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(This is Part 2 of a two-part post. Need to catch up? Read Part 1 here.) When I first thought of writing about the photograph of Ursula and Clara at Continue Reading →
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.”
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…
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.
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.”
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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!
My 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.
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.
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…)
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…
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.