I often talk about my Don Taylor Genealogy Blog as “cousin bait,” but a chiropractor who knew Donna in the sixties and seventies contacted me because of the blog. He was an intern at N.W. Chiropractic college in Minneapolis and a “little old lady” named Donna Kees came to see him in 1961. After he graduated, she transferred her records to his office, and he continued to treat her for many years. Donna told him stories of her being a Hollywood performer known as “Donna Darling” and that she had lived the big ostentatious life of fancy clothes, convertibles, and long-haired dogs. Although there was a considerable age difference, he and Donna had become very good friends, and she told him many stories.
Through several correspondences, we confirmed it was the same Donna Darling. His Donna had two children and donated her body to the University of Minnesota Medical School. She used to say she “didn’t know why they would want this old body of [hers].” And in fact, her body was in rough shape. She had arthritic changes and some kyphosis (“Dowager’s Hump). She walked with a cane, and on her bad days, she was pretty feeble. However, he said that Donna was always mentally as sharp as a tack.
He writes, “Donna described her life in Hollywood just as you would picture it in the 1920s; she rode around in a large convertible with handsome men, beautiful women, and her long-haired silky dogs [Gypsy and apparently others]. She dined at expensive popular restaurants, drank champagne, etc. She made it sound like a privileged and exciting life.”
John goes on to say, “Donna indicated there were only a few “top” girls in Hollywood, and she wanted to be one of them. She was offered the opportunity to tour the country with an entertainment group she thought it would help her become more well-known and famous. [“Chin-Chin?”] She didn’t realize it at the time, but she told John the reason she left for the tour was that there was only so much room at the top, and she was at the top with some women – one of whom was Mary Pickford. Unfortunately, when she returned, Mary Pickford was “Hollywood’s Sweetheart,” had married
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She and Douglas were the undisputed top couple of Hollywood. They had incredible power among the studios. Donna said that she then realized that she was tricked into leaving and was eased out of the public eye so the studios could make Pickford the top star with no competition.
John’s memories somewhat explain the gap in Donna’s career and her shift from Hollywood, Mack Sennett, and public appearances to vaudeville. Donna joined the “Chin Chin” cast in 1919, shortly after Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith[i]formed United Artists and before Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks married.
Donna was known for her fantastic voice, great dancing, and stage presence, so I’ve often wondered why she hadn’t made the transition from vaudeville to talkies. John’s memories shed some light on possible reasons.
[I would like to thank John Rapacz for sharing his memories and the stories that Donna told him so long ago.]
[i] Donna worked with D. W. Griffith on “Birth of a Nation” in 1915.
“Donna 100 years ago” is my reporting of events relating to my grandmother, Madonna Montran (aka Donna Montran and Donna Darling) 100 years ago. Hers was the exciting world of 1920s vaudeville. She crisscrossed the country several times with her many shows.
In the 10 August 1921 edition, the New York Clipper, Page 15, top of column 3, gave a short and straightforward mention of Donna.
Donna Montran in the vaudeville act, “As You Like It,” by Hockey and Green, opens at Asbury Park this week; direction of Lee Stewart.
The first mention of “As You Like It” I have found was when she played at the State Theatre in Beacon, New York, from 30 June to 2 July.
Ashbury Park is a small coastal town on the Jersey shore, about 25 miles, as the crow flies, south of New York City (about 50 miles driving). At the time, there were five theaters, Lyric, St. James, Reade’s Savoy, Shubert, and Reade’s Rialto. The “Asbury Park Press was the newspaper at the time.
A review of the Asbury Park Press, August 1921[i], failed to yield any results for “Montran,” “As You Like It,” “Stewart,” or “Hockey.” The Lyric Theater mentioned they had “2 Other Big Acts – 7 acts in all.” The other theaters (Realto, Main Street, Saint James, and Savoy) all seem to have mentioned all of the shows at those theaters. Consequently, I suspect she was one of the unmentioned shows at the Lyric.
One hundred years ago, Donna played in her vaudeville act, “As you Like It” in Asbury Park, New Jersey, probably at the Lyric Theatre.
Learn more about Hockey & Green, the writers of “As You Like It.”
“Donna in the News” is my reporting of newly found newspaper articles and advertising regarding my grandmother, Madonna Montran (aka Donna Montran and aka Donna Darling). I am always excited when I find a new venue for my grandmother’s exciting show business career of the 1910s and 1920s.
This week’s clipping is from The Evening Telegraph (North Platte, Nebraska), dated May 3, 1930.
My knowledge of the twilight of Donna’s career is minimal, so it was exciting to find an article about her performing in May 1930. It is just a quick mention, but it provided the name of a new show she was in, a new venue, and information about one of her final performances. It reads:
FOX OFFERS BIG VARIETY
Sunday and Monday the Fox theatre presents another great program on both stage and screen. The R-K-O vaudeville is headed by Taflan’s Unique Review, a company of six young men and women with special costumes and scenery, featuring Miss Dona Darling.
This clipping provides a hint regarding what Donna did after she returned from Panama. We know Donna was in Panama during her birthday, February 20, 1930. She also left Panama on March 27 and arrived in New York on April 8, 1930. Donna and Sammy had become estranged when they left Panama, so she no longer had a show with Sammy. Consequently, I’ve known nothing about her career from her return until she played in Terre Haute, Indiana, in September or October 1930, when she and Sammy were supposed to open a show again. (Although I have not been able to confirm they did perform together.) Now, I can further research “Taflan’s Unique Review” during 1930 and see where it and Donna may have appeared.
New information added to her career list:
May 4, 1930 – Fox Theatre – North Platte, NE – “…six young men and women…featuring Miss Dona Darling.
“Donna in the News” is my reporting of newly found newspaper articles and advertising regarding my grandmother, Madonna Montran (Donna Montran and Donna Darling). I am always excited when I find a new venue for my grandmother’s exciting show business career of the 1910s and 1920s.
This week I researched “Chin Chin,” the show Donna joined in October 1919, while it was already on tour. Thanks to Newspapers.com, I was able to learn of seven new appearances of “Chin Chin.”
The Greeley showing was an exciting find because the theater wasn’t identified. On November 27, 1919, the Windsor Beacon (Windsor, CO) reported:
MANY TAKE IN SHOW AT GREELEY FRIDAY NIGHT —–
“Chin Chin” was the attraction which took many Windsor people to Greeley last Friday night. Among those known to have attended were:
Dr. and Mrs. T. B. Gormly…
(Note: Windsor is about ten miles northwest of Greeley.)
The 1921 Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide reports Both the “Republican” and the “Tribune” as newspapers that serviced Greeley. I’ll need to find sources for those newspapers when I write more about “Chin Chin” playing in Greeley.
[i]Vaudeville Trails Thru the West “By one who knows” – Herbert Lloyd, page 98, reports only one theatre in Greeley, Colorado, the Sterling Theatre. It indicates the Sterling operated on Thursday for a 3PM matinee and an 8:15 PM night show. This could have been a special Friday night show. Alternately, the 1921 Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide for 1921 indicates that a second theater, the Rex Theatre, J. Lynch, Mgr. had a seating capacity of 800 and also played Traveling Companies.
Donna joined the “Chin Chin” production on 30 October 1919 when it played the Lincoln Square Theater in Decatur, Illinois. After the show in Decatur, the cast and crew traveled the 50 miles northeast to Urbana for a Halloween show.
I learned of this showing thanks to the marvelous Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection. My thanks for their collection, which is free to search, browse, and download. In researching “Chin Chin” playing at the Illinois Theatre, I found three different papers that carried articles and advertising for the show.
The Urbana Daily Courier
The first mention I’ve found for the show was in the Urbana Daily Courier dated October 25th. It was a standard display ad showing “Chin-Chin” would be at the Illinois Theatre in Urbania on Friday, October 31st.
Two days later, the same ad appeared, plus there was a photo showing “Aladdin and the American Girl in Charles Dillingham’s stupendous production of “Chin Chin.” Illinois Theatre, Friday, October 31.”
<1919-10-27 – The Urbana Daily Courier, Page 4 – Chin Chin – Illinois Theatre.jpg>
Finally, on October 30th, the Urbana Daily Courier had a written article on Page 5.
“CHIN CHIN,” COMING TO THE ILLINOIS OCTOBER 31
Do you remember when you were just a tiny chap, how you would read the “Thousand and One Nights” or the wonderful adventures of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Sinbad the Sailor,” and all the rest of those fascinating characters, and how from out of them all emerged “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” as the prime adventure of them all?
And now, Aladdin—a very modern Aladdin—very much in love with an American girl, appears in Charles Dillingham’s “Chin Chin.”
In this musical play everything comes Aladdin’s way upon wishing and rubbing the wonderful lamp, thereby causing many strange and wonderful situations.
Walter Wills and Roy Binder, as the two slaves of the lamp, kept the audience in constant laughter thru the seven scenes of three acts that cover one hundred and fifty minutes of the most enjoyable fun.
Among the many features in this gigantic show are the Teddy Bear dance, Tom Brown’s saxophone band, a real circus tent with an “honest to goodness” bit white circus horse circling around the wing, while Mlle. Falloffsky performs the most daring and screamingly funny bareback stunts.
The Champaign Daily News
The Champaign Daily News began with the same advertisement as Courier on 26 October 1919, page 14. A slightly larger ad ran in the October 30th and October 31st papers. Also, on page 12 of the October 31st paper was a short advertising article.
At the Illinois.
Charles Dillingham’s sumptuous and only production of “Chin Chin,” as seen for two years in New York, comes to the Illinois theatre, Urbana, Friday evening at 8:15.
This delightful and famous entertainment will be presented in its original entirely with Walter Wills and Roy Binder in the lead. In the musically rich show such numbers a “Violet,” “The grey Moon,” “Love Moon,” “Goodbye, Girls, I’m Through,” and the comedy song, “Go Gar Sig Gong-Jue,” always receive hearty applause.
The book is by Anne Caldwell and R. H. Burnside, the lyrics by Anne Caldwell and James O’Dea and the music by Ivan Caryll, so well remembered for his ingratiating melodies in
“The Pink Lady” and “The Little Café.”
Seven gorgeous settings make up the stupendous production—pretty dresses, swift and grotesque dancing, and lots of prankish amusement, including Tom Brown’s clown band as the famous saxophone sextet.
Other principals with this, the only production of “Chin Chin,” are Joseph Robison, George Usher, Richard Bosch, English Cody, George Phelps, Marian Sleeman, Edna Peckham, Jessie Walsh, Violet Tree, Ethel Lawrence, Nora Seiler, Marie Cavanaugh, Margaret Sharpe, Helen McDonald, also Joseph Boyle and Thomas Bell as “Frisco,” the horse, and a large singing and dancing chorus of pretty girls and girls and girlies.—Adv.
This ad was submitted to the newspaper before Donna joined the show, so her name doesn’t appear. However, it does give a good listing of others in the show. All are worthy of further research.
The Daily Illini
The Student Newspaper of the University of Illinois, The Daily Illini, is another important source of information for the Champaign-Urbana area. The campus was only a few blocks away from the theater. It had a circulation of 1,500 and the Courier’s circulation was about 2,500.[i] The October 26th paper included a small ad, on page seven, similar to the ads in the Urbana Daily Courier; however, it also contained a short text ad in the Theatres column.
AT THE ILLINOIS
Tuneful and Joyful “Chin Chin”
“Chin Chin” with its six cylinder reputation behind it, just as tuneful and fantastic as it was when New York worshipped for two years at its Chinese fun shrine, will appear at the Illinois Theatre on Friday, October 31.
The story revolves around the missing wishing lamp sought at any cost by Edne Peckham as “Violet Bond,” the rich American girl, in the search for which the two happy coolies, enacted by Walter Wills and Roy Binder who rear many excruciating and nonsensical situations out of it, making it tower above a whole lot of the latter day musical comedies, then when these two gentlemen lay aside their Oriental garnishings and appear in burlesque of circus bareback riding, Celestial widows, side show ventriloquist and musicians extraordinary they cannot shunt off the encores that come.
On the day of the show, The Daily Illini ran both a display ad and a text ad describing the show.
AT THE ILLINOIS
“The Ragging of the Rag of Rags” with Walter Willis at the piano is one of the uproariously funny hits of “Chin Chin”. Instead of being on the wane, as a few prejudicedpersons
would like to believe, ragtime is steadily increasing from year to year. Ragtime will always be popular-anyhere, everywhere, except perhaps at a funeral.
Good ragtime music has become a standard article, and if the matter were put to a popular vote it would far outrank popular ETAOINHRDLU far outrank classical music by mere force of numbers, because nine-tenths of the people prefer ragtime and popular music.
This delightful and tuneful musical comedy with Walter Willis and Roy Binder in the leading roles is scheduled to appear at the Illinois theatre Friday, October 31.
The Urbana Opera House opened in 1908 and renamed the “Illinois Theater” sometime before 1913.
The 1913Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide indicates the seating capacity of the theater 1,440 – 432 Lower Floor, 402 in the Balcony, 546 in the Gallery, and 60 in the boxes. The theater was managed by the F. & H. Amusement Co.; Jos. F. Huechler was the Resident Manager.
In the 1921 Julius Cahn guide, there is an abbreviated listing for the Illinois Theatre. It only states that the seating capacity was 1,294, and the manager was J. E. Duncan.
Specifications for the Illinois Theater (Urbana)[ii]
Proscenium opening: 35×30 ft
Front to back wall: 43 ft
Between side walls: 66 ft
Apron 3 ft
Between fly girders: 56 ft
To rigging loft: 62 ft
To fly gallery: 27 ft
The Illinois Theatre was on the south side of Bone Yard Creek. A plank-covered culvert between West Main Street and the theater provided easy walking to the theatre from the north side of town.[iii]
What happened to theater?
According to a comment on Cinema Treasures, in 1923, the theater was owned by Zenith Amusement Company, a Ku Klus Klan organization, and was used for Klan activities. Four years later, on April 3, 1927, a fire destroyed the Illinois Theatre.[iv] The remaining shell was converted into apartments for a while then the building was demolished.
Today, the site contains an apartment building. Next door is a cafe and a small international and gourmet foods store.
[i] The Cahn-Leighton Official Theatrical Guide – 1913-1914, Page 179 & 180.