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.