We know that “Chin Chin” played at the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg on January 19-24, but I still haven’t determined where the show was from the 25th to the 31st. That is a full week still unaccounted for. It is likely that during that week the show played somewhere in the North Dakota or northern Minnesota. In any event, the “Chin Chin” cast arrived in Minneapolis and opened on February 1st for a full week at the Metropolitan Opera House (aka Metropolitan Theatre).
The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune had a wonderful spread about the show in their “On Stage and Screen” section of the paper. There was a cute photo of the Quartet of Dancing Dolls from [the] “Chin Chin” Chorus as well as one of the better pre-show articles that I’ve seen. Donna was not part of this chorus but she is mentioned in the article.
CHARLES DILLINGHAM’S production of “Chin Chin,” a musical extravaganza of enduring popularity because of its delightful melodies, comes to the Metropolitan for the week, opening tonight. “Chin Chin” will be remembered as the last play in which the versatile Fred Stone and the late Dave Montgomery appeared as co-stars, a vehicle in which these comedians enjoyed a phenomenal success on Broadway and later on tour. In it they appeared together in Minneapolis for the last time in 1917.
Easily, the chief asset of “Chin Chin,” considered solely as a dramatic composition, is the excellent music which Ivan Caryell provided for the piece. There is practically no plot to the variegated performance, merely a string of incidents strung together on the thin thread of the idea of Aladdin and his wonderful, taken from old Arabian Nights tale. but the music is something to recall with genuine pleasure long after one has forgotten plot and principals. “Love Moon,” “Good-bye, Girls,” and “Ragtime Temple Bells” are airs which hold an irresistible appeal, which one hums over reminiscently, dances to and probably adds to his collection of favorite phonograph records to perpetuate. “Chin Chin” is blessed with perhaps the best music of any musical comedy which has appeared in many seasons.
Starting in a quaint Oriental toy bazaar, the action passes rapidly to a tea shop where a New Year’s celebration is in progress, on to a palace and winds up in a real circus. The pseudo-plot is built about the properties of a magical lamp which has the power to grant any wish of its possessor. A charming American girl and Aladdin, the young here, are in search of this lamp but encounter difficulties in the person of Abannbar, a wily Chinese villain who finally is ordered off the stage to permit the play to end happily.
Chin Hop Hi and Chin Hop Low, the slaves of the lamp, provide the chief fun of the piece. These will be played by Walter Wills and Roy Binder, two comedians who come well recommended for their drollery and clever dancing.
Other principals with this production are: Ethel Lawrence, Donna Montran,[i] Irene McKay, Carrie Dale, Nora Sieler, Neva Larry, Irene Burka, Victoria Burka, Louise Robinson, Starr Dunham, Joseph Robinson, English Orly, Richard Bosch, Edward Klement and George Phelps. There is also a large chorus of pretty girls.
Replete with the elaborate costuming and scenery that characterize a Dillingham production, “Chin Chin” opened a week’s engagement at the Metropolitan last night. It is the tuneful, rollicking, gloom-dispelling farce of other days when Fred Stone and the late Dave Montgomery utilized it as one of their most successful vehicles. Like many modern musical comedies, “Chin Chin” is unembarrassed by a plot, though this feature in no wise detracts from one’s enjoyment of the performance. It is merely a series of incidents strung together on the thread of the idea of Aladdin and his wonderful lame, the old Arabian Nights lame which as the magical property of granting, through it charming goddess and versatile slaves, the every wish of its possessor. Obviously, with a real villain included, and the magical lamp frequently changing hands, there are complications aplenty.
Walter Wills and Roy Binder are two ambitious, hard-working comedians who do not spare themselves in providing a wide variety of fun. They are clever dancers, sing together in an amusing manner, and Mr. Wills, especially, is a droll mimic of more than ordinary talents. While much of their comedy is patterned on that of Montgomery and Stone, they do not hesitate to introduce amusing innovations of their own conception, a fact which stamps their work with a certain individuality rather than as mere imitation of their predecessors in the roles. Mr. Wills’ facial contortions in singing and an adroitness in assuming ridiculous poses never fails to win appreciate applause. His eccentric dancing with Irene McKay is perhaps his best work.
Donna Montran is a stately “Goddess of the Lamp” who has a pleasing voice, her singing of “Violet” being the best vocal offering of the performance.[ii] Starr Dunham is an acceptable “Aladdin” and the “Abanazar” of Joseph Robinson pictures a real villain. Joseph Boyle and Arch Bennett supply good comedy as “Frisco” and the horse in the circus scene.
Tom Brown’s saxophone sextile won a generous share of last night’s applause and proved one of the best hosts of the present presentation of “Chin Chin.”
This exact same article also appeared in the Daily People’s Press (Owatonna, MN) on February 8th. An accompanying photograph showed the “Girls in ‘Chin Chin.’” The photo and the article mention that the show begins next Monday evening, February 9th. Clearly, a mistaken article in the Press as “Chin Chin” was only scheduled be at the Metropolitan Theatre for the week. I haven’t determined where “Chin Chin” played from February 8th through February 11th, but it played at the Grand Theatre in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on February 12th.
The Metropolitan Theatre
Julius Cahn Theater Guide for 1913-1914 indicates the Metropolitan Theatre had a seating capacity of 1767 — 592 on the main floor, 675 in the balcony, and 500 in the Gallery. The stage opening was large, 40×30 feet.[iii]
History of the Metropolitan Opera House
The Opera House opened on March 24, 1894, as the New People’s Theater. It was located at 320 First Avenue South in Minneapolis. First Avenue is now named Marquette Avenue. In 1898, the theater was renamed the Metropolitan Opera House by new owner Jacob Litt. It operated as legitimate theater until the mid-1920s, when the theater turned to movies exclusively. In 1937, after only 43 years of operation, it was closed and demolished shortly afterward.
The former site of the Metropolitan Opera House is across Marquette Avenue from the Hennepin County Family Court building. The entire block was a large parking lot for many years. Today, the site is under construction and well on its way to being a new Opus Group 30-story multipurpose building, which will include luxury apartments, fine dining, and retail spaces. It is scheduled to open in August 2018 as 365 Nicollet Avenue. There is a fun-to-see time-lapse video of the building being built on the Opus Group website.[iv]
[i] [Emphasis is mine.] [ii] [Emphasis is mine.] [iii] The Julius Cahn Gus Hill Theatrical Guide 1913-1914 – Page 327 – Metropolitan Opera House. [iv] Internet: Opus Group – Work – Residential – 365 Nicollet Luxury Multifamily – Accessed 21 October 2017.
I have long been looking for when Donna made the shift from being in the “Chin Chin” production to being in the “California Bathing Beauties.” The last “Chin Chin” production that I know of was on May 21, 1920 in Geneva, NY at the – Smith Opera House. I knew that she appeared in the “California Bathing Beauties” at the Plaza Theater in Bridgeport, CT on December, 30, 1920. That is seven months and I could not believe that she went that long without other performances. I had poked around looking for later “Chin Chin” productions but hadn’t much luck finding anything. I thought I’d see if I could find other “California Bathing Beauties” productions in 1920.
I went to one of my favorite newspaper sites, Elephind.Com. Elephind is particularly good because they not only search the Library of Congress’ six million items, but also millions of additional items including the California Digital Newspaper Collection, Pennsylvania State University, and many more.
My search criteria was narrow but simple: Search all Text for “California Bathing Beauties” and the year of “1920.” The results, 6 matches in the (Philadelphia) Evening Public Ledger, two of which were in August 1920. I was then directed to the Library of Congress site where I could broaden my search a little bit. I searched just the Evening Public Ledger for “Metropolitan AND Bathing” and found 26 instances. A few of them weren’t what I was looking for, but the vast majority were helpful.
I like to use a narrow search criterion, find something relevant, and then broaden the search in a tightly defined environment.
The Bill – August 9th through August 21st
Advertising began on August 2nd with a small ad that indicated “Up in Mary’s Attic” was opening August 9. Appearing with the silent movie was the “Original California Bathing Girls” who were to be in person. This pairing showed a great match. “Up in Mary’s Attic” was the story of a young woman who would inherit a fortune if she remained single until she was twenty-one. However, she actually not only married her gym teacher she had a child and hid the child from the conniving son of the principal in the attic of her dormitory. One of the scenes in the movie includes Mary, played by Eva Novak, in a bathing suit. Eva began show business as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty before her first movie in 1917. It is very likely that Donna knew Eva as they were both Mack Sennett bathing beauties about 1915. I wonder how she felt following the film star as a vaudeville show. I wonder even more how Donna felt as she saw Eva’s career skyrocket as Tom Mix’s love interest in 10 of his western movies and 130 credits, from 1917 to 1966, to her career.
Advertising on August 3rd let the readers know that there were three showings daily. A matinee at 2:30 that only cost 25¢ and evening shows at 7:00 and 9:00 PM with 25¢ and 50¢ seats. Advertising on the 4th and 5th continued the same information.
The first articles about the show begin on August 7th where the Evening Public Ledger reports:
A BATHING girl revue, “The California Bathing Girls,” in person will be given in conjunction with the showing of “Up in Mary’s Attic.” A photoplay at the Metropolitan Opera House. The girls present a revue entitled “A Beach Promenade.”
“Up in Mary’s Attic” is said to be free from slapstick and grotesque antics. The picture tells a comic story of a romance in a boarding school.
The Charming Eva Novak will be seen in the leading feminine role and Harry Gribbon in that of the instructor who marries in secret.
While While the “Original California Bathing Girls” was at the Metropolitan, another show, “Rube Bernstein’s Bathing Beauties,” a burlesque show, was competing playing at the Bijou. The paper on the 7th included a photo of Louise Mersereau, one of the “Bathing Beauties” at the Bijou.
Clearly to compete for theatergoers, the Metropolitan Opera House had two promotions. First, “Six Navy aeroplanes, obtained through the courtesy of Lt. Com. C. Gulbranson, will fly over the city Monday and Tuesday and distribute 100 passes.” I wonder of Donna had anything to do with promoting that idea. Remember, she distributed passes for Birth of a Nation from an aeroplane in 1915.
In addition, as a promotion, sailor Jim White, “the strong man of the Navy” pulled a heavy truck before the 7 and 9 PM shows in front of the Metropolitan. 
The show began on the 9th and the
paper on the 10th reported that “hundreds were turned away.”
Advertising on August 14th
indicates that the movie, and the show, are held over for another week. Also,
very interesting is that the ads begin to show one of the bathing beauties. It kind of looks like Donna, but I don’t
think so. If it is not her, then, who is it? Also, if it is not she, when did
Donna become the headliner for the show.
Also, of particular note, beginning on
the 16th there was a contest to enter the movies.
ATTENDING THE ABOVE PERFORMANCE UP UNTIL THURSDAY EVENING, MAY LEAVE HER PHOTO,
WITH NAME AND ADDRESS ON BACK THEREOF, AT BOX OFFICE.A REPRESENTATIVE COMMITTEE
WILL SELECT MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL AND ANNOUNCEMENT OF WINNER WILL BE MADE ON
SATURDAY, AUG 21.
A chance of a life-time to be starred in a Fine Arts Production.
The last three shows were on August 21st. I haven’t been able to find in the paper who
won the contest. It would be interesting to find out.
There is an article about the Metropolitan
Opera House in
Philadelphia on Wikipedia.
However, the article does have an error. The Wikipedia article says, “In 1928, while still being used
as a performing venue for operas, the house began presenting silent films to
the public.” From my research presented here, we know that in 1920 the
Metropolitan Opera House played the silent film ““Up in Mary’s Attic.”