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.

I Join the Army and Assault a House

I Join the Army and Assault a House

First day as a freshman at Seattle U was spent in one building, going from table to table, signing up for classes. But the image that sticks in my mind was a lot of waiting around in stairwells, which must have been the in between times. It was on this day that I met Dave who became a fast friend, throughout my college years and afterwards.

Dave had and has a scientific view on everything. His declared major was chemistry. I chose to study languages, majoring in French and minoring in Spanish. Thus we never had any classes together but one. That first quarter we were both in Army ROTC. The class was held first thing in the morning, it seems well before anyone was awake on campus. My Roadrunner and I would leave my house at an ungodly time of the morning, cross Renton and swing by his house on the way to downtown Seattle via I-5.

At first the class covered mundane things. Mundane Army things that is – care and wearing of uniforms, polishing boots and brass belt buckles, group organizations, saluting, manual of arms, etc.  The manual of arms led to being a part of the drill team, which meant more early mornings, including some weekends when we marched in local parades.

Eventually we settled into more ordinary classroom type activities – reading books and writing reports. I reaquainted myself with Lawrence of Arabia, reading his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and writing about his guerilla tactics.

Then there was a weekend we spent at Fort Lewis. We had already learned to disassemble and reassemble an M-14 in class, and were promised we would soon be doing the same just by touch in a bag. Out at Fort Lewis we actually got to fire it on the range. It was just like in the war movies I’d seen, hold it in close to your shoulder (a hinged support on the butt of the weapon lent stablity, especially in the prone position), squeeze the trigger and watch the kick. There was a selection switch for single shot or fully automatic. Our instructor had us keep it on single shot, for when fully automatic, it was harder to control – the muzzle tending to climb with each shot.

The highlight of the “maneuveurs” was the tactical portion in which we assaulted a house-like structure. We were shown the structure, but not shown how to carry out the assault. I guess they just wanted to see what we would come up with on our own. Officers are supposed to come up with solutions to problems as they confront them. The structure had no roof on it, so we decided to come down through the “ceiling.” I don’t remember what they thought of our solution. And I would prefer getting instruction, and perhaps that would have come later.  But it was not to be.

When I received my grades for the first quarter, I was shocked. I am usually a straight A student, and although in this instance I did have two “A”s, there was also one B. And that B was in my major – French.

Dave had some trouble too. So we both went to the ROTC commandant and resigned.