Auspicious Beginnings for Ursula

Ursula's parents' wedding announcement

Ursula’s parents, Clara Uphoff and Alfred D. Cheshire, wed on December 27, 1899

Granfather Uphoff's signature on mining certificate

A cancelled certificate from the Yosemite Quartz Mining Company, showing the signature of Ursula’s grandfather, Herman Uphoff (lower left)

Wow! I decided to look up Ursula’s mother, né Clara Uphoff, and found this great announcement of her impending marriage to Alfred D. Cheshire, Ursula’s father. Published in the San Francisco Call, it gives us several clues about Ursula’s family.

Her mother hailed from Grass Valley, a northern Californian city born of the California Gold Rush. It is home to the Empire Mine, “one of the oldest, largest, deepest, longest and richest gold mines in California,” according to California State Parks, of which it is now part. The wedding announcement tells us Clara’s father, Herman Uphoff—Ursula’s grandfather—was a mine owner and merchant. In fact, he was a director and served as president of the Yosemite Quartz Mining Company, incorporated in 1883. He also owned a saloon at one time, as I learned from an 1885 article in the Daily Alta California about a robbery there.

The wedding announcement doesn’t tell us much about Ursula’s father, Alfred, but I discovered a newspaper clipping about him in the antique album. According to this article, about which I will reveal more in a later post, Alfred was born in Hamilton, Canada and, “when a mere youth,” immigrated to the United States, first locating in Michigan. He then:

“…learned the trade of cabinet maker, becoming an expert. He located in San Francisco twenty-three years ago [1890], soon thereafter engaging in the undertaking business. He built up a big business through painstaking attention to duty and about 10 years ago [1903] sold out in splendid advantage.”

This newspaper ad appeared in the "San Francisco Call" in 1893. By 1899, Ursula's father was not just manager, but also president of the California Undertaking Company. He sold the business in 1903 at "splendid advantage."

This newspaper ad appeared in the “San Francisco Call” in 1893. By 1899, Ursula’s father was not just manager, but also president of the California Undertaking Company. He sold the business in 1903 at “splendid advantage.”

At that time, Ursula would have been between 6 months and 18 months old. (Yes, I found out her birth date! Will share in the next post.) With her mother’s family’s probable wealth and her father’s profits from the sale of his business, it would seem Ursula started life with certain financial advantages that would later allow her to attend the Egan School of Drama and pursue her studies in acting, dancing, singing and fencing.

The Ghost of Ursula Cheshire

A card sent to Ursula's father in 1890

A card sent to Ursula’s father in 1890

At first, I was planning to write a post about Ursula’s beginnings, as the album holds several pictures of her as an adorable baby. But something happened tonight apropros to Halloween, so I decided to write this instead:

While paging through the album again, I discover a small, cream-colored envelope trimmed with a thick black border, postmarked 1890 from Ypsilanti, Michigan and accented with a red 2-cent stamp. Addressed in fountain-pen ink to Mr. A.D. Cheshire in San Francisco, it contains a small, thick card, also bordered in black. I know Mr. A.D. Cheshire is Ursula’s father because several pages earlier is a 1913 newspaper clipping that mentions him, his wife and “little daughter, Ursula.”

I reach into the envelope and slowly slip the card out. “In Loving Memory,” it says on the cover. I open it carefully, wondering why it is so thick. My stomach jumps slightly and I gasp. I feel as if the card were a jack-in-the-box and a surprise has burst out. There in center of the card are three thick locks of hair—brunette, blond and gray-brown—each tied with thin string and wrapped loosely in tissue paper.

AD Cheshire Card2Wow! This hair grew on the head of someone—perhaps Ursula herself—who is long gone. Maybe it is all Ursula’s hair, cut from her head at different stages of her life and slipped into the card for safekeeping years after it was sent to Mr. Cheshire. If this is true, I actually have part of Ursula with me. I feel a tug, as if there is a long, long string attached to the hazy, black and white Ursula of the past and extending into the Technicolor present, attached to me, who is unearthing and telling her story. It’s eerie.

But do you know what’s eerier? Just last night, my husband and I finished the first season of a dark, Canadian crime series called “Durham County.” In it, the serial killer cuts locks of hair off his victims’ heads—a blonde and brunette—and keeps them as macabre souvenirs. And, get this, the quote on the card, which is a remembrance of Mr. Cheshire’s mother (who “fell asleep in Jesus” the previous month) is a perfect script for a serial killer to leave behind at the crime scene:

“Safe, safe upon the ever-shining shore,
Sin, pain, and death, and sorrow, all are o’er,
Happy now and evermore.
‘Washed in the blood of the Lamb.’”

Ooh, creeeeeppy! (Do you think I watch too many crime dramas?)

Ursula’s Teachers: The Best in the West

Ursula, age 11

At age 11, Ursula was a student at the Egan School of Drama in Los Angeles

I couldn’t contain my curiousity any longer, and finally paged through the entire album to get a sneak peek of the clues to come. While I didn’t read all the newsclippings or the penciled photo captions, I became even more intrigued and eager to keep going on this historical adventure.

In the last post, we learned about Frank C. Ego (I mean, Egan), the director of Ursula’s drama school. In this post, we meet Ursula’s other esteemed instructors, starting with dramatic teacher Florence A. Dobinson, the “best Shakespeare coach on [the] Pac[ific] coast,” according to the inscription on the back of the Russian dancer photo.

Described in the LA Times as “a pioneer in the study of drama and its allied arts,” Mrs. Dobinson joined the Egan School faculty in 1911. Prior to that, she taught at the Dobinson School of Expression, established by her husband, George A. Dobinson, probably around 1908. Mr. Dobinson, LA’s “dean of local dramatic critics” and a real estate pioneer, died after a short illness in 1910. The Dobinson school sebsequently closed, and Mrs. Dobinson then taught at the Egan School, possibly until 1915, when she established a school for training of the speaking voice, called the Florence Dobinson Studios of Expression and Dramatic Arts. Apparently, Mrs. Dobinson taught Ursula well. From the inscription, we learn that Ursula played Ophelia in the “mad scene from Hamlet…on every dramatic program of the Egan Dramatic sch[ool] at 11 yrs [old].” (What I would give to have seen that; guess I’ll have to settle for YouTube snippets of modern performances like this one by Maria Gale on BBC.)

Ursula also sang in Thomas Taylor Drill’s Children’s Choir. Head of the school’s music department and Ursula’s opera coach, Drill was born in England and grew up in New York City, where he was an accomplished young choral singer. When he was a young man living in Minneapolis, according to a book published in 1895, he was “known better than any other vocalist west of Chicago [where he later resided], and being but a young man, his many admirers anticipate for him a career of unusual success and renown.” They were not wrong. By 1911, when he moved to Los Angeles to head the vocal department of the Egan School, he was described by the press as “the foremost American vocal authority” and “one of the most interesting additions to the Los Angeles music colony this year.”

Senora Matildita in 1906, San Francisco

Senora Matildita in 1906, San Francisco

Ursula learned dancing under the tutelage of Spanish dancer Senora Matildita. In 1895, publicity for a burlesque piece called “The Black Crook-Up-to-Date,” in which Matildita performed the headline act, noted that she was “actually the premiere danseuse to the Court of Spain.” In 1904, Matildita was teaching dance in San Francisco at Paul Gerson’s School of Acting. In 1907, The San Francisco Call newspaper published a hilarious article about Matildita teaching Spanish dance to “society girls.” As of 1913, she had joined the Egan School. I found a 1940 article in the Las Cruces Sun-News mentioning Matildita as having “trained many movie stars.”

“Herr Müller from Heidleburg,” who taught Ursula fencing, remains a mystery; I was not able to find any information about him.

Until next time…

A Jackpot of Clues, Part 2

Ursula as Russian Dancer

Ursula at age 11 the day she performed a Russian dance at the Hotel Virginia in Long Beach, CA

So, what more does this photo—or, more precisely, the back of this photo—of Ursula as Russian dancer reveal about her life? Interestingly, the author of the inscription calls her “Mama Ursula,” and, a few lines later, “Ursula Mama.” Was the writer her daughter or son, or a stepchild or grandchild? Or was that simply an affectionate moniker that many people called her? I don’t know yet if she married or had children, but will try to find out. In the meantime, I want to tell you more about Ursula’s creative pursuits mentioned in the inscription.

Ursula was a busy girl at age 11, taking acting and dancing classes, singing in a children’s choir and learning fencing. I would guess that her family had a fair amount of money, as she attended the prominent Egan School of Drama, a private drama school in Los Angeles, for six years. There, she was taught by some of the foremost acting, vocal and dancing instructors of her day, according to the photo’s inscription.

Frank C. Egan acting, in 1903

Noted drama instructor Frank C. Egan struts his stuff on stage (or, perhaps, in a studio) in Seattle, 1903

First, there was Frank C. Egan, himself, the director of her school. He came to LA in 1909 from Seattle to assume the directorship of the Morosco-Egan Institute of Dramatic Arts, soon thereafter known as the Egan School of Drama, which was originally housed in the Majestic Theatre building. According to an ad in the Los Angeles Herald, Egan was “generally recognized as the foremost dramatic teacher in the United States…and every pupil will be under his direct personal care.”

No doubt, he wrote that description himself—which doesn’t mean it wasn’t true, mind you; I just haven’t found much to back it up. I did find an article (more like an “advertorial”) in a 1911 issue of the Arizona-Journal Miner, calling the institution “the largest dramatic school west of the Mississippi river, the largest save one in the United States, and demonstrated as the most practical and successful anywhere, without exception.” The article goes on to describe Egan as “an actor, a theatrical authority, a master of dramatic technique, and an instructor without a peer as a conveyor of ideas to earnest young students.” One thing was certain: Mr. Frank C. Egan had ego to spare, as you can see from this ad that appeared in 1911 in the Los Angeles Times:

Egan School Ad Big

According to another ad in the September-October 1913 issue of The West Coast, an illustrated monthly magazine published in Los Angeles, the Egan School was to move on November 1st of that year from the Majestic Theatre to the new “Egan Building” on Figueroa near Pico.

The Musart Theatre in 1949, which used to be known as the Egan Theatre in Ursula's time, on Figueroa St. in Los Angeles

The Musart Theatre in 1949, which used to be known as the Egan Theatre in Ursula’s time, on Figueroa St. in Los Angeles

That is the address noted in the photo’s inscription as the location of the Egan school when Ursula was a student there. This is an important clue: now we know the Russian dancer picture was taken sometime after November 1, 1913.

Stay tuned for the third part of “A Jackpot of Clues,” which will introduce you to more of Ursula’s illustrious teachers.

A Jackpot of Clues, Part 1

Russian Dancer inscriptionA picture may be worth “a thousand words,” but the actual words on the back of this photo have yielded a trove of clues about Ursula Cheshire. First off, we have confirmation that this young girl’s name is Ursula, as the Yeoman’s in the Fork bookseller mentioned before I bought the album. We also learn that not only was she a dancer, but also a singer and an aspiring Shakespearean actor—all at age 11! The slacker.

Using the clues this photo revealed (this is so exciting!) and poking around on the Internet, I have deduced that Ursula most likely lived in or near Los Angeles at the time this photo was taken, sometime in 1911 or later.

Ursula as Russian Dancer

Ursula at age 11 the day she performed a Russian dance at the Hotel Virginia in Long Beach, CA

This picture shows Ursula in costume for a Russian dance she performed that day at Hotel Virginia in the burgeoning seaside resort community of Long Beach, California, about 25 miles south of LA. You can still see the foundation of this grand hotel at Ocean Blvd. and Chestnut Ave. It had marble columns, a curved staircase, decorative oriental rugs and mahogany European furniture. Hotel Virginia became too expensive to operate during the depression era and closed in 1932. It was demolished in 1933, the year of the Long Beach earthquake (I’m not sure if the two events were related).

You can read about the construction and history of Hotel Virginia (including its inauspicious beginnings) in a fascinating passage about Long Beach’s tourism, recreation and leisure, circa 1885-1967, on page 56 of a historical statement published in 2009 by the city. (That’s where I found this color image of the hotel.) It’s amazing what you can learn from the interwebs in the comfort of your own home!

Hotel Virginia

Hotel Virginia

I have discovered a lot about the other morsels of information offered up in the inscription, but, speaking of morsels, I’m really hungry and need to eat dinner, so I’ll tell you more this weekend!


Who Was Ursula Cheshire?


The Leiper’s Fork yard sale was held near historic downtown Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee

This past Saturday, my husband and I went to the Leiper’s Fork yard sale. Dozens of dealers—including regular folks, collectors and, ostensibly, Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers” and Antique Archeology fame (I didn’t see him, but other people were staffing his booth)—were selling their trash and treasures in Marty and Bruce Hunt’s humongous front yard just on the edge of town.


The antique album featuring Ursula Cheshire and her family measures about 8 1/2″ x 11″ x 4″

Among the sellers that sunny October day was Yeoman’s in the Fork, “a rare book & document gallery.” As I was sifting through a pile of old, forgotten photos at their table, the woman standing next to me picked up a worn, maroon, velvet-covered book about four inches thick and decorated with metal scroll and flowers and the word, “Album” on the front cover.

The vendor walked over and explained that he’d recently bought the album at an estate sale. Full of old black and white photos, letters and aged newspaper clippings, it centered around Ursula Cheshire, he said, a dancer who was born in the early 1900s and died too young at age 41. Peeking over the woman’s shoulder as she perused the album, I spied a photo of a pretty teenaged girl in costume, posing dramatically on one knee with her head tipped back. It intrigued me and I hoped the woman would gently set the book back down and move along. I was itching to look at it.

Eventually, after peering at the pages and looking at the price tag one last time, she sighed and gave up possession of the book. My turn.

Ursula in Nero Retouched copy

This is the photo I saw while sneaking a peek over the woman’s shoulder at the yard sale booth

I looked at the first few photos and clippings—enough to feel the album contained a story I wanted to discover. But, ooh, at $150 it was a bit pricey for me. Should I buy it or not? I felt I was on the verge of a mysterious and exciting adventure. “Would you take $100 for it?” I asked the man. A pause. “I could do $125,” he responded.


I brought the album home, but haven’t looked through it yet. I want to discover its contents slowly and piece together the story it weaves. I have a million questions. Who was Ursula Cheshire? Where did she grow up? Did she dance professionally, or just as a school girl? Did she have siblings? Did she ever marry or have children? What caused her death at age 41? Whom had the album belonged to? Will it offer enough clues to reveal a coherent narrative? Will I be able to research information to fill in some blanks? Are any of her relatives still alive, and do they know more intimate details of her life? Once I open the book, where will the pages lead me?

I can’t wait to find out, and I thought it might be fun to share my experiences—discoveries, insights, road blocks, surprises—and bits of the album as I attempt to unlock its mysteries. Hence, the Mystery Dancer blog is born. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.