DEATH IN VENICE

Back again after a few weeks away with some forgotten Movieland news about a would-be comedy bathing beauty. . .

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DEATH IN VENICE

Copyright 2014
by
Robert S. Birchard
All rights reserved

Early Monday, March 5, 1923, Los Angeles County Undersheriff Eugene Biscailuz was called to 1567 Rialto Avenue in the beach suburb of Venice. There, “Arline Zimmerly, pretty 22 year old movie bathing girl,” lay dead with a bullet to the head. When police entered, they found Arline’s boyfriend, Ben Bojarguez, covered with her blood.

“. . . Bojarguez was weeping all over the girl’s body,” said Biscailuz. “The only thing he would say was, ‘I want the gun.’ I looked for the gun and found it, not on the mantelpiece, where he later told police [Arline’s roommate] Betty Miller had placed it, but behind a bookcase on the other side of the room from where the body lay.”

Bojarguez told officers Zimmerly committed suicide. Betty Miller, who claimed to have been asleep in another room, said Arline and Bojarguez argued before the shot was fired. No powder burns were visible on Arline’s scalp, and because of their conflicting stories Bojarguez and Miller were detained pending further investigation.

Perhaps not surprisingly in the wake of three major scandals that had rocked the movie colony—manslaughter charges against comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1921; the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922; and the death–just weeks before in January 1923–of popular movie idol Wallace Reid—Los Angeles papers gave short shrift to this sordid tale of a movieland “wannabe,” for fear it would further blacken Hollywood’s reputation. But halfway across the country, International News Service wire copy aroused curiosity at the Rockford, Illinois, Republic.

“Rockford relatives of pretty Eileen Zimmerle . . . formerly of Rockford, and now residing in Los Angeles, Cal., are wondering if she is the Arline Zimmerly, motion picture bathing girl who shot herself . . .”

It turned out to be true; Eileen and Arline were one and the same–although the reported 22-year-old was in fact only 18. “With the lips of the beautiful girl sealed in death,” the Rockford paper declared, “authorities have been unraveling the mystery.”

Born September 22, 1904, Eileen Zimmerle attended Rockford schools and St. Mary’s Academy before eloping with soda jerk Richard Henrickson to nearby Belvidere on March 17, 1920. With Richard claiming to be 23 and Eileen declaring she was 19, the Reverend D. C. Jenson of St. John Evangelical Church performed the ceremony.

“Richard was making slender wages at the time, and was not in a position to satisfy all her wishes,” declared a relative in the stilted newspeak of the day, “She was extravagant but we were not harsh with her for we realized she was but a child.”

Married at 15, and likely with a baby on the way, Eileen was deemed unfit to attend the local high school where she might corrupt other students; but on Saturday, June 5, 1920, she was one of ninety-four in Rockford Continuation School’s first graduating class. Soon afterward, the Henricksons left Rockford for Los Angeles. Eileen’s mother, Bessie, and step-father William E. Kelly, followed and took up residence at 5603 South Main Street.

“Coast moving picture men,” it was said, “were impressed by the young wife’s unusual beauty and striking form. She expected soon to become a mother, however, and did not do any movie work.”

Eileen’s baby died only hours after birth, and, “Then the girl-wife was stricken with brain fever as a result of which she hovered between life and death for several weeks,” the Rockford Republic reported.

With no child to bind them, Richard Henrikson let Eileen file for divorce on grounds of desertion, and walked out of her life.

When Rockford relatives last heard from Eileen, sometime before Christmas, 1922, she wrote she had just left a motion picture acting school to accept a contract working in movies as a bathing beauty for an unnamed comedy company. It was then that Eileen Zimmerle Henrikson took Arline Zimmerly as her nom du screen. If she did find work in the movies, however, it was likely as an extra girl for three or five dollars a day when she worked.

Being a bathing beauty required putting in time at the shore, and Eileen would take the streetcar from her parent’s home to Venice beach, where she met her chum, Betty Miller, and Ben Bojarguez, the new soda jerk in her life.

Detective Captain Hunter of the district attorney’s office told reporters, that when Betty Miller met James Nash, who lived in the newly-built Rialto Avenue house, she claimed to be homeless. Nash invited Betty to stay at his place and she accepted. Sometime around June 1922, against the wishes of her mother, Eileen moved in with Betty, Steve Nash and occasionally Ben Bojarguez, who also took up part-time residence.

There is little doubt Eileen/Arline was head over heels for Ben Bojarguez. On November 18, 1922, she wrote:

I’ve given everything for you—you are all I have—and without you the world would end for me.

Honey, if I was all yours, your own little wife, would you keep on caring until we were separated by death? I want to make sure my next attempt is going to be the last.

Mother just left, so this is my first chance to write a few lines to my lover. She hasn’t mentioned moving, so we will be here for a while anyway. I’m so glad, honey. I would so hate the thoughts of leaving my sweetheart.

Of course, [if I moved back home] I’d be down real often [to visit you], but just the same, not enough. I’m loving you more and more every day and I hope you are also—one can never sometimes tell, you know.

I’d surely be one miserable heart-broken girl if you cease loving me.

I’m sure for myself that you are made for me. I could never, never grow tired of you—my lovest. I’m so afraid if I were your wife, you’d grow tired and want something different . . .

Some day, some where, some how, you will realize the truth in my words. Will be able to see you in a short while–until then, believe that I love you—always, always—my dearest boy.

Your little wife to-be.

Eileen.

In the sappy way young lovers have, 22 year old Ben bared his soul in return, expressing fear that Eileen’s mother would force the girl to move back home:

I sure do love you, honey, and I wish the whole world knew it so they would leave you alone. When you are my lil wife, oh what a grand and glorious feeling that will be.

I am a very peculiar lover, dear. I have never noticed words from a girl’s lips before. Nothing seemed to bother me. I was just a happy-go-lucky fellow. You are my first love, honey.

Let’s forget all of this trouble and laugh in the face of misfortune. I fear nothing and, as you say, we will show a little action from now on.

However, despite the lovesick brooding, it seems Eileen was pressuring Ben to put his hands on some cash.

Dear Sweetheart, Bojarguez wrote, I love you and want to marry you. $5,000? $2,000 at least. I’ll get it by hook or crook. Your real and true lover.

Ben.

In Eileen’s effects, police found another missive suggesting Ben might have been serious about the “crook” part: Don’t be surprised if I disappear for a few days. I might go out and do my stuff and then we can go to Canada.

But he wasn’t always so eager to please. After her daughter’s death, Mrs. Kelly claimed Eileen “was in great fear of Bojarguez,” and Betty Miller related that he would become quarrelsome when drinking,

I drank, drank and drank, Bojarguez wrote, and then my heart turned to stone. I must have been insane; yes, insanely jealous and now I know why there are so many murders and suicides in the height of love.

I never cared for anything or anybody, dearie. I knew of nothing only you. You do not know this, but I guess if you had hit me with that glass I would have . . . . . .you. [this space, according to newspaper accounts, was left blank] I guess I was insane because my heart felt like a piece of ice. I felt my heart give way and that was the last I remembered until next morning.

And when you told me that I had hit you it made me feel cheap. One little sentence in your letter overcame all the rest. Do you really mean that I spit on you, Doll? That hurt the most. All I can tell you is that I don’t remember a thing.”

The letters penned by Bojarguez aroused the suspicion of Deputy Sheriff J. B. Fox and Detective Captain Watson of Venice, who made it clear they were not satisfied with the suicide theory.

Those familiar with cops and robbers movies of the era can picture what happened next. Police likely pressured County Coroner Frank A. Nance to declare a non-committal verdict–“suicidal or homicidal unable to determine” read the death certificate–and the inquest panel returned the opinion that Eileen’s death resulted from a “gunshot wound fired by a person or persons unknown to the jury.”

With the open-ended coroner’s verdict as a lever, Deputy District Attorney L. M. Powell ordered a murder probe. Ben Bojarguez and Betty Miller were grilled multiple times. It isn’t hard to imagine Eileen’s lover and friend sitting under harsh lights in darkened interrogation rooms undergoing the third degree.

So, what really happened? No one account from the time tells the whole story, but pieces from varying press reports suggest this:

Despite her professed love for Ben Bojarguez, Eileen apparently also went out with housemate James Nash on at least one occasion, sending Bojarguez into a jealous rage. Although Nash was now in county jail for a liquor law violation, on Saturday March 3rd, Ben and Eileen quarreled over her betrayal, and he stormed out.

The next evening Eileen and Betty Miller were home alone when they noticed a car drive by several times then stop in front of the house.

Eileen–or perhaps Betty–took a small caliber revolver from a drawer and placed it on the fireplace mantel, “in case he attempts to come in here,” she told Betty, or Betty told her.

It turned out their fears were unfounded, and the two went to bed; but just before midnight they heard someone enter the house using a passkey. They got up and found Ben Bojarguez in the living room. Although Betty Miller claimed Bojarguez was “fighting mad,” she soon left the angry lovers, returned to bed and fell asleep.

At about 3 AM, Eileen asked, “Ben, we’re going to be married pretty soon, aren’t we?”

“No.”

“Ben, don’t you love me any more?”

“No, anyway, my mother doesn’t want me to marry a second-hand girl.” Bojarguez started to leave, but as he reached the door he turned and saw Eileen standing by the fireplace holding the gun to her head.

“Don’t do that!” he screamed as he attempted to stop Eileen from pulling the trigger, but, “a shot rang out and the girl fell to the floor,” according to Bojarguez.

On Tuesday, March 13, 1923, the District Attorney threw in the towel, notified the coroner that Eileen had committed suicide, and declared her death “officially solved.” The quotation marks appeared in all the news stories, guaranteeing Ben Bojarguez would be tainted in the court of public opinion for as long as people remembered the death of the “pretty” bathing beauty–at least until the papers were recycled to wrap fish or line the bottom of bird cages.

Eileen Zimmerle’s story became lost in time until her photo was sold by a newspaper “morgue” seeking to extract cash from its dwindling assets in this digital age so far removed from the Age of Jazz.

 

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Eileen Zimmerle

The Case Of The Misplaced Plaque

 

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THIS IS THE BIRTHPLACE
OF
MOTION PICTURE COMEDY
HERE THE GENIUS OF MACK SENNETT
TOOK ROOT AND GREW TO LAUGHTER
HEARD AROUND THE WORLD. HERE
MOVIE HISTORY WAS MADE – HERE
STARS WERE BORN – HERE
REIGNED AND STILL REIGNS
“THE KING OF COMEDY”
MACK SENNETT
PRESENTED BY
R. L. McKEE, PRES.
NATIONAL VAN LINES, INC.
ON
“THIS IS YOUR LIFE”
MARCH 10, 1954

So, reads the copy on the misplaced plaque.  In 1954 National Van Lines erected the Mack Sennett Studio plaque on an imposing obelisk at 1845 Glendale Boulevard–which was indeed originally a studio location–but NOT the location of the Mack Sennett Studio.  1845 was the site of the Selig Polyscope studio, the first permanent studio established in Los Angeles in 1909.  Mack Sennett Keystone Film Company studio had actually been located a block away and across the street at 1712 Glendale Boulevard!  (Ralph Edwards and “This Is Your Life” made quite a habit of misplacing their tribute markers.  Three years later they promised to mark the site of the former Buster Keaton Studio–but they also placed that one on the wrong street corner!) Old timers like Coy Watson, who had worked at Sennett’s as a boy, were appropriately outraged and even wrote letters to the editors of various newspapers, but the parade had gone by, and the plaque remained at 1845 Glendale Boulevard for 53 years until a developer acquired the property in 2007, with the intention of putting up condos on the grounds where Francis Boggs, Hobart Bosworth, Tom Santschi, Bessie Eyton and Kathlyn Williams once made movies for Selig.

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The Plaque and Obelisk had been safely behind a chain link fence on the grounds of Bert-Co Graphics (the immediate past tenants), but when the wrecking crew moved in to demolish the buildings, the fence came down, and they monument became subject to vandalism.  I contacted the new owner of the property, and arranged to save it, with the intention of placing it where it should always have been–at 1712 Glendale boulevard, where the last surviving building of the Sennett Studio–a circa 1913 concrete dark stage–that is now part of a Public Storage facility.  But how to move what appeared to be a solid concrete seven-foot-tall obelisk that had to weigh at least 600 pounds without causing damage?  It turned out, however,  that not only was the obelisk in the wrong spot, but it was also a clever piece of Hollywood set craft–made not of concrete, but constructed from 2 x 2s, chicken wire, and a brown coat of plaster!  In fact the plaques, which hat mounting bolts on the back, had never even been secured to the obelisk–it was simply shoved into the wet plaster, and over the years anyone might have popped it off with a screwdriver!  So, I took possession of the plaque on behalf of Hollywood Heritage, Inc. and now, in 2014, the centennial of Charlie Chaplin’s first work on the lot for Mack Sennett, a campaign is underway to rededicate the plaque where it always belonged–the site of the Mack Sennett Studio.  For those who’d like to contribute to making this rededication possible, Hollywood Heritage has initiated an Indiegogo campaign to raise the $3,500.00 needed to complete the task.  Here is a link https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/mack-sennett-studio-historical-marker

Here is the Sennett lot and dark stage as it looked in 1915:

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And here is what it looks like today:

 

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This is Your Life – Mack Sennett – March 10, 1954

On March 10, 1954, the popular TV show “This Is Your Life” offered a tribute to screen comedy pioneer Mack Sennett. As part of the tribute “This Is Your Life” host Ralph Edwards promised that sponsor National Van Lines would place a marker at the location of the historic Keystone Comedy studio. They created the plaque, all right, but they put it in the wrong location. Watch the show here, and find out what happened to the marker in my next post . . . The Case of The Misplaced Plaque

‘Little Cat Under an Umbrella’–who’d a thunk it?

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            Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were stars known the world over, “news” that should come as no bombshell. What is surprising, however, is how popular some of the lesser-known American silent comedians were in places remote in distance and culture from the United States. The films of Monty Banks received little coverage in country-of-origin trade magazines like The Moving Picture World, Motion Picture News and Exhibitors Herald, let alone recognition as cultural documents worthy of scholarly investigation. But such was not the case in the Soviet Union, where Vladimir Nedobrovo wrote the first (and likely only) monograph on Monty Banks written during his lifetime, published in 1927 by Kinopchat. Robert James Kiss found a copy of this pamphlet in a Lithuanian bookstore a decade ago, and generously shared this scan of the cover. But this was not the only serious Soviet recognition of the Monty Banks oeuvre. In pages 320-321of his book Les petits maîtres du burlesque américain 1909-1929 (CNRS editions, 2000), author Jean-Jacques Couderc discusses painter and theorist Casimir Malevitch’s seeming obsession with Monty Banks as a cultural figure back in the U.S.S.R., although the founder of “Suprematism” found Banks to be insufficiently revolutionary compared to Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov (translation from the French by Robert James Kiss):

            “[In] Racing Luck (Grand-Asher, 1924) . . . It goes without saying that Monty will triumph, but before that can happen he has to demonstrate all the courage and ingenuity of a true American pioneer; in this instance, this involves having to come first in an epic auto race. All of Banks‚ features produced in the United States are built on this same foundation, with Monty coming from nothing (or next to nothing), then showing off qualities that are highly prized in American society (a sense of competitiveness and enterprise, audacity, tenacity and dynamism) which, mixed in with a little good fortune, enable him to achieve wealth and happiness, while also succeeding in love . . . In this way, he realizes the dream of every newly arrived immigrant in the New World: a rapid and definitive social ascent.

            One can imagine the attractiveness of such a persona not merely for American audiences, but also international ones. The most unexpected example of this must surely be the success encountered by Monty Banks’ entire oeuvre in the U.S.S.R. Could his on-screen American-style ascent have caused audiences there, nostalgic for the ability to make a buck, to dream also? As a perceived representative of the petit bourgeois, or of empowered capitalists, Banks certainly became a counterfigure for certain Soviet intellectuals. In an article in the review Kino i Kultura (no.7/8, 1929) dedicated to Dziga Vertov (director of The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) and father of Kino-Glaz‚ or Cine-Eye), futurist painter Casimir Malevitch counterposes this avant-garde form of cinema with that of Monty Banks, to whom he refers not less than eight times in the space of a few pages: ‘If Dziga Vertov points the way ahead, then the Monty Bankses of cinema will not forgive him for it;’ or: ‘This is why I believe that to comprehend the dynamism of our current era of reconstruction, young workers should study [cubo-futurist arists such as Giacomo] Balla, [Umberto] Boccioni, [Luigi] Russolo, [composer Gaetano] Braga, etc., rather than Monty Banks or Pat and Patachon [character names of Danish screen comics Carl Schenstrøm and Harald Madsen];’ and even: ‘There is a greater sense of the present captured in any work by Russolo than in the entirety of Monty Banks Gets Married [Russian title of Wedding Bells (Grand-Asher, 1923)]. The greatest achievements of Monty Banks for the cinema are about equal to the greatest insights into painting that might be gleaned from a picture titled ‘Little Cat under an Umbrella.’ For [Casimir] Malevitch, clearly, Banks’‚ films represent the archetype of a traditional, inflexible cinema.”

            Of course, as Dinah Washington sang, “What A Difference A Day Makes,” and in this day and age silent comedy is often regarded as anarchic, liberated, surreal and scarcely inflexible by modern critics, even as the films of Vertov have come to be regarded as leading to a dead end rather than pointing to “the way ahead.”

Monty Banks

Monty Banks in "Paging Love" (Grand-Asher, 1923).  Above the west end of the 3rd Street Tunnel in downton Los Angeles, looking northwest The Rangeley Apartments can be seen in the background to the right.  It had a distinctive small upper floor.
Monty Banks does a “Harold Lloyd”  in “Paging Love” (Grand-Asher, 1923). Above the west end of the 3rd Street Tunnel in downton Los Angeles, looking northwest The Rangeley Apartments can be seen in the background to the right. It had a distinctive small upper floor. Photo courtesy of Brent Walker, and with thanks to John Bengtson

Launching a new blog devoted to the the wacky world of silent comedy. First on the agenda is Monty Banks. Largely forgotten today, Banks was a popular fellow in 2-reelers from 1920 through 1924, and then in features for the next several years. As with many independent comedians of the silent era, documentation on Banks’ films is scarce. With the help of Steve Massa, Robert James Kiss, Rob Farr, Karl Thiede, and a host of others, a more detailed filmography for Banks’ starring shorts is in the works. Stick around for further announcements.

the wacky world of silent comedy