Treading the Boards While in the Portrait Gallery: A Photo of Chickasaw Nation Actor William F. Harrison in the Mission Play, San Gabriel, ca. 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon, the Homestead was happy to be able to have film historian Angela Aleiss share some of the remarkable history of Native Americans in the movie industry from the silent era to the early sound years, sharing information about the work of such figures as Minnie Prevost, James Young Deer, Lilian St. Cyr, Edwin Carewe, Thomas Ince and studios such as Biograph, Bison, Essanay, Paramount and Universal, as well as independent productions and all-native productions. We were also fortunate to have film historian and Bison Archives owner Marc Wanamaker, who provided many of the images for the talk and Angela’s new book Hollywood’s Native Americans: Stories of Identity and Resistance, during the question-and-answer period, as he shared some of his vast knowledge of the early motion picture industry. This post is something of an accompaniment in its look at a Native American who acted in film and the stage, notably in the Mission Play at San Gabriel.

Even for a dramatization on the stage, the enormously popular Mission Play, which ran for some two decades between the early 1910s and early 1930s (with an occasional revival afterward and a reimagined version performed several years ago), was a particularly paternalistic and celebratory theatrical offering at San Gabriel that emphasized the work of the padres at the mission established in 1771, especially in its civilizing and Christianizing of the benighted indigenous people.

This Chickasaw Nation roll has William F. Harrison’s assigned number of 817, his year of enrollment of 1897, name of his mother and his blood quantum of 3/4 along with other information pertaining to his family.

Given the bent towards such figures as Father Junipero Serra and Josefa Yorba of the prominent Californio family from what became Orange County, as well as the dancing led by principals and choreographers Juan Zorraquinos and Juanita Vigare, the representation of the native people was essentially of them as vessels for the bounties bestowed on them by the missionaries. Not surprisingly, actors like Frederick Warde and R.D. McLean, playing Serra; Lucretia del Valle and Patia Power (mother of the movie legend, Tyrone Power) as Señora Yorba; and the Zorraquinos got the lion’s share of the attention when it came to press coverage and other publicity and marketing efforts.

Reference to other actors tended to be much briefer and, when it came to Indian roles, even more so, but, in a recent remarkable donation of dozens of photographs and other items related to the Mission Play by Gloria Ballard, niece of the Zorraquinos, there are some images of actors playing Indians, with most of them appearing to be indigenous people. One, in particular, stands out because it is a solo portrait, as well as being inscribed to the dancers, and it is of William F. Harrison, a Chickasaw Nation actor who played two roles in the work for at least a decade from about 1922 to 1932.

Another Chickasaw roll with the Harrisons at the lower left, as well as the crossed-out entry for William’s full-blooded mother, Lucy, perhaps because she had died by 2 July 1904.

That photo is the featured artifact for this post and, while it is always a challenge finding documentation about people of color in that period, what we can piece together of Harrison’s life and work is notable as bringing something to the forefront about a figure who had some important roles in the long-running drama.

William Franklin Harrison was born in 1879 at Stonewall, Oklahoma, a town named for Confederate Army General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and part of the Chickasaw Nation’s portion of what was then generally known as “Indian Territory,” being the last sovereign land of America’s native people. He had white ancestry going back to a Cuthbert Harrison of England and his paternal grandfather William Fitzhugh Harrison was national secretary of the Chickasaws, one of the Five Civilized Tribes forcibly removed from the American Southeast, while his paternal grandmother Mary Burris was the daughter of a prominent tribal figure.

Harrison’s World War I draft registration card from 12 September 1918 showing him as a “Moving Pict’r Actor” with the production company of megastar Douglas Fairbanks. Harrison was born in 1879, as his age on the card shows.

His mother is only known so far as Lucy and she was a full-blooded Chickasaw, while his father, Daniel, was half-Chickasaw. The couple divorced in the late 1880s and Daniel married a white woman. When enrollment rolls were established by the end of the 19th century, they showed the blood quantum of each member and William and his full siblings were three-quarters, while his half-siblings were one-quarter. He was assigned the number 817 on the rolls, which turned out to be helpful to know when searching for what happened to Harrison in his later years.

As is too often the case with people of color in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, information on Harrison is basically non-existent until he was in Los Angeles and working as an actor, though he got into the profession is unknown. Perhaps he knew someone from Oklahoma who got into the entertainment business and sent the word or he may have pulled up stakes in his home state (Oklahoma entered the union in 1907 as the 46th state) and joined traveling stage acts.

Harrison’s enumeration in the 1920 federal census at a Los Angeles apartment house and with his occupation given as “Theater & Stage Actor,” perhaps indicating he’d joined the cast of the Mission Play.

In any case, an early located record of Harrison is when he registered for the draft on 12 September 1918 in the later stages of the First World War, though there are records from the 1914 Los Angeles city directory and the 1916 voter registration rolls that show a William F. Harrison as an actor and in “theatricals”. He resided in an apartment building on Main Street near 8th that was adjacent to the site of what several years later became the Great Republic Life Building, constructed by Walter P. Temple and a syndicate of investors. The 39-year-old stated that he was a “motion pict. actor” working for Douglas Fairbanks, one of the biggest film stars of the era. It appears, however, that any parts he had in movies were uncredited.

When the 1920 census was taken a little over 16 months later, however, Harrison, listed as age 40 and who lived at the same address and was denoted as an Indian, stated that he was a “theater and stage actor,” which suggests he may have begun his tenure at San Gabriel with the Mission Play. San Gabriel city directories and voter registration lists show him living in the mission city during 1923 and 1924 and he was back in Los Angeles by 1928.

Harrison listed as residing in the Hotel San Gabriel in the mission city in the 1923 San Gabriel directory.

The earliest found documentation of him connected with the production is in early 1923 when the Los Angeles Times briefly discussed the twelfth season and mentioned Monroe Salisbury as Serra, Power as Yorba, William Ellingford as the governor and then noted “William F. Harrison, who handles two Indian roles convincingly.” One wonders if the unnamed critic thought, by the name, that Harrison was white and so his performance as a native led playgoers to believe his was a native!

The well-known Times film and theatre critic Edwin Schallert (whose son, William, was a character actor perhaps best known for playing the admiral in the 1960s spy spoof, Get Smart) gave a glowing review (almost all of them were) of the play in early 1929 and mentioned Harrison as part of the cast, as did articles in the Times and Illustrated Daily News in 1931 and 1932, this latter being the final season of the Mission Play, save for a couple of later revivals in the late Thirties and late Forties.

Los Angeles Times, 5 February 1923.

In 1930, Harrison resided in another apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles, this one on Hill Street south of Pico Boulevard. In this case, the 50-year old was listed as white, not Indian, and a divorcee, while he styled himself as a “Leg[itimate] Stage Actor.” Unfortunately, once the 20-year run of the Mission Play came to an end a few years later, it appears that, having no other prospects in local stage or film work, Harrison slipped into total obscurity.

In fact, even trying to find out when he died proved to be a bit of a challenge until a public notice was found from an August 1938 Ada, Oklahoma newspaper. It concerned the “Estate of William F. Harrison, Chickasaw 817,” with that tribal roll number being proof that it was the former actor.

Times, 3 April 1927.

His siblings and others filed a court action against any possible heirs, trustees, creditors and others of Harrison, of whom it was said that the plaintiffs were “alleging that William F. Harrison died intestate, on or about the 25th day of December 1937.” Not only was his death date not known with certainty, and no location was given, but Harrison left behind some property for which no claim had been made. It was obviously a sad end, indicative of someone who’d been estranged from his family and apparently died alone.

The few references to Harrison did not include the names of any others who played native American roles in the Mission Play and it seems likely that he had the only meaningful speaking roles of those portraying Indians. While there were some mention on a general level of the presence of indigenous characters in the work, a Times feature article from 3 April 1927 is almost certainly unusual in terms of the detail to which the piece went to discuss native Americans in the work.

Times, 2 January 1929.

Titled “Tribes Well Represented,” the article began by observing,

Bronzed, stalwart, in the brilliant paint of their forefathers and their ancient feathered headdress, the Indians who stalk across the Mission Playhouse rostrum, who dance the dances of ancient tribal custom as they enact their roles in the Mission Play at San Gabriel have been drawn from seven great tribes of America.

So, in addition to the “Mission Indians” of California, playwright John Steven McGroarty brought in the Hopis from Arizona, the Chickasaws (hence Harrison’s main role) and one Mohawk from New York. For the roughly two dozen Native American cast members, it was said “theirs is probably one of the most interesting chapters” of all those involving the characters and actors in the work.

Harrison counted as “white” in the 1930 federal census in a downtown Los Angeles apartment building on Hope Street south of Pico Boulevard with his occupation given as “Leg[itimate] Stage Actor.”

The unidentified writer then remarked, “they are a people apart” as “they live by themselves and within themselves, fraternizing not with the white man,” nor did they socialize with other Indians outside their tribe, so that each required a separate dressing room. After discussing how those who did not live locally gathered at San Gabriel to begin rehearsals for the next season, the piece continued that:

They love the play. It glorifies the Indian. They take great pride in showing how the old Indian days were lived, how the tribal rites were observed, and in wearing the magnificent regalia of the ancient chieftains.

It was related how McGroarty was approached by a member of a tribe from the interior deserts of California, perhaps the Cahuilla, and was told that they were not comfortable having to share a dressing room with those from another tribe.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 30 January 1931.

Despite this, the account went on, the indigenous actors were “simple, earnest, [and] child like in many of their actions,” but also proved to present the least problem of any performers, the playwright related.

McGroarty told the Times that:

They are natural-born actors, alert in rehearsal, always faithful to the moment, and sure to know their lines and their roles to perfection. They go about their business, bother no one and do what they are asked to do . . .

Every bit of work they do in the Mission Play seems to me to be endowed with this same sincerity of purpose and deep feeling. Whether it is a ceremonial dance or just a small bit, the Indian takes it seriously and does it to the best of his ability.

He related the solemnness of the presentation of ceremonies and he noted that, once a promise was made to a native actor, it had to be kept, otherwise “something is wrong” because “he cannot understand it.”

Times, 1 February 1932.

The article, lastly, provided a lengthier, though still brief, description of Harrison and his work than the few other references located and it is notable that the paper only singled him out, due to his roles, which numbered three that season:

One of the outstanding performers among the Indians is William F. Harrison, so named by the Indian agent of Oklahoma, where he was born, but whose tribal designation is Chief Young Turtle. Harrison portrays the part of Vicenzo in the first act; Capitajeno, chief of the San Carlos Indians, in the second act, besides leading a group of warriors to dance. In the final act he portrays the part of Sancho, a San Juan neophyte.

Given McGroarty’s approving of the indigenous performers, it is notable that Harrison was given multiple roles and his spotlight in the piece, even through the statement that the work “glorifies the Indian” has to be questioned, because the real glory was assigned to the missionaries and their work in Christianizing and civilizing the Indians, while nothing was said about the destruction of native culture and lifeways and the terrible attrition caused by alcohol, disease and violence.

Ada [Oklahoma] Weekly News, 11 August 1938.

While it was averred that the Indian actors kept to their tribal groups and did not mingle with the “whites,” the featured photo here, taken by R.L. Carson of San Gabriel and which shows Harrison in an impressive feathered headdress, patterned woolen blanket, and other costume elements as he sat against an old brick wall, has an inscription to Juan Zorraquinos and Juanita Vigare, “my very good friend[s] with sincere best wishes.”

It is quite clear that Harrison was not only a valued performer in the Mission Play troupe, but established close relationships with non-native cast members, such as the principal dancers and choreographers. It is a shame that an actor who garnered positive reviews and attention for his work did not find any meaningful employment in his profession after the Play closed in the early Thirties and appears to have died a lonely figure, out of contact with even his family.

While the performance, avidly championed by Walter P. Temple, who was, with railroad and real estate tycoon and books, manuscripts and art collector Henry E. Huntington, the largest donor to the new Mission Playhouse, completed in 1927 and which still stands, portrayed California mission life, even with the expected liberties with history for dramatic effect, far removed from those understood through later research, this photo and the others donated by Gloria Ballard, are important visual documents of the play and its place in our regional history.

UPDATE, 15 September 2022: While searching for something else connected to the Mission Play, a 12 April 1930 article in the Los Angeles Record was found which mentioned “W.E. Harrison” as “one of the cast’s outstanding players” in three Indian roles going back to the earliest period of the performance. It also mentioned that, because Harrison posed for some 50 paintings and 21 statues, “future generations will someday gaze upon the features of one of the members of the Mission Play cast, depicted as a perfect type of the fast disappearing race of red men, and perhaps wonder something of his history.”

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