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Pure silents

Friends of Hart Park host fundraiser showing silent films in Bill Hart’s backyard

Posted: August 23, 2008 8:31 p.m.
Updated: October 25, 2008 5:02 a.m.

The arc light projector used by silent film preservationist David Shepard waits for dusk to settle before it brings the William S. Hart silent film, "Three Word Brand" to life on the screen.

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When William S. Hart died in 1946, he left his beloved home, La Loma de los Vientos (The Hill of the Winds) to the residents of Los Angeles County.

Included in the bequest was his 22-room Spanish colonial Revival style mansion and all its contents which include Hart’s collection of Western art, American Indian artifacts and early Hollywood memorabilia. His will stipulated that admission should never be charged.

Hart was born in Newburgh, N.Y. and experienced life in the “true” West as he traveled with his father who worked in mills across the Dakota territories where he developed an affinity and understanding of the real West’s American Indians, cowboys and ranchers.

He began his theater career in his 20s with appearances on the Broadway stage as a Shakespearian actor.

At the age of 49, Hart came west to Hollywood to begin his film career. He wanted to make Westerns about the “real” West he had known as a boy. In the following 11 years he made more than 65 silent films — his last being “Tumbleweeds” in 1925.

Each year the Friends of Hart Park and Museum invite fans and supporters of Hart and the home and park that bear his name, up to Bill Hart’s backyard for a barbecue and silent movie — “Silents Under the Stars.”

A little fundraising is usually involved, too. This year’s silent auction featured elaborate baskets, autographed photos of Western screen star Harry Carey, Jr., retired “San Fernando Road” street signs and a variety of art and other collectibles.

Friends President Donna Chipperfield said it was the best auction ever featured at the Silents event.

“Jon Claitman, Sherron Ball, two new directors on the board, they took over the silent auction and they just went gung ho,” she said. “They did fabulous work. I’m very proud of them.”

Chipperfield said the Silents committee included Dick Meier, Jack Stewart and Sheila Miller — and a large number of volunteers.

The evening began for the sell- out crowd of nearly 300 with a shuttle ride up the hill followed by a tour of the Hart Mansion offered by a host of docents.

Guests then moseyed out to Hart’s backyard to feast on a Rattler’s barbecue dinner of tritip, chicken, salad, beans, garlic mashed potatoes and Rattlers’ signature rolls. A fully stocked ice cream sundae bar for dessert featured all the traditional goodies, including the cherry on top.

As dusk fell, and the soft breeze cooled the end of day, visitors picked up their metal folding chairs and picked a spot before the large movie screen that hugged a large oak tree.

John Boston, a former columnist of The Signal and popular SCV resident, introduced Hart to the audience.

“What makes William S. Hart so significant is that much of the world views the United States the way it does because of William S. Hart, that cowboy persona,” Boston said. “Hart is the guy who invented the modern screen cowboy and you hear John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, all these Western stars thank Bill Hart for creating what a film cowboy should be.”

Boston also challenged the residents of the SCV and the caretakers of Hart Park to reconstruct a small birdbath that used to grace the grounds of the park.

“Years ago, Dick Lindsay was a janitor at the jailhouse in town. He had a softness for animals, he would take in stray dogs, cats and he used to come to Hart Mansion and feed the birds — he did that for decades, When he passed away a tree was planted and a granite birdbath was constructed to remember him,” Boston said. “In history we always remember the generals and the presidents and the big stars, but we rarely remember the common good Joe — this guy dedicated his life to helping animals and a birdbath and a tree were planted in his memory by a woman who used the last of her life savings to honor him. I think it was in the 1960s the tree was cut down and the birdbath disappeared.

“If I could do a shameless plug, what about bringing back Dick Lindsay’s little bird bath?”

The crowd, touched by the story applauded Boston’s request.

Soon, small bags of ready-made popcorn were passed out and the eagerly anticipated highlight of the evening began — the silent, black and white film “Three Word Brand.”

The live musical accompaniment was composed specifically for the film by volunteer Ray Lowe, his fourth year at the task.

“I just finished today, around noon,” he said.

Lowe said finding the time to compose all the music is a challenge.

“But I’ve gotten better at ways to compose the music using less time,” he said.

Lowe said he enjoys his unique contribution to Silents.

“I like being part of this great community, the spirit is great here, everyone is a volunteer here,” he said. “I love to use my gift and give it away.”

Guests applauded, booed the bad guys and cheered their hero Hart as the film, made in 1921, flashed across the screen. The plot involved cattle rustling, stolen water rights and stunning special effects for a film made 87 years ago. Hart played three roles, the father and his twin boys. At two points during the film Hart was seen as his own twin on the screen at the same time.

The film was shown on the aging arc light projector brought by projectionist David Shepard, a film historian and film restorer. Shepard has been providing this labor of love to Silents for nearly 10 years. The film itself was loaned to the event by John Stone, a collector from Alexandria, Va.

Funds raised by the Friends have been used to help maintain the mansion, help with the animals in the park and clean and restore numerous art treasures.

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