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.
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:
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.
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.