Time Machine: Hollywood comes to Cedar Rapids

Crew spends 2 days in 1923 filming promotional short

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January is marked by post-holiday ennui, but January 1923 was livened up a bit in Cedar Rapids by the arrival of a Hollywood crew to make a movie.

“If you can look dumb like Buster Keaton, act bashful like Charley Ray or cut up like Doug Fairbanks, you have a chance for fame and fortune right here in Cedar Rapids. You need not go to Hollywood to be ‘discovered,’ ” a Jan. 8 item in the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette told readers.

Prospective actors from 16 to 45 were asked to show up the next morning at the Palace Theater to audition for several principal roles and up to 50 extras.

Albert J. Diebold and Mike Ford opened the Palace at 310 Second Ave. SE, between Third and Fourth streets, on June 29, 1912. It was the city’s largest theater, seating 730 people, and showed first-run movies, originally charging a nickel to get in. By 1923, admission was 30 cents.

Hollywood producer Mack Sennett, famous for his “Keystone Kops” productions, sent two of his men, director L.R. Brager and cameraman Guy Woods, to Cedar Rapids to make a one-reel comedy using Cedar Rapids actors in Cedar Rapids scenes.

promotional stunt

The intention of the short film was to make a local version of his movie “Crossroads of New York,” called “Crossroads of Cedar Rapids,” as a promotional stunt to get people interested in the Hollywood film.

Sennett repeated a form of the plan in small cities across the country.

The presence of a Hollywood film crew — regardless of motivation — sparked interest among those dreaming of a film career.

“That it is no hoax, this promise of a chance for fame, is assured by the fact that the local film will be shipped to Hollywood where Mack Sennett and his men will view it in search for new talent, which is always in demand,” the news story continued. It also mentioned the actors would not be paid.

The streets in front of the Palace Theater were crowded as soon as word got out about the auditions. Guy Woods busily snapped photos of the crowd of hopefuls and the scores of onlookers.

None of those photos made it into The Gazette, which reported, “Flappers, clowns, beauties, sheiks and shebas of all ages reported to Manager R.M. Koch at the Palace Theater in hope that they might get a chance to appear in the picture. Telephone calls, special delivery letters and personal applications began coming in as soon as The Gazette, with the exclusive announcement of the event, appeared on the streets.”

the stars

Lucille Stodola, who had reigned as queen of the Mardi Gras celebration the previous fall, was chosen to play Clara, the heroine. Stodola was a ballroom dancer and had appeared in a number of amateur plays.

Her leading man was Frank Janeba, a member of an acting troupe connected to the Masons, the DeMolay Players. He took the role of Elmer, a country boy. As soon as he was cast, he was dressed in overalls, rubber boots and a straw hat. Ralph Ackerman was cast as a pickpocket. The fourth principal part was taken by Harry Wycoff.

Seventeen others were selected to appear in the comedy-drama.

Actual production started immediately, with the cast and crew heading to a dairy farm west of the city. Afternoon scenes were shot at Coe College. The second day of filming took place on downtown streets. A cop directing traffic around the filming ended up in the film as well.

The Gazette cooperated with the movie men by providing a delivery truck for several scenes. In one, Elmer carried bags from the truck into the American Trust and Savings Bank.

In another, Gazette newsboys scrambled for coins that Elmer threw in front of The Gazette building on Third Avenue.

local hit

The finished “Crossroads of Cedar Rapids” reel was shipped off to Des Moines to be developed. It came back Jan. 13 for a showing at the Palace the next day, along with Sennett’s “Crossroads of New York.”

“It is a lively story of a country boy who goes to the city to make good, and he does so after the most approved fashion. Scenes are laid in front of the Palace, on Coe campus, at the Union station and in front of two banks,” the newspaper reported. “The Gazette plays a prominent part in the picture as the hero sells the paper to get his first start in life, and the big truck used to distribute the paper to the carrier boys is utilized by the hero to carry his fortune to the bank.”

The one-reeler was a local hit and remained on the theater’s program for a week.

In 1959, the Palace Theater building was bought from the Palace Theater Co. by the Merchants National Bank for the bank’s expansion. The nearly 50-year-old theater closed Nov. 1, 1960, after its last showing at 9:35 p.m. of “One Foot in Hell.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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