SILENT SCREEN LEGEND HAS NEW HOME IN GONZALES
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.
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.”
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.”