Don’t Miss Future ‘Mystery Dancer’ Posts

Ursula_Sin_of_David_Clip2Unfortunately, it seems my schedule is too hectic to stick to a strict “two Tuesdays” (on the first and third Tuesdays of the month) posting routine, so Mystery Dancer will now aim to post twice a month on various days as possible. If you haven’t yet, be sure to subscribe to Mystery Dancer so you don’t miss any future posts!

FYI, I plan to continue Ursula’s Hawaiian adventure sometime in the next week or so.

Happy Summer!

 

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Hawaii-Bound

Brady_BunchWhen I was a kid, I loved “The Brady Bunch” episode where the family travels to Hawaii. I have wanted to visit the “Aloha State” ever since, but, alas, have not made it there yet. But Ursula has!

When she was 26, Ursula and her long-time friend Elizabeth Everhardy embarked on a trip to Hawaii aboard the S.S. City of Honolulu on January 14, 1928. I learned this from the California, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1959 that I accessed on Ancestry.com. For some reason, the ship’s manifest lists Ursula’s age as 20 and birth date as June 4, 1908 instead of June 9, 1902. Perhaps it was a mistake, or perhaps Ursula was trying to pass herself off as a younger woman!

Passenger list

S.S. “City of Honolulu” passenger list with Ursula departing Los Angeles on January 14, 1928

Unfortunately, the antique photo albums have yielded no pictures of Ursula’s Hawaiian holiday, nor have I found any information online about her time there. However, the ships she traveled on to and from Honolulu have fascinating histories. In this post, we learn about the ship she sailed on to Hawaii.

SS-kiautschouBuilt in Germany in 1899 for a German shipping company called Hamburg America Line, the ship Ursula and Elizabeth sailed on was originally named the S.S. Kiautschou, after a German colony in China. It initially traveled between Hamburg, Germany and East Asia. In 1904, the ship was traded for five freighters to another German company. Renamed the S.S. Prinzess Alice, it spent the next 10 years traveling between Bremen, Germany; Suez Canal; East Asia; New York; and Cherbourg, France.

S.S. "Prinzess Alice"

S.S. “Prinzess Alice,” German-owned, sailed 1904-1914, seized by the U.S. in 1917

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the S.S. Prinzess Alice was interned in the Philippines. The United States seized it three years later and renamed it the U.S.S. Princess Matoika—a variation on the spelling of the birth name of Pocahontas, and meaning “flower between two streams.” According to a book by Wikipedia, the German crew did not sabotage the ship before its seizure, “unlike most other German ships interned by the US.”

As a transport ship for the US Navy during WWI, it carried more than 50,000 US troops to and from France from 1918 to 1919. It was decommissioned in September 1919, then operated as a US Army transport, continuing to return healthy and wounded troops and repatriating the remains of Americans killed overseas during the war. The following year, it carried much of the US team to the 1920 summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.

U.S.S. Princess Matoika, 1919

U.S.S. Princess Matoika, 1919

But wait—there’s more! The ship was chartered to the U.S. Mail Steamship Company, and in 1921 began service for civilians between New York and Italy. More adventures ensued. While carrying about 2,000 Italian immigrants to the United States on its first return trip from Italy, Princess Matoika reportedly hit an iceberg off Newfoundland, but was not seriously damaged. On the ship’s third and final return voyage from Italy, the Wikipedia book notes:

“U.S. Customs Service agents at New York seized $150,000 worth of cocaine—along with valuable silks and jewels—being smuggled into the United States. Officials speculated that because of a maritime strike, members of a smuggling ring were able to infiltrate the crew of the ship.”

Palestine_AdThe ship changed hands a couple more times, was renamed the S.S. President Arthur, and purchased in 1924 by American Palestine Line, reportedly the first Jewish-owned and operated steamship company. After being refurbished, the ship sailed on its maiden voyage to Palestine in 1925. President Arthur was claimed to have been the first ocean liner to fly the Zionist flag at sea and the first to have female officers.

Finally, the Los Angeles Steamship Company acquired the ship in August 1926 for future service between Los Angeles and Hawaii. The vessel was docked in LA and underwent a $2,500,000 rebuild over the next eight months. Renamed the S.S. City of Honolulu, it set sail on its maiden voyage June 4, 1927, just two days after Ursula’s 26th birthday and seven months before she and Elizabeth stepped aboard.

City of Honolulu could accommodate around 450 first-class passengers (which the young women were) and 50 third-class. This is the luxurious setting in which Ursula and Elizabeth spent six days at sea, arriving at the Port of Honolulu January 20, 1928 (text from Wikipedia: Featured Articles, “Voyage: Inspired by Jules Verne”):

“[City of Honolulu’s] hull was painted all white…, and she sported period designs in her common areas. The dining room, large enough to seat 300 in a single sitting, was decorated in a Grecian theme, and featured 18 stained glass windows designed by San Diego architect Carleton M. Winslow. The smoking room was done up in a Tudor style; the music room was decorated in a combined French and Italian Renaissance manner; and the writing room was in Adam style. The suites were all done in either Adam, Queen Anne, or Louis XVI styles. The ship featured six passenger elevators, and a swimming pool patterned on a Pompeian design. One of the few remaining traces of her pre-war German decoration was the rosewood railing on her grand staircase.”

SS_City_of_HonoluluDuring its brief, three-year career as a tropical ocean liner, City of Honolulu carried a number of notable passengers, including movie stars, sports figures, an arctic explorer, a chewing gum magnate, Stradivarius instrument dealer (and three Stradivarius violins), government officials, Hull House founder and settlement house pioneer Jane Addams, and singer Al Jolson.

But to me, the SS City of Honolulu’s most notable guest was Ursula Claire Cheshire. I imagine her floating down the grand staircase in an elegant evening gown, sipping cocktails and trading bon mots with Elizabeth and some young gentlemen admirers, and even playing the piano and singing in the music room, sharing her lovely voice with fellow passengers on their way to a tropical paradise.

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Ursula Honored at Friend’s Party

LA Times article on Everhardy luncheon

The “Los Angeles Times” reports on a luncheon thrown by Ursula’s friend Elizabeth Everyhardy (March 27, 1927)

The next news we have of Ursula since her singing on KFWB radio comes from the “Society” column in the March 27, 1927 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Apparently, Ursula was a guest of honor at a luncheon and bridge party given by “Mrs. and Miss Everhardy,” who were longtime friends of the Cheshires. The first mention I found of them in my research was when Ursula’s parents attended a party at their house in February 1909. In June 1916 when Ursula was 14 years old, she was among about “fifty or more of the younger set” who were invited to a surprise dance party for her friend Elizabeth (“Miss Everhardy”).

Sixty-four people were invited to the 1927 luncheon, described as “one of the lovely affairs of the month.” Ursula’s mother, Clara, assisted the hostesses with the party, which included prizes for card games.

Light on fact checking, the news article noted that Ursula had “just returned from several years in Paris, France, where she has been studying voice culture…” As we know, Ursula did study voice culture, but it was in Southern France, and she was abroad just from May 1924 through June 1925, possibly returning to Paris briefly in 1926 to appear in divorce court.

Held at the Elks lodge in Los Angeles, the Everhardys’ event featured lovely décor:

“A spring motif was charmingly carried out in the table decorations, and the tall blue tapers were tied with fluffy bows of yellow tulle, following out a blue and gold color motif, while the place cards were hand-painted sketches of spring maids in all the dainty French colorings.”

Elks Temple 99

The Elks lodge where Ursula attended her friend’s party

Constructed just two years earlier, the Elks’ Art Deco building was later transformed into a luxurious hotel, the Park Plaza, which, according to its website, still stands but is used “exclusively for events and filming.”

Until next time…

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Ursula Cheshire, Hollywood Singer

The precursor to the iconic "Hollywood" sign was erected in 1923

The precursor to the iconic “Hollywood” sign was erected in 1923

Given Ursula’s dramatic and singing activities in Los Angeles in 1926 and 1927, I assumed she settled there after she and her mother, Clara, returned from Europe. Now I have proof: A 1926 voter registration list showing her address as 1967 North Bronson Ave., situated in L.A.’s Hollywood neighborhood, the world’s “film capital” at the time. That year, studio newcomer Greta Garbo starred in her first silent Hollywood film, Torrent, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) production.

Poster for Greta Garbo's first silent Hollywood film, "Torrent," released in 1926

Poster for Greta Garbo’s first silent Hollywood film, “Torrent,” released in 1926

Registered as Republicans (can you imagine what they would think of Donald Trump?!), Ursula and Clara lived together at that address at least through 1934, according to voter registration lists from subsequent years. Clara’s occupation was listed as “housewife,” while Ursula’s was “singer.”

1926 Los Angeles voter registration list, noting Mrs. Clara Cheshire and Miss Ursula Cheshire

1926 Los Angeles voter registration list, noting Mrs. Clara Cheshire and Miss Ursula Cheshire

That is no surprise, given her studying voice in France with opera star Emma Calvé and singing on the radio in L.A. But now we know that Ursula thought of herself as a “singer.” I didn’t know it at the time I started this blog, but apparently “Mystery Singer” would have been a more apt title (although it doesn’t have quite the same ring and intrigue as “Mystery Dancer”!).

Fun fact: The original “Hollywood” sign actually said “Hollywoodland” (erected 1923) and was an advertisement for a new suburban housing development. If you’re interested in this iconic sign’s history, check out this nifty website.

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Great News! ‘Mystery Dancer’ Selected as an Official Honoree in The Webby Awards

Webby_HonoreeI am excited to share an excerpt of a letter I received the other day:

“Dear Elizabeth,

It is my pleasure to inform you that Mystery Dancer has been selected as an Official Honoree in The 20th Annual Webby Awards in the Web: Personal Blog/Website category.

In recognition of the exceptional quality of submissions received this year, the Academy has acknowledged outstanding entries as Official Honorees, alongside our Nominees. With nearly 13,000 entries received from almost all 50 US states and 65 countries, the Official Honoree distinction is awarded to the top 20% of all work entered that exhibits remarkable achievement.

Congratulations—this is an outstanding accomplishment for you!…”

The leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet named "Mystery Dancer" an Official Honoree in 2016

The leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet named “Mystery Dancer” an Official Honoree in 2016

The Webby Awards, presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS), is the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet.

It feels great to be recognized by such an esteemed group for my “labor of love,” but the highest honor for me is to have readers who follow Mystery Dancer and are interested in, enjoy and appreciate the discovery of Ursula’s real-life story. Please share Mystery Dancer with anyone else you think would enjoy it, too.

Thank you for coming along for the journey!

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San Francisco, Here We Come (Part 3): Inner Sanctum

(Need to catch up? Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here.)

Living room at front of house

Living room at front of house

While telling Sal more about Ursula’s story, I realize we are sitting in the Cheshire’s front parlor, the room in which the antique photo album’s picture of 715 Baker Street was taken. I look through the double doorway into Sal’s guest room, imagining little Ursula singing and playing the piano that used to sit where the bed is now.

Left: The living room/parlor with double doorway. Right: Looking into the Cheshire's music room through the double doorway in the parlor

Left: The living room/parlor with double doorway. Right: Looking into the Cheshire’s music room through the double doorway in the parlor

Sal's guest room, the Cheshire's music room

Sal’s guest room, the Cheshire’s music room

After chatting for a little while, Sal suggests a tour through the rest of the house. At last! We enter the long hallway, lined with rich, dark-wood paneling along the lower portion of the wall.

Hallway_1I love seeing how other people live and decorate their living spaces. As we move slowly through the rooms, chatting along the way, I take in Sal’s eclectic artwork, furniture and décor. I feel a curious blend of HGTV-like voyeurism and an almost sacred awe at walking on the very floors Ursula padded down as a young girl, and through the very chambers she and her parents inhabited.

Ursula spent her early childhood there, from age one to about five. The Cheshires then moved to Los Angeles, but held on to the Baker Street home. When Ursula was 16, a few years after her father’s death, she and Clara moved back to San Francisco, setting up home again at Baker Street for the teen’s last year of high school.

One-year-old Ursula

One-year-old Ursula

Walking through the house, I imagine the presence of Ursula and her parents— vague, ghost-like figures going about their daily lives. I silently observe a bygone time, a mirage of the past superimposed over the clear, colorful present.

We pass the bathroom, actually two separate rooms—one with a sink and bath, the other with a toilet. Down the hall, Sal opens the door to his spacious, walk-in closet. We surmise it must have been Ursula’s small bedroom. I thrill at standing in the very room where she slept and cried and laughed and played.

Kitchen

Kitchen

A little farther down the hall is a modern kitchen, and, at the back of the house, a dining room with bay window and ornate, white-painted woodwork surrounding the fireplace mantel. Then Sal’s bedroom—probably Alfred and Clara’s in the past—also with bay window.

Dining_Room

Dining room

Master bedroom

Master bedroom

Hallway and front door

Hallway and front door

Tour complete, we meander towards the front door to say our thanks and goodbyes. Before leaving, I ask Sal if it’s OK for me to share with “Mystery Dancer” readers some of the pictures I took inside the house.

Not only does he say yes, he also tells me I can post some professional photos he had taken for his home’s profile on…Airbnb! Whoa—what?! You mean I could actually stay in the Cheshire’s old family home, hanging out, staying overnight and breaking bread with the ghosts of Ursula, Clara and Alfred? Someday I will. And you could, too, dear reader!

 

Ursula at age 1, with Mama Clara

Mama and 1-year-old Ursula

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San Francisco, Here We Come!

SanFran_PostcardMy husband, Michael, and I were planning to visit friends in San Francisco this past January, and I thought it would be a perfect time to see the Cheshires’ old Victorian house at 715 Baker Street, which they had bought and moved to when Ursula was one year old. I’d wanted to visit it ever since I learned a couple of years ago it was still standing.

Through my previous research, I had found out who owns the house now and where he works. On a Wednesday, a few days before we were to leave for San Francisco, I wrote a letter explaining who I was, who the Cheshires were, and that I would love to see the house if it wasn’t too much of an imposition. I had planned to e-mail the letter to him, and called his office for his e-mail address. They wouldn’t give it to me, but sent me through to his voice mail instead, so I left a brief message.

House rendering

A modern rendering of the Cheshires’ Baker Street home

Twenty-four hours passed, and I hadn’t heard back from him. It was now Thursday, two days before our scheduled departure, and I was chastising myself for leaving this to the last minute. I really wanted to see the inside of the house, so I decided to FedEx him the letter. Right before my husband was going out to send it for me, my phone rang. A San Francisco area code!

It was Sal, the current owner of 715 Baker Street, calling from his cell phone! I excitedly told him everything I had said in my unsent letter, and acknowledged it must sound weird, me a total stranger asking to see his house. He laughed and said to call him when I got into town.

This wasn’t exactly a “yes,” but it sounded promising.

Ursula Cheshire 2 years old

When Ursula was 2 years old (as shown in this photo), her parents ran a help-wanted ad in the San Francisco Call for a “neat girl for general housework and plain cooking.”

Michael and I landed at SFO Saturday night. We had a late dinner with friends, our overnight hosts who lived just a 10-minute drive away from the Baker Street house. I planned to call Sal the next day to see if I could, indeed, come see the home where Ursula lived as a little girl, and later as a big girl, when she (at age 16) and her mother moved back to San Francisco from Los Angeles.

On Sunday at 1:01 pm, in the sunny guest room where purple and pink orchids graced the dresser, I picked up my phone and punched in Sal’s number. My heart beat a little fast. I was nervous about inviting myself over for a tour of this perfect stranger’s house. Would he think it an unwelcome imposition? An annoyance? Would he turn out to be an ax murderer? Hmm, I’d better bring Michael along for safety’s sake—plus, he’s good at chatting with strangers…

Alas, there was no answer, so I left a voice message telling him when I’d be available to come over.

By Sunday evening, I hadn’t heard from him and began to worry he had decided that, for whatever reason, he didn’t want to open up his home to me. I would be disappointed if that were the case, but at the very least, I could drive by the house and take some pictures of the outside, right?

(To be continued…)

 

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Traces of Ursula

For this post, I’m taking a detour from the narrative timeline of Ursula’s story to share my experience of finding a gem of a photograph taken when Ursula was either a little girl, or not yet born…

Clara Uphoff Cheshire

Ursula’s mother, Clara Cheshire, and father, Alfred Cheshire (at back in bowler hat), Stockton, CA

I open the Cheshire family photo album and pick up a loose, tiny (2″ x 1.5″) photograph affixed to a thin, textured mat board. It takes me a moment to realize who is in the picture: Sporting a beplumed hat and light-colored ruffled dress, Ursula’s mother, Clara, smiles playfully while looking ahead, as her bowler-hatted, grim-faced husband, Alfred, looks on from behind.

It strikes me that most of the other pictures in the antique album, while beautiful, are carefully posed and static. But, taken on a bustling street, this one captures a candid moment full of life. Its off-kilter angle lends it a sense of energy, and I imagine the sound and movement of Clara and the other people in the street. At the right of the frame, the man in a ruffled shirt and pinstriped suit looks to be in mid-sentence, perhaps talking to the photographer, who stood so close to his subjects that I feel as if I could step into the scene and join the crowd. I love the storefront window with its blocky lettering and wavy reflection of nearby buildings, and the classic edifice across the street.

I turn the photo over. Above the photo studio’s elegantly printed logo, three lines of hand-written script run across the back. They read: “Dr. Burroughs took this of Mother in Stockton during a parade.”

Inscription on back of the photograph

Inscription on back of the photograph

A blend of warmth, excitement and melancholy washes through my belly as I realize that Ursula, herself, wrote these words. I am holding an object she held. I see the same image she saw. I touch the ink that flowed from her fountain pen, and know traces of her fingerprints linger on the cardstock. In Ursula’s invisible presence, I wonder how it can be that I feel so connected to—even love for—a woman who died before I was born, whose blood I do not share, and whose only link to me is a dusty, antique, maroon velvet photo album.

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KFWB Presents…Ursula Cheshire

Hollywood AM radio station KFWB featured Ursula on its program in February 1927

Hollywood AM radio station KFWB featured Ursula on its program in February 1927

After Ursula’s turn in the play The Sin of David in May 1926, and her divorce decree three months later, the next mention of her found in my online research appeared in the January 29, 1927 publication of Radio Doings, the “Red Book of Radio.” A weekly guide to programming for the Pacific Coast, Radio Doings ran feature articles, news briefs, ads, Q&A, “DX Club” (association of radio hobbyists) correspondence, a “Woman’s Page,” broadcast timetables, and detailed programs.

Radio Doings ad

1927 ad in “Radio Doings,” a weekly guide to programming for the Pacific Coast

The programming page for KFWB, an AM radio station out of Hollywood, California, announced that Ursula Cheshire would be featured on Friday, February 4 from 9 to 10 am, along with Merrill Oslin and the Warner Bros. String Trio.

Launched in 1925 by Sam Warner, KFWB was owned by the Warner Bros. Motion Picture Studios. The radio station, which operated with 500 watts of power, still exists, now as an all-sports station known as The Beast 980 and running with 5,000 watts.

I assume Ursula sang on the program, but have no record of what. I believe her co-guest was the same Merrill Oslin who was an ensemble cast member in the 1929-1930 Broadway musical comedy Sons O’ Guns, which played at the Imperial Theatre in midtown-Manhattan (where Les Miserables is currently showing). And, perhaps the musicians in the Warner Bros. String trio were some of those who performed in the “Vitaphone” shorts that the movie studio produced to promote “talking pictures.” (Vitaphone was a sound film system used for films from 1926 to 1931.)

The Jazz Singer souvenir program

1927 souvenir program cover for “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson

Here’s some historical context for you: The world’s first “talkie” (synchronized-sound feature film), The Jazz Singer (starring Al Jolson), was released in 1927—the same year Los Angeles listeners heard Ursula’s beautiful singing voice resounding through their radio speakers.

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New Drama for Ursula Back in the States

Ursula Cheshire

Ursula in costume for “The Sin of David,” a play by Stephen Phillips (Los Angeles 1926)

As befitting a young woman whose life had thus far largely centered on the theater, Ursula experienced plenty of personal drama in the space of just over one year. Between May 1924 and mid-June 1925, she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley; studied at a castle in France with famous opera star Emma Calvé; toured parts of Europe with her fellow students; began an Italian romance, got engaged and married; separated from her new husband; and returned to California with her mother.

In the year between her homecoming (June 1925) and the issuance of her divorce decree (August 1926), Ursula returned to her steadfast love: the theater.

Gamut Club

1926 photo of the Gamut Club (Los Angeles), where Ursula acted in “The Sin of David.”

Both Ursula and her mother acted in the United States premiere of The Sin of David, a play by Stephen Phillips, who was the author of “Nero,” the college production in which Ursula danced and played the poisoner Locusta. Produced by Ursula’s esteemed childhood Shakespeare teacher Florence A. Dobinson, the play opened on May 17, 1926 at Los Angeles’s Gamut Club, a men’s musical and arts society.

Ursula Cheshire

Ursula in costume for “The Sin of David”; photo taken on Browning Blvd, Los Angeles, 1926

Set in the seventeenth century during the English civil war between Charles I. and the Parliament, The Sin of David is based on the Biblical story of King David and Bathsheba. (In a nutshell: From his rooftop, David spies on Bathsheba bathing, summons her, has sex with and impregnates her [his “sin”], and sends her husband to his death. David and Bathsheba marry; their son dies in infancy. They conceive a second son, Solomon, who eventually succeeds David as King of Israel.)

I don’t know whom Ursula played in Sin of David. The principal female character strums a mandolin towards the beginning of the drama, but even though Ursula was photographed in costume holding some sort of mandolin (in the outdoor photo), she did not play the lead role (Miss Mary Isabelle Alpaugh had that honor).

While L.A. Times drama critic Edwin Schallert offered a less-than-stellar review of the play, he did note that the actors included “the youngster Ursula Cheshire, whom the audience enjoyed exceedingly.” Go, Ursula!

The Sin of David play review

“L.A. TImes” review of “The Sin of David,” May 19, 1926

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