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Mrs. Fenyes and the Movies (Part 1 of 4): Los Angeles

Jun 24, 2013
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When Kings Were the Law was filmed at the Fenyes Mansion in March 1912. (Courtesy PMH Archives, FCP.40.2 p.140 A-B)

By Sheryl Peters

Eva Fenyes came to Pasadena in 1896, attracted by the temperate climate, the beautiful landscape, and the quality of light which is so unique to Southern California. Eva was a watercolor artist and a patron of the arts, commissioning and collecting work to be hung in the mansion she built at 170 North Orange Grove Avenue. Her eclectic, creative interests also encompassed the new art of movie making. An entry from a 1906 travel journal describes a theatrical production of the Pirates of Penzance which Eva attended in San Antonio, Texas. She wrote, “Between the acts, biographic pictures were shown of San Francisco after the fire. The most depressing thing!  One could see the poor sufferers moving about the ruined streets and looking dazed. The most pathetic sight was the bread line. Really, one could not have seen more if one had really been in the auto, from which the moving pictures were taken. Street after street of desolation!”[1] Viewed today, motion pictures from 1906 may seem relatively primitive. But these early films impressed Eva with the stark reality of their images and perhaps inspired her interest in the art of movie making.

In the early days of filmmaking, the major studios were located on the East Coast where Thomas Edison pioneered the technology at his studio in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Soon, however, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company of New York emerged as one of Edison’s biggest competitors. In 1907 the company hired D. W. Griffith, an aspiring actor and playwright, as a member of its acting company, and Griffith soon began directing for them. In 1910 he brought his company of actors from New York to California for seasonal filming. Griffith wasn’t the only filmmaker to take advantage of Southern California’s abundant sunshine and diverse landscape. A number of studios came to film during the winter months. Many eventually relocated, and Los Angeles emerged as the center of the motion picture industry.

Eva Fenyes welcomed the industry, and in March of 1912, D. W. Griffith made a short film on the grounds of the Fenyes estate. The Queen’s Necklace, starring Wilfred Lucas and Dorothy Bernard, opened later that year as When Kings Were the Law. Eva, obviously delighted and a bit star-struck, documented the experience in a photograph album.[2]

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D.W. Griffith on location at the Fenyes Mansion in March 1912. (Courtesy PMH Archives, FCP.40.2 p.143 B)

Shown here are two sketches Eva made of actors from another D. W. Griffith movie filmed on her grounds in 1918, The Girl Who Stayed at Home.

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Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). The Frenchman Proposes (Pasadena, California) [actors: Carol Dempster & Syn de Conde], 2 November 1918. Colored pencil on paper, 7.5 x 4 in. (Courtesy PMH Archives, ESF.012.3122)

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Eva Scott Fenyes (1849-1930). The American Proposes (Pasadena, California) [actors: Carol Dempster & Richard Barthelmess], November 1918. Colored pencil on paper, 6.5 x 5 in. (Courtesy PMH Archives, ESF.012.3122

Eva’s interest in movie making may have been a bit bold for her day. The early film industry was considered slightly risqué. Actresses, with their flamboyant clothing and heavy makeup, were regarded as “loose women.” There was an on-going debate about censorship and whether the motion picture industry was morally fit to control the content of its own products. It was not unheard of for police to raid motion picture houses in an effort to promote decency and morality. Nevertheless, Eva saw economic opportunity, embraced the industry, and collaborated with William H. Clune to build a motion picture theater.

William H. Clune (Billy) was a pioneer filmmaker who produced many films. He built one of the first motion picture stages in Los Angeles on 40 acres of land at Bronson and Melrose (the current location of Raleigh Studios).[3] He also accumulated a substantial personal fortune through real estate, beginning with a penny arcade and later branching out into motion picture houses. Ultimately, he owned and/or managed a number of movie theaters in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, including one in Pasadena.[4] But before the Pasadena project, Billy Clune built a movie theater on property Eva Fenyes owned at 528 South Broadway in Los Angeles. Perhaps that theater’s success, Clune’s association with Eva, and his relationship with D. W. Griffith led to the building of Clune’s Pasadena Theater. Clune’s Pasadena opened in March of 1911, but Clune’s Broadway had opened several months earlier in October of 1910.

The Los Angeles Sunday Times of July 17, 1910 ran an article with details and illustrations of the future Clune’s Broadway. The main lobby was going to be 24 feet wide with a vaulted ceiling and white marble and stucco walls. The marquee was to be of steel and copper. The auditorium would be 57 feet wide by 100 feet long with 30 foot beam and paneled ceilings and a large skylight in the center. It would seat 900. The heating and ventilation systems would be “perfect.” The proscenium opening would be over-sized to accommodate a larger projection screen. A. F. Rosenheim was the architect, and John F. Jacobs and Son was the general contractor. The projected cost for this marvelous structure was $50,000.[5]

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“Playhouse to be Elaborate,” 17 July 1910, Los Angeles Sunday Times, Part V, p. 8, ProQuest Historical Newspapers

When Clune’s Broadway opened it was considered “state of the art.” The projection booth contained “…three Motiograph machines, two being in use, alternating to avoid any wait between pictures.”[6]  By 1916, the trade periodical, Moving Picture World, proclaimed that “Clune’s Broadway…is now considered one of the finest motion picture houses on the Pacific Coast.”[7] Its marquee quickly became a local landmark.  It was 30 feet high and 50 feet wide with “Clune’s Broadway” in more than 3,000 electric lights. The time of day (or night) was updated every minute, both on the sign and in the auditorium.[8]

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Exterior of Clune’s Broadway Theater, c. 1915. the Clune’s clock was a local landmark. (Flag Photography, Pasadena, California. Courtesy Bob Bennett)

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Interior of Clune’s Broadway Theatre. Postcard accessed at Flickr

The success of Clune’s Los Angeles and Pasadena theaters was touted in a 1912 newspaper advertisement. “When one speaks of low-priced theater attractions the name CLUNE comes first to the mind because it is an uncontested fact that the CLUNE THEATERS in Los Angeles and Pasadena set the pace in these popular public attractions.”[9]

Clune’s Broadway closed in 1924 but was remodeled and reopened that same year as the Cameo Theater. The Los Angeles Times described the “chaos of wreckage” from which the new theater emerged “to take its place alongside Broadway’s best.”[10] Its seating capacity was increased. The orchestra pit was enlarged to make room for sixteen musicians. The projection room was widened, and a Ladies’ Retiring Area was tastefully furnished. The article declared the Cameo Theater “…the best and most luxuriously appointed ‘small’ theater on Broadway…”[11]

Eva Fenyes was a woman of many talents. Her creativity was not limited to artistic pursuits but also manifested itself in shrewdly managed business enterprises. At the turn of the 20th century, Eva purchased a piece of investment property in downtown Los Angeles. Within ten years her first motion picture house opened in what was to become the Broadway Theater District. There would be a movie theater at this address for more than 80 years. The Cameo Theater closed in December of 1991 and is thought to have been the oldest continuously running movie theater in California and some say the country.[12] The theaters Eva helped create were visually distinctive. They were equipped with the best technology and they were successful commercially. Eva would have tolerated nothing less.

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View of the Roxie, Cameo, and Arcade theaters on Broadway in Los Angeles, c. 1991. Accessed at sites.google.com

In Part 2 of “Mrs. Fenyes and the Movies,” Eva Fenyes’ interest in movie theaters expands to Pasadena.
*

Sheryl Peters is a Pasadena Museum of History docent, researcher, and educator. She is co-curator of Pasadena Museum of History’s “I Do! I Do! Pasadena Ties the Knot” exhibit which continues through July 14th.

Many thanks to Julie Stires, Project Archivist at Pasadena Museum of History, for her invaluable assistance in navigating the PMH Archives and for the countless other ways she supported this project.

Many thanks to Bob Bennett, Pasadena Museum of History volunteer, for sharing his expert knowledge of Southern California’s filmmaking history.

 


[1] Eva Fenyes, Mexico Diary, p. 34, Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, Box 35, Folder 3 (FCP.35.3), Pasadena Museum of History (PMH) Archives.

[2] Photograph Album, pp. 140-146, FCP.40.2, PMH Archives.

[3] Google.com/site/downtownlosangelestheatres.com, Historic Los Angeles Theatres – Downtown Theatre Tour, Broadway Theatres, Cameo Theatre

[4] Matt Hormann, “Ghost Theaters of Colorado Boulevard, Part 1 of 2,” Hometown Pasadena, 22 August 2011.

[5] “Playhouse to be Elaborate,” 17 July 1910, Los Angeles Sunday Times, Part V, p. 8.

[6] The Moving Picture World, Vol. 10, p. 988, October-December 1911, Chalmers Publishing Co., New York, Media History Digital Library.

[7] The Moving Picture World, Vol. 29, July 1916, Chalmers Publishing Co., New York, Media History Digital Library

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Why Theaters Pay,” 2 June 1912, Los Angeles Times, p. 13, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[10] “Artisans Busy Rebuilding New Cameo Theater,” 20 July 1924, Los Angeles Times, p. B 35, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[11] Ibid

[12] “A Final Cameo Appearance,” 3 December 1991, Los Angeles Times, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. “At the Crossroads: Can Developers and Merchants Return Broadway to Its Glory Days?” 13 February 1994, Los Angeles Times, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

 




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