The Library of Congress presents: Almost Lost

FullSizeRenderAnd they truly are “almost lost”–only about 20% of the silent movies made in America survive. The Library of Congress is the largest repository for them. Every year for four years, they have put on a workshop at their building in Culpeper, Virginia [near Washington DC], where film historians, experts, collectors, and the general public (me!) are invited to spend three days watching snippets of unidentified silent movies. The goal is to identify them, by recognizing the actors or settings or style or date made.

I attended my first workshop last month and it was, to say the least, a hoot! Although I don’t have enough expertise to have made any profound contributions, I had a blast and learned a good many things that I can use in forthcoming Roaring Twenties mysteries.

One thing I learned is that the era of silent film features lasted a very short time, from 1912 to 1929. During those few years, about 11,000 silent features were made in America. Film historian David Pierce, who gave us a very entertaining lecture, has counted 2,749 titles that survive in complete form and another 562 that are incomplete. The rest are lost, due to carelessness (the movies seemed to have no value at the time), chemical deterioration, fire (the film was highly flammable), or thrift (the films contained traces of silver which had some value when melted down).

IMG_0142The workshop’s format is simple: in the mornings there are a couple of scholarly presentations followed by lunch, and then an afternoon of viewing bits of film, some just a few seconds long, others might be 14 minutes. The evenings are taken up with screening important silent features–that much is open to the general public. The workshop audience of about 125 people sits ready to shout out their observations: “Looks like early Pathe,” or “That’s Harry Depp,” or “No it’s not,” or “That looks more like Australia than southern California.” Twice we caught a glimpse of a calendar on an office wall, and someone shouted, “What year did December 1 fall on a Sunday?” A dozen computers clicked away until one 11-year-old boy called out, “1912,” and we had identified the film’s date.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, the opportunity to attend comes around again next June. The cost of the workshop, $60, covers three very nice lunches. Watch this space for news about the 2016 event. I’m hoping to attend again. Maybe next time, I’ll even make an observation!

 

Published in: on July 5, 2015 at 2:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Amazing Acro-Cats

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In my first Roaring Twenties book, THE IMPERSONATOR, I mentioned an act I called the Cat Circus. It had a young man named Walter who ran it, and one of Jessie’s friends, Angie, falls in love with Walter and leaves the act to join his Cat Circus. Angie and Walter appear briefly in the second book, SILENT MURDERS, when Angie helps send Jessie some information from Chicago, where the Cat Circus is playing. 

Well . . . I made up the act, of course, but here it is, the real thing–the Amazing Acro-Cats! They came to Richmond two weeks ago while I was, sadly, on vacation. When I saw the article in the newspaper, I immediately thought: Walter and the Cat Circus has come to town! The Acro-Cats have a female trainer, however. It’s Samantha Martin, and she has trained a dozen or more cats to do tricks (when they feel like it). Performances took place through June 21 at the Richmond CenterStage theater. See http://www.richmondcenterstage.com for details. Maybe they’ll return next year and I can see them. 

“The Amazing Acro-Cats are opening in Richmond today and, true to their name, their show features more than a dozen “amazing” cats performing acrobatics and tricks.
There’s Alley, who is a Guinness World Records holder for longest jump made by a cat; Tuna, leader of Rock-Cats, the world’s only cat band; and Sookie, who plays the chimes, to name a few.
The show is the brainchild of Samantha Martin, Chief Executive Human of The Amazing Acro-Cats, who trained all of her show cats — and rescued them all as well.
“I’ve been training animals since I was 10,” Martin said. “I started training the family dog.”
A lifelong animal lover, Martin said she started asking for a cat as soon as she was old enough to talk.
Cats, however, weren’t how the Chicago-based trainer got her start.
“I started training rats,” she said. “When I got out of college and moved to Chicago, I started my training business with rats” for television and film performances.
It was a fortuitous pet rescue, 10 years ago, that led Martin to cat training. “A very special cat came into my life,” she said.
So Martin made the shift from rats to cats. “Cats are actually the second-most requested animal” for movies and TV, she said. “You have to keep them working. Keep them socialized.”
Putting on a performance when her cats weren’t booked for TV or film kept their skills sharp, Martin said. But it wasn’t always easy.
“The show was a disaster in the early days. I was trying to figure out how to get these cats to do what I needed them to do. Cats are a little bit unpredictable. If someone showed up to a show with balloons — or if a clown showed up, the cats would be like, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” she said.
That’s why Martin introduced a chicken into the show. Yes, a chicken. Chickens, apparently, are much better behaved than cats, so if a show starts to go south, Martin knows she can bring out the chicken and save the day.
These days she’s on her third chicken, Cluck Norris, who plays the cymbals and tambourine in the Rock-Cats rock band, but a chicken has been part of The Amazing Acro-Cats since the very beginning.
The chicken even travels along with Martin and her 14-plus cats on their 35-foot-long tour bus. But don’t worry; everyone gets along.
“If anything, the chicken messes with the cats,” Martin said.
And there have been a lot of cats.
In 2009, Martin started fostering cats in addition to her regular performers. She was looking to add another performer, so she fostered a litter of kittens to see which one worked out. For the rest, she helped find their “forever homes.”
It’s a trend she continues — fostering whole litters of kittens and taking them on the road, hoping to find adoptive families for the animals after the shows.
In fact, in four years Martin has found “forever homes” for more than 150 cats and kittens — all of which come complete with some basic training from Martin.
“Every cat can be trained to do something,” she said.
Martin builds her show around that philosophy, working with each cat’s existing personality to develop performances.
“Some cats have different energy. I train active cats to do active things; cats that like to use their paws get trained for paw tricks. Some cats just like to do the bare minimum,” she said.
For Martin, training is an essential part of cat ownership. And she starts all of her cats off with one simple trick — one that could save their life one day: getting into their carrier.
To do this, Martin uses a whistle and then rewards the cat with a treat — semisoft chewables — when it gets inside.
“It usually takes three training sessions to get them to go in there,” she said.
For the rest of their training and for the shows, Martin uses a clicker — and treat rewards. Soft treats at home and the good stuff — boiled chicken, salmon or tuna — for live shows.
Under Martin’s training — and as part of the Acro-Cats show — these amazing cats walk tightropes, skateboard, jump through hoops, ring bells and balance on balls — when they’re not rocking out in their cat band (plus one chicken), which is the finale of the show.
The Acro-Cats show is basically live-action adorable cat Internet video-watching — and proof positive that if you can’t train your personal house cat, you might not be trying hard enough.
Running through June 21, the full show is one hour — 35 minutes of performance (“due to the short attention spans of these performers”) followed by a meet-and-greet. But face it, 35 minutes of trained performance is 35 minutes more than you’ve ever gotten out of your cat.”

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Impersonator audiobook–FREE!

51mqUstf5iL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_Did you know that June is National Audiobook Appreciation Month? Me neither, but now that someone told me, I can use it as a good excuse to give away an audiobook copy of THE IMPERSONATOR. It’s a 9-CD issue that takes the talented professional actress, Tavia Gilbert, 11 hours to read aloud–if you want a sample, the amazon.com page let’s you hear her read part of a chapter. To enter the contest, go to my web page http://www.marymileytheobald.com and click on SUBSCRIBE to add your email address to my newsletter list. I’ll choose a winner on July 10 from that list.

Published in: on June 15, 2015 at 6:09 am  Comments (1)  
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Describing Men’s Clothing

tennis-game-with-charlie-chaplin-and-douglas-fairbanks-1349762749_bI have several fashion books that help me when I need to describe a male character’s clothing, the best of which, in my opinion, is American Costume 1915-1970. I don’t aspire to give long descriptions, because I think such things detract from the action, but whenever I can use clothing to give a sense of the era (1926), I do.

When my male characters are working, they wear suits: sack suits with straight lines, wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. That alone should give a dated image. For variety, I use double-breasted jackets, which were popular. Trousers were full, even floppy, and often pleated. The width of the bottom could be as much as 24 inches!

For casual, sporty dressing, young men liked pullover sweaters and knickers were popular. In one scene in Silent Murders, Douglas Fairbanks is playing tennis with Charlie Chaplin at Pickfair, and I have the men dressed accordingly. Pictures like this one help a lot! (Douglas is holding the tennis racket; Charlie is clowning around, as usual. Here’s what I wrote: 

A shout from below signaled the end of the tennis match, and fifteen minutes later, Douglas Fairbanks and his best friend, Charlie Chaplin, sauntered up to the patio, no longer dressed in tennis whites but sporting linen knickers, trim V-neck sweater vests, and matching bow ties, and still arguing amiably about the score.  (from Silent Murders)

Published in: on June 8, 2015 at 10:02 am  Leave a Comment  

I’ve gone to Jail

Yes, it’s true. I’ve gone to jail. My first time . . . and it took a bit of doing to find it!

I’ve started volunteering at the Richmond City jail (properly known as the Justice Center) where I am teaching writing to 13 male inmates. My first class was this week. 

new-justice-center-jan-21-2012

The list of rules for visitors was a bit of a surprise. Not the part about not bringing in any weapons, drugs, or food–that was rather obvious. But I was surprised that there was a rule against wearing see-through blouses (Darn! Just what I’d planned to wear!) and sandals (Explain that one to me, please.) No dangly jewelry, like earrings or necklaces, no spiral notebooks (wire), no hardcover books (heavy and hard). The only thing a visitor can bring inside is a picture ID, which is left at the desk, and car keys. 

I was pleased to see that my students are at a level roughly akin to what I saw in my U.S. History survey classes at VCU (largely freshman). No one needs the really basic stuff, thank goodness. Of course, these men were carefully selected and are probably not typical of the general prison population. Still, it’s a luxury to have eager students who are well positioned to take advantage of whatever help I can give them. My only goal, as I told them, is that their writing improves. We aren’t fussing with grades or tests. This is all about getting better at expressing themselves.

Will this volunteer work help my writing about murder mysteries in the Roaring Twenties? Probably not, although it can’t hurt being exposed to an incarcerated population that is not that different from the general population. Stay tuned . . . 

 

Published in: on May 25, 2015 at 3:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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Men’s Hairstyles: Why I Avoid the Subject in my Mysteries

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino

I don’t go into men’s hairstyles much in my mysteries, because the subject is such a turn-off to today’s reader. Why? Because men usually parted their hair or combed it back in a pompadour, or both, and to hold this look, they used liberal amounts of hair oil, Brilliantine, or Vaseline. Yuck! 

 

Here are some examples: 

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks

Jack Pickford

Jack Pickford

 

Refrigerators or Ice Boxes?

When I wasn’t sure if my Roaring Twenties characters should own refrigerators or iceboxes, I did some research. Iceboxes had been around for decades before the 1920s and were common in middle-class homes. These were, literally, boxes with a bottom door (or two or more) for food and a top compartment lined with tin for the block of ice. The ice compartment had a tube that drained the melted water down to a pan on the floor, which of course had to be emptied periodically, usually every day. The ice box had hollow walls that were insulated with cork, sawdust, or straw. They came in all sizes and some were quite fancy, like a piece of furniture, with carved oak exteriors. An ice man delivered ice blocks to the home every few days.

geRefrigerators were available in the 1920s thanks to the introduction of electricity in the home. General Electric supposedly produced the first motor-driven refrigerator in 1911. But . . . the motors were noisy and not attached to the unit. This didn’t interest many people, since the ice box was silent and relatively inexpensive. Frigidaire produced a better model in 1923, and there were some sold to wealthy consumers, but not many. Refrigerator sales didn’t really take off until after World War II. So I have my characters using ice boxes. Except for David, the rich ex-bootlegger, who has an electric refrigerator in his house–and a radio too! He’s the sort to spend on newfangled technology. 

I came across this statistic: in 1920 there were 10,000 refrigerators made. Five years later, there were 75,000 made. The big boost in sales came as more homes were wired for electricity and more families became prosperous enough to afford new technology. (This was also the era for the introduction of vacuum cleaners, toasters, washing machines, and other electrical appliances.)

Iceboxes came in many sizes, so prices aren’t easily comparable, but a 1923 ad for a white, enamel lined ice box was $27.95, and a larger steel one that held 100 pounds of ice was $56.95. Here’s another: 1920srefrigerator

How Much Did They Earn?

32221u_0.previewI’ve been looking at job advertisements from the 1920s in order to learn about salaries, and have been amazed at the wording used during those years. Of course, everyone knows women were paid less than men and that interviewers could ask questions that are not permitted today, still, I was amazed to read some of the Want Ads. Like this one, for a woman:

Wanted: Stenographer and typist with knowledge of bookkeeping, 18-19 years of age . . . give previous experience and state religion. $18/ week to start. 

Compare to this job, posted in the same year:

Wanted: Young man stenographic position in executive office, large corporation, $125/month.

imagesTens of thousands of women worked as telephone operators. In the early 1920s, they earned $20/ week in Chicago. Probably less in small towns. 

This is just the sort of information I can use in my books to provide historical background. 

Makeup in Silent Movies

220px-ChaneyPhantomoftheOperaYou’ve seen silent movies where the actors had pasty white faces, dark black lipstick, and looked positively ghoulish. And it wasn’t even a horror flick! Why was makeup so bad back then? Why didn’t they use a more natural look?

A combination of lighting factors, film types, and makeup availability made movie makeup tricky. First, the type of black-and-white film in general use before the mid-1920s made blues register white and reds and yellows register black. So a cloudy blue sky would look solid white; blue eyes would look eerily white; red lipstick would look black. Second, faces without makeup appeared dark or dirty on film, so actors used a whitening material called whiteface (like blackface, which was burnt cork, was used to make them look like caricatures of African Americans). Think of clowns and mimes, but lighter. Mary Pickford is credited with being one of the first stars to use makeup in a more natural manner, but even she, with beautiful skin, resorted to whiteface for the camera. Pickford curls

Throughout most of the silent picture decades, actors and actresses–even stars–applied their own makeup, so you see a good deal of variation. Much of the makeup had to be developed and mixed by the actor. There was little in the way of commercially available makeup. Makeup experts were gradually introduced into the film industry, at first for extras who didn’t know what to do, and later for the stars as their skills grew.

 

Published in: on April 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm  Comments (3)  

Not the Usual Way to Use Pinterest

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When the Apple Genius at our local Apple store described me to another Apple Genius as “extremely challenged,” I realized I would never be part of the computer generation. After all, I don’t like for Facebook, can’t stand Twitter, and am baffled by Goodreads; however, I do understand Pinterest. Or, at least, I understand how I can use it to support my mysteries. I’ve illustrated my books via Pinterest.impersonator

My novels are set in 1924-1925, a time no one alive remembers–even those who, like my own parents, were born in the Roaring Twenties don’t remember that era, because they were too young. And many people haven’t been to Oregon and can’t visualize the unique Oregon coast, with its amazing sea caves, immense rocks, and agate beaches. Vaudeville is virtually a lost medium–the closest thing to it is the Ed Sullivan Show, which is itself too far back for most people today to remember. So how to overcome issues like this? Pinterest.

colorWith Pinterest, I’ve posted photos of Jack Benny, before he was called Jack Benny, when he was young and handsome. I’ve posted pictures of vaudeville children who looked like Jessie, my main character, would have looked when she performed on stage; pictures of the mercury bichloride and Veronal, drugs which poisoned several of my characters; pictures of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Myrna Loy, and other silent film actors as they appeared in the 1920s; pictures of cloche hats, period makeup, bobbed hair styles, cars of the mid-Twenties, and houses where the stars lived; and the Hollywoodland sign as it originally looked. So many pictures . . . I suspect this isn’t the way Pinterest was intended to be used, but it works for me and my readers. Have a look. And let me know what I missed: is there something else you read about in the book that you think I could illustrate on these pages?

Illustrations for THE IMPERSONATOR at https://www.pinterest.com/mmtheobald/jessies-world-the-impersonator/

Illustrations for SILENT MURDERS at https://www.pinterest.com/mmtheobald/jessies-world-silent-murders/

Published in: on April 6, 2015 at 7:15 pm  Comments (4)  
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