Archive for January, 2010

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (Left) in his final film, "The Private Life of Don Juan" (1934)


The Gonzales Cannon

January 22, 2010

The city of Gonzales is known for its history and museums.  Now there is a new attraction to add to the list of tourist destinations.

“I have been a silent movie fanatic since I was about five years old,” said Keri Leigh, curator of the Douglas Fairbanks Museum, scheduled to open March 1 in Gonzales.  “I remember falling in love with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Lon Chaney — that was my first favorite film.”

Leigh recalls fencing with the boys in her neighborhood as a child, and watching the films of legendary actor Douglas Fairbanks.

“I used to reenact his stunt scenes from his movies when he played Robin Hood, Zorro and a pirate,” said Leigh.  “I grew up but I never fell out of love with silent movies.”

As a musician, Leigh toured the globe for several years, but in 1998 she decided to make a change.

“I was getting tired of life on the road living in a suitcase,” she said.  “It’s fun to do when you’re in your twenties, but I was finally ready to do something else.”

Silent films went through a revival in the 1990’s.  Old reels were turned into DVDs and cleaned up in the archives, so Leigh returned to her love of old films and the stars that made them shine and her life became engrossed in the world of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Douglas Fairbanks.  It was then that she decided to preserve his memory.

“I saw a growing interest in old films, with museums and libraries being dedicated to other stars, but then I thought, ‘What about Doug?’” said Leigh. “Doug, Mary and Charlie were known as the big three, and I wanted to make sure their contributions were not forgotten.”

In 1999 she held film screenings in Austin to raise money for the Douglas Fairbanks Museum.  With her former bass player Greg Jackson (now the museum’s live-in caretaker) they set up the museum in their home for two years, and eventually moved it into another building. 

Nearly three years ago the museum building’s first floor was flooded by rain water. They were renting the building and the owner sold it after flood damages were repaired.  After a two year search for a new location, Leigh said that’s when she realized that it may be time to take her friend’s advice and consider moving to Gonzales.  She admires the history of the city and its appreciation for the arts.

“This is one of the few small towns I’ve ever seen with two theaters – the Lynn and the Crystal – and I think we will fit right in,” said Leigh.

Leigh and museum mascot "Jack," her current leading man.



His real name was Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman Fairbanks, Sr., and he was raised in Denver, Colorado. Fairbanks was a serious stage actor, and according to Leigh that is exactly what Hollywood producers were looking for when silent films became popular.

“They wanted someone respectable to be on the screen to legitimize movies. At the turn of the 20th century, it was  mostly immigrants and lower income people who went to the movies. They could watch a film and get lost in another world, a better world, for 20 minutes.  And it only cost a nickel! Nickelodeons operated out of shop fronts in seedy neighborhoods. So-called “respectable” people wouldn’t go anywhere near them. The producers essentially wanted to attract a higher class of audience, so they had to start bringing in a higher class of star.”

In fact, Leigh said the job of a film actor wasn’t really respectable at all in the beginning.

“There would be signs in boarding houses that said, ‘No dogs or actors allowed!’”

The stage to screen theory paid off, and movies began to make huge profits.

“Doug was skeptical at first, but his attitude changed and he was taken by the technology of the movie camera and the freedom of film, he was no longer limited to the stage,” Leigh said.  “Movies made it possible for him to be famous all over the world, not just in New York City.”
In the late 1910s, when Fairbanks was the #1 male box office attraction, Mary Pickford was the world’s most popular female star, affectionately known as “America’s Sweetheart.” They married in 1920, and together they ruled the film industry.  Leigh describes them as the first Hollywood power couple.

“Back then, a celebrity was usually a president or politician, but they were something different. The world had never seen anything like it before. They truly were the first great Hollywood stars.” Leigh said.  “The crowds that came out to see them when they traveled were outrageous mobs. It was like Beatlemania.  In one case, Doug had to carry Mary on his shoulders through the crowd to protect her from their own fans.”

Museum curator Leigh

Fairbanks was truly a pioneer in the film industry. He earned enough money to start his own production company and was a founding member of United Artists. Fairbanks was also a founding member of The Motion Picture Academy, served as the Academy’s first president and hosted the first Oscars Ceremony in 1929.

His debut film was “Martyrs of the Alamo” in 1915, in which he plays five separate uncredited small characters.  One of the few movies about the Texas stand-off against the Mexican Army which includes the town of Gonzales in the story.  Leigh hopes to screen the film in Gonzales in the near future.

Fairbanks was part German and Jewish.  His family had moved to the United States in the 1800s.  Leigh said she often wonders how he felt in the years preceding World War Two, when his family’s homeland and people were under siege from Hitler.  In fact, she said if she could ask Fairbanks one question it would be about that.

“I would ask him why he didn’t use his celebrity to make a difference and stand up against Hitler and what was happening,” Leigh said.  “He must have been terrified, but he had the power – if he had made just one film about what was happening in Germany, and presented it the right way, who knows what impact it might have had?”

She has written and edited several books, including Douglas Fairbanks:In His Own Words. She carefully preserves the treasures she has gathered through the years, from film set props to books and photographs, Leigh, Jackson and museum mascot Jack the Cat are very excited to share the accomplishments of Fairbanks with visitors at the museum.
Leigh believes it will draw students and silent film fans from all over Texas and the country to Gonzales.

“I’m a steward of history and I feel like I work for him (Fairbanks). I’m merely taking care of his things for a few years, then the collection will be passed along to someone else one day who will continue to care for them and share these important pieces of history with others.

“I want to make sure he is not forgotten.  He was always a crusader and a defender of freedom and liberty, and that’s a very important part of his message. To this day his acting, writing, production skills and amazing stunt work are still looked at in awe,” said Leigh. “He was a force of nature, and an all-American hero.”

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Fairbanks in the 1919 comedy "When the Clouds Roll By"


Silence is golden: New museum pays tribute to silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

The Gonzales Inquirer 
January 21, 2010

If you have never heard of the famed silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., before, chances are you will be hearing about him more and more if you live in Gonzales County.

“We were looking everywhere,” said Keri Leigh, curator of the Douglas Fairbanks Museum.

What she was looking for was a place to relocate the museum honoring the life and times of actor and movie pioneer Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

In 1998, the museum was founded in Austin. But a flood and other circumstances has meant it didn’t have a permanent home for nearly the last three years.

That has all changed now.

The museum has found a home in Gonzales. It’s located on St. George Street, near the downtown clinic.

And Leigh couldn’t be happier.

“We needed a home and community,” said Leigh.

In the beginning

For Leigh, she never dreamed of being a museum curator. Her life as a journalist, musician, author and radio host seemed quite fulfilling and, well, rather hectic. She was on the road almost all of the time.

But in the back of her mind, there was something there.

“I have been a silent movie buff since I was a kid,” said Leigh.

She remembers a PBS series called, “Silence, Please” which aired every Saturday night. She was hooked at a young age.

In fact, one of her favorites was “Robin Hood,” which starred Fairbanks. She keenly recalls being age seven, armed with a sword, and recreating the scenes in her backyard.

Yet for Leigh, silent movies were more of a hobby, a passion.

Then came the 1990s when silent films suddenly made a comeback. They were becoming all of the rage.

“They were being rediscovered,” said Leigh. “The movies are amazing. To see the production quality.”

Because silent films have no sound, Leigh said the actors and filmmakers really had to paint a picture of what was happening on the screen. It made them really concentrate.

Fortunately, since it was a new phenomenon, Leigh said the references for the filmmakers and actors was art. They were used to seeing artwork and fine detail.

“Film was new,” said Leigh. “There were no rules and no boundaries.”

But this budding new industry was not accepted for quite some time. At that time, Hollywood was nothing more than a small farming community. When the industry began, Leigh said the locals weren’t pleased.

Some signs read, “No dogs or actors allowed.”

“They were not accepted back then,” said Leigh.

A passing fad?

In fact, many critics of the day said movies would be nothing more than a passing fad; that live theatre would remain king.

When the Nickelodeon theatres became popular in America, it appeared the critics may be wrong. People could watch a short film in just minutes for five cents. They’d watch on their lunch hours or just about any time.

“The profit margin was phenomenal,” said Leigh.

Because of that, early filmmakers were able to lure away some of the top Broadway talent with good salaries.

“They took giant steps to legitimize the industry,” said Leigh.

One of those steps involved signing a contract with Fairbanks, a star of the stage.

In 1915, Fairbanks signed a contract worth $100,000, a huge salary at that time.

Though he was skeptical of this new medium, Leigh said Fairbanks “took the deal.”

One of his first roles, ironically, was in a film called, “Martyrs of the Alamo.”

Not surprisingly, Gonzales is featured prominently in the film.

For Fairbanks, he was little more than a bit player in the movie, though he did play five different roles. One was even in black face, where he played the slave of Col. Travis.

Sadly at that time, African-Americans were not allowed to appear in films.

A new approach

Another huge advantage for filmmakers at that time was how quickly and cheaply a production could be completed.

Leigh said for about $2,000 they could make a movie and it would be finished in a week.

But that didn’t mean there was anything cheap about this new craft.

“They had a creative and original approach,” said Leigh. “They were experimenting with the equipment.”

Another big advantage, said Leigh, was the “title cards” which were used. Those are the frames with text in the movies. Leigh calls it the first “closed captioning” in the world.

Because that was the only text, she said those title cards could be made into any language, meaning the films were meaningful around the world.

What it did was lead to a huge industry, and Fairbanks was in on the leading edge. Leigh said he was a Hollywood leader in making sure the film industry was successful and lucrative.

He helped found many of the hotels and other staples of Hollywood which still exist today. He was a pioneer.

Fairbanks helped start the very first film school at the University of Southern California.

“He saw a need for this,” said Leigh.

He had helped found the Motion Picture Academy, with the hopes of having the school as part of that organization. But that turned into a group which basically handed out industry awards, and Fairbanks was not satisfied.

One day while on the golf course, Fairbanks had a discussion with the dean of USC, who he said “loved the idea” of a film school. That school is still going strong today, producing some of the top filmmakers in Hollywood.

Yet much of the past may have been forgotten had it not been for the resurgence of silent films. Ironically, it was new technology which led to silent films in the first place and the resurgence had a lot to do with today’s new technology.

With the internet and so many other mediums, Leigh said fans around the world can communicate and enjoy silent films.

“Studios began pulling them out of the vault,” said Leigh.

Today, screenings of silent films play to sell-out crowds around the world.

A change of direction

For Leigh, she thought her life would revolve around her chosen career of journalism.

“I thought I would be a journalist my entire career,” said Leigh.

But that turned into a musical career, which meant traveling all over the country and sleeping in hotel room after hotel room. Her band, Keri Leigh and the Blue Devils, found great success.

But that success can also lead to burnout.

“I was ready to sleep in my own bed, ready to settle down,” said Leigh.

And then came the silent film revolution.

In doing research, Leigh said she found that many of the silent film stars had museums dedicated to their lives.

“They all seemed to have them,” said Leigh.

But, she said, to “my amazement,” there wasn’t any such museum for Fairbanks.

As she began studying Fairbanks more and more, she learned just how crucial he was in getting the new industry off the ground and turning it into what many of us know as Hollywood today.

She said in his writings, Fairbanks predicted cable television and video on demand. He also envisioned a ratings system for movies.

All of that came to pass.

Yet there still was nothing permanent to honor one of the true pioneers of Hollywood.

Leigh said she and Jackson, along with “other like-minded folks,” decided they should come up with a plan.

They pooled their resources, built some exhibit space and launched the museum effort.

“It was a community effort,” said Leigh.

In 1998, the museum found a permanent home in Austin.

But in 2007, massive rains struck the Austin area. Though they didn’t really understand exactly what was about to happen, Leigh said they did know enough to move all of the exhibits to the second floor of the building which housed the museum.

The flood came and wiped out the entire downstairs.

They were renting the building and the owner decided he wanted to go in a different direction.

“We began looking elsewhere,” said Leigh.

That search started in Austin but she said it was “cost prohibitive.”

They even looked in Denver, the hometown of Fairbanks, as well as Los Angeles.

She said real estate prices were “astronomical.”

Leigh said they weren’t exactly sure what was going to happen next. It seemed like the museum might not find a home.

Then a local resident contacted Leigh and told her she should seriously consider moving her museum to Gonzales.

Leigh, a Texas history buff (you’ll have to ask her the reason for that little fact), decided she would come and take a look. What could it hurt?

“I love old, historic Texas small towns,” said Leigh.

It didn’t take much time in Gonzales for Leigh to make the decision and take the plunge. The museum would be located in Gonzales.

A new beginning

Because of limited space in the house on St. George Street, Leigh estimates they will be able to handle about 10 visitors at a time.

But there’s plenty of space on the big porch and in the yard, so larger groups should not be a problem.

The museum will be open from 2-6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Visitors must call in advance to arrange tours. To do so, you can call the museum at 830-444-0523. The web site is www.DouglasFairbanks.org.

They will officially be open Monday, March 1, just in time to celebrate Texas Independence. A major grand opening is set for Sunday, May 23, which is the birthday of Fairbanks, who was born in Colorado in 1883.

Leigh said they have about 1,200 artifacts which will be displayed. Those include movie posters, stills, autographs, programs and film props.

In fact, the “crown jewel” of the museum is a 1924 urn which was featured in the film “Thief of Baghdad,” a movie many say was the best work of Fairbanks.

In those days, sets were built with “real materials,” said Leigh. You can tell by the urn, which has intricate details and is extremely heavy.

Leigh said there is another place named after Fairbanks now, and that is at the Academy in Hollywood. She said Fairbanks’ wife had kept a lot of items in storage, some of it very delicate film, and when it was rediscovered, the Academy took it in and now has it on display. She works with that group, as well, to keep the Fairbanks name alive and well.

Leigh also said they have talked to members of the Fairbanks family. In fact, they were able to let his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., know about their plans for a museum. However, he was in his 90s and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But Leigh said he did understand what they were doing and was happy his father was being honored.

As for Leigh, she’s happy to have a new home for her beloved museum and hopes the people of Gonzales will stop in and see what they have to offer.

She said their visitors come from all around the world and she estimated they were getting 300 to 400 per year when the museum was open in Austin. Hopefully, she said, that number will increase in the new Gonzales location.

That location is something which thrills Leigh, as she feels like she has found a home in Gonzales.

“I really do,” she concluded.

Copyright © 2010 The Gonzales Inquirer. All rights reserved.

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Our Opinion: New museum is positive step for Gonzales County

The Gonzales Inquirer

January 22, 2010

On the front page of today’s newspaper is a story about a new museum in Gonzales.

It’s the Douglas Fairbanks Museum.

Sure, some might just blow this off as another fly-by-night thing in Gonzales.

They are completely wrong.

Museum curator Keri Leigh is anything but fly-by-night. In fact, she’s about as legitimate as they come. Her writing, her music, her history all show that Leigh is sincere in anything she undertakes.

Okay, how many are asking about Douglas Fairbanks? First, let’s get this clear, we’re talking about Douglas Fairbanks, Senior. That’s a crucial point in all of this.

Leigh fell in love with silent movies as a young child. In particular, she fell in love with Fairbanks and what he meant to the founding of the movie industry in America.

The naysayers can continue to rant all they want, but the fact remains the movie industry provides billions and billions of dollars to the American economy. Just think about it. How many people go to movies? Millions and millions. How do they get there? By spending money to make the trip. What do they do once they get there? Buy popcorn, candy and everything else. (Orville Rendnbacher’s relatives appreciate this very much.)

Entertainment in America, and in particular the movies, has changed all of us. We all have that favorite movie or movie star. Even the naysayers have that, though some might not admit to such a feeling.

Interestingly, in our economic recession of the past year or so, the movie industry has actually grown. It makes sense if you think about it.

The money is tight and people are trying to find affordable things to do. Movies provide such entertainment.

Many of us might not know this, but a lot of the impact of the movies can be traced back to Fairbanks. He had a vision, a purpose. And he put his money toward that purpose. People can talk all they want, but until they provide the financial needs, it’s just talk.

Fairbanks didn’t just talk. He was a visionary, a soothsayer, so to speak, when it comes to what would eventually come to pass. His visions have come to pass, and now Gonzales is a beneficiary.

Will this museum be the end-all for Gonzales?

Absolutely not.

Will it help things out? Certainly.

But there’s a more important point in all of this. That point is Leigh and Greg Jackson, her co-curator. These are human beings who have chosen to make Gonzales their home. That’s the real story about this museum.

That these folks have taken the leap and want to contribute to the growth and future of Gonzales is the real story. They want to make a difference and we should all welcome them with open arms.

We don’t have to understand the contributions of Douglas Fairbanks, though that would be good for us all. What we need to do is welcome these folks and tell them we appreciate them coming here and wanting to make a difference.

The baby steps taken by folks like this and many others might not make a huge impact all at once. But as they add up, just like the new clinic just down St. George Street from the museum, they all make a difference.

As Gonzales continues to evolve and grow, it’s going to take people like Keri Leigh and many others to make this a positive transition.

We’re thrilled to have Keri and Greg in Gonzales. We wish them well and will do whatever it takes to make their venture a success. We hope everyone will join us in that effort.

Copyright © 2010 The Gonzales Inquirer. All rights reserved.

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The work begins on our new location...


We are pleased to announce that the Douglas Fairbanks Museum has completed our move from Austin to Gonzales, Texas. Please update your records to reflect our new contact info:

The Douglas Fairbanks Museum

*NEW* Phone: (830) 444-0523

*New* Email: DouglasFairbanksMuseum@gmail.com

Website: http://DouglasFairbanks.org

We are working fast and furious to uncrate our collections, build exhibits and get the museum ready to open our doors again!

The museum will re-open to the public on Monday, March 1, 2010.

Our *NEW* hours of operation are:

2-6 p.m. Wed-Sun (closed Monday and Tuesday)

Tours are by appointment only. Please call 830-444-0523 to schedule your tour.

The museum is now located in a historic 1890s home on Saint George Street, just 2 blocks off the town square, within convenient walking distance of all the local attractions.

We are thrilled to be a part of the community here in Gonzales and hope that our visitors will take the time to explore this amazing little town when they come to visit.

Gonzales has two local newspapers, The Gonzales Inquirer and the Gonzales Cannon. Both will be running front-page feature articles about the museum’s relocation to Gonzales next Friday, Jan. 22nd. We will post links to the stories online for you soon so you can read about all the exciting changes in store for the Douglas Fairbanks Museum!

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