History Museum Looks Back at Movies Before Hollywood

Tom Nix makes his move for the heroine in a silent film shot in front of what today is the Pasadena Museum of History, the Fenyes Mansion.Brad MacNeil (Education Program Coordinator at Pasadena Museum of History) with performer/lecturer Galen WilkesSheryl Peters acting as Leonora Muse CurtainGalen Wilkes performs as silent movie rollsD. W. Griffiths 1912 \'The Queen\'s Necklace\' being filmed at the Fenyes MansionGalen Wilkes enthralled the audience with tales of the movies before HollywoodHarry Carey in a scene from the 1915 \'Renunciation\'Douglas Fairbanks (center) in a movie shot at on the grounds of Pasadena\'s Fenyes Mansion

by RACHEL YOUNG | Photography by RACHEL YOUNG and Courtesy PASADENA MUSEUM OF HISTORY

7:03 am | February 22, 2013


Ever wondered where the name Nickelodeon came from? What about the phrase “in the lime light” or silver screen?

Galen Wilkes, a historical entertainer who specializes in silent films, detailed those factoids and more in his presentation of the movie-going scene before films were even called “the movies” at the Pasadena Museum of History on Thursday.

Wilkes accompanied a showing of the 1912 silent “When Kings were Law” by master filmmaker D. W. Griffith with a lively original piece he composed to complement the melodrama that was actually shot in Pasadena on the grounds of the Museum’s headquarters, the Fenyes Mansion, the site of the Thursday event.

“Its actually kind of exciting to be here knowing that a Griffith film was shot a few yards from here,” Wilkes said.

The crowd seemed to thoroughly enjoyed the 17-minute film, bursting out with belly laughs at the overly dramatic actors.

Dorothy Bernard, the female lead, was captivating with her emotional display as she swooned over men, was taken hostage, nearly fell over with frustration and came out punching the king, at the end only to be won over by his love.

“Leonora Muse Curtain,” daughter of Eva Fenyes—the lady of the mansion on the museum site—made a surprise visit to the event. Actress Sheryl Peters delighted the crowd with her grace and poise as she recounted stories of when she, as Leonora, attended the motion pictures at the Clunes Theatre in Pasadena in 1915.

“Well I know I’ve just told you the entire story, but really Mr. Griffith is not known for the complexity of his plots, it’s how he tells the story that’s what makes it, don’t you think?” Leonora asked after an animated telling of his film “The Birth of a Nation.”

In the days before Hollywood people would attend a Nickelodeon, the five-cent theatres that brought the motion pictures to everyone for an affordable price. People would pay a nickel—or a turnip—for more than a silent film; an entire show was part of the movie-going experience. Live music would be correlated with hand-colored slides followed by news slides, educational reports, and a narrator who would explain everything the audience was watching.

Seeing a photograph come to life for the first time was a shocking experience for some. A few attendees were reported to have shot at the screen in attempts to help the characters.

The theaters could be a dangerous place, subject to fires and explosions. Film was made of a highly flammable substance and the projectors used highly combustible gas, creating a few disastrous evenings.

Early projectors had no electricity, but instead used something called limelight, which burned gas, mostly oxygen and hydrogen, to create an intensely bright flame to project the image at a distance. The lime was a calcium stick that glowed white hot, hence the phrase in the limelight.

Wilkes first fell in love with silent films in the early 1970s when he was in high school. He was enthralled with a series he saw about the silent films on PBS and thought “Who are these people playing this music and bringing these films to life?” He was so inspired he sought out the individuals who were still alive and interviewed them about what their careers were like.

“I really admired these people, and they were my first heroes really. So I wanted to learn how to do that,” Wilkes says.

Wilkes admires the old fashioned way of doing things. In the silent era, performers had to actually act out elaborate scenes such as the one in Way Down East in which Lillian Gish crosses a river that collapses and the ice breaks and she actually floats on the ice toward the falls.

“That would never happen today,” Wilkes says. “Knowing that, adds authenticity and aura of excitement about it… A lot of the things, they actually did though, chasing trains and what not. I mean, things that were pretty dangerous.”

Wilkes, who is not an improviser, says the whole process he has developed to research a silent film is labor intensive. He will study the films, time the film, and write his own music appropriate to that film. Wilkes spends much of his free time researching all the articles and archives of this era and has become quite an expert on the subject. Visit his website for more information or questions www.galenwilkes.tripod.com.

For more about the Pasadena Museum of History, see www.pasadenahistory.org .