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 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.
My grandmother was a vaudeville star and I am following her career, trying to learn of her many performances. In October 1919, she joined the cast of the Charles Dillingham production of “Chin-Chin” “Chin-Chin” played in the US and Canada until June 1920. I monitor several newspaper services watching for new venues that the show played while she was a cast member.
I recently received a notification from the folks at Elephind that they had added the “Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection to their searchable items. As such, I ran a quick search and had two new findings. The first entry is from the Denver Jewish News dated 5 November 1919. It was an ad for Chin Chin playing at the Broadway Theatre in Denver, a venue I had learned about previously.
The second article found was from the Walsenburg World dated 20 November 1919, Page 5, Column 3, Para 12, which read:
“Mr. and Mrs. George Blickhahn, Mr. and Mrs. James Flynn, Mrs. B. Gardner, Aldolph Unfug, Miss Clara Kincaid of La Veta, and Lois Sporleder all spent Sunday in Trinidad seeing ‘Chin Chin.’”
The previous Sunday would have been November 16, 1919. Trinidad is a small town about 40 miles southeast of Walsenburg and about 11 miles north of the New Mexico border.
It appears that the show may have been at West’s Theatre, however, I’ll need to confirm that with additional research. The show played in Denver from the 9th to the 15th, went south to Trinidad for the 16th then returned back north to Pueblo on the 18th and Colorado Springs on the 19th.
New Venue Added:
Nov 16, 1919 – Trinidad, Colorado – (Probably) West’s Theatre.
Chin Chin played at the Smith Opera House in Geneva, NY, on May 21st. The troupe then traveled the 60 miles south to Elmira, and two shows at the Lyceum Theatre. This showing had more advertising articles than most shows. Sadly, my grandmother, Donna, isn’t mentioned by name, however, her role, “Goddess of the Lamp” is mis-mentioned as the “Goddess of the Light.”
On May 18th, the Star-Gazette ran the following advertisement on Page 13:
“Chin Chin” Saturday Matinee and Evening
Melodious, artistic and diverting is “Chin Chin” scheduled for the Lyceum this Saturday Matinee and evening. To Walter Wills and Roy Binder are entrusted the principal parts, supported by a company of clever comedians and a beautiful chorus. In their song “The Chinese Honeymoon,” “Go Gar Sig Gong-Jue,” and “Temple Bells,” the two clever comedians Wills and Binder make a decided hit and are always recalled again and again. In this charming fantasy with a Chinese atmosphere there are also a score of other songs that are the fascinating, whistling kine, and several unique dances that carry the snappy comedy along delightfully. This is a great play for the children matinee prices 50c, 75, $1, $1.50. Evening: 50c. $1.00, $1.50, $2.00. Seat sale Thursday morning. Phone 411.—Adv.
On May 19th, the Star-Gazette ran the following advertisement on Page 16:
“Chin Chin” Saturday
“Chin Chin” comes to the Lyceum on Saturday matinee and evening, and is a musical comedy, or concoction, that turned them away on a previous engagement. Charles Dillingham thought it over and resolved that he had a piece of theatrical property far too valuable to pack away in the storehouse. He had no concern about its fate if he could get a pair of comedians with enough talent to play the parts of the two Chinese. Walter Wills and Roy Binder came up to the specifications, and so the new “Chin Chin” with as much pains taken upon it as the original production, was sent on tour.
Yet, “Chin Chin” does not depend wholly upon the chief comedians, its melodies, already familiar every are ingratiating: “The Good-bye Girs” [sic] song. “The Love Moon” and other numbers are delightfully tuneful, and the sprightliness of the complete story is fetching.
When Mr. Dillingham puts on a play there is not a shabby spot showing anywhere, but every detail of costume and scenery is perfected to suit the most discriminating taste. Matinee 50c, 75, $1, $1.50. Evening: 50c. $1.00, $1.50, $2.00; Seat sale tomorrow.-Adv.
On May 20th, the Star-Gazette ran the following advertisement on Page 13:
Coming to the Lyceum on Saturday is Charles Dillingham’s “Chin Chin” the musical comedy which is one of those tales of live and wishing common to the Arabian Nights. All impossibilities are crowded into it jumbled together like the figures in a dream and in the end it resolves itself into a vehicle for the display of the clever grotesqueries of the two clever “turn” artists. Walter Wills and Roy Binder. Mr. Wills, whose body seems made of rubber, and whose facial expressions change as quickly as the wheel of fortune, gives us Chin Hop Hi, Paderewski, Mlle. Falloffski, a Gendarme and a ventriloquist, transformations accompanied by such curies tricks and poses, such tumbling, dancing, imitating, such a running fire of jokes and fun-making that the audience fairly screams with laughter. Mr. Binder gives us in rapid succession Chin Hop Lo, the widow, a Coolie and the Ring Master, lightening changes of mood, manner and get-up that provoked the audience to mirth. No more diverting and entertaining “comics” have come this way for many seasons. George Usher makes an agreeable and picturesque Aladdin.
The danseuse par excellence is Irene McKay, and astonishing acrobatic and step performer whose twinkling feet are full of speed and syncopation, her number with Mr. Wills entitled “Dance Poetic” is a remarkable performance ending with a surprise to the audience.
The favorite songs are “The Chinese Honeymoon,” “Good-bye Girls, I’m Through,” “Violet.” “The Gray Dove,” and “Love Moon.” The most recalled dance and song numbers are the “Teddy Bear Dance.” (without words), “Go Gar Sig Gong-Jue,” “Temple Bells,” “The Rag of Rags,” and “Bally Moony.”
The clever Saxophone Sextette by Tom Brown’s Clown Band is one of the most amusing and delightful hits of the play. The company is acceded to be the largest organization presenting a musical comedy on the road today, there are girls, and girls and girls. Extra musicians are carried by the company assuring patrons of the correct interpretation of the excellent musical score. Matinee 50c, 75, $1, $1.50. Evening: 50c. $1.00, $1.50, $2.00. Seats now selling.—Adv.
Advertising for the show continued every day in the Elmira Star-Gazette. Additionally, the Sayre, PA, Evening Times (about 20 miles from Elmira) ran advertising articles daily including the following the day of the show.
“CHIN CHIN” IN ELMIRA TONIGHT
Chin Chin, a musical comedy in three acts and seven sets of scenery, which has won an international reputation as one of the biggest musical comedy successes of recent years, is scheduled for an appearance at the Lyceum Theater, Elmira this evening. Catchy song numbers abound with delightful melody, lavish scenery, costumes of the Oriental and Old English style, a chorus of over thirty sprightly girlies, hilarious comedy and pantomimic work introduced by a number of clever comedians with Walter Wills and Roy Binder in the lead, all combine to afford a capital evening’s entertainment of good, clean fun.
In the first act, we have Aladdin and Violet Bond, a charming young American girl in search of a magical lamp which has the power to grant any wish of the owner. They meet at the toy shop of Abanazer, and the remaining acts and scenes are brought about gb [sic] the magical properties of the lamp found in the tea shop of Widow Twanke. In succession foll such characters as Fan Tan, the Goddess of the Light, Chin Hop Hi, Chin Hop Lo, Paderewski, the Ventriloquist and many others too numerous to mention. Evening prices $2, $1.50, $1, 50c.
Post Show Info
There is a five-day gap in my records of the Chin Chin show, but I know the show played at the Orpheum Theatre in York PA on May 28th. So, I suspect that the show played in New York or Pennsylvania during the 23rd to the 27th. I definitely need to search the New York and Pennsylvania newspapers of May 1920 searching for the show appearances.
In 1866, Henry S. Gilbert and Daniel R. Platt formed the “Lake Street Building Association” to build a public hall, the Elmira Opera House. In 1898 the hall was remodeled and renamed the Lyceum Theatre.[i] On March 6, 1904, a fire erupted which destroyed the theatre.[ii] Two theaters and six stores were destroyed in the inferno. On October 19, 1905, the New Lyceum theater opened. The theater operated until 1926 when it closed. The building was finally demolished in 1949.[iii]
Specifications for the Lyceum Theatre, Elmira
There is some conflict regarding the seating capacity. The 1921 Juliua Cahn-Gus Hill theatrical guide reports a seating capacity of 1,576[iv] and the 1913 Julius Cahn-Gus Hill guide reports 100 more, 1676. LL.F. 566, Bal 438, Gal 600, Boxes 72. In any event, it was the second largest theatre in Elmira at the time. (The Colonial seated 1816.)[v] However, the Lyceum had the largest stage in town with a proscenium opening of 38 x 28 feet. Other theater specifications include:
Front to back wall: 40 ft
Between side walls: 68 ft
Apron 2 ft
Between fly girders: 50 ft
To rigging loft: 58 ft
To fly gallery: 28 ft
Today, 150 Lake Street, Elmira, New York is occupied by a Five Star Bank branch office.
Review newspaper sources for other venues for “Chin Chin” to have played between May 23rd and May 27th.
The ads and some of the links on this website are “affiliate links.” If you purchase after clicking on them, I will receive a small commission which will help me pay for this site. Please see my Disclaimer Page for more information.