Friday, September 2, 2016

Historic Photos of Boyle Heights: Fleishman's Cafe, ca. 1920s

The third photo purchased from Roger LeRoque, a local collectibles dealer, of rare Boyle Heights images is this one of a cafe, identified as Fleishmans, located on Brooklyn (now César Chávez) Avenue at Soto Street.

This simple place has about fifteen stools along an L-shaped counter and a very compact cooking space.  Three employees, two men and a woman, are behind the counter, with the young man at the far right appearing to be Latino.  A fourth man, wearing glasses, stands behind the glass cabinet behind the tall employee at the left.  A sign hanging over head indicates a "Quality Lunch" or that the restaurant may have been called "Quality Lunch Cafe."

A man and a woman sit on bar stools, as if they were customers, though there don't appear to be any place settings, tableware or glassware set up in the places.  But, the young woman behind the grill and griddle appears to be cooking up a pancake to put on the plate conspicuously raised in her left hand.  The tall man has a pie tin in his left hand and what appears to be a bill-like piece of paper in his left.

As far as equipment, next to the griddle and grill is a warmer.  In the back are shelves with stacked saucers and plates and the like, as well as a coffee maker, sink, cash register and the cabinet with glassware and other items in it.

Signs at the upper part of the back wall include one with dinner items, such as steaks and fried chicken for 25 cents, 40 cents for a small porterhouse steak, and pork chops for 30 cents--these came with potatoes, roll and butter.  The lunch menu included ham or roast beef, with beans or potatoes, for a quarter and three kinds of sandwiches for ten cents.  A slice of pie cost the same.  For breakfast, the sign's tough to make out, but pancakes and omelettes were on offer, the former for 10 cents.  A small sign also says meat balls and the price of 30 cents, and it is assumed that meant spaghetti and meat balls.

Behind the cafe set up is an area with a clock and at least two partially hidden signs, with one having a finger pointing down as if to a basement and the words "To" and "Mill" on it.  The other sign has the word "Information" on it.

This circa 1920s real photo postcard is labeled on the reverse, "Fleishman's Cafe / Brroklyn Ave at Soto / Boyle Heights / Los Angeles" and is from the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum collection.
As to the owners, the 1930 census does list a Joe Fleishman as a restaurant owner living at 2727 Winter Street, six blocks north of César Chávez and one block east of Mott, which is two blocks east of Soto, but the Los Angeles City Directory of that year shows Joseph Fleishman owning a restaurant at 218 E. 6th Street in downtown east of Los Angeles Street.  Perhaps he had two places?

The 50-year old native of Russia rented his house and lived there with his Sarah Kidder, and two sons, David and Jack.  David's profession was listed as waiter, so that may well be the tall man behind the counter in the photo.  Joseph immigrated to the United States in 1895 and his wife in 1900--both spoke Yiddish as their first language.  The two sons, 23 and 22, were born in Massachusetts.

The family, however, moved around quite a bit.  Not long after Joseph and Sarah came to America and had these two sons in Massachusetts, they headed west.  In 1910, the family was in Barthold, South Dakota, a rural area northeast of Rapid City and Joseph was listed as a farmer, with the two boys listed as Israel David and Jacob.  A decade later, the Fleishmans lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Joseph was listed as an egg candler (which was someone who tested eggs for quality) and the couple had two younger sons, Carl, 8, born in South Dakota, and Edward, 6, born n Minnesota.  This information pegs their move to the Twin Cities to be about 1913 or so.

It is not known why the two younger Fleishman sons were not with their family in the 1930 census.  During that decade the family moved to Venice and Joseph and Sarah were divorced by the next census, in 1940, which showed her living with three of the sons, Jack, Carl, and Edward in that location.  Joseph's whereabouts were unknown, but a 1939 Los Angeles City Directory listing had someone by that name living at 815 Blades Street, just a couple of blocks from where the family resided in 1930.

In any case, the photo is an interesting one and it does not appear the Fleishmans stayed in the restaurant game, which is a tough business, for very long.  Check back for more photos from this group soon.

Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Museum Director, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry, from which the photo came.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Historic Photos of Boyle Heights: A Store and Soda Fountain, 1916

This is the second in a series of historic photographs of Boyle Heights purchased from Roger LeRoque, a local collectibles dealer whose family resided in the neighborhood in the early to mid 1900s.

Today's image is a real photo postcard of what is described on inscriptions on the reverse as Klingenstein's, a store that sold candy, tobacco and had a soda fountain (as is obvious from the photo) and which was located near the intersection of Brooklyn (César Chávez) Avenue and Soto Street.

Further notes on the card detail the types of products sold in the store, including vanilla and strawberry ice cream from the Los Angeles Creamery Company; Y-B cigars; Owl 5-cent cigars; Welch's grape juice; Carnation malted milk; Wrigley's chewing gum; Velvet smoking tobacco; Old Mill cigarettes; and, on the barrel on the counter at the right, Dr. Swett's root beer.

Presumably, the jaunty gent, with his striped vest and tie, and the two ladies with him at the counter were enjoying a soda from the tap, which the woman at the right has her hand on.

This photo was taken on 20 August 1916 of a soda fountain and store said to have been near the intersection of Brooklyn (César Chávez) Avenue and Soto Street in Boyle Heights.  Courtesy of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum.
Jars with candy, steel tins, and cardboard boxes of goods line the back shelves and counter top, including some viewed through the mirror at the shelving along the wall behind the photographer.  Boxes of cigars are in a glass case behind the man, as well.  Note the young person (a boy?) standing next to that shelving as seen through the mirror.

Also of note is the two-light fixture hanging from the ceiling with one being a large, bare bulb and the other having a globular shade.  Next to the mirror at the center and at the upper right are other fixtures.

Next to the mirror are two calendars, one has the month and date of August 20, while the monthly to its right shows the year as 1916 (using magnification the year was also written on the card over the very white dress of the woman in the foreground).  On this latter, however, is the name Klingenstein's, which was a cigar-distribution company in downtown.

So, the identification of the store as being "Klingenstein's" may be incorrect, unless the owner of the company had the store as a side business, but that hardly takes away from the interest in this great image.

Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Museum Director, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry, California.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Historic Photos of Boyle Heights: Neuman Brothers Saloon, ca. 1910s

It's been far too long since the last post, but here's a great old photo of what was described in an inscription on the back as the Neuman Brothers saloon in Boyle Heights.

Update, 25 August:  The reverse of the card lists an address of 1248 E. 4th Street at or near State Street, though State is actually at the 1900 block of 4th.

The unused real photo postcard (the first couple of decades of the 20th century was a popular period for having photos printed onto postcard paper for easy mailing) is a rare interior shot of a commercial building in the neighborhood.

It is assumed the Neuman brothers are the guys behind the bar, while their lone patron, dressed for winter apparently with his overcoat over his suit jacket, sports a sharp mustache and jauntily holds a cigar in his right hand.

Note the several spittoons strategically positioned at the bar and at the lower left--chewing tobacco in drinking establishments was a common thing in those days and long before!

Purchased by the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, from Roger LeRoque, whose family lived in Boyle Heights in the early 1900s, this real photo postcard shows the interior of what was labeled as the Neuman Brothers saloon.
The bar itself was pretty impressive with its sleek, polished top and carved columns and check out that massive mirror along the back wall.  An office with Tiffany-style glass windows is at the left and the covered entry sports the expected "NO MINORS ARE ALLOWED HERE" sign (whether or not that was actually true!)  There's a bit more of that glass work at the top of the plate glass windows, too.  Also noteworthy are the swinging doors, sometimes called "saloon doors," "tavern doors," or "cafe doors."

Check out all of the stuffed animals ("taxidermy" is the term) placed above the office and entry, as well as the molded tin ceiling tiles that were very popular at the time.

And, of course, the place was amply stocked with the choices in liquors, beer, and wine.  Finally, make note of the cash register which was probably very busy ringing up those sales when the place was packed (assuming it was sometimes) with patrons, especially weekend evenings.

This photo comes from the Homestead Museum collection and was one of several purchases from Roger LeRoque, a Temple City collectibles dealer whose family lived in Boyle Heights in the early 1900s.  Look for more from this group soon (and sooner than five months.)

Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, museum director, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum and advisory board member for the Boyle Heights Historical Society.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Lotus Blossom: The First Chinese-American Film and Made in Boyle Heights, Part Three

This is the third and final post on the remarkable story of the making of Lotus Blossom, the first theatrically-screened movie by Chinese Americans and which was filmed in Boyle Heights.  Researched and written by Rudy Martinez, Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member, this post reveals a previously little-known aspect of the history of the Boyle Heights community.

With the film complete and advance publicity undertaken, Lotus Blossom finally made its way to a theatrical release.  In the run-up to that historic date, the Los Angeles Herald reported on November 16, “elaborate arrangements are being made by The Alhambra [Theater] for the Los Angeles and California premiere of Lotus Blossom.” 

According to newspaper reports and advertisements and typical of the silent era, the film would be accompanied with live music, and there was the addition of two hostesses greeting patrons at the doors of the theater. Lotus Blossom finally premiered at the Alhambra Theater on Friday, November 25th and ran for one week. Despite its name, the Alhambra was actually located in downtown Los Angeles and not in the eastern San Gabriel Valley suburb of the same name.

This ad appeared in the Los Angeles Herald 27 November 1921. The Alhambra was located on the west side of Hill Street, between 7th and 8th streets in downtown Los Angeles and was demolished in the 1930s, The site is now a parking lot. Courtesy California Digital Newspapers.
Along with the image of Lady Tsen Mei, the Herald advertisement also featured two Japanese actors who appear in the film as Chinese characters. The young love interest for Lady Tsen Mei's character, Quong Sung, was played by Yutaka Abe, or “Jack Abbe.” Born in Japan, he arrived in the U.S. around 1914 and appeared in ten films. Shortly after completing Lotus Blossom, Abe returned to Japan and enjoyed a long career as one of Japan's most distinguished film directors, with such films as The Woman Who Touched the Legs (1926), and The Makioka Sisters (1950). The Emperor was played by another Japanese native, Goro Kino, one of the earliest Japanese actors in American cinema. He, however, died just a couple of months after the release of Lotus Blossom at age 44.   

As to the "hostess at the door" at the Alhambra, there were two young women fulfilling that role: Anna May Wong and Bessie Wong, who were not related.  During this period, both were little-known, up-and-coming young actresses. Bessie only made about three films, but the year after Lotus Blossom was released, the Los Angeles-born Anna May Wong (actual name: Wong Liu Tsong) quickly rose to become one of the most popular Asian actresses in Hollywood and Europe during the 1920s and 30s, remaining a symbolic icon to this day. She was famously (or notoriously) turned down for the lead role as a young Chinese woman in The Good Earth (1937), which went to German actress Luise Rainer, earning Rainer an Academy Award, but denying Anna May Wong a once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough opportunity. 

Shortly after the Los Angeles premiere for Lotus BlossomThe Exhibitors Herald published two photos featuring the lavish display for the lobby of the Alhambra Theater during the film's run. The photo includes two young and little-known actresses at the time, Anna May Wong in the center and Bessie Wong to the left as greeters. From the Exhibitors Herald January 7, 1922. Courtesy of The Media History Digital Library.
In 1922, following its Los Angeles premier, Lotus Blossom appeared in several states, including Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Kansas, and even was shown in a theater in Mexicali, Mexico. The film was also screened in a Washington D.C. ballroom for a visiting Chinese delegation. One of its last showings was at the New Virginia Theater in Bakersfield, California on October 20th, 1922. It was generally assumed by film historians that Lotus Blossom was probably never shown again after that year.

However, a very recent look through databases of U.S. newspaper archives revealed that the film was indeed briefly shown again nine years after it premiered, but under a totally different name! On May 2, 1930 the Los Angeles Times published an ad for the screening of Daughter of Heaven, starring Lady Tsen Mei, at the Filmarte Theater in Hollywood,.


In 1930, Lotus Blossom, was briefly released under the title, Daughter of Heaven, and advertised as “actually filmed in China.” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1930. Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.
Reviews for the film appeared in the May 5th edition of the Times, as well as in the Hollywood Filmograph. The name of the cast and synopsis of the plot in the reviews are identical to Lotus Blossom, except Daughter of Heaven was being advertised as “actually filmed in China with [a] native cast.” Today, only one 12-minute reel of this six-reel feature exists.  Although no one knows exactly when most of the reels for Lotus Blossom went missing, it's tantalizing to consider that perhaps Lotus Blossom might still exist intact, somewhere, as a “foreign film” under the title of Daughter of Heaven or maybe even some other name. 


In the Los Angeles Times May 4, 1930,  under the headline “Films Showing”, a small list of films premiering locally was published. One of the movies listed was Daughter of Heaven, formerly Lotus Blossom. Los Angeles Times, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
After completing Lotus Blossom, Leong “suspended production” under the moniker of the Wah Ming company and it was soon renamed, according to the Times, "the Chung Wah Motion Picture Company, with a wealthy Los Angeles area Chinese by the name of Quan Foo as president, which will be headed by Mr. Leong,” as reported by the Times on November 27, 1921. But the company was never heard of again, and Lotus Blossom would remain the only film it ever produced.

The celluloid image for Asians overall did not improve. In fact, some film historians assert that the stereotyping only intensified as film characters such as Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu were enthusiastically received by mainstream American audiences in the Twenties and Thirties.

By 1928, Hollywood's rising Chinese-American star, Anna May Wong, relocated to Europe to make films. Another roadblock for creating and distributing more Asian feature films during the silent era, according to film historian Arthur Dong, was that the Chinese market in the United States was not large enough to support an alternative distribution system as was the case for so-called race films for African Americans audiences, or Yiddish film for Jews.

James B. Leong continued to work in Hollywood for several decades, primarily as a minor character actor. In 1952, he authored an alarmist anti-drug book titled, Narcotics...The Menace to Children. In 1956, he wrote and directed an anti-drug play, The Devils' Paradise, staged in a tiny theater in Hollywood. 

To play the lead, Leong hired an actor who was a recovering drug addict and was experiencing much difficulty finding work – none other then screen horror legend, Bela Lugosi, known for his iconic starring role in Universal Studio's Dracula (1933). The play ran only one weekend, and, shortly afterward, Lugosi filmed scenes that would later appear in Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. With little notice or mention, Leong died quietly in Los Angeles on December 16, 1967, at the age 78.

As mentioned in a previous post on this blog (click here to see the post) focusing on the history of the Perry-Davis/Ganahl mansion and the Bernstein studio, it's unknown exactly when the mansion was razed. Today, several apartments now cover the eastern end of the property along Boyle Avenue that once was the site for the former Bernstein Studios and the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company, while Interstate 5 cuts through the west side.  To the south was Stephenson Avenue, now Whittier Boulevard.

The existing 12-minute segment of Lotus Blossom can be found online, as it's in the public domain. For some insightful commentary about the film, the clip can be seen in disc 2 of More Treasures from American Film Archives from the National Film Preservation Foundation, with audio commentary provided by documentary filmmaker and film historian, Arthur Dong, and notes by Scott Simon.

Postscript

While James Leong's pioneering efforts in Chinese-American film-making may not have been successful, it is notable that he was featured in at least two magazine articles found by Rudy, in which Leong promoted the potential and possibilities for a huge market in China for American films.

The 1 December 1921 issue of The American Cinematographer features an article, "Biggest Picture Market" which dealt with James B. Leong's assertions that China would be the world's largest market for films.
In the 1 December 1921 issue of The American Cinematographer, Leong was summarized as saying that the Chinese "are the thriftiest in the world and love entertainment as passionately as children." Claiming that the official estimates of 400 million people in China were only half correct, he stated that his goal was to bring American film-making to his native country "and show forth to the world the noble and beautiful side of the Chinese character."  It was added that China's future development in film would lead to more cinematographers there than in the U.S.

While much of this 11 March 1922 article from Exhibitors Trade Review copied the text word-for-word from the above-mentioned The American Cinematographer piece, it featured an extraordinary quote from Leong about the potential of "quality films" having a moral effect on Chinese moviegoers.
The Exhibitors Trade Review of March 11, 1922, attributed to Leong the view that "China is the biggest picture market on earth and that the next big development in the pictures industry will be in that country."  He was also said to have claimed that China "can annually use five times the present output of the United States."  While using most of the earlier article word-for-word, this piece ended with the statement that Leong believed that the making and showing of quality films in China meant that its citizens 
will quickly be purged of all the evils of the opium traffic and gambling, of superstition, intolerance and prejudice against foreigners and with these drags upon the nation gone, the Flowery Kingdom should quickly take her rightful place as the dominant power of the Orient.
Given the tremendous transformation of China in recent decades, its surging film industry and the growing presence of Chinese investors in Hollywood and in the movie theater world, Leong's views are very interesting and timely.

Many thanks to Rudy Martinez for his detailed research and writing on this post.  Editing and postscript (images found by Rudy) by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Assistant Director, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Lotus Blossom: The First Chinese-American Film and Made in Boyle Heights, Part Two

This is the second part of Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez's post on the filming of the first Chinese-American movie, Lotus Blossom, right here in Boyle Heights:

On the evening of July 14, 1921, as the production on Lotus Blossom was nearing completion, a "Motion Picture Electrical Pageant" was held in downtown Los Angeles with an estimated crowd of 300,000 lining the streets. 

The pageant was a very public film industry showcase and numerous film studios and leaders such as Universal, Hal Roach, Louis B. Mayer, and the Selig Zoo (located next to Eastlake Park in Lincoln Heights) among many others, were represented by “electric floats,” each equipped with small generators and lights to illuminate the float displays. The Wah Ming Motion Picture Company also participated with a float showcasing their first production. The producers of Lotus Blossom might have seen this opportunity as a real publicity coup for their upcoming film, as a photo of the float was only one of a handful of images that was included in the Los Angeles Times July 15 article.    
 
The entire comment about the Lotus Blossom float in the Los Angeles Times: “Chinese players produced a “Lotus Blossom” float with many oriental men and maids in native costume. The production was by the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company.”  Los Angeles Times, 15 July 1921, Los Angeles Central Public Library.
 On July 18, the Times published a story based on a reporter's visit to the Lotus Blossom set, mentioning that it was operating at the old mansion on Boyle Heights.” Though a supportive article, it was marred by an ugly attempt at humor with several racist cartoon sketches of some of the Chinese crew members, replete with “pigeon-English” dialogue. The inclusion of these caricatures in a major newspaper only underscored producer James B. Leong's point that Chinese Americans themselves needed to actively counter these kinds of degrading images.

The article also described a brief meeting on the set with cinema’s “first Chinese film star” (national exhibitors advertised her as “the screen's first and only Chinese star”), Lady Tsen Mei, who played the self-sacrificing young heroine, Moy Tai. By this time, the actress had starred in one film, 1918s For the Freedom of the East, and was a well-known performer on the vaudeville circuit, often billed as the “Chinese Nightingale.”  Her most noted role is in the first film version of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter (1929), her third and final movie. 

She was also widely admired for her sophisticated background, noted in many of her current biographies today.  For example, she was said to have been born to a noble family in China, then emigrated to America as a child, obtained a law degree from Columbia, and briefly attended medical school before studying at a prestigious music school in New York.  

However, according to Scott D. Seligman's well-researched book, Three Tough Chinamen, Lady Tsen Mei was actually born Josephine Chong in Philadelphia in 1888, the biracial child of Chinese immigrant, Moy Shoo Chong, and his mulatto wife, Jessie Whitehurst.  At twenty-one months she was adopted by another local biracial couple, Chinese physician Jin Fuey Moy and his Delaware-born white wife.  Josephine began her career as Lady Tsen Mai in vaudeville at age 24 and by all accounts was a multi-talented performer as a singer, actress and “voice mimic.” It appears she retired from show business by the late 1920s, though she lived almost a century, dying in Norfolk, Virginia in 1985. 
 
This is a photo still of Lady Tsen Mei as Moy Tai from the film, Lotus Blossom (1921), filmed at the former Bernstein Film Studio in Boyle Heights.  Courtesy of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner photo collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Looking back at the cast and crew members involved in the making of Lotus Blossom, the level of experienced talent the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company was able to gather together on the Boyle Heights set is quite impressive. To begin with, the two screenwriters, Charles Furthman and George Yohalem, who adapted Leong's story idea, which was partially based on the Chinese fable, The Soul of the Great Bell, went on to enjoy some degree of success in the film industry. 

Furthman had his biggest success adapting the screenplay for director Josef von Sternberg's silent film classic, Underwold (1929), considered the first great Hollywood gangster film. His brother was Jules Furthman, a 1935 Oscar nominee for Mutiny on the Bounty, who enjoyed a long career of his own as a screenwriter. George Yohlalem, a sort of jack-of-all-trades, was a veteran of the film industry, whose career lasted well into the 1950s. One of his last credits was production supervisor for Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956). 

In a 1921 industry directory handbook, a photo can be found of actress Lady Tsen Mei, the film's director, Frank J. Grandon, and cinematographer Ross Fisher, posing together for a photo on the set. Grandon started his career as an actor. His most prominent role as Felipe opposite Lillian Gish's title character in D. W. Griffith's Ramona (1910), the first film version of the Helen Hunt Jackson novel. He switched to directing in 1916 and continued to helm films until he died in Los Angeles in 1929. 

Relaxing on the set of Lotus Blossom from left to right are, Ross Fisher, Lady Tsen Mei, and Frank J. Grandon. From The Motion Picture Studio Directory Trade Annual of 1921, Courtesy of the Internet Archive collection.
Cinematographer Ross Fisher went on to enjoy one of the most distinguished and important careers in the history of cinema. Born in Springfield, Montana in 1887, Fisher was the cameraman on many early Hollywood films before moving to Mexico in 1931. He worked as the principal or co-cinematographer on numerous beautifully-shot black and white Mexican films of all genres during a period often referred to as “the golden age of Mexican cinema.” In addition to working with such legendary actors as, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Armendariz, and Lupe Velez, Fisher worked with famed director Fernando de Fuentes. Fisher was also the cameraman for the first Mexican color feature film, Novillero (1937), using his Cinecolor processing method.   

A few months after production on Lotus Blossom wrapped, film distributors and exhibitors began to publicize the availability of theater screenings for the movie in various industry magazines, some with large picturesque ads. The November 5, 1921 issue of Exhibitors Herald actually showcased the film with a two-page spread that included one page dedicated to nine photos from the film and the second page containing three brief movie reviews. All are glowingly positive. 

The first page of a two-page exhibitors advertisement for Lotus Blossom featuring nine photos from the film. The names of two white actors in the film, Tully Marshall and Noah Berry are also listed. Exhibitors Herald 5 November 1921. Courtesy of The Media History Digital Library
Perhaps to assist in giving it more box-office appeal and meet public expectations, the film also featured two white actors: Tully Marshall and Noah Beery.  Both were made up heavily to look Chinese for two of the film's prominent roles, that of Moy Tai's father and a Tartar chief, respectively.  Beery was the older borther of Wallace Beery, the Academy Award-winning actor for 1931's The Champ.  He enjoyed a steady career as a working actor until his sudden death at his brother's home in 1946.  Marshall, who made his first film in 1914, also had a consistent presence in films as a character actor.  His last and one of his best-known performances was as the wheelchair-bound criminal mastermind in the noir classic, This Gun for Hire (1942), starring Alan Ladd.

With pre-release advertising and promotion efforts handled, it was time for Lotus Blossom to make history as the first Chinese-American film to be played in theaters.  More on that and further history on this ground-breaking movie in the third and final part of this post!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lotus Blossom: The First Chinese-American Film and Made in Boyle Heights, Part One

In 2015, the Chinese film industry’s box-office receipts skyrocketed nearly 50% and the recent Chinese New Year/Valentine’s Day seven-day take produced a new record of over a half billion dollars, beating the haul that was brought in during the opening week of the latest Star Wars film.  

In light of these leaps and bounds, it is interesting that, nearly a century ago, a Chinese-American entrepreneur, James B. Leong, became a pioneer in his field when he made Lotus Blossom, a 1921 film made here in Boyle Heights.  Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez has extensively researched the making of Lotus Blossom and here is the first of three parts of the series.

James B. Leong, producer of Lotus Blossom, ca. 1920.  From the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner photograph collection, Los Angeles Central Public Library.  Click on any image to see them in enlarged views in new windows.
On June 17, 1921, a time when film makers like Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, and Hal Roach were “making pictures” throughout Los Angeles, the following brief item ran in Variety magazine: “The Wah Ming Motion Picture Co., a Chinese business organization for the producing of films, has taken a site on Boyle Heights for a studio. James B. Leong, is at the head of the company.”

A short time later, the company announced that the first film they would produce would be based on an old Chinese fable and would be titled Lotus Blossom. With a production budget around $125,000, and using a mostly Chinese and Japanese cast, this ambitious new production company was aiming to make its first film a period costume feature on the same level of the work of other major studios. 

Although this silent film is little known today by the general public, film historians recognize Lotus Blossom as an important contribution to the heritage of American cinema. This Boyle Heights-based production is considered the first feature film to be produced and commercially released by Chinese Americans. 

A nationwide publicity campaign included a float for a local motion picture parade and a lavish theater lobby display during its Los Angeles world premiere in November 1921. Also noteworthy was that the movie featured an actor, Lady Tsen Mei, whom many considered to be the first Chinese screen star in American films.

James B. Leong was born Leong But-Jung in Shanghai, China in 1889 and emigrated to the United States in 1913. After briefly attending an Indiana college, Leong relocated to Los Angeles in 1914 and worked in the film industry as a translator and technical adviser in productions employing local Chinese as extras. He was reportedly an uncredited assistant director for D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919).  

After seeing mostly demeaning and inaccurate film depictions of the Chinese, Leong decided to produce his own films that would, in his words, “serve to correct the general impression that the present crop of pictures gives of Chinese life.” 

In its May 22, 1920 edition, the Los Angeles Herald reported the creation of the newly-formed company, James B. Leong Productions. The officers were Leong, president; Dr. Sui Chong, secretary; Low Song Kai, treasurer; and T. A. Russell, director. The firm’s office was at 804 North Broadway. For a year, Leong worked on several original scripts with such titles as Devil's Paradise, and Chinese Princess of Mexico

An article on the filming of Lotus Blossom, New York Clipper, 22 June 1921.  From Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.
In its issue of June 22 1921, the New York Clipper published a brief description about the work taking place in Boyle Heights just before filming began on Lotus Blossom. By this time, the company had been rechristened The Wah Ming Motion Picture Company.  With a flair for showmanship, the producers stressed the unique aspects a Chinese American company would bring to the film, as well as hinting at the physical scope of the production taking place on the Boyle Heights studio lot.

Technically speaking, Lotus Blossom is not the first film produced by Chinese-Americans.   Marion Wong’s The Mandarin Film Company, based in Oakland, produced The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1917).  Written, directed, and co-starring  Wong, the film appears to have encountered difficulties in publicity and distribution. No evidence exists that it was ever commercially released except for a one-time public screening in 1948 in Berkeley. Only two surviving reels of what was probably a six-reel feature exist today.

When Wah Ming began work on Lotus Blossom in May 1921, there were two studios in Boyle Heights. The two-acre Majestic Studio lot on Fairview Avenue, where Interstate 10 cuts through the Mount Pleasant Tract, was initially established in 1912 by the IMP Film Company and headed by future Universal Studios co-founder Carl Laemmle.   It was here that Charlie Chaplin made several films in summer 1915. The other facility was the former Bernstein Production Studios, established by Isadore Bernstein in 1917. This eight-acre lot was located at the northwest corner of Boyle and Stephenson (now Whittier Boulevard) avenues. It was at this location (click here to see what the property is like today) that Wah Ming set up production and made Lotus Blossom.

This 1924 aerial photo shows the landmark Los Angeles Orphans Asylum at the center.  The lot above that is the site of the Perry-Davis Mansion and what was the Bernstein Studios and the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company.  Lotus Blossom was filmed here in 1921.  At the upper right corner is the lower portion, including much of the lake, at Hollenbeck Park.  Boyle Avneue runs in a curved line at the right.  From the Los Angeles Central Public Library Photograph Collection.
Decades before it was a studio lot, the property was the site of one of the most lavish estates in Boyle Heights. In the early 1880s William H. Perry, lumber baron, organizer of Los Angeles' first gas and water utility companies, and a Boyle Heights resident (his home is now at the Heritage Square Museum in Lincoln Heights), had an opulent home built here for his daughter, Mary (or Mamie), and her husband Charles Davis. Charles died in 1885, and Mary married again in 1888 to Charles M. Wood. They lived on the estate for perhaps a year or so, before it passed to a succession of owners, including Fidel Ganahl, founder of Ganahl Lumber Company, which still exists today.

When Bernstein purchased this parcel in 1917, the former Perry-Davis/Ganahl mansion was still standing (it was later razed) and both the Bernstein Studios and the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company used it as their production offices. A further Hollywood connection to the Perry-Davis estate was that Charles and Mary Wood's daughter, Elizabeth, married James Stack, and their son, born in 1919, would become the well-known Oscar-nominated actor, Robert Stack. (click here to read a previous blog post with more detailed information on the Perry-Davis estate and the Bernstein studio).

Coming soon, part two of the story of Lotus Blossom!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"The Siren": Boyle Heights Junior High School Newspaper, Issue #2

A previous post covered the first issue of The Siren, the school newspaper of Boyle Heights Junior High, soon renamed Hollenbeck Junior High.  The second issue, published on 26 October 1922, had a number of interesting components, some of which might be found in a similar publication today.

One was a short front-age commentary by student council president Robert McElvy, who noted "I'm hoping that we may develop more and more school spirit" with the goal of having it be "the finest and best school in the whole country, with the cleanest yard and halls, and the most helpful spirit."  Calling for loyalty, trustworthiness, and cooperation with fellow students and teachers, McElvy ended with the desire "to give my school a good reputation."

Part of the front page of the second issue of The Siren, the student newspaper of Boyle Heights Junior High School, now Hollenbeck Middle School, 26 October 1922.  The original is in the collection of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.
An editorial, probably by Editor-in-Chief Maurice Nathan, lionized former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose birthday is on 27 October, praising him as "one of the biggest men our country has known" and quoting at length a statement by the Roosevelt Memorial Association about the many qualities of the man who "made himself a lion of courage . . . one of the great doers of all times" and who could be "terrible in battle, but tender to the weak."

Not surprisingly, a new high school in the works in Boyle Heights, but not opening for another year, was named for the former president and Roosevelt High School is nearing its centennial, which will be in 2023.

A portion of page two of the paper showing a cartoon about chasing down graduation, a humorous "Faculty Comment" and other items.
Inspirational essays were sprinkled throughout issues of The Siren and there were two in this issue.  One asked "Are You a Quitter?" and admonished students not compare themselves with others who they think have the easy life.  Instead, the editorial cited the example of another legendary American, Abraham Lincoln, stating, "Lincoln made his chance, and success came to him through his own efforts," intimating the same could happen to any Boyle Heights Junior High student.

The second was aimed at "The American Boy" and suggested that "he must not be a coward or a weakling, a bully, a shirk, or a prig."  Moreover, "he must work hard and play hard.  He must be clean-minded and clean-lived . . ."  These quotes, of course, were from Theodore Roosevelt.  Another was from Isadore Rozzen, a student who wrote "we have a right to expect that every American boy should become a worthy American citizen," though he cannot become this if "he is always afraid to fight, or if he is a bully picking on smaller boys than himself."  Finishing his work and putting "business before pleasure," Rozzen concluded that "if he does this all through his life he will grow up to be a man of whom we all can be proud."  As the son of Russian and Polish Jewish emigrants, Rozzen likely represented many fellow students in a community largely composed of immigrants.

An essay about "The American Boy", a photo of one of the school's classes, and some ads are featured on this page.
Another common feature of any newspaper was the humor section--this one was titled "Rib Ticklers" and included such jokes as: "If Olive Street were moved one block west wouldn't it be Grand?" or "Spaghetti should not be cooked too long—about 10 inches is right" and "How many hairs in a cat's tail?  None at all; they're all on the outside."  Another item was "The Boyle Heights Movie Theater" in which current film titles were identified with the school, as in "Foolish Daughters" equaled "Our Boyle Heights Flappers"; "The Long Chance" meant "Ditching"; "Blood and Sand" was "A Football Game"; and "Ten Nights in a Barroom" equated "Staying After School With a Mean Teacher."

Then, there were sports.  In this issue there  were lists of soccer teams by class, news about local football, baseball, boxing and other games and contests, including standings for local high school football teams, which had just completed the second week of their season.  There was also a "Ten Commandments" of "a good sport," including the first being "Thou shalt not quit," the third being, "Thou shalt not gloat over winning," and its corollary, number four: "Thou shalt not be a rotten loser."

A snappy ad from a Boyle Heights restaurant is one of the many found in the paper.
Other elements of the eight-page paper were recipes, alumni news, the development of forthcoming music classes, a teacher's account of her European trip the prior summer, ideas for throwing a Halloween party, and news of a "penny drive" to raise money for the PTA's Scholarship Fund.

Finally, there were local business advertisements from such enterprises as the Boyle Heights Feed and Fuel Company; J. Rubin's Shoe Repairing Shop; Meyer Bolotin's Barber Shop; B. Sapkin's Hardware Store; the Hollenbeck Pharmacy; Wilson's Flower Shop; the Poppy Theatre (admission 20 cents for adults and 10 cents for children); and even Bede Johnson's undertaking establishment.  A stand-out ad, though, was for "The 5 Cent Joint" at 6th and Mathews, which used snappy language and little jokes to grab a junior high student's attention, including the statement that punch came "right from Niagra Falls" being boxer Jack Dempsey's "famous punch" and that "everything is fresh except the cook."

This blog will go back periodically and revisit other issues of The Siren so check back and see what all the noise was about.

Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Assistant Director, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.  The issue of The Siren is from the museum's collection, which is available for public research.