A 1909 Merry Christmas from Kalem Studios, Jacksonville, Florida
(Photo purchased from FL State Archives)
There’s much to love about this photo that looks like the aftermath of a terrific Christmas party at Kalem Studios. There’s the mix of people in costume, some still wearing film make-up, the gigantic Christmas tree with haphazard garland and erratically placed ornaments, the wrapping paper strewn about, the guy in the third row with the striped sweater (is that a real black eye or a make-up black eye?). I was looking at this photo this morning and remembered reading a serialized article by Gene Gauntier, an actor, scenarist and director with Kalem Studios. The article called, “Blazing the Trail” was published in 1928 in Women’s Home Companion and over the course of six issues she recounts her days with Kalem Studios, including wonderful information about their time spent in Jacksonville making films. In the third article she reminisces about a particular Christmas and I’ve included her writing below. Learning about the history of film from books and documentaries written and directed by historians is invaluable, but I get a real thrill and a broader sense of the era when I come across first hand accounts such as these. Moments when the camera wasn’t rolling and we’re able to glimpse into the dailyness of cinematic pioneers. I’m not sure if Gene Gauntier is in this photo (although there’s a woman in the front row who could be her) and this may not be from the same Christmas party she references. Regardless, it’s a lovely little glimpse into a Florida Christmas past with a group of actors, technicians, directors and other workers. All away from their homes for the holidays, all of them a part of something new and exciting. Here’s the excerpt:
“We had our first company Christmas tree this year, cut by the boys and brought, together with a boatload of holly and mistletoe, from far up Strawberry Creek. The diary again records:
Friday, December 24: at nine o’clock we all assembled, first listening to a little concert by Sid’s phonograph, a baby one he bought this evening for two dollars and seventy-five cents, but it is fine. Flashlights were taken of the crowd surrounded by presents, which numbered one hundred and sixty-two, and were distributed amid laughter and shouts and thank-you’s. Afterward the boys got out their music and we had a serenade that would have put ‘dot leetle German band to shame. Did a lockstep to the pier, got in the Bess and went for a ride on the still river under a great golden moon.
Our friends the Hemmenways, who owned Oak Hall, an orange grove across the river at Floral Bluff, and were wintering in New York, had turned their lovely home over to us for our Christmas celebration. Mrs. Melford volunteered to cook the dinner, so my diary reports:
December 25: A bright day, but blowing terribly. Had to split up the party going across the river. Arrived at Hemmenway’s place at two-thirty. Mrs. Melford had been busy for two days. The table looked charming and the dinner was delicious. After dinner we had a jolly time playing children’s games– ‘Drop the handkerchief,’ ‘Clap in and clap out’ and so forth.”
I don’t think we’ll be playing the same games in my house, but I do get to look over that same river from my backyard that Gene Gauntier crossed in their beloved listing boat, The Bess. I’m glad she took the time to recount the details and published them. I’m glad this photograph exists.