by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When the Baltazar G. Madrid Estate recently donated the amazing collection of artifacts connected to Josephine M. Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman and who was a star of early film, basically the first half of the 1910s, under the stage name of Princess Mona Darkfeather, there were quite a few photographs and other items related to Helen Kaiser (1906-1988). At the time, all we knew was that most of the images came from Buffalo, though it was clear that she was in Los Angeles to try her hand at breaking into the movies in the very late 1920s.
After some research in the last few months, a fair amount of information has been learned about the young woman, who was a talented musician and dancer in her native city, went to be a member of the famous Ziegfeld’s Follies dance troupe, spent her year or so in Hollywood, tried some stage work back in New York and then looks to have given up on an entertainment career and settled into the obscurity in which most of us live.
Kaiser was born, the youngest of four children, to Curt Kaiser, an immigrant from Germany who came to the United States in the mid-1880s, and Caroline Schenker, whose parents were from Germany. There were a great many German migrants to Buffalo and Curt was a proprietor of the Dwelle-Kaiser Company, which dealt in mirrors, glass and paint and the seven-story building in which it once operated still stands.
The earliest found reference to Kaiser is her performance for the grand ball of the city’s Orpheus Club at the Hotel Statler in early March 1924, not long after she turned eighteen. After the ball, which featured the well-known Vincent López Orchestra, she played the violin and also danced in a Ballet Coppelia, a French comedic form, in a later evening pageant. In the summer, she was in a dance troupe that performed in the musical comedy Tangerine at the Majestic Theatre.
In August 1925, Kaiser was called the “Pavlova of Buffalo,” in comparison to the very famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, in the Buffalo Courier, which observed that “a short year ago, Helen was a school girl puzzling her pretty head over such intricate subjects as trigonometry, English literature and the cut of her dress at Lafayette high school.” Having completed her education, however, “today, through the medium of a pair of twinkling toes and a glorious smile, she is puzzling over the problem of just which door she shall choose to enter the charmed world of play-acting.”
The account added that Kaiser was considered the most beautiful of the McGarry troupe of chorus girls and noted that “she is a dancer of unusual ability and the possessor of a well-trained , sweet soprano. Furthermore, she is an accomplished violinist and pianist.” She explained to the Courier that “when I was a little tot, going to grade school, I used to come home and dance for hours to the victrola [phonograph player] in my gym shoes.”
After her mother bought her some ballet shoes, Kaiser took lessons at a dance school and “for several years she has been in great demand locally.” The article also reported that “her abiliy as an actress as well as a dancer and singer is appreciated by the local directors” as she was being given speaking parts in plays during the summer. Morover, the piece went on,
Already she has had four alluring vaudeville offers, a chance to act as specialty dancer for the “Dream Girl,” Victor Herbert’s last work and two of the brightest lights in the theatrical firmament, Walter Wolff and Fay Bainter, and in adition to this Miss Kaiser was approached last week by a special agent with an offer to play in Earl Carroll’s “Vanities.”
Kaiser told the paper that, because there were only three weeks left for the run of “Dream Girl” and she had other commitments, she declined that offer, but was still considering the work with “Vanities.” She also was mulling over studying acrobatic and stage dancing in New York City. She was still in Buffalo performing as the fall came, but her big break came not too long afterward.
Kaiser joined the cast of the famous Ziegfeld Follies for the 1927-1928 season and which starred the renowned comedian Eddie Cantor with singers Cliff Edwards (popularly known as “Ukulele Ike), Ruth Etting, whose turn led to stardom as “America’s Sweetheart of Song”, the Brox sisters, and Claire Luce (a notable dance partner of Fred Astaire and a long-time actress.) The show, performed at the New Amsterdam Theatre, ran for 167 performances from mid August 1927 to early January 1928.
Later that year, she joined the cast of Say When, but that production, mounted at the Morosco Theatre, only lasted for fifteen shows in late June through early July. Kaiser had better luck with her next show, Three Cheers, a two-act musical comedy produced by Charles B. Dillingham and directed by Robert H. Burnside. Renowned actor Fred Stone, who was to be paired with his daughter Dorothy, could not appear in the early performances because of serious injuries from an stunt airplane crash, so his close friend Will Rogers too over the role. The show was a hit, running for 210 performances from mid-October 1928 through mid-April 1929.
In May, within a month of the closing of Three Cheers, Kaiser was signed as a member of the stock company of the recently formed RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures, which was organized with the merger of the studio of future President John F. Kennedy’s father Joseph P. Kennedy and the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain under the auspices of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and its powerful head, David Sarnoff, who wanted a vehicle for talking pictures.
The new RKO’s first big hit was the musical Rio Rita, which was a successful Broadway musical from 1927 and produced by Ziegfeld. The film, released in mid-September 1929, starred Bebe Daniels and John Boles and Kaiser played the wife of the character of noted vaudeville comedian Bert Wheeler, whose partner Robert Woolsey had a featured role. When the Hillstreet Theatre at Eighth and Hill and first opened in 1922 was purchased by RKO and reopened just prior to the premiere Rio Rita, the Los Angeles Record reported that Kaiser attended as a member of the entourage of singing sensation Rudy Vallée.
The 24 September 1929 edition of the Hollywood Citizen reported that Kaiser was wearing a four-carat diamond ring on her engagement finger and it was rumored that Vallée was her betrothed, but she denied it, saying “Yes, I like Rudy very much. No, we’re not engaged.” A few weeks later, just before the crash of the stock market in New York City ushered in the Great Depression, the Venice Vanguard ran a short feature with a beautiful portrait of Kaiser and it stated,
For three years a Ziegfeld Follies girl, and a featured R.K.O. player since June, when the lure of the “talkies” proved stronger than the lights of Broadway, Miss Helen Kaiser has been persuaded to act as the bright star of tonight’s “Star Night” at the Venice ballroom, to be hostess, judge the dancing contest and present the silver loving cup trophy to the winning couple.
Such public apperances were part for the course, though it was added that “Miss Kaiser feels at home in the Venice ballroom, having spent much time there of late because she “is making a great all-taking, all-singing, all-dancing picture on the pier,” this being Dance Hall.
This film, which opened in mid-December, starred Olive Borden and Arthur Lake, best known as Dagwood Bumstead in radio, film and television versions of Blondie. Dubbing her a “Glorified American Girl,” the paper proclaimed “Miss Kaiser’s cinema career bids far to be as successful or more so than her New York stage career.” The picture, however, was a critical failure and a box-office bust.
In early January 1930, Kaiser joined Daniels, Woolsey, Wheeler and Dorothy Lee for a special screening of Rio Rita at the Carthay Circle for the University of Pittsburgh football team, in town of the Rose Bowl football game, in which, however, the Panthers were pounded by the hometown U.S.C. Trojans, 47-14. A few days later, the Record reported that “ingenue player” Kaiser signed a new deal with R.K.O, and, at the end of the month, she appeared in person with Lake and another co-star at a screening of Dance Hall at the Orpheum Theatre, which still stands today.
At the end of March, it was reported that Kaiser was among several Ziegfeld Follies dancers who had left for Hollywood and it was stated that “Helen has had any number of offers from her former boss to return to New York, but she turns a deaf ear to all of them.” The article continued that “she has become an actress now and prefers dramatic roles such as she has been portraying in pictures to the dance routines of the Ziegfeld shows.”
Yet, while Kaiser was occasionally photographed as a model in fashion shoots and a Lux soap ad for the local press through 1930, she did not get cast in any other film roles. By the following year and after her R.K.O. contract expired, she was back in New York City and appeared in a Charles Dillingham play, Stella Brady. In 1932, she appeared with the Beechwood Players in a summer stock production called Blow Whistles north of New York.
After that, however, nothing could be found of Kaiser at all when it came to performing. By the mid-1930s she was residing in Richmond, Virginia and then reappeared in Los Angeles when the 1940 census was taken under the name of Helen Kaiser Monroe, though she was living alone in an apartment in what is now Koreatown and her occuaption was given as “Fine arts Saleswoman.” Within several years, she married W. Stanley Moore and lived in New York City in her later years. Her husband died in 1978 and Helen was listed as a survivor along with a daughter named Barbara. Neither a death record or an obituary has been located for Helen and it is not known if there are any descendants.
Among the donation from the Madrid estate were photos, such as the exampes shown here, but also two reels that have survived pretty well intact of a screen test from 1929 featuring Kasier and Joel McCrea, first signed to MGM and whose first featured role was The Jazz Age, an early R.K.O. release issued just after that year began. McCrea’s inaugural starring role was in a late 1930 R.K.O. film, The Silver Horde, so it is presumed that the test was conducted in between while the studio looked for a vehicle for both the young actors.
Of course, McCrea went on to a long and successful career in a variety of film genres, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), the Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels (1941), King Vidor’s tropical drama Bird of Paradise (1932) and, later, a number of Western classics like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962). Helen Kaiser, on the other hand, quickly faded from the film scene and didn’t last long in her return to the theater in New York, either.
Still, these photos of her, along with the remnant of a handwritten story idea from an unknown date, that included Mona Darkfeather (Josephine Workman) and likely penned by the latter’s husband Frank Montgomery, are interesting documents of the brief career of Kaiser, whose story was mirrored by untold numbers of young actresses trying to get their big break in the tough world of the Hollywood film industry.