Shakespeare a la 1920s

47702_smallI spent this past Friday night in Staunton, VA, at the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel ( and the Blackfriars Theater (, watching A Midsummer’s Night Dream. What does this have to do with the Roaring  Twenties? Nothing that I was prepared to see. Was I surprised!

The imaginative production of this familiar Shakespeare play included a rip-roaring intermission they called vaudeville–and it was exactly like a vaudeville show of the Twenties, only shorter. There were several acts, including jugglers, a tap dance, and others, with performers dressed in flapper dresses and Twenties male attire. The music, too, was spot on. Absolutely charming! The talent was terrific. And the beautifully restored hotel dates from 1924. 

exterior-pm-62001For a $218 package, a couple can stay in a lovely room in the historic hotel, enjoy a nice buffet breakfast and parking, plus two tickets to the Blackfriars Theater next door. An amazing bargain–top quality accommodations, great food, and some of the most energetic Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. I encourage you to look into this and consider a weekend in Staunton, VA (other outstanding museums include the Woodrow Wilson birthplace, just a block away (remember–Wilson was president in the Twenties), and the Frontier Culture Museum). There are always several plays on the schedule, so we plan to go back this coming winter. 1311324_6_b

Who were the most ardent supporters of Prohibition?









When I examine the spectrum of Prohibition supporters, the only conclusion I can draw is that it was a very odd group.

flo_klan1021_8colThe most ardent supporters of Prohibition included gangsters, the Anti-Saloon League, Methodists, Baptists, the Ku Klux Klan, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Coca Cola, and theater owners. These last hoped that emptying saloons would fill their theaters. It didn’t happen.


Published in: on November 14, 2015 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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Prohibition in Europe?


Prohibition is seen as a peculiarly American product. After all, no other country outlawed liquor. Or did they?

Interestingly, temperance and prohibition supporters were active in countries other than the United States. Several northern European countries, none of them Catholic, passed laws that restricted consumption of alcohol. Daniel Okrent in Last Call notes, “The new temperance laws included the issuance of individual “drinking licenses” in Sweden, the suspension of liquor sales in German industrial areas, and the suspension of all liquor sales in Iceland. . . . Norway and Finland would both have a form of Prohibition in place before the decade was over, and provincial Prohibition laws would sweep across all of Canada save for Catholic Quebec.”

nicholasromanovBut the most surprising, and amusing to my mind, was the decree issued by the clueless Czar Nicholas II in 1914 banning the sale of vodka throughout the Russian empire. No one paid any attention.


Little Annie Rooney Released

Little_Annie_Rooney_(1925)_Poster Mary Pickford’s Little Annie Rooney was release 90 years ago this month, in October of 1925. I am very familiar with this film because it was being filmed during the time my second and third mysteries, SILENT MURDERS and RENTING SILENCE, take place. One of the underlying themes–a young woman sacrificing herself for love–plays into the plot of my story, so the film was significant in several ways. 

It’s a classic Mary Pickford film that you can easily watch if you subscribe to Netflix. They have the best collection of silent films that I’ve found, so I go there often. As she often does, Miss Pickford plays a child, in this case, little Annie Rooney whose policeman father is killed in the line of duty. Here’s how I open the story in RENTING SILENCE (due for publication in 2016):

tumblr_le7yd87ONE1qzdvhio1_r6_1280Filming silent movies is noisy work—directors shouting instructions through megaphones, cameras grinding away like machine guns, studio musicians playing the mood from the corner—which is why I was perplexed when I walked onto the set of Little Annie Rooney that morning and found it frozen in silence. Actors, electricians, makeup artists, grips, carpenters, script girls, and cameramen stood motionless, as if drawing a deep breath would shatter a spell. Only one person gave life to the scene, and all eyes were on her. Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart” and the star of the film, was slowly pacing the edge of the set, her head down in fearsome concentration.

I looked to Director William Beaudine who motioned for me to stay where I was. He waited until Miss Pickford faced away from him before gliding to my side, so his movement wouldn’t distract her.

“A note said Miss Pickford wanted to see me on the set,” I whispered. “Maybe I’d better come back later?”

Tall and stick thin, Beaudine had to bend to get close to my ear. “Hang on a minute, Jessie. This is the last take before we break.”

One glance at the chalkboard in a young assistant’s hand raised my eyebrows. Sixteen takes? That was a lot, even for a perfectionist like “Re-take Mary Pickford.”

littleAnnieRooney-terra“I could strangle Rudolph Valentino,” the director whispered, almost to himself. “He barged in here, broke her concentration. She hasn’t—”

Miss Pickford stopped and lifted her chin. “I’m ready.”

The scene lurched to life. “Hit ‘em once!” shouted Beaudine and the set was instantly flooded with silvery light from an array of Kleigs, baby spots, and barrel lights. “Camera!” Cameramen cranked up their Mitchells, and the four studio musicians in the corner began playing a gloomy number to set the mood. They were shooting the tearjerker part, where Little Annie learns her policeman father has been killed in the line of duty.

MAGIC_LATERN_SLIDE_-_LITTLE_ANNIE_ROONEY-492x478As I watched, thirty-three-year-old Mary Pickford, playing a twelve-year-old girl, scampered out from her hiding place under the table, ready to surprise her beloved father with his birthday cake, only to find herself face to face with a policeman sent to deliver the tragic news. Her expression started at mischievous and slid rapidly past puzzlement, confusion, disbelief, denial, futile hope, and horror, only to end with heart-rending tears. It was an astonishing display of acting skill. In all my years in vaudeville, I had never seen the equal. No wonder she was the most famous actress in the world! I hoped everyone in the audience would have hankies in hand—I was misty-eyed myself. The scene reminded me all too forcefully of having been orphaned myself at the same age.  

“Cut! Good work, good work, everyone,” called Beaudine. “No more shooting for now, boys and girls. We’ll break for lunch, and well deserved it is.”

A Long-Lost Silent Film is Found

220px-Sherlock_Holmes_1916_2I attended Bouchercon in Raleigh this past week (the largest mystery author conference in the country) and learned many things . . . one I wanted to share is that a long-lost silent film, Sherlock Holmes (1916) had been discovered in France in 2014, recently restored, and is being screened for all to see on October 18 on the Turner Classic channel. This is a movie that stars William Gillette and was adapted from his stage production that toured the country in the late years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–supposedly he performed this play 1300 times! The story is a combination of 3 of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, and it is rather long. Gillette is considered responsible for much of the appearance we associate with Holmes, notably the deerstalker hat. 

So if you are a silent movie fan, you’ll want to pop some corn and sit back in a comfy chair and enjoy this visit to the past with me on Sunday, Oct. 18! 

Published in: on October 11, 2015 at 10:35 am  Comments (1)  
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Putting Those Grade-School Show & Tell Skills to Good Use!

In first grade I found my calling: Show and Tell. It was my best subject. And while my career goals morphed over the years from spy to teacher to curator to historian to writer, my fondness for Show and Tell never wavered. Today, whenever I give talks at libraries or museums, visit with book clubs, or attend author conferences, I bring along Stuff to augment my presentations. 

Stuff helps me connect to readers. It draws them to my table at a book fair or brings them up to the podium for a closer look after my lecture. Stuff sparks conversations and leads to unexpected interactions. Stuff helps paint a picture of my subject or characters or era.

Because I’m a historian and my mysteries are set in the past, most of my Stuff is historical. To illustrate my Roaring Twenties series, I’ve collected inexpensive items that relate to both period and plot: a dozen vaudeville programs, two 1925 beaded flapper dresses, several silent movie magazines and advertisements, a blown-glass fisherman’s float, a Prohibition-era prescription for “medicinal” alcohol, and most recently, an antique bottle of mercury bichloride (empty!), the poison that figures in my second book. Every time I prepare for a presentation, I choose two or three items that seem most relevant to the occasion. $(KGrHqZ,!owF!F0PPH!IBQI+UncFng~~60_3

Last weekend, I drove 500 miles to attend two events in Pennsylvania: a book club and a mystery author conference. The book club ladies loved my two beaded flapper gowns and vaudeville programs; mystery lovers at the conference got a kick out of the 1924 bottle of poison and the prescription for alcohol (which happened to be issued by a Pennsylvania physician in 1929, so it was particularly relevant). Scan 152760004 copy

If you’re an author, consider whether Stuff could help you reach more readers. Are there items that relate to your plot or time period that you can carry along to your next bookstore signing? Admittedly, this is easier for authors of historicals but even if your tale is set in the present or the future, consider what sort of Stuff you might bring to illustrate it. A paperweight? A wine glass? A piece of jewelry? A reproduction of the Rembrandt that the thieves stole? What about a model of a particular car, boat, or airplane that figures importantly in your story? Anything that would launch a conversation will help you connect. Many authors set a bowl of candy on the table to encourage people to pause . . . is there a particular consumable—candy, gum, teabags—that relates to one of your characters? I usually bring individually wrapped Charleston Chews because the name evokes the iconic dance fad and they were introduced in 1922. 

250px-CharlestonChewIt won’t work for every mystery author, but if Stuff works for you, it can set you apart from the others at the book fair and give you a smooth way to interact with potential readers.

Published in: on October 3, 2015 at 2:53 pm  Comments (2)  

Mary to give talk at VHS Downton Abbey Exhibit

Downtown-image2_mediumI’m delighted to have been asked to participate in the Virginia Historical Society’s program offered in conjunction with their Downton Abbey exhibit. I’ll be giving a lecture on the Roaring Twenties on Saturday, November 14 at 2:00 PM at the museum on 428 North Boulevard, Richmond, VA 23220. The unofficial title is Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. Members are free; other adults are $6; seniors $5; children $4.

“Mary Miley Theobald thinks the Roaring Twenties is the most fascinating decade in American history. In this lecture, she touches on some of the surprising things she learned about vaudeville, Prohibition, silent movies, and fashion while doing background research for her mystery novel series. Mary Miley Theobald is the author of several works of nonfiction, including Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, and First House: Two Centuries with Virginia’s First Families, and an award-winning mystery series set in the Roaring Twenties. Her novels include The Impersonator and Silent Murders.”

The exhibit “Dressing Downton” runs from Oct. 18 through January 10, 2016. Don’t miss it!

This October, Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times will be the first in a series of exhibitions to open in the new Virginia Sargeant Reynolds Gallery. Dressing Downton highlights fashion from one of the most widely watched television dramas in the world, Downton Abbey®. Follow your favorite characters, both upstairs and down; walk through a costume chronicle of the period in this traveling exhibition that showcases nearly 40 period costumes and jewelry from the hit series. Visitors will be able to explore the lives of Downton’s aristocratic inhabitants and their servants during the 1910s and 1920s. Altria Group is the proud sponsor of this dazzling exhibition, which is produced by Exhibits Development Group in cooperation with Cosprop Ltd., London. Downton™ and Downton Abbey®. ©2015 Carnival Film & Television Limited.

Published in: on September 27, 2015 at 8:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Get ’em while it’s still legal!


I came across this great photo of a bar during the last days before Prohibition became the law of the land. Don’t you love the fact that it’s all men? Women were seldom seen in bars before Prohibition. During Prohibition (1920-1933), when illegal speakeasies sprouted on every corner, men and women (and children, for that matter) could be seen drinking together. Without regulation, there was no, uhhh, regulation. Bribes to policemen, judges, bureaucrats, and politicians took care of that pesky law outlawing liquor.

Published in: on September 20, 2015 at 5:40 am  Comments (2)  

Traffic Jam in the 1923


Isn’t this a great picture? When people ask me about the research I do for my novels, I list the usual history books, scholarly articles, biographies, autobiographies, and novels written in the Twenties, and then I talk about how much I learn from watching silent movies made in the mid-1920s (ones that tell a contemporary story) and photographs. Here’s a perfect example. I use this one to help me accurately describe street scenes in the mid-1920s. I think it’s New York, and conditions were not so dire in other, smaller cities, but still . . . it gives you a sense of the time. Who knew gridlock has been around for so long!

Published in: on September 7, 2015 at 3:03 pm  Comments (1)  

Almost made a big mistake

MV5BMzU0NDkyMjEzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTcyMzEyMjE@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_Thanks to the Library of Congress silent movie workshop last spring, “Almost Lost,” I learned that in my fourth Roaring Twenties mystery, I had made a big mistake in describing Douglas Fairbanks’s filming of The Black Pirate. Luckily, that book hasn’t gone to press yet (and won’t–I’m still waiting for #3 to come out), so I could make the change. 

There is an underwater scene in the film with Douglas and lots of men swimming secretly out to the pirate ship to rescue the fair maiden. I was under the impression that it had been filmed on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles (and some scenes were filmed there), and I did a good bit of research to learn how cameramen in those days filmed under water–a tricky process before the days of waterproof cameras. That turned out NOT to be correct. So then I learned about the Williamson underwater filming process that was used in 20,000 Leagues MV5BMTQ0OTk3MTIzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDA5MjAwMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Under the Sea (1916). Underwater cameras were not used for that film. The Williamson brothers had developed a system of watertight tubes and mirrors, like an upside-down periscope, and were dependent on the clarity of water and sunshine to provide the necessary light. Then, at the workshop, I ran into a film historian who told me that wasn’t right either! Evidently, Douglas Fairbanks faked that scene. The swimmers were held in the air with harnesses and went through the motions of swimming under water. He told me his own collection included one of the harnesses. 

So I rewrote that part of the book, deleting most references to the underwater scene. You can see why I value this silent movie workshop so much. I plan to attend the 2016 event as well. 


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