Grover Jones and the Birth of Hollywood, Part Two

Grover and his mother, ca. 1915


Motion pictures had been made sporadically in Hollywood since 1908.  Its good weather helped spark a movement west by filmmakers and the area would soon transplant New York as the movie industry capitol.  One person drawn to Hollywood area was Carl Laemmle, a Jewish immigrant from Germany who gave up the clothing business and became a theater owner after seeing the profit potential of nickelodeons.  Disgusted, like many theater owners, at having to pay fees to the near-monopoly operated by the Motion Picture Trust (their control was based on being backed by Edison who owned patents on various equipment), Laemmle decided to make his own films.

He formed a motion picture company with partners in 1911.  Initially based in New York, Laemmle had made the move to California by 1913, bought out his partners, and firmly planted the Universal Film Company out west.  He purchased over 200 acres near Hollywood and set up his “film factory.” Universal was to become the first (and oldest continuing) major film company.  And Laemmle was to become the first Hollywood mogul. 

Into this new world came Grover Jones.

As he stepped from the train in LA the 20 year-old (he claimed he was down to .50 in his pocket), the film-loving Hoosier must have felt drawn to Universal as if by a magnet. 

His first few months in Hollywood were rocky ones.  If indeed Laemmle had invited Grover out (something the mogul would have immediately forgotten, as was his habit with such spur of the moment invitations), and if Grover thought it was to be a writer, he was disappointed.  His early days were a struggle (inceville).  His first job at Universal appears to have been living on the lot and tending the studio’s chickens. Probably not the glamorous life that he had envisioned.  After all, he could have stayed in West Terre Haute and done that.

To insinuate himself into the Hollywood scene Grover also took extra or day player jobs.  He was most often cast as an Indian in the westerns that were being churned out daily.  With the aid of a makeup called bolemania he would darken his skin in order to receive the free lunch and $1.00 a day given to extras.  But he soon decided acting was not his calling and took a job as a painter on the Universal lot for $15.00 a week.

Initially he was a “paint-pumper” whose job was to pump paint into a sprayer.  The paint shop adjoined a barn that housed Charlie the elephant and beyond was a veritable menagerie of camels, lions, bears, and other animals used in the movies.  Grover could always tell when it was nearing 4:00 when various roars went up from the “zoo” in anticipation of feeding time.  Charlie the elephant could be especially vexatious as he had a tendency to go berserk when penned in his barn (rumor had it that he had already killed two men).  He could only be calmed down by his trainer, a man named Dynamite.  Grover observed that Dynamite could actually make Charlie cry, merely by talking to him as a parent would a miscreant child.

He painted whatever was assigned to him: sets, dressing room, offices. In the fall of 1914 he was absentmindedly painting a number on a dressing room when the door was pulled open.  There appeared a grotesque face that scared the bejeezus out of Grover, causing him to fall back.  Trying to recover his dignity he realized it was only Lon Chaney (Sr.) in another of his fantastic makeup transformations that made him famous on his way to the set.  Jones rightly believed that Chaney was one of the real geniuses in Hollywood and the incident began a lifelong friendship between the two.  Painting seemed to allow Grover’s mind to wander and another time while trimmimg a window he unthinkingly opened it to have a look inside.  In doing so he became an unwitting—and unwanted– part of a pie-throwing scene being shot.  Not only did he ruin the scene, but the canvas set had to be repainted and the scene re-shot. Of course he caught hell and had to slink away.

Grover celebrated his 21st birthday by looking back at his year in Hollywood and sending money home to his folks.  He missed them and wanted desperately to get his dad out of the mines.  The money, he hoped, would enable them to follow him to California.

At first he missed being around the “stars.” But as he took on more responsibility as a painter, the job allowed him to roam the studio and observe all aspects of the business, getting a feel for motion picture making, the work of the stars and directors.  It allowed the boy from West Terre Haute to closely observe the birth and evolution of Hollywood and the studio system.

Ever curious, he was always observing, always asking questions about the studio and how it worked, although he felt few people took him seriously because he was “just a painter.”  But some did recognize that the “hick kid” had promise.  Actors Max Asher and Fritzi Brunette (both stars of their days) took him seriously.  Another was an assistant to director Allen Curtis (he directed nearly 300 silents) who, when he learned of Grover’s interest in writing gave him a copy of a script to study (even though he thought writers were “clucks”).  Grover studied the screenplay and borrowed a typewriter.  At first he merely copied the script to get the feel of how screenplays were organized, etc.

No matter what his position, Grover was always thinking ahead.  One senses that he had an enormous inner drive to succeed, to elevate himself above his meager origins and the claustrophobia of the dark mines.  While riding the interurban to work one day he was seized by an idea.  Films of the day contained many technical or continuity mistakes, some of which were caught by sharp-eyed moviegoers.  His idea was to play off this by purposely making films with mistakes imbedded within them.  Then theaters could hold contests with the audience member who caught the most errors winning a prize.  When he mentioned his idea to several colleagues they scoffed at the idea.  But he sent his scheme to Laemmle anyway.  The kid was a striver.

But even strivers have roadblocks put in their way.  The studio, like other “factories,” sometimes laid off staff when cost cutting was necessary.  Grover was among those furloughed.  Had he had baseball talent this might not have happened.  The studios baseball team was very important to many.  So much so, that Grover and others noticed that those who played on the team were never laid off.

But his year ended on an up note.  On December 30, 1914 his parents, brother Bill and a family friend named Jersey Irwin arrived in California.  They settled into a home Grover had rented on Sunset Boulevard.  At last they were together again, though Grover dared not tell them it was costing him $30.00 a week to rent.  They could have built the grandest house in West Terre Haute for that.

More good news with the new year.  It was a letter from Carl Laemmle saying that the studio liked his idea about mistakes movies and enclosed a $25.00 check with the encouraging word that “In all probability we will be able to work out this idea.”  Soon Grover was back at work on the Universal lot in his old role as a painter.  The lot was so large that Laemmle shrewdly petitioned to have it declared a city in its own right.  Laemmle, who was affectionately known as “Uncle Carl,” was described by Grover as “about the size of a tree squirrel, but he’s all four fingers and a thumb.”

Grover and old friend Earl Sibley were among the hundreds of staff preparing the lot for the big weekend when it was made a city.  Laemmle combined the new status with a charity event for the Hollywood Children’s Hospital.  It was to be a spectacular event with animal acts, shows, and an exhibition of stunt flying.  Pilot Frank Stites was a friend of Grover’s.  Needing a cap, he borrowed Grover’s. He told Stites that if he got grease on it there would be hell to pay.

The opening day on March 15, 1915 was a success.  Large crowds mobbed the lot (presaging Universal becoming the first studio to fully embrace studio tours for the curious public.  Day two, however, brought tragedy.  Stites was do do a stunt with a fake plane attached to his plane.  Stite’s real plan was a “rattle-trap” and he was always visity the paint shop to get glue to patch it up.  Just before he took off, Grover leaned out to shout “Don’t forget where you got that cap, you louse.”  Stites replied, “What goes up must come down.”  Within a few minutes the fake plane exploded beneath Stites.  Grover described him coolly loosening the straps that held him in the plane.  He jumped.  He landed in front of Grover and a friend.  His broken body was rushed to the hospital but he did not survive.  A shaken Grover noted in his diary, “My cap was ruined alright, but it was blood and not grease.”

Putting the tragedy behind him, Grover was still determined to move forward.  Once again he focused on his future, anxious to become a screenwriter.  He told a co-worker he was getting nowhere as painter and wanted to get into the “writing racket” even if he had to lay someone.  He was told he could make it as many on the lot thought him a clever lad, but Grover felt most viewed him as a smart mouthed kid who popped off too much.

Anxious to write something, he decided to start a newspaper about goings on at the studio called the Photmaniac.  By now, his father was also working at the studio (he would go on to be an electrician at several studios), as was family friend Jersey Irwin.  Both were menaced one day when a lion escaped, but Grover’s father, Bill, took it all in stride.  In April posted the first issue of the Photomaniac.  He hoped that some producers would read it and give him a writing job.

In his wanderings around the lot, Grover encountered many people.  One of those he admired was director Francis Ford, whom he thought was smart and creative.  Not so Ford’s younger brother Jack, whom he described as “not know[ing] what its all about,” although he thought him a nice kid.  Jack was working as a prop man for his brother.  He was a cocky kid also.  When Grover asked him what he wanted out of the business, Jack answered, “If I get the breaks I’ll own the studio, and if I do you’re fired.”  He indeed did get his breaks in the business, becoming legendary director John Ford.

Grover, too, got a break.  In May he was named as assistant to the head craft services.  Now wearing a suit and tie, Grover was in charge of the painters, grips, carpenters and stage hands.  It was a job right up his alley as he noted.  His years of roaming the studio had made it all familiar ground to him.  Although his boss was not happy that Grover was not a baseball player, as the team had lost it star second baseman to the minor leagues.

Unfortunately Grover’s diary ends there. He continued to work at Universal.  As his photo album shows he also had time for fun.  It is filled with photos of family outings around California.  He was also a part of the Terre Haute expatriate community in Los Angeles.  The group hosted annual picnics and he sent photos back to the Terre Haute papers. He kept in contact with the Terre Haute papers, writing witty accounts of his adventures.  On at least one occasion he indulged his finely tuned sense of leg-pulling by sending them a photo of the West Terre Haute soccer football team, with the caption, “Sure! They are all ugly but they all know how to play football.”  Only later did the paper learn he had sent them a photo of a California team.

Over the next few years he left Universal and worked for several other studios.  He later jokingly said he had been fired from every studio in Hollywood, even those that were not painted.  He once was interviewed by C.B. deMille, who was looking for a secretary.  DeMille described him as “a former sign painter, then employed then at the studio as a kind of assistant to all the assistants.”  Ho noted that Grover did not know shorthand so was not hired.

But Grover’s ambition and striving eventually paid off.  By 1920 he had received his first writing and director credit for a short he wrote called “The Snip.”  Over the next twenty years he would write over 100 screenplays and direct 31 films.  Present at the birth of Hollywood and the studio system he would grow with it, and relish its heyday.

(For an overview of Jones’ later career, see my earlier blog From West T. to Hollywood, Redux)

There is an interesting postscript to Grover’s story that shows that his iconoclastic character was passed down to his family.  His daughter Sally Sue was only three when her father died.  Her most frequent playmate was a young Jane Fonda.  Sue was introduced to horses and polo by her parents.  For twenty years she disguised herself as a man (initially using mascara to draw a moustache on her face) so she could invade the exclusive male enclave that was big time polo.  Her secret became an open one eventually and in 1972 she became the first woman admitted to the United States Polo association.

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Grover Jones and the Birth of Hollywood, Part One

Grover Jones, 1913

I earlier (https://wthhistory.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/west-t-to-hollywood-redux/) wrote about the “established” Grover Jones, who by the mid-thirties was recognized as one of the premiere screenwriters and prominent figures in Hollywood.  He was a well-regarded wit, writer and raconteur with many friends among the stars and Hollywood literati. But how did the callow lad with coal dust on his shoes from West Terre Haute get there?

Thanks to some further research, neck wearying hours at the microfilm reader,  and the discovery that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar organization) held some of Jones’s papers in it archives (particular a diary he kept for 1914-1915), I can now tell you more of the early story.

Grover was born in Rosedale, Indiana in 1893 to immigrant parents.  His father William was born in Wales, while mother Elizabeth had migrated from Germany.  According to census records, both were literate and spoke English.  Like most immigrants who came to America without advantages they took jobs similar to those they had in their homelands, or whatever they could find. Grover later related that the German side of his family worked on the railroads and the Welsh side (quite naturally) were miners,

After some moving around, (the family lived in Ohio briefly where William worked as a miner) the Jones returned to West Terre Haute sometime before 1910, moving into a house on McIlroy and West Johnson Avenues.

Grover was certainly a precocious child with a gift for storytelling.  As a very young man he started writing poetry and songs (he was an accomplished piano player).  Later, he turned to writing one-act plays and stories as a teenager.  Beany, as he was called, certainly was different from most of the kids he played with in West Terre Haute.

 As work was hard to find, Mrs. Jones supported the family by turning their home into a boarding house that usually had three or four boarders, most of them miners.  But, as Grover, in a later tongue-in-cheek testimony to a Congressional committee investigating labor problems in Hollywood told them, his father “double-crossed me and went to work, which made it embarrassing for me.”

So Grover, too, joined his father in the mines around West Terre Haute.  While waiting for the wagons to be loaded with coal he wrote poetry (one guesses it would have been best described as doggerel) in the dust on the coal cars.  Though he had only a common school education (roughly an 8th grade education), Grover was thought of as “clever.  He was well read, drew cartoons, and thought of a world beyond Indiana.  He even published a “private newspaper” in West Terre Haute called the Public Blaetter.

His short periods in the mines quickly showed him that he did not want the arduous life of a miner.  While working in the mines he also sought to learn sign painting, seeing that as not only a way out of the backbreaking drudgery of the shaft, but also a way to use his creative side.  The dusty streets of West Terre Haute would not hold him.  Hopping on his motorcycle, Grover spent many days and nights in the big city east of the river.

He apprenticed as a sign painter with a Col. Oebel in Terre Haute.  Sign painters of the time not only painted signs for businesses, but did other advertising work, and specialties like doing “show cards.”  These were the placards held up to introduce acts in theaters, vaudeville, and movies.  Through this he became great friends with another sign painter named Jimmy Trimble.  Trimble was also a magician and became a local legend in Vigo County for his magic act and being the go-to emcee for many local events.

Grover developed an intense interest in “moving pictures.”  He had plenty of opportunity to spend what little he earned at local theaters.  West Terre Haute had two movie theaters and across the bridge Terre Haute offered many more.  He became something of a “Stage Door Johnny” hanging around the vaudeville houses, theaters and movie palaces of Terre Haute. The clever young man soaked up the atmosphere of the entertainment world and it only made him more determined to make show business his life.

Through his sign painting or being a theater habitué  he met a man who was to help change his life.

 

Richard Earl Sibley was a sign painter who branched out into scenic design for theaters and movie houses.  Thirteen years older than Grover, Earl was also a man looking for something better.  He became well known for his design and painting of stage backdrops.  He served as Terre Haute’s representative of the International Theatrical Mechanics Association.  Sibley was likely Grover’s connection to the infant Terre Haute film “industry.”

In February, 1913 the Terre Haute Tribune announced that “the first moving picture ever written, constructed and posed for in Terre Haute” would soon hit local theaters.  It was the brainchild of Robert W. Nicholson a local film operator (read projectionist).  Using his own self-constructed camera (the only movie camera in the city), Nicholson directed his own screenplay of “The Girl in the Tower.”  Echoing (or presaging) the Pearl White “Perils of Pauline,” it was a movie about villains who tie the heroine to a railroad track in anticipation of watching the train roll over her.  He shot the film at various railroad yards and interiors at a local artists studio.

Grover would have been excited about the news (and there is a slight chance he was involved in some way).  At any rate he soon joined forces with Nicholson on a project to be bankrolled by local saloon keeper and theater owner Roy Dycus and his grandly named Dycus Film Company.  Dycus put up $600.00 for a film to be called “The Boy and the Bandit” written by 19 year-old Grover Jones.  The thin plot involved a bandit and a greedy landlord seeking to take the “boy’s” family home.  Eventually, the boy captures the bandit and uses $500.00 reward to save the family homestead.  It was filmed in a studio (Earl Sibley was scenic designer) at Third and Ohio and on location at the county fairgrounds (present site of Memorial Stadium) in May 1913.  Like many moviemakers, they ran out of money before it was finished.  That did not stop them from exhibiting it though.  Grover later said the unfinished film was shown at several theaters in town. 

Within weeks the Tribune’s entertainment columnist Mique O’Brien featured a photo and story about Grover.  “Over in West Terre Haute there lives a young man who simply insists on furnishing material for the theater” was the lead.  The article described a man not yet young enough to vote, but full of creativity who “has turned out a volume of cartoons and has written scores of playlets on every conceivable subject.”  Perhaps more than slightly gilding his particular lily Grover told the critic he had received payments from famous movie companies as Vitagraph and the Lublin Company for some of his ideas.

Though the Dycus Company announced that further films were forthcoming, there was no further mention of them in the local papers.  Though Grover’s first effort in the film industry was a bit of a failure, it spurred him on.  He was not a fellow to give up.

Through Earl Sibley who had already migrated to California and was working as a painter at a studio, Grover learned opportunity awaited him out west.  Sibley wrote that he was making $20.00 a week (a good salary then) and work was available.  Though he does not mention it in his diary, a book on Hollywood studio moguls says that Grover had pitched some movie ideas via mail to Carl Laemmle and soon-to-be mogul of Universal Studios who had sent Grover a check and told him if he ever came to Hollywood to look him up.  If Grover had indeed been paid by the Hollywood film companies, he still had to borrow $50.00 from a Terre Haute banker named Weills to finance his trip.

Whatever the impetus and wherever the funds came from, Grover left West Terre Haute in late 1913 and headed to California.  As his train chugged out of West Terre Haute young Grover must have been enticed by his dreams and uncertain of his future.  Whatever his future, it would not take place in West Terre Haute. There he became witness to the birth of Hollywood, soon to become the world’s fantasy engine…

In Part Two I will follow Grover to Hollywood as he became an eyewitness and participant (though a minor one) in the birth of Hollywood.