by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The stories are legion about those who have come and still do to Los Angeles to seek fame and fortune in entertainment, mostly in Hollywood and its vaunted film industry, and most of them have and do end up with dreams deflated and defeated. Today’s post and its featured artifacts from the Homestead collection are a variant of this involving the efforts of Otis L. Oliver and his attempt to establish a new theater troupe in the Angel City early in 1923 and the harsh reality that quickly set in for this actor and stock company head who came here with plenty of experience but in settings far removed from here.
Oliver, whose real name is not known, was born in 1884, apparently in St. Paul, Minnesota, though some sources say he was from New York. His name first appears in press accounts as an actor, working primarily in the Midwest, at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, with the earliest located naming him as part of the Chase-Lister theater company performing in Deadwood, South Dakota in mid-November 1907. Two years later, he was in the stock company headed by B.F. Keith as it performed in Marion, Ohio, a small city north of Columbus best known for its historic site home of President Warren Harding.
By the early part of the following decade, however, Oliver joined forces with Jack Lewis to form their own troupe, Lewis-Oliver, and the company performed in such states as Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio during 1911 and 1912. Among the places the group performed for extended periods were Streator and Dixon (home of another American president, Ronald Reagan) in the Land of Lincoln and Davenport, Iowa. While it was reported by the end of 1912 that Oliver decided to leave the stock company enterprise, which was always highly competitive and financially risky, he formed his own troupe by the dawn of the next year.
In April 1913, the Oliver Drama Players were in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and a year later in Davenport, where the company performed the leader’s original play, “It Happened in Davenport.” The next several years appeared to be good ones for the troupe and its head as they traveled throughout the Midwest and built up a reputation, as noted in the 20 May 1917 edition of the Richmond [Indiana] Item, which stated that Oliver was “heading a talented and competent company of repertoire people” and that “his bright and snappy offerings has [have] attracted a wonderful following and become immensely popular in the border town between Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio.
By the end of the Teens, Oliver was based in Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, where he not only operated his troupe but ran the Otis Oliver School of Theatre Arts and was still doing so as late as fall 1922. Shortly afterward, however, he decided to pick up stakes (we’ll see why below) and packed up and headed for Los Angeles, where by the first days of the new year he formed The Los Angeles Theatre with an office briefly in the Western Mutual Life Building on Third between Broadway and Hill and then in the California Building at Broadway and Second Street.
In its 13 January 1923 issue, the Los Angeles Record reported “another organization for the amateur production of plays has been formed in Los Angeles and is planning its first production about February 1, ‘In Walked Jimmy.'” It was added that “Otis Oliver, a man of wide managerial experience, has been engaged as director.” Classes for all kinds of aspects of theater work were planned for those paying an annual $10 membership fee, while “it is hoped to produce original plays and sketches, along with established works, a few titles of which were stated as being “the first plays tried out.” A photo of Claire Morris was included, though she was not mentioned in the article. The next day’s Los Angeles Times, however, in its coverage of the formation of the troupe also had an image of Morris and stated that she “will take leading roles in the productions.”
The highlighted letter for today is one of three documents related to The Los Angeles Theatre. One is a pamphlet promoting the project, stating that its purpose had four parts: “to obtained good theatrical entertainment in Los Anglees through the production of interesting plays;” to have commercial and other work “that provides the best in dramatic production;” to allow for “self-expression” for those who are or want to be “in the various arts and crafts which, combined, make a stage play possible;” and “to develop through the school of the theater those artistic talents that apply especially to the stage.”
Members were offered five benefits, including early reservations at half price before tickets to performances were offered to the public; privileges for the theater school and involvement in productions; free admission to lectures, play-readings and other events; and “association and contact with those who are interested as you are in the development of Los Angeles as an art center along the broadest lines.” Fees were $5.00 for a half year or $10 year for the year.
It was intended that “The Los Angeles Theater [sic] will make one of more productions each month during its season” and that the number of performances depending on demand, while “the standards of perfection in every production will be the highest” (though one cannot get higher than perfection itself, presuming this was possible!) Tryouts for actors and dancers, along with carpenters, electricians, scene painters and others would be announced in the press, and “a special invitation is extended to all who have had professional experience.” Rehearsals were to be at the Walker Auditorium, later the Grand Theatre, on Grand Avenue south of Seventh Street, with performances there and at the Philharmonic Auditorium at Grand and Fifth, across from Pershing Square.
As for the school is the was to be free to those involved in the company’s productions and who wanted “instruction and development” in acting, playwriting, staging and other areas and it was expected that it would “grow as the itnerest of the members indicates the need for it.” It was hoped that there would someday be “a stage laboratory where experimental work in stage settings, lighting and play production can be done.” Also mention was the consideration of original plays and vaudeville pieces, which, if used, would be “on the same scale as the other productions of the organization” and there would be arrangements made for copyright of such work.
A dozen sponsors of the project were listed, including a member of the Ebell Club, a prominent women’s club; the manager of the Ambassador Theatre, located in the famed hotel that opened just two years prior; oilman Joseph B. Thurman; theater manager Joseph H. Delacour, also “President [of the] Citizens Protective League,” identified by a San Francisco newspaper as a vigilante committee; an executive at United Film Studios; and “Motion Picture Star” Matt Moore, who appeared in credited character actor roles for about twenty years from the mid-1910s to mid-1930s, including in The Unholy Three (1925) starring Lon Chaney and the first talkie by Mary Pickford, a former sister-in-law of Moore, 1929’s Coquette, and then appeared in mostly uncredited bit parts for another two decades until just before his death in 1960.
As for Oliver, he was said to be both producer and director for the new enterprise and formerly a manager or director with the Warrington Theater in Chicago, the Shubert in St. Paul, and with famed impresario Oliver Morosco in New York. Also cited were his seasons at theaters in Rockford, Illinois, Davenport, Iowa, Omaha, Nebraska, and with his own company in El Paso, Texas, Lincoln, Nebraska and South Bend, Indiana, the latter two in theaters named for him. His photo appeared on the rear cover and the executive staff with him included a secretary and treasurer, a business manager and persons responsible for “music and pageantry” (this being Claire Morris, the actor mentioned above) and publicity.
There were two letters written by Oliver, and signed “Austin,” to Sybil Mohr of his former stomping grounds in Lincoln. The first, dated 10 January, acknowledged receipt of a letter from Sally, as she was known and who was apparently an acting student at his school and perhaps member of his troupe, and expressed that he was glad “that you are an Oliver booster.” He went on to tell her that “our big society is coming on great, and I’ll mail you all our adv mettre [matter] this week. We have a great project and I think I’m in line for something good out here.” Of course, that advertising material is the pamphlet discussed above. With regard to Los Angeles, he enthused:
This sure is the greatest show town in the world, every Theatre packed day and night, you see there are 5000 tourists come in here every day now, hotels, etc. full up, people live in tents, anything.
As for his leaving Lincoln and heading to the Angel City, it seems to be explained by his asertion that “I only know I tried by [my] best to put over a good show, and I know my stay in Lincoln the last trip cost me lots of money as the venture was must [most] dissasterrous [sic] for my [me] financially.”
The second missive, from the 23rd, began with a reference Mohr made in a previous letter and which Oliver stated purportedly concerned “my breaking a married ladies heart,” though it “is all Greek to me, please explain. You know I’m im[m]une from any such catastrophies.” As to The Los Angeles Theatre, he continued, “we are getting on, and hope to put on our first big show here in a few weeks,” promising to let her know more about it.
After saying he’d heard from another former acting student, he wrote “Wallie Reid had a wonderfull [sic] funeral out here, he was well liked all right, poor devil too bad he had to hop off so young.” Wallace Reid was a very popular leading man in films for several years, but who developed an addiction to morphine when it was prescribed to him after he suffered an injury on his way to a film shoot and he overdosed on 18 January.
Oliver continued that “Hollywood is taming down every day, and the film folks sure do work hard, they keep them in the studios from 9 am to 5 pm.” but added, “I think I’ll stay out of the Movies.” He then told Mohr “we are trying to put over a big road show called ‘Temptation,’ it is something like ‘Experience,’ if it goes over it will play all the best Theatres to the East, maybe stop at Lincoln . . . . . why don’t you join this . . . . . I am also working on a big vaudeville act to go over [the] Orpheum [circuit?] time wish you could get in this . . . . . .” He then ended by asking her to write back “and please explain again what you mean by breaking a girls heart ?????????????.” Mohr was married, so it may well have been about her.
In any case, the troupe, soon renamed the Los Angeles Community Theatre, did mount a production at the Philharmonic Auditorium. On 29 March, the Los Angeles Express reported that “for the first time on any stage, a new rural play with all the scenes, story and atmosphere laid in the corn state of Iowa, will be offered . . . for three nights and Wednesday matinee, starting April 4.” The troupe produced it “for the interest and promotion of the Iowa Society of Southern California,” there being many organizations of regional residents who hailed from other states in the Union and who, in those days, threw large picnics and other events for their members.
The paper continued that “Otis Oliver, a well-known theater producer, and for many years operator of stock theaters and road shows at Davenport, Clinton, Muscatine and other Iowa centers will stage ‘The Girl from Iowa,'” written by Minnie Z. Jaffa, a Los Angeles playwright. The Times, on 1 April, promoted the performance, noting that Oliver was directing “a cast of Los Angeles talent, including many well-known Iowa people” and it included a photo of lead Vada Heilman, though it was not mentioned that she was Oliver’s wife.
It turned out that “In Walked Jimmie,” the play reported by the Record to be the first offering of the troupe was “The Girl from Iowa,” as the Times, in its review of 5 April, revealed, saying that “the play, which opened yesterday, has been changed a little—a very little—and retitled” from Jaffa’s original. Moreover, it was done “merely in the hope that every Iowan in this part of the country would attend, in which case the house would be sold out for every performance.”
Despite this titular sleight-of-hand, the paper added that the play “is a snappy comedy” and “for the most part the production is a success,” though the company “do not get quite all they can out of it” and some of the characters were poorly developed.” Added to the program were a pair of jazz bands, one all male and the other composed of all women. It was not mentioned previously, but Oliver played the lead role of Jimmy and it was said “his work is good,” while hsi wife, Heilman, and Pauline King “are seen to advantage” as the leading ladies. Jule Flox “as the dumb country girl scores a comedy success,” but the other lead, Jack Ferguson, did not “put across his role in the last act when his questionable actions are supposed to be vindicated.”
Once the run was over, however, it does not appear that much more of consequence happened with the Los Angeles Community Theatre. Oliver and Heilman lived in the Eagle Rock neighborhood and, in 1924, he wrote a play, based on a published story, called “Married Today” that he took out on the road with his latest female discovery, Madelyn Goddard, a Fresno native who studied in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the vicissitudes of the life of a theater company head led to more financial distress, as manifested when Vada Heilman divorced Oliver in June 1926 and asserted “her husband left her penniless while the company was playing at Waterloo, Iowa” (it is tempting to suggest this was truly the marriage’s Waterloo, a la Napoleon!). Yet, Oliver performed with comedian Bud Brownie’s company earlier in the year and then took another troupe of his own on the road to perform “The Flapper Bandit.”
In early 1927, he took a job as the chief of production at the Rialto Theatre in Tampa, Florida, but that seems to have lasted a mere matter of months. The summer of 1928 found him acting in Pennsylvania and serving as director of Brown’s company. At a stop in Olean, New York, in the western part of the state, the local paper, the Times-Herald reported on Oliver’s views on the new talking movies. He opined
There is a charm to a flesh and blood personality which no shadow flickering on the screen can achieve. After all, the shadow, aping the voice of life, is but a mere puppet: a mere substitution for the real thing.
The talking movie fascinates now—it is a new thing but it can never take the place of the actor in person.
It was stated that Oliver, writing under the nom de plume of Hale Goodwin, was the author of a dozen plays, including “The Flapper Bandit,” though “Married Today” was not mentioned, and that he was director of a half-dozen “little theatres,” or those with fewer than 100 seats. With regard to that recent movement in the theater world, Oliver told the paper, “if it were not for the Little Theatres today we would have less than half the stock organizations of ten years ago. In this day of movies, they are doing immeasurable service in keeping the stage a living and vital force.”
Yet, Oliver’s own career was on a downward trajectory, while, of course, film was only making a greater impact despite his (and others’) reservations and dedication to live theater. He apparently stopped acting in 1932, according to one source, though he was with a stock company at Dubuque, Iowa in 1938 and with another troupe at Louisville, Kentucky, four years later. He also had “Oliver’s Observations” about theatrical people and goings-on published in some issues of Billboard magazine during the early 1940s before his death on 2 April 1946 in Richmond, Virginia.
Though he’s been long forgotten, Otis Oliver’s odyssey in the world of live theater is an interesting one, including his brief stay in Los Angeles and the failed attempt with The Los Angeles [Community] Theatre venture. These letters and pamphlet are instructive documents for the state of theater on a small scale in the Angel City during the early 1920s.