by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s a dramatic and striking Roaring Twenties portrait of a young woman in profile with blond curled hair and her face turned upward. The drama was definitely intentional as Murillo Studio, a busy photography studio during the decade, specialized in taking portraits of “artistic people” as well as those in upper class society.
The subject, Gladys Kremer, signed her name at the bottom right as well as on the reverse where her home address was also inscribed. A pencil inscription asked for the photo to be returned to 714 Majestic Theatre Building at 845 S. Broadway in Los Angeles’ busy theater district.
Taking this information, it was quickly learned that Kremer was a singer of note locally and in her native Detroit in the 1910s and 1920s and was publicized as the “California Nightingale,” a term used frequently for vocal artists. What appears to have distinguished her use of the term was that she was a nurse, so the Florence Nightingale angle appears to have been the inspiration.
Born in 1901 in Detroit, Kremer was the daughter of Michael and Mary Kremer, both of German descent. Michael, not surprisingly worked in the automobile industry and was a foreman of a factory. Kremer appears to have gotten her start in theater in her hometown as a youngster, getting her first notices in Detroit newspapers 1914 before she was 13 years old in local productions.
By the end of 1910s, she considered herself a professional singer and did some local vaudeville performing in addition to comedic theater, and married Stewart P. Ferguson in 1920, just after death of her father. Shortly thereafter, Kremer, her mother and Ferguson headed west, likely to pursue her dream of acting and singing in Los Angeles and Hollywood.
Kremer did find professional work with an early notice coming from late 1922 at a concert at Grauman’s Metropolitan Theatre on Broadway. She was part of a Sunday “discovery concert” including the well-known organist Henry Murtaugh performing classical and popular tunes. As for the singer, it was reported in the Los Angeles Times coverage that “Gladys Kremer, a youthful soprano, made a hit with her fresh voice. Her two selections, “Songs of the Ages” and “A Dream,” were enthusiastically received.”
Kremer was also a regular performer on local radio, within just a few years of that medium becoming available. She appeared on KFI radio programs in the 9 p.m. hour, including working with the Norma Talmadge Orchestra, organized apparently by the very popular film star, as well with a bill sponsored by the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper. Her singing was also heard on stations outside greater Los Angeles, such as in Oakland.
In 1924, Kremer resided in the same Normandie Avenue address just west of Exposition Park where she’d lived with her husband (they apparently divorced shortly after coming to Los Angeles) and mother a few years prior and she is denoted a singer in her voter registration listing, while her Los Angeles City Directory listing gives her occupation as a nurse. Given how tough it could be to make a living full-time as an entertainer, it seems clear that she was both.
Still, she pursued her dream and wound up traveling parts of the country in the last half of the Twenties performing in revues. In fall 1925, for example, she appeared with the Breeze Blowers octet at the Broadway Strand in her hometown of Detroit. Two years later, she was the lead in the musical comedy “Maggie Darling” and her photo appeared in advertisements promoting the show at the La Salle Garden in the Motor City.
In 1928, Kremer got some press for another passion. A Camden, New Jersey newspaper reported that the performer, in town with the Bert Smith Revue, “has spent most of her spare time studying aeronautics.” Moreover, the article continued, “While in Los Angeles, her home, she made her first solo flight. It was successful and since that time the attractive musical comedy star has again itched to grasp the control stick of a plane.”
Because Lieutenant Martin Jensen, a well-known U.S. Army pilot of the day, was coming to Camden to both see the Smith Revue performance and participate in an “air circus,” it was expected that Kremer, a “winsome miss,” was expected to have “her way—and she usually does” and convince Jensen to “surrender the control stick of his army plane to her fair hand.”
Kremer toured with the Bert Smith Revue at least twice more, appearing in “Stolen Sweets” in 1929 and “Cradle Snatchers” in 1930, but her vaudeville and singing career appeared to wane as the Great Depression burst forth. She was listed as an actor in the 1930-31 directory for the Santa Monica area, while residing with her mother, stepfather, and sister in West Los Angeles.
There were, however, no further references to her performing professionally after that. Whether it was the demise of her type of vaudeville and musical comedy and the fact that she entered her thirties is not known. Kremer returned to her hometown, married in her late thirties and lived a quiet life for decades, dying in 1995 at age 93 in a Detroit suburb.
The Murillo Studio, perhaps named for the 17th century Spanish Baroque painter, was founded by Philip L. Johnson, who previously managed the well-known Los Angeles branch of the Hartsook studio, and Winifred S. Smith, a rare woman photographer, when the pair took over the Hemmingway studio. They operated their business in the Auditorium Building at the corner of Hill and Fifth streets where the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now celebrating its centennial, long performed.
As noted at the beginning of this post, Murillo specialized in those in the arts and also took many portraits of society figures, principally women, which appeared in local newspapers like the Times and the Express. An early ad for the studio stated that “artistic people can be pleased by us” and that “special professional rates [are] extended to musicians and artists.”
With respect to the return address on the reverse, the Majestic Theatre was built by Asher Hamburger, a Jew who came to America in 1839 and owned stores in Pennsylvania and Alabama before coming to Gold Rush California and setting up shop in Sacramento. In 1881, the Hamburger family came to Los Angeles several years before the Boom of the 1880s that propelled his A. Hamburger and Sons department store to great success.
A massive new store building was constructed at Broadway and 8th and was proclaimed the largest store west of Chicago when it opened in summer 1908. Fifteen years later, it was enlarged and remodeled and the store sold to May Company of St. Louis. The Hamburger/May Company building still stands today as the Broadway Trade Center. The structure is undergoing a massive renovation and is slated to include a hotel, creative offices, retail and restaurants.
The Majestic was opened just to the south of the store just a few months later, in November 1908, and was leased to theater impresario Oliver Morosco. There were many arts-related enterprises in the upper floor offices, including for music schools, acting schools, music and vocal teachers, and others.
Evidently, unit 714 was occupied someone who either was instructing Kremer in her singing and acting or, perhaps, represented her as an agent. In June 1924, the Hamburgers sold the building to a realty and investment firm for $1 million. By the late Twenties and early Thirties, the theater was known for racy live fare and, in 1933, perhaps because of the Long Beach earthquake, the building was torn down and replaced by a parking lot. There is a modern retail building on the site today.
The dramatic portrait of Gladys Kremer represents the aspirations of a woman seeking to make her mark in the very competitive world of live entertainment. For about fifteen years, she was able to attract attention and work as a talented singer and comedian in Detroit, Los Angeles and in revues touring the country. By the Great Depression years, however, she was unable to continue her career and retired to a quiet life for over sixty years. Murillo Studios’ stylish rendering, however, is a striking one from the standpoint of the art of the photograph.