Grover Jones and the Birth of Hollywood, Part One

Grover Jones, 1913

I earlier ( 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.

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