Fixing Walt Coy’s Timeline Part 2

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I had to laugh when I realized that this Research post had its reference point centered in 1928 San Francisco, a time and a place about which I have written five other posts.

This time around it is a starting point for unraveling a timeline problem in the life history of Walt T. Coy, the stagehand whom I knew at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle, Washington. Occasionally during the 11 month gig (June 1927 to May 1928) that the Herb Wiedoeft Band put in at the Trianon Dance Hall, Walt filled in for their drummer (Walt spelled his name as “Weidoff”). Herb got an offer from a major studio in Hollywood to score a picture. He did not have a regular place on the band for Walt just then, but dropped a hint that he might be able to use him if he happened to find himself down south.

Walt did pick up a job that would serve to that end. He joined the band on the H. F. Alexander, a passenger liner that sailed up and down the West Coast, making calls at Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once the ship was beyond the three mile limit out came the booze without limit. When the ship called at San Francisco, Walt bought a San Francisco Examiner in which he learned to his dismay that Herb Wiedoeft had died as the result of an automobile accident.

I looked up the details about this event. Herb Wiedoeft died in Medford, Oregon on May 12th 1928, the day after the car accident. So, this places Walt in San Francisco, most likely in a seven day window after the accident. After this news Walt says he decided to try his hand at acting down in Hollywood. This seems logical because as I established in last week’s post, he already had some experience as an extra on the production of “The Patent Leather Kid,” the year before.

After the news in San Francisco, Walt records :

“Finding myself eventually in Los Angeles with a few extra nickels in my pocket, I decided to take a fling at being an actor. This turned out to be a rather short-lived adventure.

One of the studios I was in was called the Chaplin Studio – later changed to United Artists – and a Charlie Chaplin picture was in the process of being filmed. For a young fellow to be there, it was a big deal. Charlie Chaplin was a meticulous artist. The same scene was reshot hour after hour until it was perfect in Chaplin’s eyes. As young as I was then, I classified him as a perfectionist.” (from My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me, page 67).

I confess I was really curious to know which Chaplin film this could be. According to his filmography, “The Circus” seemed to be closest in time, but it was released in January 1928. The next film in order was “City Lights” which was not released until 1931. I remembered that “City Lights” did have a longer than normal production period, so that seemed the logical place to start. (This Chaplin film is one of my all-time favorites, and in my opinion a masterwork).

One online source listed that it was in production from 12/31/1927 to 1/22/1931. This seemed to fit the bill easily, but what if the scenes employing extras were all before May 1928? So, I did more checking.

Variety gave the negative to that question, for it reported in their 1/29/1929 edition, that the Chaplin Studio had remained dormant for the first five months of the preceding year (1928).

Production reports for the studio indicate that Chaplin was working on the story for that time period, clear up to August of 1928, when set construction began. Another source confirms the construction month:

“Charlie Chaplin’s unit is building sets for “City Lights.” (from the Daily Exhibitors Review for 8/20/1928).

This very same article mentioned that Gloria Swanson’s “Queen Kelly” was to enter production after September 1st.

This gave me the idea to look into the Swanson picture. I thought that whatever time Walt spent as an extra on that film, might shed some light on his Chaplin Studio tenure.

“Queen Kelly” did not start on September 1st. In the trades there are articles showing it moving back and back. Finally Variety on 11/7/1928 (p 4) reported:

Los Angeles 11/6 – “Erich Von Stroheim’s second day directing “Queen Kelly” was a long one. During the day he worked on exteriors. In the evening, he came into the studio to kill one sequence with certain actors. There was a little delay in getting going, but the original plan was adhered to. It was 6:30 in the morning, when the troupe was dismissed. The call was for the following evening when the company again worked during the night.”

In the same edition of Variety (over on page 7) there is another short article that identifies the exteriors noted in the above quote.

Los Angeles 11/6 “…While the schedule calls for 10 weeks’ shooting it is deemed doubtful if this will be observed on account of the large number of mob scenes to be photographed out of doors – and the sun at this season is not dependable.”

Therefore, it would seem that Walt gained work as an extra on Von Stroheim’s “Queen Kelly,” before he was at the Chaplin Studio. Variety reported that the silent version of “Queen Kelly” was finished before Christmas. They then moved over to the Pathe Studios to work on the sound version, one for which they would not be needing extras, as only the leads had speaking parts. Things fell apart for Von Stroheim with the new year (1929), he was fired off the production and another director brought in for the dialog version. It was all a big mess after that. In fact, “Queen Kelly” was released in Europe and South America but never saw the light of a theater projector in the US (it was televised in the 1960s).

[Aside – with one exception – there was a clip from “Queen Kelly” that was inserted into Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” whose cast included Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim.]

This dovetails nicely with the start of filming for “City Lights.” I could not find any proof that Chaplin had ever pointed a camera at any extras in 1928. But once 1929 rolled around, (and Walt would have been looking for extra work after “Queen Kelly”), I found some substantial proofs. Variety again (for 2/6/1929, page 7):

Los Angeles 2/5 – Charles Chaplin after many delays has started “City Lights.” Previously he had done some work alone, but now he is surrounded by Virginia Cherrill, leading woman; Henry Clive, Henry Bergman, and Harry Crocker.

There are two sequences in the beginning of “City Lights” that called for lots of extras. Both, I believe, were filmed in the first two months of 1929.

The first was a scene where the Tramp character (“working alone” – i.e. not with named performers) fidgets with a stick that is stuck in a sidewalk grate. A ton of extras pass back and forth in the background. The sequence was cut from the release print, but you can view it in the Kevin Brownlow limited series, “The Unknown Chaplin.”

(The cut sequence from “City Lights.”)

The second scene covers the meeting between the Tramp and a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). I like to think that Walt was present for this segment. It does seem to fit his description above (“The same scene was reshot hour after hour”), for Chaplin famously took 342 takes on this very scene.

I watched both sequences with an eye to catch a glimpse of Walt, but I could not make him out anywhere – but I guess that is the purpose of an extra, to be an unrecognizable presence.

The Chaplin Studio shut down production on “City Lights” from mid-February until April 1st. Illness in the cast was the main cause, including Chaplin himself who was sent home with ptomaine poisoning (Variety 2/27/1929). When Charlie returned he again tackled the meeting scene with the blind flower girl (a scene that he would revisit in December, and again in 1930).

It is my guess that Walt left Los Angeles when production halted in February, and went back to Seattle. And his future involvement in film making was from the other side of the camera.

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

We were canyon dwellers in Seattle, and spent the majority of our time in the one canyon called Fifth Avenue. Out where our apartment was located the canyon was a little more open, but as we trudged off to work the canyon walls grew steeper and the shadows lengthened. My wife’s place of work came first on the trek up the arroyo. She cashiered at the Coliseum theater, a gleaming white Roman-like structure at the corner of Fifth and Pike. (Bruce Lee was mixing it up with Chuck Norris in “Return of the Dragon”). My theater was farther up the avenue past our opposition, SRO’s Music Box theater, at this juncture running the first run hit, “Chinatown”, the Jack Nicholson starrer, directed by Roman Polanski.

[Aside – though I was gone from the UA Cinema, I remained in contact with the cinephile’s there. Pat and Wendy, Karl, Stephen and Billie caught the film at the Music Box, too. We all liked it. Except Billie. For some strange reason she took umbrage to the red and green Lucky Strike cigarette packages, an Art Director’s touch that lent an additional layer of authenticity for the rest of us.]

On the first day I walked under the marquee, it was lettered with the title “Uptown Saturday Night,” a comedy starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. Oddly, it was double billed with “The Getaway” (the Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw version, directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Walter Hill).

I have a lot of memories linked to the entrance of the Fifth Avenue theater. At break times I relieved the cashier in the octagonal box office, which sat smack dab in the center of the entrance. I took tickets at the ornate doors behind and in line with the box office. I changed the posters in the large shadow box frames lining the sides of the entrance. And I watched one building come down, and another go up.

By the time we changed our bill of fare (two thrillers – “The Black Windmill,” directed by Don Siegel; doubled with “The Day of the Jackal,” directed by Fred Zinneman) some big changes were underway across the street. The Fifth Avenue sat across from the White Henry Stuart Building. Both were within that section of Seattle known as the Metropolitan Tract. This valuable acreage of real estate is owned by the University of Washington, having been the former campus of the school (prior to 1895). The decision had been made to demolish the White Henry Stuart building in order to put up a newer and bigger structure. Now as the wrecking balls moved into place and began battering away at the canyon wall in front of us, we were introduced little by little to views of the setting sun on Puget Sound. The pounding continued throughout our run of “Airport 75” (directed by Jack Smight), and the pile drivers added their tune somewhere along the line to our Christmas film, “The Front Page” (directed by Billy Wilder, assisted by Howard Kazanjian). By the time John Cassavetes’ film “Woman Under the Influence”  moved in, we were treated to the spectacle of a non-ending convoy of cement trucks adding their contents to the continuous pour that resulted in that “golf-tee” like structure that is the base of the Rainier Tower. And two huge cranes worked in tandem as the new building sprouted up forty stories.

At one of these change of billings, I was almost seriously wounded by a falling plate glass window. No, it did not wing in from across the street. I was changing posters in that afore mentioned shadow box frame. The posters were enclosed behind two huge pieces of sliding plate glass. A cylindrical lock slid on and off a bayonet-type piece of metal that was attached to the plate glass that slid behind the other. I had just unlocked and removed the lock, and was gripping the plate glass in front to slide it open when that glass cracked in half. All the weight of the upper portion of the window came down on top of my right thumb, glanced off, and crashed back into the box frame, instead of falling towards me and chopping me off at the ankles.

The incident gave me pause to reflect. I had the smallest of wounds on the knuckle of my thumb, a mere quarter inch long (and a tiny scar that lasted a decade or so). It left me with a deep sense of gratitude. A thankfulness for God’s protection from injury. Something I will always remember.