Week of October 26th, 1918

The Million-Dollar Theater stayed empty

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on how theater owners were getting through the influenza epidemic-caused closure:

Landlord owners of theaters are waiving collection of rents of theaters during the closing of their houses due to the prevalence of Spanish influenza, according to reports given in at the meeting of the Theater Owners’ Association, held yesterday [October 28th] at the offices of William H. Clune in the Knickerbocker Building, at which a majority of members was present. That is, 95 per cent of said landlords have already asserted their willingness to forego collections, and the other 5 per cent are said to be wavering on the side of generosity. Authorities have also waived license money, and payment for film has been rebated by film exchanges.

The members of the association are taking the closing situation with cheerful optimism, especially as they feel certain that business will be heavier that ever as soon as the theaters reopen. All report that their houses have been fumigated and thoroughly cleaned, and that in many cases managers have taken the opportunity to have their theaters entirely renovated from top to bottom, including dressing-rooms and lounging rooms, with installation of additional ventilating apparatus.

Kingsley didn’t mention what the TOA was doing behind the scenes to change the order. According to historian N. Pieter M. O’Leary, they were its most vocal opponents and had been working hard to influence the city council to reopen the theaters, sending petitions since the beginning of the shutdown. He wrote:

Within days of the passage of the closing order, the Owners’ Association circulated a petition arguing that the “partial closing law” was failing to check the number of influenza cases in Los Angeles because the public was “permitted and encouraged to congregate in all places other than theaters, churches and schools.” The petition called for the “closing of all places of business except drug stores, groceries and meat markets.” Arguing that their industry was unfairly closed, the Theater Owners believed that if a complete closing order were implemented, a speedier recovery could be made, which would allow all theaters to reopen sooner.

The city council didn’t buy their argument, and the theaters were to remain closed for a little over a month more.

Brunton Studios, 1918. Amazingly, movies are still being made there — Paramount took over the property in 1926.

After two weeks of being stuck in the office, Kingsley escaped with a trip to Brunton Studios, which was a lot that rented out stages to independent producers. She wrote an optimistic piece:

Even though at some of the picture studios they’re sadly warbling “if the flu doesn’t get you, the grocery bill must!” while lifeless stages lift skeleton fingers of framework pointing regretfully up at a sky full of sunshine, many of the studios are beginning to get ready for work, including the Goldwyn studios at Culver City, Metro and others.

And as for Brunton Studios, they’re as busy as a gopher on a tin roof! In fact, out there in the sweet sunshine of Hollywood the broad acres of the Brunton Studios look like a cross section of this little old globe, with their colorful bits of pretty nearly every country in the world represented in its picturesque sets.

Kitty Gordon

Among the films in production were a Dustin Farnum western, A Man in the Open, a Bessie Barriscale comedy, Two-Gun Betty, and a Paris-set crime drama written by Sarah Bernhardt, It Happened in Paris. Kingsley’s best anecdote came from the set of Adele, which was one of the last war movies made. Directed by Wallace Worsely, it starred Kitty Gordon and Wedgewood Nowell:

Having been thoroughly choked and kissed by Villian Nowell, director Worsley informs Miss Gordon she’s got to kill him early tomorrow morning.

“What? Kill a man before breakfast?” exclaims Miss Gordon. “Why, I never do!”

So the epidemic didn’t stop independents from working. However, Guy Price, Kingsley’s rival at the Los Angeles Herald mentioned a detail she left off:

Mr. Robert Brunton isn’t taking any chances. For instance, out at his Melrose Avenue studios, he has stationed at the gate a Red Cross nurse with a 100 per cent anti-flu spray, and every person who enters, employee or visitor, gets a generous sprinkling. Some of the actors—the stars are not immune either—are doused five of six times daily, each dousing representing the number of times they exit and enter the studio.

He didn’t say what the spray was, but it had “an odor that would asphyxiate a horse.”

Influenza was causing other problems:


This was one that hadn’t occurred to me!




Pieter M. O’Leary, “The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Los Angeles,” Southern California Quarterly, v.86 no.4 (Winter 2004), pp. 397-8. (He found the petitions in the Los Angeles City Archives.)

Guy Price, “Footlights and Flickers,” Los Angeles Herald, November 2, 1918.




Week of October 19th, 1918

Harold Lockwood

One hundred years ago this week, news about the influenza epidemic ran throughout Grace Kingsley’s columns this week:

  • Leading man Harold Lockwood died of pneumonia caused by influenza on October 19th in New York City. He had been appearing at Liberty Loan events while shooting The Yellow Dove; some obituaries blamed overwork for his death. He was 30 years old.
  • Similarly, Metro director John Collins died from pneumonia following the flu on October 23 in New York. He was only 28. His wife, actress Viola Dana, also had a bad case but she recovered.
  • More fortunately, reports of actor William Russell’s death were incorrect: he had suffered from the flu, but he recovered.
  • Actors reportedly had a variety of reactions to the theater shutdown, from “Well I was going to take a vacation anyway,” to “I tell ‘em, when they get ready for me to go back to work they can just come get me out of the County Jail. I’ll be in there for debt.”
  • Kingsley heard a story from Dorothy Gish. She was tired after a long day of work, and took a crowded streetcar downtown.

dgish“I got a seat, too,” she said. “Three men got right up and went out on the platform.”

“How did you manage it?” someone asked.

“Just sneezed,” explained Dorothy.

Karma caught up with her: on November 6th Kingsley mentioned that Dorothy Gish was suffering from the flu. Luckily, she recovered.


Kingsley reported that not all film production had ceased despite the epidemic and economic problems (it seems that hope springs eternal in film producers). One company was hard at work:

The Brentwood Film Corporation is the latest producing organization to enter the Hollywood field, planning to do a series of features with all-star casts. The Brentwood people have leased the Mena Film Corporation at no. 4811 Fountain Avenue, Hollywood, and the first picture is now well under way under the direction of King W. Vidor…The Turn in the Road is the title under which the first Brentwood feature will be released, about the end of November.

Brentwood Film was a group of nine doctors who wanted to make movies, so they might not have known what the rest of the industry was doing.

King Vidor, 1920

This was King Vidor’s first feature-length film. It didn’t premier in Los Angeles until the end of December, but it sold enough tickets to get picked up for distribution by a larger company, Robertson-Cole. It’s a lost film. Vidor went on to a long and successful career; his work included The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928) and War and Peace (1956).

Week of October 12th, 1918


From Photoplay (January 1919), by R.F. James

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a major announcement from a film studio: because of the influenza epidemic, they would be shutting down production for a month. Frank Garbutt, vice president and West Coast manager of Lasky and Morosco Studios, wrote in a letter to her:

All of the leading producers of the country have agreed to shut down for the month, and those stars who are now finishing will take their month’s lay-off on completion of their present pictures, for the reason that to shut down in the middle of a picture would entail enormous and unnecessary loss. Our stars at Lasky and Morosco Studios will take four weeks lay-off, which in the case of those now working will commence on the completion of the pictures upon which they are engaged. In this way we will avoid the necessity of completely closing our studios, as the shut-downs will not come at all the same time, and this will enable us to keep many of the smaller people at work.

Influenza had a huge effect on the film industry. After the epidemic was over, Alfred A. Cohn in the fan magazine Photoplay (January 1919) described it:

To the stars, four weeks of idleness came as a relief. To the majority of the lesser lights it was more or less a hardship. Although the impression prevailed throughout the country that the manufacture of films had become extinct because of he ravages of the epidemic, actual figures indicate that the decrease in production was not more than forty percent.

Arbuckle kept working

A forty percent decrease is still a lot! Cohn said the shut-down happened because with theater closures, profits had been cut by two-thirds and all the banks were “using their spare change to help out the Liberty Loan drive,” so borrowing wasn’t possible. The studios simply had to stop spending money. The stars accepted a four-week vacation without pay, with the lost time tacked on to the end of their contracts. Lasky, Universal, Fox, Vitagraph, American, and World all followed the plan. Metro and Goldwyn were busy moving West, so they weren’t making films anyway. A few companies did not stop, including Sennett and Ince, while Roscoe Arbuckle kept shooting Camping Out on location at Catalina Island.

Photoplay summed up the epidemic’s effects in a box:


The IMDB has a more complete list of flu casualties from the film industry here.

Kingsley wrote about how much people missed the pictures:

Romance, comedy and thrills are all locked away in a little tin box, and all because that unpleasant autocrat, Spanish Flu, stalks the Rialto. Dear me, we never realized before how much of our romance was measured by the foot!

In 1918, most people had lived in a world without regular trips to the cinema, and they knew how to otherwise occupy themselves. But they’d gotten used to them. It’s a little like if the Internet was shut off for two months: most of us remember getting along without it but we really wouldn’t want to. Bloggers would have to go back to writing ‘zines (I think I can remember how to operate a mimeograph machine).

Seattle, 1918

Live theater had also been banned, and Kingsley reported on how they were dealing with the uncertainty of how long it would last:

And then there are the playhouses and vaudeville shows. For the first time in twenty-five years there was no Monday show at the Orpheum yesterday. Nevertheless, all the new acts not already here will arrive this morning, in order to be in readiness in case the closing order should be rescinded this week; and in any case all acts on the Orpheum, also on the Pantages circuit, have been ordered to touch base in the town in which they are billed, whether they actually play there or not.

Unfortunately, theater actors were about to get an involuntary vacation too.


Kingsley knew that one day they’d go back to making movies, so on Sunday she wrote about trends in popular actresses, declaring the end of girlish heroines and beginning of roles for more robust women.

Dear, dear! How styles in girls do come and go! No girl can really feel sure of her popularity for a minute! I don’t mean, of course, the ordinary or lay girl, whose popularity isn’t measured by the pound. I mean the picture girl, the heroine of fillums. For now, it’s the Big Girl, the Gibson Girl, who has come back—who is to have her innings…Probably it’s the war that has done it, through some subtle subconscious workings in our national psychology. We like to think of the mothers of soldiers as husky ladies with deep chests and sturdy shoulders.

How we used to rave, didn’t we, over the curly-haired cuties—try to do our hair like theirs and everything. Why, the number of five-foot-eight girls with Mary Pickford curls was alone appalling. How excruciatingly cute we thought the pink-gingham ingénue when she biffed the villain over the head with a doughnut, and oh, was there ever anything so side-splittingly funny as the sun-bonneted cutie trying to milk a cow! But if she was ragged as well as cute—well, we just laid down and let her walk all over us.

She thought that some smaller women were going to stay popular because they were artists, like Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh, and Dorothy Gish, but the rest were fading. However, Kingsley’s crystal ball was faulty. They weren’t replaced by big girls or even adult women — the jaunty flapper was coming soon. Some, like Colleen Moore, were former curly-haired cuties. Popular taste is unpredictable.




Alfred A. Cohn, “The Spanish Invasion,” Photoplay, January 1919, p. 76, 97.

Week of October 5th, 1918

The virus
F. Woodman

One hundred years ago this week, Los Angeles city officials began to take the influenza epidemic very seriously. Following the recommendation of the newly-formed Medical Advisory Board, Mayor Frederick Woodman closed all schools, churches, theaters, and any other places of amusement starting at 6 p.m. on October 11th. He also banned all public gatherings, like Liberty Loan drives. Violators could be fined up to $500.00 or imprisoned for up to six months. Trying not to panic the public, he said that the restrictions might be lifted in a week. That wasn’t how it worked out — they lasted until December 2nd.

It all happened suddenly. Here are the theater ads from Thursday, October 10th:


And here’s the only ad from the 11th:


In hindsight, Mayor Woodman made the right decision: this disease was utterly devastating. In fourteen months, about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. It was estimated to have killed 50 million people (675,000 of them in the United States), according to the Centers for Disease Control, far more than the 15 million men killed on battlefields in World War 1,

Cinematographer Karl Brown, then serving in the army at Camp Kearny, wrote about his experience in his autobiography:

Then came one fateful evening after retreat, when it was quite dark, and when Captain Thompson came to my squad tent, which I shared with seven others. Somebody caught the glint of those two silver bars and barked “’Ten-shun!”

We all sprang to our feet, including me, even though I had been feeling horribly bad for the past two days. The trouble was that I couldn’t keep my feet under me and that I swayed forward and fell into the arms of Captain Thompson, who eased me to the floor of the tent. He felt my forehead briefly and then commanded, “Get an ambulance for this man. On the double!”

I must have fallen into a deep sleep, because I kept dreaming that I was hearing the Chopin Funeral March being played over and over again. Then, when I finally managed to achieve some semblance of awareness, I discovered that I was in a hospital bed along with ranks and ranks of other men, all in bed and all on a very long screened-in porch facing a roadway. It was daylight, and I was at least partially awake, because the Funeral March was being played by a military brass band as it moved slowly along the road, followed by a caisson carrying a flag-draped coffin.

It was hardly out of sight before another cortege came hard on the heels of the first, groaning out the same funeral march. And then another. And another. And this was to go on day after day for the unknowingly long time I was destined to stay in the base hospital.

It was the flu, of course, killing without mercy and much more efficiently than the armies on the fighting front.

Between the war and the epidemic, this was a very dark time for everybody. So they did their best to keep busy. Most people still went to work, including Grace Kingsley. This week, she had the story of the Goldwyn Company moving to Los Angeles, observing:

Count the day lost whose low descending sun sees no picture company trekking to the land of the setting sun.

Photoplay noticed that everyone was moving West, too (cartoon by R. F. James, November 1918)

Goldwyn stars like Mae Marsh, Geraldine Farrar, Pauline Fredericks and Mabel Normand were making their travel plans, according to studio president Samuel Goldfish (the name change hadn’t happened yet). He tried telling her that moving West and giving up their Ft. Lee studio was a sacrifice to conserve coal to aid the government. She wasn’t buying it, and gently mocked him for his “a perfect halo of pure patriotism” which is much more polite than calling him out.


Kingsley wrote two last movie reviews on Monday. Luckily she enjoyed them both. The first was one of John Ford’s early films, and she identified a recurring problem with his female characters.

There’s a capital Wild West story with a fairly Bret Harte-ish flavor at the Symphony this week, in which the three r’s of Wild West drama, viz, riding, romping and rowing (accent on the “ow”) are all played up strong. The Three Mounted Men is its name…Harry Carter is as horrid a villain as ever wore a checked suit and shaved his neck, while Neva Gerber is one of those lovely ragdoll heroines who had nothing to do but see to it that she’s not torn apart when they drag her on and off horses. While the story is about bandits, it is fresh and unhackneyed in treatment, with the whole company behaving like human beings.


Her second review was a sort of preview of things to come for the film industry. During the epidemic, most studios stopped production for a month so distributers re-issued older films to the theaters that hadn’t been closed. However, some companies were already doing that. The two she saw were made in 1914 and 1916, but audiences still enjoyed them:

Dear, dear, how we do love to take a peek once in a while at those old fillums of Mary Pickford’s and Charlie Chaplin’s! The Eagle’s Mate with little Mary as the heroine—she was just as long on hair, but shorter on art than in these days—and Charlie Chaplin in One A.M. are at the Garrick this week, and are drawing crowds, too, despite their ancient vintage. The Eagle’s Mate belongs to the film day when they carried maidens off to a mountain fastness and chased off sheriffs just as easy!—and the heroine always married the rough diamond hero despite stylish relatives and his table manners. Yet there’s a naïve charm and freshness about it—a zest in the doing which arouses our enjoyment and leaves us cold to the modern dramas with their boudoir hounds.

Without film and vaudeville reviews, her columns did shrink a bit, but she still presented news from interviews and press releases. And things would get better: the end of the war was only a month away.



“May Soon Lift Closing Order,” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1918.

“To Wage War on Influenza,” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1918.