Tacoma, WA: “Hollywood-by-the-Sea”?

A made-in-Tacoma silent movie – thought to be lost forever – has been found in the vaults of a New York City museum and will once again be projected on the big screen.

The intact melodrama, complete with Hollywood stars and scenes of 1926 Tacoma, is being restored for a late summer screening at the Rialto Theater – the first theater it was projected at more than 80 years ago.

As a newcomer to Tacoma, I knew nothing about this fascinating piece of Tacoma history. What a story! ‘Eyes of the Totem’: Long-lost silent movie from 1920s Tacoma is found appeared in last Sunday’s local paper, The News Tribune.

Hollywood, California, had become established as the center of the movie industry by the mid 1920s. But in 1924 Hollywood producer Harvey C. Weaver came to Tacoma to establish what he called Hollywood-by-the-Sea. Together with a few local businessmen eager to get in on the investment opportunity, he started H.C. Weaver Productions, Inc. They acquired a five-acre piece of land at Tacoma’s Titlow Beach, near the current Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Tacoma was a regional center of the local lumber industry, and lumber companies donated wood used to build a 108-foot by 105-foot studio with a 50-foot-high ceiling.

According to the news story,

Weaver was bullish on the Pacific Northwest and its varied terrain.

“The public is getting tired of seeing the same scenery – the country immediately surrounding Los Angeles,” Weaver said. “Within the same distance of Tacoma we have much more wonderful scenery.”

Weaver also hinted that local residents might be used in the films, although he acknowledged that well-known actors would have to be cast in the major roles.

Weaver Productions made three films in Tacoma, the second of which, Eyes of the Totem, was released in 1927. The film is of great local interest because it features many scenes that show the downtown area of Tacoma at the time. The totem pole referenced in the film’s title, carved for President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 visit to Tacoma, still exists. It currently stands in downtown Fireman’s Park.

The third and final film of Weaver Productions was also released in 1927. After that, little was heard of the three films again, and all copies of them were presumed to have been lost. Of the almost 11,000 films made during the American silent film era, 1912–1929, only about 30% now survive. Weaver Productions was one of the casualties of the introduction of sound films heralded by the October 1927 release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.

The moving force behind the rediscovery and refurbishment of Eyes of the Totem was Lauren Hoogkamer, a Washington native hired as Tacoma’s historic preservation coordinator after a stint at the Los Angeles Conservancy, where she was involved in a project that screens silent films at the city’s historic theaters. She had heard a rumor that a copy of the film might exist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She was finally able to track it down by searching under the director’s name rather than that of the production company. Many other people have played a role in the preservation of the film, which will be shown to local audiences in Tacoma’s historic Rialto Theater in September.

This brief summary is just a taste of all the coverage by The News Tribune. I encourage you to take a look at the newspaper’s web site, which offers lots more information, including photos and a short video excerpt from the movie.

Also see A Tacoma house made for Hollywood from today’s newspaper:

Architect Gaston Lance designed the home about a decade after he wrapped up his movie career as art director and set creator for H.C. Weaver Studios.

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