That’s A Wrap of a Radical’s Reinvention: A Pamphlet from W.H. Clune’s Comedy Theatre, Los Angeles, July 1915

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s historical object from the Homestead’s collection is a pamphlet from the Comedy Theatre, which looks to have been a second-run house that showed films after they’d already had a first-run release elsewhere, dating to July 1915.  The four-reel The Darkening Trail was produced by Thomas H. Ince, a major figure in early motion pictures and whose 1924 Beverly Hills mansion, completed before Ince’s sudden death aboard the yacht of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, was designed by architect Roy Seldon Price, who also completed La Casa Nueva, the Temple family’s residence at the Homestead.

The film was created under the auspices of the New York Motion Picture Corporation and distributed by the Mutual Film Company and the director and star was William S. Hart, who was a stage star in Shakespearean dramas and such popular works as the Biblical epic Ben-Hur before he came to Hollywood in 1914 to make films.  Hart was fifty, but he quickly became a major star working with Ince in the growing Western genre.

Cune 1870 census Hannibal MO
The Clune family as enumerated in the 1870 census at Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Mark Twain.

The Darkening Trail was an early example of Hart using his rapid rise to stardom to allow him to go behind the camera, although the setting is Alaska, “land of mines and clear-eyed men of action.”  Hart portrays Yukon Ed, who is in love with Ruby, a store owner who is infatuated with “cad and spendthrift” Jack Sturgess, whose “supercilious manner” and love of dance halls doesn’t faze the young woman and her infatuation.

When Jack passes out drunk on a cold, snowfilled trail, Ruby rescues him, but becomes fatally ill and begs him “not to let her go alone into the ‘Unknown.”  The film ends when Yukon Ed, hearing her dying wish, finds Jack back at the dance hall and forces him “to Ruby’s bedside, and sends him to meet her on the ‘darkening trail.'”  The pamphlet proclaims that “the play has the electric thrill of a great dramatic masterpiece, and the scenes are high in artistic beauty.”  The film is a rare survivor from that era and can be purchased on DVD as a double feature with Hart’s The Disciple, also from 1915.

Los Angeles Express, 7 December 1894.

The Comedy Theatre, located on Broadway between 5th and 6th streets in a four-story building completed in 1901, was originally called the Shell Theatre and appears to have opened about 1909 when the motion picture industry was established in Los Angeles (one early local film star was Josephine M. Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, and who was famous in another Western genre as “Princess Mona Darkfeather,” though her career was on the wane by summer 1915.)  The venue, first owned by Samuel Stutz, had nickelodeons in addition to showing motion pictures.

In March 1914, the Shell Theatre was leased to William H. Clune (1862-1927), who was one of the early motion picture theater owners in Los Angeles and who’d recently leased the Temple Baptist Church Auditorium at 5th and Hill streets and which became widely known as Clune’s Auditorium.

Express, 10 November 1896.

Clune, it was reported, took over the Shell so it could, like the Auditorium, be a place “where licensed pictures will run.”  The brief article in the Los Angeles Express announcing the deal added that “Mr. Clune is pursuing negotiations for other houses in Los Angeles and Southern California, the magnitude of his chain to be extensive.”

By summer, however, as noted in the Los Angeles Theatres blog listing for the venue, Clune decided to call the theater Clune’s Exclusive and that “every effort has been made to adapt it to the comfort and enjoyment of women and their children.”  Obviously, films were to be chosen to meet “the taste of this special patronage” and it was asserted that this marketing effort was succeeding.

Los Angeles Times, 10 September 1904.

Still, by at least mid-1915, when this pamphlet was created, another change was made to designate the venue the Comedy Theatre, described as “a small five-cent house” in Moving Picture World magazine, but that name appears to have been discontinued by 1918.  The pamphlet does not give a year, but it does appear that it is from 1915 and was a second run as The Darkening Trail was shown through the end of June at Woodley Theatre on Broadway near 9th.

As for Clune, he had a remarkable career in Los Angeles even before his rapid rise as an early theater chain owner.  He was born in Hannibal, Missouri, birthplace of Mark Twain, to Irish immigrants and his father was a stone cutter.  Clune worked as a grocer in that town but then got into the railroad industry, which led him, during the great Boom of the 1880s, to Los Angeles, where he settled in 1887.  He married five years later and he and his wife Agnes had one child, James.

Express, 20 May 1909.

Though his obituary and other biographical references allude only broadly to his railroad career, he was actually quite a figure in that local scene for about a decade through the end of the century.  Clune, who was then a Democrat, became a major figure in the local chapter of the American Railway Union, which was formed in Chicago in 1893, the year the World’s Fair was held in that metropolis.

The railroad industry was largely controlled by “robber barons” like E.H. Harriman, Jay Gould, James J. Hill and the Big Four of California, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford and as it burgeoned, disputes with labor magnified intensely.  One of the more prominent manifestations of this conflict was the Pullman car strike in the spring and summer of 1894, which also came after a major depression broke out in the country the prior year.

How times change!  Clune battling a musicians’ union over a salary dispute for his theater orchestra, Times, 28 November 1911.

In Los Angeles, Clune was secretary of an A.R.U. committee coordinating responses to the strikes and he and others with it were accused of holding up trains delivering mail, which was a federal crime.  With this as the basis, the local district attorney prosecuted him and the others leading to a conviction, held up on appeal to the United States Supreme Court, that brought an eighteen month sentence in county jail.

Clune and his compatriots were serving their terms when it was announced that President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who was nearing the end of his second, non-consecutive term in the White House, issued a pardon after they were about half way through their sentence.  The Los Angeles Express, commenting on Cleveland’s act of clemency, stated that “these men bore a good reputation and were thought highly of among their fellow workmen.”  It added there was substantial sympathy for them and that many locals signed a petition sent to Washington requesting the pardon.

Express, 12 March 1914.  The Shell Theatre soon became the Comedy Theatre, but only retained that name for a short period.

The paper went on to say that Clune and his associates were caught up in the emotion of the strike period and “did not understand the gravity of their acts,” while Cleveland noted that the men learned a lesson from the severity of their punishment and were an example to others “who might be induced to commit like offenses under a similar state of affairs.”

The Express commented that “these men were not criminals and were not led to the violation of law by motives that were criminal.”  It quoted the president to that effect as he stated that they were “laboring men swept into a violation of the law by listening to the counsels of disorder.”  The paper, in contrast to the views of its anti-labor and pro-business competitor, the Times, concluded its editorial by lauding the president’s decision as “a salutary step that cannot fail to leave a good effect, not only upon the parties concerned immediately, but upon all the laboring men in the country.”

Times, 26 April 1914.

During the period when Clune was on release awaiting his appeal, he got into a conflict with a bar owner in “Dogtown” an area of the city north of the Plaza and near the huge railroad yards where he lived and gunfire broke out.  Clune’s adversary was wounded and he was charged with assault to murder, but the matter was dropped by prosecutors.  The only other criminal matter he was involved with was more than a decade later when the prosperous capitalist was arrested with several other men, including Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin for hunting rabbits on Baldwin’s Rancho Santa Anita in violation of cruelty to animal statutes, though there was nothing located on how that was adjudicated.

Already a shrewd real estate dealer, Clune soon left behind his “radical” railroad past and, by the turn of the 20th century, reinvented himself as a capitalist (and, perhaps his conversion to the Republican Party, went hand-in-hand with this.)  He became the owner of several large and valuable properties in downtown, including a lot on Broadway and 9th streets that proved to be a boon to his only child.  As Los Angeles entered into its next big boom during the first years of the new century, Clune prospered.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sat__Jan_1__1916_ (1)
Times, 1 January 1916.

In the 1900 federal census, Clune was listed as a “commercial traveler slot machines” and, within several years, when a fire destroyed most of his home and business on Main between 7th and 8th streets, it was reported that, among the losses, were “nickel-in-the-slot machines of varied kinds” and “Regina music boxes.”  In addition to the slot machines, music boxes, and real estate (he was a director of Security Home Builders in the early 1910s, as well), Clune got involved in mining in Arizona and then formed the Clune Film Exchange as he jumped into the new and growing market for motion pictures.  The Los Angeles Theatres blog states that he was part of the Southwest Amusement Company, which operated several theaters in the last half of the 1900s.

In 1909, on the northwest corner of Fifth and Main streets, he opened his first theater in a building Clune leased for five years through the prominent real estate firm of R.A. Rowan and Company.  The venue had 1,000 seats and Clune made a point through publicity to emphasize that only first-class entertainment would be offered at his namesake theater.  He was also big on electric signage and sometimes got into trouble with local authorities over matters like that, while he was also known to be a tough competitor in what was a pretty unforgiving business.

Times, 27 May 1923.

A fire damaged the theater in 1913, but an expensive remodeling and renovation took place, though the building was razed after the lease expired so that the addition to the Hotel Rosslyn, which was next door to the north, could proceed.  By then, however, Clune had his Clune’s Broadway flagship venue, which opened in October 1910 between Fifth and Sixth on a lot owned by Eva Fenyes, whose mansion is the now the Pasadena Museum of History.

The two-story brick and steel theater, which opened just after Alexander Pantages built his first Los Angeles theater next door, had 900 seats (later cut down by about a third) and cost some $50,000 to erect.  The Los Angeles Theatres blog, always a great source of information on early theaters in the Angel City, includes excerpts from a 1911 film industry magazine that provides a wealth of detail about the venue, which was given a larger electric sign than the first version, and there are also some great photos in the post.  After Clune sold the theater, it became the Cameo and, though it closed in 1991 after several owners, the building, along with the adjacent Roxie and Arcade, is owned by a real estate firm that has proposed various projects that have not yielded firm plans to date.

Times, 19 October 1927.

In the early 1910s, Clune operated a theater on Grand Avenue, but this was for a brief period and, by 1912, it was under other management.  That year he was running the former Grand Opera House, built in 1884 by Ozro W. Childs, a nursery owner and real estate figure of note in early Los Angeles, though this venture seems to have been short lived.  There were also ventures at Ocean Park, south of Santa Monica, Long Beach, Santa Ana and Pasadena as part of his chain.

Clune also ventured into film production, establishing his own studio and expending $250,000, on 40 acres in East Hollywood, and where he made the 1916 version of Ramona, followed by the much-hyped production of The Eyes of the World, the latter being filmed in the San Bernardino Mountains near where Clune had a second home and built around a southern California storyline.  Both films were directed by Donald Crisp, also an acclaimed actor who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1942 for How Green Was My Valley.  The studio was shuttered after a few years and, while the Clunes kept ownership of the land, United Artists, Columbia and others operated there with Raleigh Studios situated there today.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Apr_21__1929_ (2)
Times, 21 April 1929.

Perhaps the stress of operating a chain of theaters and a studio contributed both to the end of his marriage, as Clune moved out (his wife listed herself as a widow in the 1917 city directory!) and lived at the Los Angeles Athletic Club for much of the rest of his life, and his decision, in spring 1923, to sell out of the theater business.

It is unclear if he did much work for a few years afterward, but, in spring 1927, he announced that he was going back into his first successful venture, real estate.  He was also an investor in the palatial United Artists Theater on Broadway between 9th and 10th streets along with such luminaries as Mayor George Cryer, United States Senator Frank P. Flint, Ambassador Hotel manager Abraham Frank, J.B. Van Nuys, Irving Hellman, and William May Garland.


Yet, within six months, he was felled by a stroke and died in October 1927 at age 65.  He was notoriously private and not much was published about his personally during his years of prominence in the movie theater and film industries.  Though his wife survived him, the bulk of his estate, which was pegged at around $3 million, was left to his son James, who was half-owner of an oil company.

After selling bank stock to pay a large income tax debt, James announced in April 1929 the development of the property at the northeast corner Broadway and 9th his father bought in 1910 and left him and on which there was a parking lot.  The result was the striking and iconic Eastern Columbia Building, named for the anchor tenants, the Eastern Outfitting furniture and Columbia Outfitting clothing firms, which opened a combined store in the structure when it opened in September 1930.  Now lofts, as so many historic buildings are in the downtown area, the Eastern Columbia remains one of the best-known commercial edifices in the city.


This pamphlet may have been for a theater that only existed under that name for a couple of years, but it is representative of one of the earliest and most successful of the theater owners in Los Angeles, which quickly became the film capital of the world during the time that William H. Clune rose to prominent and success, even as he is a forgotten name a century or so later.

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