “director general” of the extravaganza was Seth D. Perkins, a 25-year old theater manager who was already on his third gig in the business when he was hired to run the festival.  A bio in the program noted that he was “full of ideas, snap and energy” and it was his staging of a “Mary Pickford, Welcome Home” event for “America’s Sweetheart” and film sensation, put on by the Southern California Motion Picture Exhibitors Association at the Shrine Auditorium, that appears to have led to his appointment.

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The festival’s first day, Saturday the 10th, was devoted to the filming of bullfighting scenes for Carmen, whose director Cecil B. DeMille had not yet achieved the peak of his career (which would come in the mid-1920s with such biblical epics as Ben-Hur [1925] and King of Kings [1927].)  At 2:30, there was a “Grand Intruda,” which only reveals a colossal ignorance of Spanish, because the word would be entrada, or entrance!

In any case, this involved a procession around the 20,000-capacity stadium, featuring musicians, a matador named Tomás Ibarra, carriages ferrying Farrar and “Ladies of Spanish {almost certainly more Mexican than Spanish] Families,” and others.  A special box was set aside from the leading lady, who was greeted by former police chief and newly seated (taking office on 1 July) mayor Charles E. Sebastian (who resigned because of scandal after just over a year in office,) and other local officials.

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Then came the “intruda” of Ibarra and his assistants and others involved in the bullfight.  There was an interval for the staging of the fight for the film, followed by other bulls entering the stadium and the fight being filmed.  By 5:15, there was a “grand exit march and finale.”

The second day, Sunday the 11th, was proclaimed “D.W. Griffith Day” honoring that director’s seminal work in the young industry.  Griffith’s celebrated and controversial film, The Birth of a Nation, released in February 1915 was a sensation despite its sentimental rendering of the Confederates’ “noble cause” during the Civil War, its depiction of blacks and other elements.

That day’s events included a parade with a band, “representatives of Spanish Families,” and the return of Ibarra and his helpers.  Then came the release of the first bull; a roping demonstration by a member of the Griffith film company; the entrance of the director; and the release of the second bull.

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Once those first two animals were introduced into the stadium, though, the Los Angeles Times reported:

The bulls appeared to be walking in their sleep.  Several times they drowsed off in the center of the arena.  The first two walked around the fence, trying to lick the faces of the friendly cameramen.  The last one kicked up the dust in an amusing, but not dangerous fashion. . . Chief Matador Tomas Ibarra failed to show any class at all.  He left most of the work to his hired help and they wouldn’t do it.

There were rumors that the bulls’ owner gave the animals sleeping powder, perhaps to avoid any real violence, though it was stated that there were a few spirited charges by the bulls that created “pandimonium [sic] among the fighters.”  According to the Times, the best part of the day was a comic bull fight, put together by a Griffith Films director named Eddie Dillon, who happened to be Mary Pickford’s first leading man in movies.

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The paper noted that “two young huskies played the bull and they certainly did it up brown” with the trio of toreadors during the three-minute battle.  It concluded with the main matador thrusting a sword into the breast of the prostrate “animal,” putting a foot forcefully on its head, and accepting “the overtures of the crowd.”  The account concluded noting that the farce “was a wonderful scrap.”

A pageant of floats then passed in a review through the stadium and “depicted the different processes in the manufacture of films,” including filming, developing, printing and even the projecting of a movie in a float made up as a theater.  In one “allegorical float” were representations of five Griffith films, including The Birth of a Nation.

 

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Los Angeles Times, 10 July 1915.

With the impresario sitting in the official box, members of the Griffith company then staged a comedy in four scenes on a stage.  The lead was Fay Tincher, whose career extended from 1913 to 1930 and who won a beauty contest at Venice Beach two months prior.  She wound up living to her 99th year.

Following this was a 15-minute series of comedy scenes by the famed Keystone players under the direction of Mack Sennett, after which there were the release of more bulls and the staging of a “rapid fire drama” by Griffith Films.

The final day, Monday the 12th, was led off by a “Keystone-Elk Komedy Karnival,” produced by Sennett and starring Ford Sterling, the original chief of the famed “Keystone Cops”, in what was titled “Throwing the Bull.”  In the midst of this, there were “certain intervals” with more bullfighting scenes from Carmen and performances by the Cowboy Band.  Of course, the day was mainly in honor of “the Thousands of Visiting Elks—Here for Fun and Frolic.”

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Times, 9 July 1915.

As for the featured star of the festival, Farrar, who was a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera from 1906 until her retirement in 1922, her summoning to Hollywood by ardent admirer De Mille led to her playing in 14 films between 1915 and 1920.  After retiring from operatic performance, her career shortened by a heavy schedule, she performed recitals for a number of years and died in 1967.

A bit player in Carmen was Jeanie Macpherson, whose work as an actress, first for Griffith and then for Universal.  While she acted in nearly 150 films (they were shorts in those days, before the full-length movie became a standard), she transitioned becoming a scenario writer for De Mille, writing for many of his films over more than three decades and also being one of his mistresses.  A notable among women in early film, Macpherson died on cancer in 1946 at age 60.

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Times, 12 July 1915.

This program is a great artifact from the early film industry in greater Los Angeles and reflects a combination of marketing, location filming, self-congratulation and other elements that showed the rapid growth of the business by the mid-1910s.

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