Out back, in the dry wash that runs down the hill through everyone's backyard here, a coyote howls in the night and the old black Chihuahua, Rowena, sits bolt upright in her bed, ears pointed and craning her neck to see out the window. She looks over at me, sitting at the desk reading, and runs across the room and jumps up into my lap.
"It's all right, girl," I tell her. "He's outside and we're in here."
I look out the back window myself and down onto the rooftops of the seven soundstages and scattered office buildings they call the Prospect Studios. My next-door neighbors. Today the facility -- a full city block in size -- is owned by Disney, and they use it as the local affiliate for ABC, KABC Channel 7.
It's where they film "General Hospital."
Disney got it as part of the deal when the company bought ABC in 1984, and before ABC had it, the studio belonged to Warner Brothers, who shot a lot of movies there.
But it was originally built back in 1915 by a guy named Albert Smith, owner of Vitagraph Studios during the silent film era.
Smith and Vitagraph had one big star, Norma Talmadge.
Talmadge Avenue, down the block from the apartment building where I'm staying and the street where the original main gate to the Prospect Studios was located, is named after her. And the character of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's 1950 Hollywood potboiler "Sunset Boulevard" was said to have been based on Talmadge.
Pretty good for a gal from Niagara Falls.
"I was born at Niagara Falls, where I spent the first ten years of my childhood amid most pleasant scenes," she told the New York Daily News on Aug. 23, 1926. "Indeed, when I am in a pensive mood my earliest and fondest recollections go back to the days I spent at the most beautiful spot in the whole world, the objective of all globe-trotters, the origin of the slogan, 'See America First.'"
According to Talmadge, it was cruel circumstance that pried her away from her beloved hometown, kicking and screaming.
"Through force of circumstances our family moved to New York City, and the contrast between Niagara Falls and the noisy city was indeed great," she told the News. "But as time wore on I soon grew to like my new home almost as well as my old one."
Talmadge's ties to the city were such that even the Hollywood press got in on the act.
"Norma Talmadge was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y.," one would-be wag wrote in Lee's Movie Magazine on June 5, 1915. "If all the 'Janes' in town are like Norma, no wonder 'Niagara Falls.'"
Niagara Falls. Get it?
Talmadge was one of the most glamorous and elegant stars of the Roaring Twenties. A series of blockbuster pictures, including "Smilin' Through" (1922), "Secrets" (1924), and "The Lady" (1925), made her Hollywood's most bankable box office attraction this side of Rudolph Valentino.
She'd grown up hard following the family's move to New York. The eldest daughter of Fred Talmadge, a chronically unemployed alcoholic, and Margaret "Peg" Talmadge, a witty and indomitable woman, Talmadge's childhood was marred by poverty.
One Christmas morning her dad left the house to buy food and never came back, leaving his wife to raise their three little daughters. Peg took in laundry, sold cosmetics, taught painting classes, and rented out rooms, raising her girls in Brooklyn.
The Vitagraph Studios were then located in the Flatbush section of that borough, and Peg, a stage mother from hell, pushed young Norma into the pictures. The pretty 17-year-old appeared in more than 100 films between 1911 and 1912.
She clawed her way to the top, marrying Hollywood film mogul Joseph Schenk -- more than 15 years her senior -- in 1916. In interviews, she referred to her husband as "Daddy."
Schenk formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, signed a lot of stars and made a lot of movies. The movies, in turn, made a lot of money. Talmadge was shooting an average of five movies a year between 1917 and 1921, and by 1923 she was making $10,000 as the No. 1 box office draw in the country.
And in 1927, it was Norma Talmadge and Douglas Fairbanks who became the first stars to stick their feet and hands into the wet cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
By that time, she had enough money of her own and grew tired of "Daddy." She fell in love with the dashing Gilbert Roland, her leading man in the film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel "Camille." But when she asked Schenk for a divorce he said no dice. She was still a top star, and her pictures made a lot of money for him.
Tragedy struck in 1929. Talking pictures were invented, and Talmadge's nasally Brooklyn accent didn't jibe with the sophisticated image audiences had of her. She made two talkies, and both bombed.
Desperation set in. She appeared on a radio show with fellow superstars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, who sought to prove they could talk as well as the next person.
Her sister, Constance Talmadge, sent her a terse telegram following the disastrous broadcast.
"Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can't knock those trust funds Mama set up for us," it said.
She did her last film in 1930 and left the screen forever. Schenk finally gave her the divorce she'd asked for, but Gilbert Roland's career had taken a dive as well, so she married America's Toastmaster General, George Jessel, an old poker buddy of Schenk's.
Jessel used her on the radio show he hosted until it was canceled in 1939. Never very happy, the couple canceled their marriage shortly afterward.
As usual in such cases, she started drinking and became addicted to painkillers she'd started taking for a crippling case of arthritis. A move to Las Vegas in search of dry air didn't help matters, and she became more and more reclusive and nasty.
Talmadge lingered long forgotten until 1957, when a series of strokes put her in the hospital, where she contracted a deadly case of pneumonia She died on Christmas Eve.
The sad story of another Niagara Falls girl gone bad? Not quite. Because it turned out Norma Talmadge didn't know Niagara Street from Niagara Avenue. She probably never rode on the Maid of the Mist or explored the Cave of the Winds.
Niagara Falls may indeed be the "most beautiful spot in the whole world," as Talmadge told the New York Daily News, but for all we know, the only time she ever set eyes on the mighty cataracts was when she was looking at a picture postcard.
Actually, Talmadge was born in New Jersey -- Jersey City, to be exact -- and cooked up the whole Niagara Falls story with her pushy stage mother Peg in order to provide a bit of scenery and romance in the otherwise mundane circumstances of her youth.
That's Hollywood for you. Somebody tells you they're from Niagara Falls, and the next thing you find out is they're really from Jersey City. It's all rather heartbreaking.
Now the sun starts to come up and big black crows have gathered on the power lines overlooking the dry wash out back where, earlier, a coyote killed a possum or some other small animal. The birds see the carrion and swoop down to pick at the remains.
The morning shift arrives at the Prospect Studios, and another day of show business begins.
The old black Chihuahua Rowena's gone back to bed, and I smoke another cigarette before doing the same.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||March 27 2012|