by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The ubiquitous “celebrity home tours” through vans, buses and other conveyances is reflective of an obsession that goes back to the early 20th century, specifically as the film industry grew exponentially and the “cult of celebrity” was expanded, refined and popularized. While there was not the plethora organized pilgrimages we’re used to seeing in our era, the fascination with celebrities, meaning movie stars, was most certainly present from early on in the industry’s regional presence.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection is emblematic of this phenomenon. It is a snapshot, taken on 22 July 1922, of the Santa Monica residence of actor House Peters, whose name is virtually unknown today, but who, especially for several years in the 1910s, was a star with top-billing in Hollywood.
Peters, born Robert House Peters, hailed from Bristol, England, a city in the southwestern portion of the country with a strong maritime tradition. Not surprisingly, Peters took to the sea at a young age and is said to have sailed throughout much of the world. He also apparently engaged in mining in South Africa and saw action in the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century.
Peters became a stage actor, first in England and Australia and then in the United States, and was signed by Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players film company, making his debut in September 1913 in In the Bishop’s Carriage, starring one of the most famous actors of the era, Mary Pickford. After a number of notable supporting roles, including with William S. Hart, he became a leading man pretty quickly and gained renown, especially during the period of 1915-1917.
He was working for Paramount and garnering a great deal of attention when he left Hollywood for two years between mid-1917 and mid-1919 and returned to stage work. In a lengthy feature article in the 24 August 1919 edition Los Angeles Times by prominent theater and film critic Edwin Schallert (whose son, William, was a noted character actor, including his playing Admiral Hargraves in the 1960s spy spoof, Get Smart), Peters’ move back to Hollywood was introduced as “things fly along at such a whirlwind rate in the motion picture business that whenever a star vanishes from the luminous sky of filmland, for say a matter of two years, it behooves him to have a reintroduction to the gazers on the celestial galaxy.”
In Peters’ case, he was described by Schallert as a veritable “salt of the earth” kind of guy, at ease with a dishwasher or a hotel porter as with royalty. He told Schallert that he preferred to live “where I can get in touch with a different type of people from those with whom I work,” adding that he was drawn “to study people in general” because “I get no end of valuable aids to acting from watching the gestures and expressions of, for instance, a newsboy. The human traits of people, the manner in which they are conveyed, fascinate me.”
The actor noted that he learned a great deal from both arenas of acting, the stage and the screen, asserting that “there is no doubt that both forms of expression have grown as a result of influence from each other.” At the same time, he recognized the practical effects of film stardom, observing, “pictures do such wonders to increase the actor’s popularity. They give him a new hold on a wider, vaster public when he returns to the stage.”
He did, however, offer a perspective on the role of the actor that could point to potential or real conflict with directors, opining that
Too much is left to the director. While the picture is in actual process of production I believe that the director should rule, but beforehand there should be discussions and understandings between the directors and the actors of experience as to the proper conveyance of certain expressions. This may be done, I know, in a great many instances, but a degree more of freedom in allowing the player to express his individuality will strengthen the histrionic fabric of the photoplay.
It may be that he had peaked anyway or that tastes of film-goers was changing, but Peters’ career was not the same after he returned to Hollywood. He did continue to work and he was often acclaimed as “The Man of a Thousand Emotions,” but he made fewer films, generally about three a year through the mid-1920s, and, though he was still a lead for most of that time, he was not quite as famous as he’d been before.
After 1926, he made one prominent film, Rose-Marie, released in 1928 and which co-starred a young and rising actor, Joan Crawford, and included an uncredited stunt man and extra named Lou Costello, later member of the famed comedy team of Abbott and Costello. It was nearly a quarter century after that before Peters returned to film when he made an appearance in a Gene Autry vehicle, 1952’s The Old West.
One of the other actors in that picture was Peters’ son, House, Jr., a character actor whose career began in the mid-Thirties and who was very active in the Fifties. He was widely known as the original Mr, Clean in television commercials in the late 1950s and into the following decade.
Another son, Gregg, became a production manager, an assistant producer and an assistant director, starting with some well-known television programs starring Milton Berle and Bob Hope and including a brief detour into film musicals like Gypsy and The Music Man in the early 60s. Returning to television, he worked on Star Trek and The Lucy Show in the later part of that decade and then the Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and Taxi among others.
As to the photograph, it shows an unusual architectural specimen, a two-story structure on a corner lot, so that the main entrance faces at an angle the intersection of two streets. It has stone block elements evocative of the Romanesque style, sash windows that appear to be Craftsman-influenced (one set on the first floor has an awning deployed, while the other opposite has the awning retracted), a tile roof like those seen in Mission or Spanish Colonial revival buildings, and a third-floor projecting deck with a wood patio cover covered with a translucent sheeting. All in all, the best description for the house might be that it was “eclectic.”
A man (Peters perhaps?) sits on a low wall at the porch steps and there may be someone reclining on a piece of furniture behind him, but the inscription on the reverse merely states that the home belonged to the actor, noting its location, and giving the date the image was taken from the opposite corner, or cater corner, to the structure.
The landscaping is surprisingly bland, consisting of a set of stairs leading from the street corner and wide expanses of lawn (sprinklers are on at the left side, which may explain why Peters, or whoever the gent is, is sitting at the front), but no other plantings other than a couple of large sago palms in the grass median between the sidewalk and the street. Behind low walls on either side of the dwelling, though, there is evidence of lusher landscaping.
It does appear from census sheets, city directory listings and other sources that Peters, his wife Mae, and their three sons, moved fairly often, residing in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills through the mid-1930s and, once his film career faded, moving out to San Marino for a period.
His wife remained there in the early 1940s, while Peters moved back to Los Angeles, perhaps in pursuit of resuming his acting career. He made three films in the early Fifties, but nothing else apparently was done for years before or afterward. He does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and died at age 87 in 1967 at the Motion Picture and Television Country House.