Ladies. it's time to pull on your bell-shaped hats and matte stockings. Men, don your colorful suits and patterned socks because Friday and Saturday evenings, June 9 and 10, Tacoma from the 1920s with all its original community support and party enthusiasm is roaring back in style. It's going to be a double feature weekend, displaying local talent, negotiation skills and community support that will make Tacoma's modern community proud.
The first film will be a pre-release screening at the Rialto Theatre of the documentary that filmmaker and visual artist Mick Flaaen recorded for his company Mariposa Productions. “A Totem Tale” begins at 6 p.m. on Friday night. Then the venerable Tacoma-made film from 1927, “Eyes of the Totem,” begins at 8:30 p.m. The film will be turning 90, after all. And it looks as good as new, particularly for being thought lost to history for generations.
While the films will screen on Friday, a birthday party of sorts to mark the 90th anniversary – to the day – of the original movie will be held on Saturday at the Pythian Temple, at 926 Broadway. The day will also offer walking tours of the sights starting at 10 a.m. starting at Fireman’s Park, South 9th and A Streets. The Pythian Temple will also have talks, including local historian Michael Sullivan presenting selected film clips and commentary about 1920s Tacoma, “Seeing Tacoma Through the Eyes of the Totem.” Former City Councilmember and local architect David Boe will have a walking tour of Broadway. The donations-encouraged-but-not-required 90th celebration will be held at 6 p.m.
In 1924, the mastermind behind Tacoma silent films was H.C. Weaver. Just three miles south of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, he built the largest U.S. film studio outside of Hollywood. The 105-feet by 180-feet silent movie indoor stage was built in less than two months, thanks to all of the community support from investors and the lumber community. Weaver Productions produced three silent films there: "Hearts and Fists," 1926; "Eyes of the Totem," 1927; and "The Heart of the Yukon," 1927. Only “Eyes of the Totem” is known to exist.
Flaaen marvels that the community support for making “Eyes of the Totem” was obvious by how many people bought $10 shares back in the 20s to support it. He said that very same kind of community support is also evident in the footage of his current documentary.
Soon after Weaver's silent film studio opened, the film industry began to add sound, and Tacoma's gem closed its doors. In 1932, the building was converted into a dance hall but it burned down that same year in August. The 5.5 acres that housed the studio is now part of a residential neighborhood on Titlow Beach.
Rialto Theater is where producers premiered the full-length, silent movie “Eyes of the Totem” in 1927, 90 years ago to the day. That film's old footage shows Tacoma's early streets as well as shots of historic buildings when they were still relatively new, such as the U.S. Courthouse at Union Station, built in 1883, and the Annie Wright Seminary, which opened in 1884. The film was found in 2015 and was restored for viewing last year but more work has been done since, all laid out in Flaaen’s documentary.
For “A Totem Tale,” Flaaen interviewed those who had some kind of legal or logistical part in securing “Eyes of The Totem” from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which had it in its archives. He also interviewed those who took the five dusty reels of once forgotten film and those who helped get the movie fully restored, with a new music score along with it, for public viewing. Then Flaaen also tracked down ancestors of the vintage film's original cast members. It's then, when he was conducting interviews of folks related to the original cast members, when he got the chills.
"There were a lot of eerie moments," Flaeen said.
In one instance, Flaaen was driving to Bonney Lake to meet Peggy Anne Sessoms, an actor who was only 3 years old when she starred as Baby Sessoms in “Eyes of The Totem.” Flaaen said he was driving to her home and thinking about all the people who were involved in building Tacoma's original silent film studio, Weaver Productions, and who made the only movie from there that survives today. Two really big players were W.S. Van Dyke, who directed “Eyes of The Totem,” and a lawyer named Gen. James M. Ashton, who helped finance it. As Flaaen was thinking about them, he found it rather uncanny that the street just before Sessoms' house was Van Dyke Street and when he turned into the complex it was named Ashton Estates.
Another person that Flaaen interviewed was a descendent of Wanda Hawley. Hawley was “Eyes of the Totem's” main star and plays Mariam Hardy, a single mother who tries to find her husband's murderer. While Hawley is now deceased, her great-niece Meili Cady had also become an actress and, according to Flaaen, "she looks exactly like her great aunt!"
"She (Meili Cady) came up to Seattle and drove to Tacoma, and I interviewed her right in front of the totem pole, right where her great aunt had performed in front of the silent film," Flaaen said.
For scoring the film's music, Flaaen worked with Tacoma Musician Justin Tamminga, who is well known locally for being the dad who formed the band Pig Snout with his two children. Tamminga and Flaaen have worked on three other films together, “Paint,” “A Funeral Dance” and “Hearts and Fists” (a short film).
To buy tickets for this double feature at the Rialto Theater, see atotemtalefilm.com. That's where they cost $15.