A Ready-made Bohemia: Week of December 25th, 1920

Oliver Morosco

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a story about every Los Angelean’s favorite subject, real estate:

A sublimated Greenwich Village and a real Bohemia are to be built in our very midst by Oliver Morosco, according to the far-visioned theatrical magnate, who yesterday gave out full details of his remarkable plans. The new enterprise is to be a city within a city, to be known as Morosco’s Greenwich Village and located at Melrose and Western Avenues on a twenty-acre plot just purchased. It will be a building enterprise unique in the city’s history and perhaps in that of any country.

It will be a home or artistic expression through the theater, music, painting, dancing and allied arts, but it will also be a real dwelling place for artists, in homes designed for comfort as well as beauty. Already a number of writers, painters and musicians have signaled their desire to live there.

The Bohemian feature will be seen at its best in a labyrinth of underground chambers to be used as odd atmospheric cafes—some Spanish, some Italian, some French as of the Latin quarter, and in the cabarets and bazaars where articles will be sold.

Morosco also planned to build an art museum where all the artists would exhibit their work, and a swimming pool that was a duplicate of a Roman bath. His development would feature a shopping district with gowns direct from France and “no cheap dance halls of other shoddy amusement features.” He said got the idea while driving around L.A. in the summer, and he thought the existing architecture was “unimaginative, lacking in distinctive color.” So he wanted to copy buildings from other places, with streets duplicating distinctive blocks in France, Italy, Spain, Russia and New York City. He also wanted to use those streets as permanent sets for his proposed new Oliver Morosco film studio. He announced that he already had millions of dollars from “active business leaders” of Los Angeles behind him, and building was to begin the first week of January. The article concluded: “In short, Morosco’s Greenwich Village will be a dream city within its own walls; and it should prove a splendid art center for Los Angeles, as well as a unique place of entertainment and high-class business resort.”

Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro

You’ve probably already spotted a big problem: Bohemias grow from cheap rent, not developer’s plans, and replicas like Epcot and some Las Vegas hotels have no pretentions to art. A cranky and unsigned opinion piece appeared in the L.A. Times two days later pointing this out:

Oliver Morosco and his millionaire backers will probably succeed in building a Los Angeles replica of Greenwich Village on their twenty-acre tract out at Melrose and Western avenues; it will be a dilettante’s paradise, not a new Bohemia. For the real Bohemia has no more in common with opulence and luxury than sculpture with street cleaning. Bohemia is not a suburb and cannot be…Successful artists might incline to a life in a Greenwich Village and dilettantes might swarm there like files to a honey pot, but there are not enough millions in the Federal Treasury to build in Los Angeles or elsewhere a “new Bohemia.”

Despite this drawback, the project seemed to go well at first. On February 27th, the Times reported that while building hadn’t started yet, they had opened a sales, leasing and rental office on the corner of Western and Melrose. The syndicate of Oliver Morosco and unnamed “Los Angeles capitalists and merchants” had signed two contracts to construct commercial buildings: a store on the corner of Western and Marathon, and a series of artist’s studios based on Parisian Latin quarter studios. The article said they’d had 125 applications for space from “merchants and amusement purveyors,” and they had plans to build a Swiss chalet and a woman’s club building. The name of the development had been changed to Moroscotown.

Vanity Fair, September 1921

However, by September, still nothing had been built. That month, ads ran in Vanity Fair for stock in the company (Morosco’s business associates were later jailed for mail fraud because of this) and they sold off a prime parcel to restaurateur Morrie Rauch. On November 6th, Morosco announced that he wanted to sell the rest of the land. From New York, he ordered his business manager via telegram: “Close out my present Moroscotown holdings immediately as tract is not big enough for greater and more magnificent Moroscotown.” So the project never got far enough off the ground to be part of the fantastic Never Built L.A. museum exhibit.

Oliver Morosco

Oliver Morosco had such a track record of success, it’s not surprising he thought he could make Moroscotown work. Born Oliver Mitchell in 1875, when he was six he became an acrobat to help support his family after his father deserted them. He was discovered by San Francisco theater owner Walter Morosco, who became his foster father and gave him a job in his ticket office. With the his financial support, in 1899 young Morosco took over the struggling Burbank Theater in downtown Los Angeles and made it a huge success by producing new plays instead of old standards. He was able to send the successful ones, like Peg O’ My Heart, to the east coast, which earned him the name “The Oracle of Broadway.” In 1908 he started acquiring a chain of theaters along the West Coast, beginning with the Majestic, also in downtown. In 1913 he built one himself, calling it the Morosco, and in 1917 he built another namesake theater in New York City. He also founded a film production company in 1914, the Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company, which became a subsidiary of Famous Players-Lasky in 1916.

Unfortunately, 1920 was the pinnacle of his career; he went bankrupt in February 1926. The New York Times reported that the failure of Moroscotown was only part of his problems. He’d lost 2 million dollars in that stock swindle, “as well as long drawn out and costly marital troubles, ventures in theatrical productions and real property for theatrical purposes, along with an occasional display of poor judgment concerning the value of a play, were the causes, it was said, of his complete financial smash.” In conclusion: “for the last four years practically everything attempted by Mr. Morosco to raise his fallen fortunes has failed.”

After he went bankrupt, he tried to write and produce plays, but nothing succeeded. He died August 25, 1945, after being hit by a streetcar in Los Angeles.

Surprisingly, nobody has written a biography about him. Such a rags to riches to rags story seems ripe for the telling.


“Active Work to be Started,” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1921.

Morosco, Oliver. The Life of Oliver Morosco: The Oracle of Broadway Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers,1944.

“Morosco Bankrupt, His Debts $1,033,404.” New York Times, February 19, 1926.

“Morosco Soon to Build,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1921.

“Novel Café for Western Avenue,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1921.

“Plan Expansion of Greenwich Village,” Los Angeles Herald, January 8, 1921.

Rasmussen, Cecilia. “A Three-Hankie Tale of Dashed Dreams,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1998.

“To Sell Out Interests in Moroscotown,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1921.


Movies Are Good For You: Week of December 18th, 1920

The International Reform Bureau

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that reformers were bothering Hollywood again, and Samuel Goldwyn, president of the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, had something to say about it:

He has sent the following telegram to the Rev. Wilber F. Crafts, superintendent of the International Reform Bureau, Washington, D.C., which is seeking to take the sun out of Sunday by closing motion-picture theaters and prohibiting other forms of amusement. The Goldwyn wire says:

“The movement to close motion-picture theaters on Sunday, fostered by your organization, is a dangerous encroachment on the liberties of the people, and is an effort to take away from them beneficial entertainment. I maintain that motion pictures have a tremendous influence for good on the public.

I ask you in all fairness to reflect for a minute on the motion pictures, which you may have seen. Is it not a fact that right and virtue triumph in every photoplay?

The basis of all drama is that the sympathy of the audience must be aroused, and this can be done only by a sympathetic (that is a good) character. A thousand moralists in a thousand lectures could not drive home their lessons with as much force as these film stories.”

In addition to the usual argument that people should be able to decide for themselves how to spend their Sundays, I was surprised to learn that Goldwyn, just like Roger Ebert, thought that film is an empathy machine. Movies are good for you! Goldwyn really wanted to get their attention: that was one expensive telegram (I couldn’t find out what the per-word rate was in 1920, but they weren’t cheap). Sharing it with the newspaper made them notice, too.

Wilbur F. Crafts

However, no matter how excellent Goldwyn’s argument was, he wasn’t going to sway Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts, who, with his lobbying firm the International Reform Bureau, had been advocating various kinds of reform for 27 years. According to Crafts’ New York Times obituary, he had “an influential part in enacting prohibition, of laws to restrict the use of narcotics and of legislation of a similar nature…To the general public Dr. Crafts was, of course, best known for his attacks on popular amusements. Screen vampires, close dancing, ‘joy rides,’ which he said ‘often proved a ride of lifelong shame and woe;’ Sunday baseball, and cigarettes were a few of the objects of his tireless reforming zeal.” He had long opposed any amusements on Sundays; his book The Sabbath for Man was published in 1884 and had been reprinted in many editions. Since 1915, the IRB had occasionally called for film censorship, but late in 1920 he decided to go all in against films.

Of course, it wasn’t just Goldwyn’s telegram against Sunday closings. On January 1st, the Exhibitors’ Herald reported the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America and the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry joined together to fight the IRB. William A. Brady, president of the NAMPI, gave them a statement about

the small self-appointed guardian angels who have taken it upon themselves to endeavor to regulate and set to their own satisfaction the minds, morals and mode of life of this commonly considered free country… By what right does the International Reform Bureau propose to dictate to the American worker how he shall spend the one day in the week that he has to himself for pleasure? The members of the bureau are simply profiteering in morality, attempting to force their narrow-gauge views down the throats of the public, which is not paying enough attention to its personal liberty.

The industry tried to mollify Crafts by inviting him to a meeting of the NAMPI. He did go, and on March 5th, 1921, they came to an agreement: he would stop lobbying Congress and they would self-regulate, adopting thirteen standards for photoplays. Crafts promptly reneged and started lobbying for even more control over the industry.  He urged Congress to pass a bill licensing all producers, distributors and exhibitors of film, putting them under the supervision of an Interstate Motion Picture Commission, just as the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated railroads. According to an interview he gave to Exhibitors’ Herald, that Commission would not only close theaters on Sundays but would also censor the stories, set admission prices, and approve advertising, “every step of production, distribution and exhibition would be carefully supervised.”

In a later interview with the Exhibitors’ Trade Review, Crafts said that he originally wanted Congress to introduce the bill for the Commission in Fall, 1921, but he decided to wait until later, because pending tax and tariff bills were more important. The bill never got introduced, and Crafts died of pneumonia on December 27, 1922, aged 73. Rev. Robert Watson took over leading the IRB, but there’s no evidence it continued after 1923. Other groups took up the film industry reform cause. However, it’s interesting that there were reform movements just before the big scandals that are usually credited with inflaming reformers, like the Arbuckle case and the Taylor murder.

Christmas was just a few days away, and it sounds like Kingsley had enough of the festive season already:

If some day you’ve been traveling through the desert of late Christmas shopping, buying things you don’t want to, for friends who don’t want them, until, parched and weary, your feet and head both aching, and yourself feeling as though you would like to hurl the gifts you have purchased at your dear friends’ heads, while you exclaim, “Take your darned old present!”—don’t despair. There’s at least one spot in town where you can enter the enchanted portals and drink of the refreshing fountain of real romance and comedy.

Grauman’s is the name of the oasis, and the title of said enchanting fountain is The Charm School, which is the freshest, most whimsical little comedy you ever saw. Added to which it has those two delightful (please excuse the old word—had to shop in the basement for adjectives today) troupers, Wallace Reid and Lila Lee in the leading parts.

The picture’s a capital comedy about a young man who inherited a young ladies’ school…After he gets it all running nicely with all the parents romping in to enroll their daughters, a will is found which shows he doesn’t own the school after all. But he does have a chance to run a string of banks on the strength of his success so all’s sweetness and light after all.

We can’t go out shopping this year, don’t need to worry about exhausted friends hurling unwanted presents at our heads, or even watch The Charm School (it’s lost) but I’m glad to be reminded that not everything about the usual holiday season is wonderful. Have a safe and healthy holiday!

“Crafts Outlines His Scheme for Government Control of Motion Picture; Says Bill Has Backing of Rockefeller Foundation,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, October 8, 1921, p.1292a.

“Declarations of Reformers Arouse Industry and Public,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 1, 1922, p. 35.

“Dr. Wilbur F. Crafts, Crusader, Dies At 73,” New York Times, December 28, 1921.

“Herald to Supply Slides for Public Rights League,” Exhibitors’ Herald, October 15, 1921, p.45.

“Industry Splits with Reformer,” Motion Picture World, April 2, 1921, p.464.

“Reform Bureau Determined to Establish Dictatorship Over Entire Film Industry,” Exhibitors’ Herald, April 16, 1921, p.35l

Bon voyage!: Week of December 11, 1920

Mary Hamilton O’Connor

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley attended a farewell party for the latest Hollywood studio staff member joining the stampede to Europe:

A whole roomful of literary celebrities foregathered last night at the Los Angeles Athletic Club to give a farewell dinner party in honor of Mary O’Connor, head of the Lasky-Famous Players scenario department, on the eve of her departure for Europe, where she will oversee pictures for her company, which will be made in England, Spain, Italy and France. The dinner was given by the Screen Writers’ Guild of the Authors’ League of America. Brilliant writers made brilliant speeches.

Unsurprisingly, the best of those speeches was made by screenwriter Anita Loos reading a burlesque scenario entitled The Hereditary Taxidermist, “which had the true Loos tang.” It’s almost frightening to think what that movie would have been like — taxidermy as entertainment? 

Mary Hamilton O’Connor was one of many successful female screenwriters at the time. Born in 1872, she had worked as a journalist and novelist before she was hired by the studio her actress sister Loyola worked for, Vitagraph, in 1913. She went on to write scenarios for Mutual and Triangle, where in 1917 she became the head of the scenario department. In 1918 she moved to Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount). So she was there when they needed help in their London office. *

Just like most of the other nomads, it was temporary assignment. She came back to Los Angeles in September 1921 and gave Kingsley a full report. Film production had really bounced back after the war.

It seems that Pathe is pounding away at picture making in Paris, Berlin, represented by the Ufa, is scuddling along with their costume plays, and English producers are awakening to the need of taking film production seriously…

In Paris, Miss O’Connor declares, the Pathe Company is making wild western pictures to satisfy the French thirst for that form of drama. “The picture I saw was laid in 1912,” said Miss O’Connor. “It showed a miner’s shack located on Market Street in San Francisco! But little things like that evidently didn’t trouble the French director or audience. The story was a hectic one and had to do with bags of gold. These the hero and villain tossed back and forth like beanbags!”

She mentioned that she got to London in time to fix director Paul Powell’s plot problems with The Mystery Road, and she also wrote the screenplay for Dangerous Lies. But mostly she told Kingsley about her travels. She loved everything about London (especially the theater) except for the cold toast at breakfast. She said, “I feel I have only had a look in on it all; I would never expect to know London. I don’t believe anyone does…But the taxi drivers are wizards there. They give you one look and know which street you would like to be taken to!”

She got to meet J.M. Barrie, who was busy helping to prepare the script for Peter Pan, and she mentioned details only another writer would notice:

“Even if he weren’t Barrie he’d be interesting to know. He’s as modest as a violet and as canny as a thistle. His clothes are most unassuming. In fact, they say he hasn’t bought a new overcoat in seventeen years and the pockets of his trousers, where they had evidently become frayed, had apparently been mended by himself, with long, black stiches.”

Her time away didn’t hurt her career. She became the head of the story department at the Paramount Studio, where she stayed until they moved the job to New York in January 1926. She retired then, but she stayed active in the Screen Writers’ Guild. She died September 3, 1959 in Los Angeles.

Viora Daniel

This week, Kingsley interviewed up and coming actress Viora Daniel. The interview was a fairly standard one of a sweet ingenue happy to be in Hollywood, except for one story. When she was a teen, she was thrown by a horse and had to spend some time in a hospital where a kindly nurse read novels aloud to her–the sort her father wouldn’t allow at home. She told Kingsley that “they were of cultural value, she says, being mostly French.” Kingsley mentioned:

She insisted on getting the full value of the culture, too, so when the nurse skipped some stuff—Viora says she could always tell when the nurse was skipping—she’d manage to get the book and read those parts.

I didn’t realize there were such…educational? novels available in the 1910s!

*According to Liz Clarke on the Women Film Pioneers site, her family thought that the transfer meant she was “put out to pasture,” but that’s an awfully nice pasture, and her career continued undamaged for several years.

“Abandons Story Dept.,” Variety, January 20, 1926.

Grace Kingsley, “Europe Moves Pictureward,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1921.

“Mary O’Connor Back at Paramount Post,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1925.

All Aboard!: Week of December 4th, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley saw feature films whose annoyances ranged from “many holes in its logic” (The Master Mind) to “choppy and careless continuity” (West is West), but she could find no fault with the short she saw:

There’s a very delicious new type of comedy, to become a series I believe, called The Toonerville Trolley that Meets All Trains. It has an old rube driver of a funny suburban streetcar, who pulls teeth with the trolley, marries runaway couples, being also a justice of the peace, and is all-round handy man for the community. The very most delightful and novel idea the funmakers have produced in a long while.

Photo by Toonerville cameraman Portus Acheson, from the Betzwood Film Company Archive, Montgomery Community College Library

She was right: it did become a monthly series. Based on Fontaine Fox’s syndicated Toonerville Folks newspaper comic, the films starred veteran vaudevillian Dan Mason as the streetcar driver. While it wasn’t precisely innovative, gentle stories about daily life outside of cities were quite popular in the early 1920s; Tol’able David was to be a big hit in 1921.

Toonerville Folks (1917) by Fontaine Fox

What was particularly interesting about the Toonerville films is where they were made: the Betzwood Studios in West Norriton Township, Pennsylvania, twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. Not all film production had moved to Hollywood yet! Betzwood was built by film pioneer Siegmund Lubin in 1912 and was bought by the Wolf Brothers in 1917 after creditors seized it. They made Westerns there until 1919. When less realistic Westerns made in the East became less profitable, they decided to try comedies. They hired Fontaine Fox and he wrote some scripts and came to Pennsylvania to supervise the filming. According to historian Joseph P. Eckhardt, the first Toonerville films were a critical and commercial success. However, it was hard to maintain their quality and competition in film comedy was fierce (they were up against people like Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton), so after seventeen films, the company folded. Only seven of them are known to survive and Meets All the Trains isn’t one of them.

Nevertheless, the company’s records have been preserved at the Montgomery County Community College Library. Eckhardt and his collaborators College Archivist Lawrence Greene, Emerging Technologies Librarian Jerry Yarnetsky and Film archivist Katherine Pourshariati have created an excellent website, where you can learn more about Lubin, tour the Betzwood Studios, and see one of the surviving Toonerville films (unfortunately, according the Eckhardt, it isn’t one of the best). Hooray for local historians and librarians!

Joseph P. Eckhardt, “Clatter, Sproing, Clunk, Went the Trolley,” Pennsylvania Heritage, Summer, 1992.

Joseph P. Eckhardt, “The Toonerville Trolley Films of the Betzwood Studio,” Griffithiana, May, 1995.