Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Monrovia Feature Film Company Comes to Town

Just installed sculpture - "Action!"
As we mentioned in our last post, we are so excited about our new piece of public art..."Action!" which commemorates Monrovia's longstanding connection to the motion picture industry. Over the past few months, we've been thinking and thinking about how to celebrate this cool new addition to the streetscape of Old Town...the  Monrovia way?

Well, tie it into our history of course!  So with that modicum of direction, Guest Blogger Penny (GBP for short), ran with it and dug deep into the archives of the Monrovia Daily News using her super-sleuthing skills to find out the real scoop.  We'll be running this feature as a serial over the next few weeks.

So without further adieu (and a catchy title), here is the first episode...

Once upon a time, in a little town east of Hollywood...Monrovia was caught up in a wave of excitement about the film making industry. It was just over 100 years ago, in the fall of 1915.  

If one were to believe the headlines of the Monrovia Daily News from a century ago, our city was poised to become the next big film capital and would rival the recently established Universal Studios which had opened in March 1915.  The first front page mention of the possibility of the establishment of the Monrovia Feature Film Company appears on September 2, 1915.  Four officers of the proposed company—McGroarty, Kabierske, Grafton and Francisco—scheduled a meeting inviting men of Monrovia to attend the Granite Club and hear their exciting plans to build a film studio on Gold Hill at the top of Myrtle Avenue.  

Practically every day in September more headlines about the film company would appear on the front of the local newspaper.  The very next day—September 3, 1915—a headline announced “Monrovia Film Company Is Assured—Sale Contract Signed Today” with the accompanying article mentioning the potential tourist profit available when a film company is established in a town.  The deal was for a 154 acre tract known as Diamond Flats.  J.H. Bartle and F.J. Cornes sold the land for $35,000.  

The article went on to suggest that a mere thousand dollar investment could transform Monrovia into a destination with a working film studio as well as an animal farm and other activities for visitors.  (Sounds like Universal Studios to us!)  Oh, and by the way $1,000 in 1915 is equal to $23,418.32 in 2016 dollars!  

This is the first subtle appeal for funding of this company—later appeals would be more to the point.   Just one day later, the city’s rumor mill was whipped into a frenzy as a headline suggested that a second film company--Eclat Films--was investigating establishing their film company at the south end of Myrtle.  

Watch out Hollywood!

Well, nothing seems to come of this and we could find no films produced by Eclat Films.  Apparently the folks at Eclat were unable to raise the $10,000 subscription they had hoped and packed their bags and were not to be heard from again.

With that little distraction out of the way, we'll get back to the story at hand.

The four officers of the Monrovia Feature Film Company have interesting pedigrees and the MFFC was a natural outcome of the prior crossover in their careers.  John S. McGroarty was a poet, editor of West  Coast Magazine (published by Grafton), author of the Mission Play in 1911, and went on to become a two term state senator and California’s poet laureate.  The home he designed and built in Tujunga is now the McGroarty Arts Center.  He authored a book titled California: Its History and Romance which was published by Grafton Publishing, and would go on to become the basis for the MFFC’s first feature film titled The Argonauts of California-1849.  His day–to-day relationship with the MFFC appears to be minimal as little is mentioned about him again in the newspapers. 

Henry Kabierske was born in Germany and had already been quite successful as a pageant master—basically he organized and directed large parades. After some success with European pageants, Kabierske emigrated to the US and found fame with the Philadelphia Historical Pageant.  In 1911 he directed a pageant in San Diego at the groundbreaking of the Panama-California Exposition which included floats of all 21 missions and over a thousand volunteers in costume representing Native Americans, soldiers, friars and saints, oh my.  He was hand-picked by McGroarty  to direct the Mission Play in San Gabriel—a historic play that told the story of the establishment of the missions in California.  It was specifically for this play that the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse was built. 

Kabierske would direct the MFFC’s two photoplays—as films were called in 1915—Argonauts of California-1849 and Daughter of the Don.   Of interesting note—his daughter Gertrude Kabierske (sometimes she was credited as Gertrude Kaby) was one of the leads in Argonauts.  But alas, an acting career was not in her future.

And in fact, his directing career would be concluding.  He would direct one more photoplay - The Vigilantes - in 1918 also staring his daughter Gertrude.  This second film was not produced by MFFC, but by a new film company he organized called Empire Films.  Soon After the completion of the film, Henry Kabierske died suddenly in 1918.

Was it murder? A broken heart over the end of his daughters acting career?What happened to the rest of the MMFC officers?  

Stay tuned to find out the answers to these questions and more...