Totem Story Retold

Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 film the Gold Rush was just that,

Chaplin Tacoma
Gold Rush teaser

becoming the largest grossing silent comedy in film history. Since Tacoma was closer to the Klondike than Hollywood it made perfect sense to H.C. Weaver to build his own movie studio and begin producing major motion pictures in Tacoma. In a grand quixotic venture he built a massive studio on five acres near Titlow Beach (second in size only to the main stages at MGM), constructed a village of Hollywood style bungalows for his film colony and started making major movies with big name casts and elaborate sets and location shoots.

546818_4518900606556_1172599639_nBetween 1925 and 1928 H.C. Weaver Productions made at least three major films, all of which used Tacoma as a backdrop for location shots and none of which were thought to survive today. Maybe the most ambitious and mysterious of the films was “The Eyes of the Totem” which used the Tacoma Hotel totem pole as a namesake set device in its gothic story of Klondike gold, murder, seduction, and lurid villainy. The dashing young director of the film was W.S. Van Dyke who would complete two Weaver film before finding fame in Hollywood and directing The Thin Man written by former Tacoma resident Dashiell Hammett, but that’s a tangent for another time. 635676753218955157-eyeso-of-totem9bUnfortunately for the little Hollywood built under the shadow of a short lived suspension bridge that was yet to be built, technology and timing were not on their side even if cinematic drama was. The advent of sound movies crushed the market for silent films and Weaver Productions folded. The massive studio building became a dance hall during the Depression and then burned in a spectacular fire on August 24, 1932. This story is told in a rich collection of period photographs at the Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room left by Gaston Lance, the studio’s art director and later local architect. Until recently no film was believed to exist from Weaver Studios and then, unexpectedly a complete copy of Eyes of the Totem was found with W.S. Van Dykes papers in New York.556689_4518880366050_112779284_n

This whole improbable story along with the events that followed here in Tacoma are the subject of a soon to be released documentary called Totem Tale, directed by Mick Flaaen and released by Mariposa Productions. As the 90th anniversary of the Eyes of the Totem release approaches both films, the silent and the retold versions will be shown downtown on June 9 & 10. Watch for details.

Written by

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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