Northwest News

‘Eyes of the Totem’: Long-lost silent movie from 1920s Tacoma is found

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.

“Eyes of the Totem” is a story of a woman who sacrifices everything for her daughter’s welfare. It’s entertaining in its own right, but the story of how it was made, lost and then rediscovered is worthy of a Hollywood script on its own.

The real-life characters include a renegade studio chief who tried to turn Tacoma into “Hollywood-by-the-Sea,” and a young city employee who wouldn’t give up on her quest to find Tacoma’s long-lost film legacy.

The story also involves a team of dedicated local citizens who have made restoring and screening “Totem” their mission.

“Not only is the film a boon for Tacoma, but also for the movie world,” said Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan. “The discovery of an intact American silent movie that was made outside of California is extremely rare. Only a handful exist.”

HOLLYWOOD-BY-THE-SEA

In the mid-1920s, Hollywood, California, already was established as the epicenter of movie making. But a few specialty and regional studios existed around the country.

In 1924, Hollywood film producer Harvey C. Weaver came to Tacoma to establish what he would call Hollywood-by-the-Sea. Soon he and his investors, who included Gen. James M. Ashton and banker Chester Thorne, started H.C. Weaver Productions Inc.

So eager were local businessmen to get in on the venture that a 5-acre parcel at Titlow Beach was provided. Tacoma lumbermen donated the wood for the building, which became the third largest studio in the country.

The studio’s first film, “Hearts and Fists,” was made in 1925, followed by “Eyes of the Totem” and its last film, “Heart of the Yukon,” in 1927.

All three films had aspects that included the Yukon. Not only was the 1896-1899 Klondike gold rush on the minds of audiences, but Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” had come out in 1925. It was the highest grossing comedic silent film in history, according to Turner Classic Movies.

After the commercial releases of the Tacoma three films, little was heard about them again and all negatives and prints were presumed lost.

Weaver Studios was one of the victims as the film industry adapted to talking pictures. Its building was converted into a dance hall in 1932 but burned in a fire that same year.

“Eyes of the Totem” had a brief revival of interest in 2013 when novelist Jamie Ford included it in the plot of “Songs of Willow Frost.” The novel centers on a Chinese-American actress.

“(Gaston) Lance was the art director on the film and had turned the Winthrop Hotel into ‘The Golden Dragon,’ and they had used Chinese extras,” Ford said. “That was exactly the type of scene I was looking for. It dovetailed perfectly into what I’d written.”

MOVIE DETECTIVE

Lauren Hoogkamer bears no resemblance to a film noir gumshoe, but her detective skills rival those of Sam Spade.

As the city of Tacoma’s historic preservation coordinator Hoogkamer’s job is to review designs, develop public programs and manage nominations for historic districts and landmarks. But in a previous position at the history-focused Los Angeles Conservancy, she was involved with the organization’s “Last Remaining Seats,” a program that screens silent films at the city’s historic theaters.

So shortly after Tacoma hired the Lewis County native in 2014, she became intrigued with the tales of the Weaver Studios. And she heard a rumor that a print of “Eyes of the Totem” existed in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

When the film’s director Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke died in 1943, he had willed his personal archives to that museum.

“People had contacted MOMA and had never been able to locate it,” Hoogkamer said. She tried a new approach. “People had researched H.C. Weaver. I started researching under W.S. Van Dyke.”

The decision was fortuitous. One day in late summer, Hoogkamere opened her email inbox and found a message from MOMA. The rumor was true.

“They said yes, we have the film,” she recalled. “I was pretty shocked.”

And then the bad news came.

“It’s really unstable,” Hoogkamer was told. “It’s highly unlikely it can be restored. It’s combustible. We don’t know what condition it’s in. No one’s opened it.”

Plus, MOMA estimated that transferring the delicate film to a digital copy would cost close to $40,000. And that was after it finished work on the many other films in the museum’s collection that also needed to be copied to digital.

At an impasse, the city bowed out.

TEAM TOTEM

But Team Totem, as the growing group of enthusiasts headed by Sullivan called themselves, was about to get a new member.

As director of the Tacoma Art Museum, Stephanie Stebich frequently lends her institution’s art and in turn requests artworks from other museums for TAM shows.

She was working on such a deal with MOMA director Glenn Lowry when Sullivan contacted her. Stebich told Lowry the film was important to Tacoma’s cultural and historical heritage.

The movie was sent to the top of the list, and the $40,000 cost was dropped to $4,300 for a high-definition digital conversion.

And MOMA got to borrow the Jacob Lawrence painting it wanted from TAM.

A FILM ARRIVES

Eager to get the film preserved, Sullivan paid the $4,300 fee. Since then, Team Totem has started a Kickstarter campaign to pay other costs associated with restoring, scoring and presenting the film.

In February, Team Totem assembled at Tacoma’s Blue Mouse Theater to see the movie presented for the first time in 88 years.

“I had not dreamed we would end up with something as clear as we have,” Sullivan said. “You can pick out people in the windows of buildings. It’s a good story and not amateurishly told.”

There was, of course, one major aspect missing from the film: sound.

Silent movies came with sheet music played by an organist, live musical group or sometimes on a player piano. “We had no inkling of what the original score was like,” Sullivan said.

Team Totem has hired Tacoma composer John Christopher Bayman to create a score. The soundtrack will be recorded using musical libraries as well as some live performances from a Seattle Symphony cellist and a violinist.

On Sept. 18, for the first time in 88 years, “Eyes of the Totem” will be screened at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater, across the alley from where it premiered.

And as for those two other missing Weaver films?

“There’s a rumor that ‘Heart of the Yukon’ is owned by a private collector,” Hoogkamer said.

And she is not one to dismiss rumors.

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