Tag Archives: hollywood walk of fame

The Untimely Death of Sam Warner

Producer and visionary Sam Warner.

Sam Warner, perhaps the most affable of the four brothers who founded the WB motion picture empire, was always thinking about the future. 

Schmuel Wonskolaser was born in Poland and came to the United States as a child with his family in the late 1880s. As a young man, he worked in several trades before going into the nickelodeon business with his two older brothers near their home in Youngstown, Ohio. Sam’s job, as the most technically-minded of the brothers, was to crank the projector. 

The boys soon moved into film distribution and added younger brother Jack to the business. Sam was able to get along well with all his brothers, and provided a buffer between the argumentative Jack and his other two siblings, Albert and Harry. This pattern would continue for the next two decades as the Warners moved into film production and settled in Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” district. 

The four Warner Brothers. Clockwise from the upper-left they are Harry, Jack, Sam, and Albert.

As second-tier producers during the early 1920s, the brothers constantly hovered on the brink of bankruptcy. Only the success of Rin Tin Tin films kept the young enterprise afloat. The brothers knew that to remain in business, they would have to make a big gamble, but they were rarely in agreement on what that gamble should be. 

Sam felt that the future belonged to sound

Silent films were entrenched into the fabric of Hollywood and few felt that the situation would change any time soon. Sam disagreed. He had worked closely with sound engineers from Western Electric setting up WB’s first L.A. radio station. (Jack Warner would later say that the call letters for the station, KFWB, stood for “Keep Filming, Warner Bros.,” but they were coincidental. The station still exists today and has a news/talk format.) 

Sam was given a demonstration for a new sound-on-disk process that Western Electric had developed and was convinced that it would save the company. But first, he would have to convince his brothers. It was a tough sell, but Harry, the WB president, agreed to buy the invention if Sam would only use it for background music. They named the process Vitaphone, to capitalize on their recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios. 

Hollywood had taken its first baby-step into sound production. 

Sam oversaw the production of several sound shorts, as well as Don Juan, the first sound feature, in 1926. The film had a recorded orchestra and employed a few crude sound effects. It was a huge hit, but was unable to recoup the massive investment that WB made in wiring their theaters for sound amplification. 

The brothers found themselves seriously in debt once again. They decided to push in all the chips and make a true “talkie” film; one where not only the background music would be heard on the soundtrack, but the voices of the actors as well. Sam was again put in charge of bringing this difficult birth to term. 

 

The result was The Jazz Singer, which was released on October 6, 1927 in Manhattan. The film set box-office records, and effectively put the silent era on life support. It also secured WB’s future and propelled the brothers into the ranks of the major film producers. 

Tragically, none of the brothers were in attendance at the theater that night to hear history being made. That’s because Sam, the brother most responsible for Warner Bros.’ and Hollywood’s new era of talkie films, had died 24-hours earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by the stress of bringing the film to the screen. 

That was 83-years ago today. 

Sam was only 42. 

 

If you would like to learn more about the early days of Warner Bros., check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I recently co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.

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The Grand Ole Autry

Multimedia star Gene Autry.

Of all the more than 2400 performers who have been immortalized with terrazzo and brass stars embedded into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, only one has a star in each of the five featured categories of film, television, music, radio, and live performance. Can you guess who it is?

Bob Hope? Nice try, but he only has four stars.

Frank Sinatra? Danny Kaye? Good guesses, but only three stars each.

I don’t know? … Elvis?

Nope. “The King” has only one star, but the true King of Hollywood Boulevard is none other than the great singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

One of Gene Autry's five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Singing Cowby Superstar Orvon Eugene Autry was born on this date in 1907 in the Red River Valley of Texas and grew up on a ranch a few miles to the north in Oklahoma. After high school, Autry worked as a railroad telegrapher during the graveyard shift where young Gene would entertain himself playing the guitar and singing.

Autry signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records in 1929 and later hosted his own music show for four years on WLS-AM in Chicago where he met singer-songwriter Smiley Burnette. Autry’s biggest hits came in the Christmas music category where he struck gold with “Santa Claus is Coming To Town,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.He would eventually record over 600 songs – half of which he wrote – and would sell over 100 million records.

Hollywood soon came calling and Autry and Burnette went west to star as singing cowboys in pictures for Monogram, which was later absorbed by Republic Pictures. He made dozens of enormously successful cowboy films over the next twenty years atop his horse Champion, with Burnette often playing his singing sidekick. From 1940 to 1956 he would also host a successful radio show called Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch.

He invested the millions he earned wisely in real estate and broadcasting. He was the long-time owner of L.A.’s KTLA television station as well as of the baseball team that is today known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

A recent photo of my film class at the Melody Ranch gates.

Melody Ranch, another former Autry property, is a film ranch located in Newhall, California. Melody Ranch has a history stretching back nearly 100 years, and has been the filming site of thousands of Westerns, including many made by Autry. He was able to acquire it in 1953 and used it daily for film and television production until August 1962 when a brushfire burned most of it to the ground. Autry had intended to build his museum at the ranch, and much of his priceless personal memorabilia was destroyed in the fire. The museum was later built in Griffith Park. For the next three decades the property served as a retirement home for his horse Champion.

In 1991, brothers Renaud and Andree Veluzat purchased the ranch and re-created the Western Town from old photos. It has since been home to dozens of commercials, films, and television shows, including the spectacular HBO series Deadwood. (Fans can get a peek inside the Melody Ranch gates during Cowboy Festival, which takes place every April.)

Autry passed away at the age of 91 on October 2, 1998, just three months after the death of his friend and rival Roy Rogers.

(For more on Warner Bros. Sunset Studios, which later became KTLA, check out my new book Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-authored with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.)


Ford Sterling: The Forgotten Kop

Ford Sterling, behind the desk as “Chief Teeheezal,” captains the madcap “Keystone Kops.” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is seen at the far right.

It must have been thrilling having one of the most recognizable faces on Earth, with millions of fans laughing at your films every week in nickelodeons around the world. It must have been something altogether different watching your career fizzle and dying penniless, forgotten by a world which once adored you.

This was the sad fate of Ford Sterling.

Sterling, born George Ford Stich in Wisconsin in 1883, began his show business career when he literally ran away from home to join the circus. His experience as a clown translated well to early slapstick silent film comedies, which he began making in 1911.

Sterling made 270 screen appearances during a film career that lasted for twenty-five years, bridging both the silent and talkie eras. His greatest success came in the role of “Chief Teeheezal,” the leader of Mack Sennett’s madcap “Keystone Kops,” who were extremely popular in the 1910s.

Sterling’s popularity was unsurpassed until he was replaced as the main Keystone star in 1914 by a young Englishman named Charlie Chaplin. His career flourished at other studios for many years, and the nattily-dressed Sterling maintained his reputation as Hollywood’s best-dressed man by spending fortunes on new clothes during European shopping sprees.

By the late 1930s, poor health had sapped his vitality and remaining resources, and he died penniless from a heart attack at the age of 55 in 1939. His ashes were placed in a cardboard box and interred in an unmarked crypt in a mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Ford Sterling's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6612 Hollywood Boulevard.

For the past 70 years Sterling’s legacy has been largely forgotten, but recent developments may change all that.

An unknown Keystone Kop film starring Sterling was recently discovered by a film preservationist at a Michigan antique sale. The film is generating lots of interest among film historians because of its co-star, Charlie Chaplin – the comic who replaced Sterling as big-man-on-the-Keystone-campus.

The 10-minute film, entitled A Thief Catcher, was thought to exist, because Chaplin had written in his autobiography that he once appeared as a Keystone Kop, but no one knew the title, and most historians believed it to be forever lost.

The film was reintroduced to the world at the Slapsticon Festival in Virginia earlier this month. It is hoped that the film will be released to wide distribution soon, giving legions of slapstick comedy fans a peek at a forgotten Chaplin short, and a fresh look at Ford Sterling.

And who knows? Maybe after 70 years, all those fans will get together and purchase a decent burial place for this early pioneer in silent film comedy. Who’s with me?

(If you would like to learn more about early Hollywood, check out my new book entitled Early Warner Bros. Studios)