Peggy K. Newton is an Evansville native and graduate of Harrison High School. She obtained a Bachelors degree in Communications at the University of Southern Indiana and was trained in desktop publishing at Ivy Tech. She was a correspondent for Farmweek, a weekly newspaper covering the agricultural community in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. She was also writer and proofreader at several marketing communications agencies in Evansville and is a past editor of The Packet, the quarterly publication of the Tri-State Genealogical Society. Currently she serves as library assistant in the Special Collections department at Willard Library. Her articles on Evansville's entertainment and criminal history can be seen monthly in Maturity Journal.
She is currently writing a book on a 1950s-era serial murderer who terrorized the Evansville region.
In 1991 Evansville and the Tri-State were all abuzz over the filming of 'A League of Their Own.' Members of the cast and crew found temporary homes here, and Tri-Staters got a chance to dress up in 1940s attire to be a part of the now-classic baseball movie. Watching it, for many, has become a game of trying to recognize someone in the crowd scenes.
One would think it was the first time Evansville had been seen on film. At least four movies and one early TV show recorded moving images that are probably lost, beginning with the city's movie debut in the infancy of motion pictures.
Fade In: At the Dawn of the Movies
Movies came into their own in 1907 as nickelodeons mushroomed throughout downtown. They'd been a presence, off-and-on, since the late 1890s when kinetoscopes at local county fairs attracted the curious to spare a penny or two for a few seconds of viewing time. A single participant looked through a viewer into a machine and watched the motion picture unreel. The subject may have been a belly dancer, a man sneezing, or (gasp!) a man kissing a woman. Later, after projection became standardized, movies served as 'chasers' between vaudeville shows, signaling seated audiences to leave and allowing new audiences in to be seated.
It's a safe guess that Evansville's debut in the movies came in 1902 when two young, enterprising film makers, W.H. Swanson of Chicago and J.A. Gorman of New Orleans brought their hand-crank camera to town. The final product of their film-shoot was to benefit the pension fund of the Evansville Fire Department. Newspapers gave advanced notice that filming would start Tuesday morning, December 16, 1902, on Water Street, at the end of Main Street. The world premiere was scheduled for December 26 at the fire department's annual fundraiser at Evans Hall. The film was just one of the entertainments being offered. Live performances by dancer Mademoiselle Steorra and singer Alice Fisher were also part of the bill.
Shooting commenced on December 16. Evansvillians from all walks of life gathered to watch the filming.
One might say Evansville's first 'star' was its mayor, Charles Covert. The strictly-documentary project required no lines to be learned, no reshooting for close-ups, and no make-up. All Covert had to do was show up and walk when he was asked to do so by director Swanson.
Covert may have been appearing in his capacity as mayor of the city, but there's an indication that he showed an early interest in stage acting. A photo from 1890 shows Covert flanked by two fellow actors (Dr. Charles Archer and Sam Fisher) in an amateur play, 'The Grand Duchess.' This early ambition, if it were one at all, was apparently short-lived, as the play and the 1902 movie were apparently his only acting credits. He went on to lead a busy, full life, serving in various public service positions such as sheriff and post master, earning him the title 'Mr. Republican.' His daughter, Jeannette Covert Nolan, became a well-known author. Charles Covert lived to the ripe old age of 90.
Perhaps the true stars of that early film were the members of the fire department, many of whom are shown in a picture from 1902, and the horses that pulled the buggies and wagons to an unseen, fictitious fire.
The review of the motion picture in the Evening Journal was decidedly favorable.
'The performance was greeted with much enthusiasm last night and everybody was well pleased with it, especially with the part of the show in which the Evansville fire companies are shown, making a thrilling run, the pictures for which were recently taken on Water street. The run came near the close of the entertainment. It was preceded by Mayor Covert, Fire Chief Carter, Assistant Chief Grant, Captains Dunleavy, Stokely, Hammer and Kiley, Messrs. Gross and Weintz of the Safety Board, and others, all of whom were loudly cheered. '
Then the scene was changed to Water street, where a great crowd had gathered to witness the exhibition run. Mayor Covert, Police Chief Heuke, other officials and prominent business men could be plainly seen as they walked down the street. Chief Carter in his buggy opened the run, driving at rapid rate and lashing his horse with the whip. The companies from No. 1 house followed closely upon his heels and the teams were each applauded in their turn. The aerial truck closed the scene'.
'The firemen and Messrs. Gorman and Swanson, who manage the show, were greatly pleased at the enthusiasm of the audience.' (Evening Journal, Saturday, December 27, 1902)
W.H. Swanson played a minor role in the formation of Universal Studios. He was later associated with Carl Laemmle after Laemmle formed International Motion Pictures (I.M.P.) which evolved into Universal Pictures.
'Evansville in Pictures'
Ten years later another film depicting Evansville played at the Main Theatorium and then moved to the Majestic. Titled 'Evansville in Pictures,' it was another documentary-style short-subject showing views of Evansville from the riverfront and a birds-eye view from the top of the Vendome Hotel. Along with views of the Post Office, Washington Avenue Temple, Willard Library, and Sunset Park, the movie showed students leaving the high school (later Central), workers leaving their shift at the Globe-Bosse-World furniture factory, theater-goers leaving the Majestic and Main theaters, and the ubiquitous fire department engines racing to yet another fire. The Furniture building (now the Court building), the Waterworks and new filter plant, and the Advance automobile company salesroom and garage (at 105-111 S.E. Fifth Street) were also seen to good advantage. The film ended with a tour of the city taken at streetcar level.
The film was reviewed in the Evansville Journal, April 18, 1912:
'While in sections the pictures are not as clear as they should be, taken as a whole, the views are good. Hundreds of persons, who were caught by the camera man at various times and whose likenesses are now being shown on the screen by the picture machine, are visiting the Main to get a glimpse of themselves in motion pictures.'
In 1924 the Evansville Courier and the Evansville Journal teamed up to produce their first film, a two-reel comedy with a story-line, a cast of 400, and 146 scenes. A good deal of Evansville was seen in the exterior shots. Interiors were filmed on the stage of the Harlan Foulke (the hero, Billy Brown), and 'A Dark Secret' (the Rival) filled the masculine roles.
Filming began March 20. Newland had the help of assistant director James Doty and chief cinematographer W.P. Mayfield, from Hollywood, and locals Clarence Becker and L.E. DeWitt as chief electrician and assistant electrician respectively. In an early example of product placement, local Chevrolet dealer Ball Hagans furnished a car that was shown in a crucial scene in the movie, while the Spiegel company supplied furnishings for the interior scenes.
The cast met at the Victory Theater for a lesson in applying make-up. The leading actors then left to shoot exterior scenes at the Armand R. Emrich home on Howard Street, after which they returned to the Victory to enact the interior scenes. The set built on the Victory stage corresponded with the interior of the Emrich home. The first interior scenes began at 3:15, with bright lights flooding the stage and audience. After shooting views of the audience, the camera turned to the stage, where a half-hour's worth of filming commenced. The actors were given the remainder of the afternoon to rest before reporting back to the Victory for more scenes to be shot at 9 p.m., again showing the audience on film.
The following day's shoot (Friday, March 21) began with scenes showing the editorial staffs of the Courier and Journal newspapers in their offices. A new actress, Harriett J. Newman, was added to the cast of featured players. The high point of the day was the enactment of an automobile crash at 6th and Main streets, conveniently adjacent to the Victory Theater. In spite of rain earlier in the day, an estimated crowd of 2000 (many caught on film) watched the scene play out as two new cars collided. Then 'a bit of trick photography was employed while two old machines were piled up on the curb and one of the most realistic bits of acting in the entire film was staged when Mr. Hart as Mr. Henpeck fought his way out of the flames of the wrecked cars and rescued Miss Harper through a rear window of one of the wrecked cars. Traffic was tied up for several moments while the scene was being 'shot'.' (Evansville Courier, Saturday, March 22, 1924)
Rain showers throughout the week put the exterior shoots behind schedule. The interior scenes at the Victory completed on schedule with, surprisingly, the cast members not knowing much at all about the film's plot. Newland remained tight-lipped as he completed filming exteriors at the Emrich house (showing the home's owner in a scene) and inside Hermann's confectionary on Sunday night, March 23. That same evening he boarded a train bound for Chicago, where the reels of film were processed and edited.
On Thursday afternoon, March 27, the movie opened at the Victory. An early review in the Evansville Journal called it 'a real success' Both the interior and exterior scenes were clear and well defined.' (Evansville Journal, Thursday, March 27, 1924)
A day later the Journal expanded its assessment: 'The cast of the play exceeded all expectations and was pronounced as good as many plays produced by professionals in Hollywood. The play is a two-reel comedy entitled 'Evansville's Hero.' It is the story of a 'henpecked' husband, with a love element interwoven, and is decidedly humorous.' (Evansville Journal, March 28, 1924)
Over the next few days record-breaking crowds swarmed the Victory to see the home-grown movie. The first day's afternoon and evening showings drew 5,000, with hundreds standing in line for more than an hour to obtain tickets. The film was shown along with a feature movie and vaudeville acts.
'Behind the News'
Eleven years later the Courier and Journal once again co-produced their second and last movie. (The Journal would cease publishing a year later.) Director J. Basil LeRoy, working for World Productions, oversaw the shooting of 'Behind the News,' photographed by cameraman George Gore. Again the newspapers sent out casting calls to fill male and female roles. LeRoy sifted through hundreds of applicants to determine who was eligible for screen tests. Once the screen tests were completed at Sunset Park, the film was sent to New York for processing, after which it was returned to Evansville for LeRoy to make his final decisions.
On September 15, 1935 he announced the three leading roles would go to local residents Chester R. Attwood, 27, Helen Brown, 20, and Andrew Christ. Attwood, an inspector at Servel, was described as having 'blonde hair, blue eyes and is five feet, nine inches tall.' (Evansville Courier, September 15, 1935) Brown, a brunette with blue eyes, graduated from Reitz and attended University of Tallahassee (Florida). Christ was employed by City News Agency. He was approximately 40 years old in 1935.
Scenes were again shot at the Courier and Journal offices. The only filmed appearance of the leading man and lady (Attwood and Brown) in a public setting took place at a ball filmed at the Colonial Club, in scenes deemed as 'of extreme importance to the picture' (Evansville Courier, September 17, 1935).
Attwood, Brown, and Christ did not quit their day jobs after the film was completed. Attwood worked at Servel and later at Arkla, moving to Little Rock, Arkansas, for the latter job. He retired after 42 combined years at both companies, and moved to Chicago where he died some time before 1991. Christ died in Evansville at the age of 71 in 1966, after working some 20 years for the City News Agency.
A search of the Internet Movie Database yielded a film called 'Behind the News' produced by Republic Pictures in 1940. The plot indicated it was about a newly-hired cub reporter learning the ropes of reporting from his idol, a cynical newspaperman who was clearly annoyed by the young man and wanted him out of his way. Through a series of events, including a murder mystery, the two forge a friendship in addition to a working relationship.
Republic was the home of B-westerns and other B-pictures'films shot cheaply and quickly, playing in mostly rural or neighborhood movie houses, and generating huge profits for owner Herbert Yates. The Republic version of 'Behind the News' was directed by Joseph Santley and starred Lloyd Nolan, Doris Davenport, Frank Albertson, and Robert Armstrong (best known for his role in 'King Kong,' 1933). Most noteworthy for Evansville audiences is that one of the four writers was an Evansville native. Isabel Dawn had acted, most notably as Poppy in 'The Shanghai Gesture' and in several other plays on Broadway but found her niche as a screenwriter. With her husband, Boyce DeGaw, she wrote a segment of 'If I Had a Million' (1932) and the screenplay for 'The Moon's Our Home' (1936, with Henry Fonda and his former wife Margaret Sullavan; Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell also worked on the screenplay). Working at Republic must have seemed like a step down after working at Paramount and Universal studios.
It's not known if Ms. Dawn (real name Isabel Seitz) had any creative input in the Evansville version, or had seen the Evansville version and borrowed its plotlines. She had a connection with newspapering in Evansville, starting as a reporter for one of the city's newspapers before moving on to Indianapolis and New York.
Republic Pictures was known for its reputation of re-using old film footage in its westerns and contemporary pictures. Is it possible that scenes of the real Evansville can be seen in the second version' We may never know. The film is considered very rare. Surviving copies at UCLA are incomplete and in various states of decomposition. It's possible that a fading print may be found in the library of any number of local TV stations across the country.
Republic remade the movie in 1955, retitling it 'Headline Hunters,' and starring Rod Cameron, Julie Bishop, and Ben Cooper. Future Curly-placement Stooge, comedian Joe Besser, had a small role as a coroner.
'The Big Story' and Others
In 1949 NBC featured scenes of Evansville and the Ohio and Green rivers in a TV 'docudrama' series called 'The Big Story,' based on a radio program by the same name. A film crew and actors, including William Prince in the leading role, came to the area for a few days in July to shoot scenes for broadcasting the following October. Not many people in the area had a chance to see the program because television was still new and local TV stations didn't come along until 1953. It's likely that the film or kinescope of the Evansville episode was destroyed. NBC was notorious for not archiving early TV shows. Most of the early Tonight Shows (with Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson) have disappeared. Groucho Marx's classic 'You Bet Your Life' would have been lost completely if an NBC affiliate had not saved the films that were being tossed into the dumpster.
Films made to promote the virtues of Evansville to prospective businesses have been around for quite a while. As an eighth-grader I learned that Evansville had lots to offer in the way of factories (Chrysler) and transportation (railroads). The problem was that by the time I saw this well-worn motion picture, the mayor, R. Vance Hartke, had already been a U.S. Senator for nearly eight years. Chrysler and passenger railroad service were both long-gone.
For a few years in the 1930s students at Central High School produced an annual film.
In 1937 the flood that devastated the city and its sister cities along the Ohio River were shown in newsreels across the country. VHS cassettes were made of the flood scenes and donated to Willard Library.
And that brings us to the question: where are the early films of Evansville' Have any of them'the 1902, 1912, 1924, 1935, 1949, late 1950s versions'survived, or have they turned to dust as have an estimated 90 percent of all pre-sound, cellulose nitrate-based films' An initial search of the Library of Congress holdings came up with nothing, but perhaps their entire holdings haven't been catalogued. Perhaps there are paper-print views of early Evansville that haven't been transferred to safety film or haven't been catalogued or identified. How fascinating it would be to find any of these films showing Evansville in a time now far removed, showing scenes of a lively, thriving city and its people, perhaps some of our ancestors, walking into history.
The End: Fade to Black
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