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.

Fixing Walt Coy’s Timeline Part 1

Fixing Walt Coy's Timeline Part 1

As I mentioned in my Memories post, The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue, I made the leap of deduction that Walt T. Coy must have been an extra in Charlie Chaplin’s WW1 comedy “Shoulder Arms.” For he described donning a soldier’s uniform and charging about in some trenches, all for two dollars a day and a box lunch.

When I received Walt’s autobiography I eagerly read it to find out more about the things he had told me over talks at the Fifth Avenue. In the pertinent chapter Walt dated his first time down in LA as 1928 (May or later). This timing rules out “Shoulder Arms” as that film was made a decade earlier. He lists in order – the Chaplin Studio, Queen Kelly for von Stroheim, and finally “The Patent Leather Kid” with Richard Barthelmess. This Barthelmess film is a boxing picture set against the backdrop of the WW1. I realized that this must have been the WW1 film that Walt was telling me about. He writes that he heard while down in LA that First National was going to shoot the Barthelmess film at Fort Lewis in Washington State and that the unit manager was to be Otto Lukan.

However, my preliminary research on this title turned up some problems. “The Patent Leather Kid” was released in August 1927, which means, obviously, it would not have been in production in 1928. And there is no Otto Lukan listed in the credits for the film.

I knew that Walt would not give me a bum steer, but he may have confused some dates and details. So I had two lines of attack to research and set things straight. First, find out when The Patent Leather Kid went into production, and second, find out who was this Otto Lukan.

So, to find out when the production was at Fort Lewis (or more properly as it was then known – Camp Lewis), I navigated to the Internet Archive and called up its Variety holdings and beginning with the opening date, combed through its volumes backwards.

And this is what I gleaned (arranged in ascending order):

2/9/1927 – On February 8, Richard Barthelmess broke his foot playing tennis, pushing back the start of production on “The Patent Leather Kid,” 3 or 4 weeks.

2/16/1927 – Though production was suspended on The Patent Leather Kid, Barthelmess was able to work on one scene, in which his character was wheelchair bound.

And here’s the clincher:

3/30/1927 – On March 28th  Barthelmess comes up from Camp Lewis to the Columbia Theater in Seattle to promote his film “The White Black Sheep” (also a First National Picture). About 750 extras were hired in Seattle, many ex-soldiers, for the filming at Camp Lewis. The manager of the theater gave a special preview for the extras before they went to work on the new picture.

4/19/1927 – mentions that Barthelmess was on location in Tacoma. Variety reports that his ex-wife had contacted him there about assuming custody of their daughter, while she went to be with her new husband in Singapore.

I conclude that Barthelmess was at Camp Lewis (near Tacoma WA) from the end of March 1927 through the month of April. This dates the time that Walt was an extra on the film and about which he writes:

“I worked in a Hun’s uniform with a spiked helmet part of the time, then shifted to the warp [typo – should be wrap] leggings of a doughboy. I spent various days in the slop and mud of the movie battle. Later, we would go down to the parade grounds, where they strapped a dummy on your back and we would follow the lead camera. When the simulated explosions occurred, we would fall and cut our dummies loose as the sawdust and brick dust hit us. Then we would get up and repeat the same sequence until the film director was satisfied.” From “My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me” p. 68

I next tackled the mystery of Lukan. After a few stumbling starts, I learned first that Otto Lukan was L. Otto Lukan. Then after more searches using that clue, I discovered that he was more specifically – Lorenz Otto Lukan. With the full name everything fell into place. Here is his chronological resume:

1884 – born in Carver, Minnesota

1900 – the census shows him living with his parents in Everett, WA

1906 – he marries Evaleigh Smith

1908 – first and only child born – Margaret

1910 – the census for Seattle lists him as an accountant in the Assessor’s Office (either for King County or the city of Seattle)

1917 – Seattle directory – in the Advertising department for the Seattle P-I

And his first job in the film business

1918 – his draft registration lists him as the manager of the Pathe Film Exchange in Seattle

1920 – the census for Haller Lake WA (his residence near Seattle) just shows him as a manager of a Film Exchange (but does not specify), though articles in the Seattle Times for 1920 and 1921 list him as manager for the Associated First National Pictures Inc.

By 1922 he was the western division manager for the First National Theater Circuit. He was in the same company through the early 1930s, and definitely for the crucial time period in question – 1927 to 1928. Now whether or not he was bouncing back and forth between exhibition and distribution, I do not know for sure. But I am inclined to think that since FNP was a creation of a film exhibition circuit, he probably straddled the fence, with a foot in both domains. He was definitely situated in Seattle, with the exception of possible trips to LA to the Burbank studio and offices of FNP (this company was later acquired by Warner Brothers).

It seems to me then that Otto Lukan in his capacity as the district rep for FNP, was no doubt present for the promotion at the Columbia Theater in Seattle, and it makes sense that he would have stood in as a unit manager for the studio in the matter of hiring extras in the local area for “The Patent Leather Kid.”

Join me next week, when I will share what my research has revealed about what Walt may have seen when working at the Chaplin Studios.

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

Walter Theron Coy

Union agreements required that the Fifth Avenue Theater employ a stagehand. I was not aware of this fact,  when I met Walter Theron Coy my first week on the job. I was behind the concession stand concentrating on something else completely when I looked up to see an elderly man emerge from out of the auditorium. It caught me off guard. He was rather shabbily dressed, giving him an unkept appearance. He put me at ease by explaining who he was and what he did around the theater.

His cherubic Irish face, resonant voice, infectious laugh and an enormous mass of keys jangling on his hip made for a memorable introduction. Gaelic charm oozed out of him as well as a stream of patter that he later confessed to be straight out of the days of vaudeville. (At the age of 13 or 14 [1921 or 1922] he had been a candy butcher who operated evenings among a group of three Seattle vaudeville theaters. Incoming acts came to rely on him for intelligence on what routines had been employed by the outgoing performers, so they could adjust theirs accordingly). And prior to high school he even performed on stage, singing popular songs of the day accompanied by the theater organist.

[Aside – In his autobio, Walt states that he learned a lot about show business from the consumate pipe organist Oliver Wallace at the Liberty Theater down on First and Pike. Wallace later went on to work for Walt Disney, writing music for shorts and then features, from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” up through “Lady and the Tramp”].

The more I talked with him over the weeks that followed, the more his life experiences surprised and impressed me. By the time he was in high school, he was playing drums or banjo in speakeasys around town. His love of the banjo led him to share stories about the Banjo King, Eddie Peabody, (aka the Banjo Maniac and the Rajah of Rhythm) who had headlined many of the vaudeville acts at this same Fifth Avenue Theater, from 1927 through the early 30s.

But what really raised my eyebrows was his tales about working as an extra and a cameraman in Hollywood. He had gone down to LA when he turned 20 to try to break into “pictures.” He was an extra at the Chaplin studio on one of Charlie’s films. His description of the action made me think that it was his WW1 comedy “Shoulder Arms,” but upon reading his autobio almost a decade later it proved to be something else altogether (stay tuned for my Research post this Monday).  He then lined up for extra work over at the FBO Studios (owned by Joseph P. Kennedy) for director Erich von Stroheim, who was hard at work on the infamous “Queen Kelly,” starring Gloria Swanson.

Walt found getting work as an actor a tough go. So he switched to the technical side of the business. He had always been adept mechanically, having built his own radios when a youth. He joined the Naval Reserve in Seattle to learn more about radios and sound equipment. (And to fly, for he liked planes). He made a trip down to LA and called on Gordon Sawyer, the head of the sound department at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios to learn all about sound reproduction on film. He used this knowledge to build and sell bootleg sound systems to small theaters throughout the Northwest. (The systems by Western Electric were all by lease only, and unaffordable given the small amount of business these towns generated).

Sometime in the 1930s, Walt joined Local 659, the Hollywood cameraman’s union. He served on the camera crew for Paramount’s production of “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” with W. C. Fields and Zasu Pitts.

He wasn’t often down in Hollywood to my calculation, for he had many businesses in the Seattle area that he ran – a printing business in the early thirties, a film exhibition company (one theater to begin with) which he acquired in 1937, and the Seattle Motion Picture Studio, a commercial film enterprise that made sound films – advertising, novelties and gimmick offerings. During the Depression, he kept fingers in a lot of pies, for he said, you never knew what would keep you afloat.

At the time I met him (1974), his studio was closed, but he still had some of his gear. He had sound equipment, of course, but he also had a 16mm self-blimped Auricon camera, that did not need a sound recorder as it had the capacity to directly record onto the film stock. A custom built camera dolly which could be cranked up to a six foot crane rounded out his holdings.  And he allowed me and my cinema-struck friends to use them. We just needed to rent some lights. (We used the lobby of the Skinner building and the backstage area of the theater as settings).

I last heard from Walt in 1980, when he sent me a signed copy of his autobio “My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me.” In telling his life story, he details his trials and tribulations with a vindictive IRS which twice sent him to prison. When people styled him as an ex-con, he disagreed, and said he was just a convicted tax evader, whose case was under appeal. The appeal he won, and the judgement was reversed.

Walter Theron Coy was a true one of a kind.

[Aside – Walt preferred to write his name as Walt T. Coy, but I spelled it out completely so as not to confuse him with an actor that came out of Seattle around the same time. That actor was Walter Darwin Coy. He was on stage and screen, and notably, played the brother of the John Wayne character in “The Searchers.”]