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.
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.