by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Josephine Marie Workman (1882-1977) was a granddaughter of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and the daughter of their son, José Manuel and his wife Josephine Belt (she was born of an American father and Chilean mother in Gold Rush-era Stockton).
Raised in Boyle Heights until she was in her early teens, Josephine, at age 18, was listed in the 1900 federal census as a “whistler,” which appears to have meant that she did this for entertainment in local theaters. Later in that first decade of the 20th century, Josephine married Harry Knill, a musician, and the couple had a daughter, Josephine. Twin tragedies struck when the child died at age 9, followed by Harry Knill.
By then, Josephine, apparently answering a newspaper advertisement searching for exotic-looking young women, began a new career as an actress in the nascent motion picture industry, which was largely centered in the Silver Lake and Echo Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles. By the end of 1910, not long after she’d lost her child and husband, Josephine was appearing as a lead in short films under the screen name of “Princess Mona Darkfeather.”
She likely had some native ancestry through both her grandmothers, as Nicolasa Urioste was from Taos, New Mexico, and Viviana Asorca hailed from Chile, but she claimed far more direct ancestry in some of the promotional material issued about her. At the same time, however, other marketing efforts were open in stating that she was not the Indian her character implied, though there were other claims of her being from a “Spanish aristocratic family.”
In any case, Princess Mona Darkfeather rose to some significant success in the early film industry, with her peak years being 1913 and 1914. By then, she’d teamed up with actor and director Frank Montgomery (born Frank Akley in Pennsylvania in 1877) and, under his direction, she made dozens of short films for several studios including Bison, Selig, Nestor, Kalem and her last movie, a full-length in 1917 at Universal.
While she was not a top-shelf star, Princess Mona did receive significant press coverage for her films, appeared in many early movie magazines, and was the subject of some published memorabilia, such as postcards. Thanks to a donation from her great-nephew Doug Neilson and from acquisitions by the Homestead, the museum has a small collection of material related to her brief, but notable, film career.
One of these objects is a “Souvenir of the First Annual Photo-Play Ball of the Southern California Moving Picture Men’s Association,” though the item does not have a date (a pencil inscription gives it as 30 May 1914) or a location. Unfortunately, a search of local newspapers does not turn up any coverage of the event.
The pamphlet does have many advertisements from film studios showing principal management, staff, and actors, including a great many from outfits that are unknown or little recognized today. Who among us, for example, have heard of the Sterling Motion Picture Company, Kerrigan Victor Company, The Albuquerque Film Manufacturing Company, Otis Turner Feature Company, or Balboa Feature Films, just to name some of the examples?
A notable ad is for the Faust Photo Play Company, who were “pioneers of juvenile features,” several years before the Our Gang (Little Rascals) became famous. A photo of the cast for a Faust film shows about twenty youngsters (and one adult) with two black child actors on the fringes, including a girl in a maid’s costume and a boy probably dressed as a butler or other house servant.
Female and male leads include other long-forgotten names like Jackie Saunders, Jack Conway, Grace Cunard, Myrtle Gonzales, Murdock Macquarrie and Lee Moran. There are a number, however, who are better remembered like Herbert Rawlinson, Louise Fazenda, Hobart Bosworth, Mabel Normand, and Ruth Roland. Only a few became famous names that are still widely-known, such as Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (listed, however, as a director, not a comedic actor) and a new comedian with just a few shorts under his belt, but very soon to be a worldwide phenomenon, Charles Chaplin.
Other advertisements are from local businesses, including clothiers, photographers, printers, furniture companies, cafes and others with some tangential connections to the film industry. There are also several ads for movie theaters, including Quinn’s Superba and Garrick movie houses, the Liberty, and the Alhambra and one for a music company offering Wurlitzer organs for theaters.
The organization hosting the ball appears to have been short-lived, with the Southern California Moving Picture Men’s Association organized in March 1911 for the purposes of getting films distributed to local theaters. Its principal figure was Alexander P. Tugwell, a fascinating but long-forgotten figure in the local film exhibitors scene during the 1910s.
Born in New York, Tugwell lived in Texas for much of the last twenty or so years of the 19th century, mainly as an attorney and realtor in San Antonio. In the late 1890s, he lived in Tacoma, where he was editor of the Tacoma Sun newspaper and a sergeant-at-arms for the Washington state legislature.
By about 1906, he was in Los Angeles and entered a partnership in an insurance agency for fraternal orders. Once the film industry established a solid foothold and movie theaters sprung up throughout Los Angeles, he and a partner became the owners of a theater on Central Avenue at 35th Street in south Los Angeles. This led to Tugwell’s formation of the SCMPMA and his involvement in another interesting film-related entity.
This was a city-sanctioned Board of Censors, set up to determine which films could be played in theaters within city limits. This was evidently because of an ongoing concern about the content of films, including love scenes that got a little too hot (for that time) for those who were worried about the pernicious effects of such elements on movie-goers.
Apparently, the Board of Censors did not do much in the way of censorship, approving all but a handful of films reviewed by it for showing in local theaters. There was, however, a particularly notable issue involving the Board in 1915 and a film that still raises controversy, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
This film, based on Thomas Dixon’s popular novel, The Clansman, is both a marked and striking innovation in film-making technique and vision and a very pointed embrace of the “Lost Cause” of the South after the Civil War, including a blanket approval of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. I remember helping to organize, when in college, a screening of The Birth of a Nation for our History Students Association and the discussion after seeing the film was intense and powerful.
When the film was being prepared for showing in Los Angeles, protests were received by the city council from black residents who were obviously upset and pained by the prospect. Tugwell and the Board of Censors, however, not only had no objection to the movie being shown, but he appeared at the Temple Auditorium (mentioned here in several posts, including one a few days ago about a Memorial Day program there in 1909) and gave a speech.
In his remarks, Tugwell, as paraphrased by the Los Angeles Times,
said the board of censors regarded the production of “The Clansman” as something of tremendous worth to the nation and had refused a request of the City Council to reconsider their approval. He desired the people to say whether or not the board of censors had been just in their appraisement. He was interrupted with loud cries of “Yes!” “Yes!” “Yes!” followed by round after round of applause.
Tugwell’s tussle with city fathers may not have had anything to do with his next conflict with the council, but, later in 1915, he was accused of charging a fee to movie theaters for films he gathered from them for review by the Board of Censors and for attempting to show favoritism for board reviews for money. This led to his ousting by Mayor Charles E. Sebastian, who resigned in 1916 due to publicity of an affair.
Though Tugwell vigorously denied the charges, complained that he was not presented with a written statement about the alleged offense, and was given a hearing before the City Council, his firing was upheld. He returned to movie theater management at the Globe in downtown Los Angeles (which still stands) and went on to become an officer for a national exhibitors’ association and an international one, as well.
At the time of Tugwell’s death in 1920 at age 68 he was working in the theater business and in real estate with Edward D. Silent, whose father Charles was the subject of a very recent post here.
Meanwhile, by that time, Princess Mona Darkfeather’s career was over, after some live appearances on the west coast following her last film in 1917. She lived sixty more years after that final picture, married and divorced a couple of times (she divorced her director, Montgomery, in 1928 after sixteen years of marriage and then remarried him in 1937—the union lasted until his death seven years later.)
A long time resident of the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, she was 95 when she passed away in 1977. As a ward of the state, her property, including a cache of film memorabilia, was lost and she was buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, though her great-nephew did place a marker at her burial location some years ago.
This program is a remarkable early Los Angeles film industry document with great photos of film actors, directors and others and advertisements that directly tie to the industry as well as those that are somewhat tangential. It is also a rare item featuring mention and a photo of Princess Mona Darkfeather, a largely forgotten actress, but one who was at the peak of her popularity when the ball was held in spring 1914.