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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Ursula’s Hawaiian Adventure

I just ordered a hardcover book called Hollywood to Honolulu, The Story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company. I can’t wait to see the photographs and read about the ships Ursula sailed on to and from Hawaii. In the meantime, from the book’s promotional material, below is a description of the joyful L.A. harbor departure that Ursula and her friend Elizabeth would have experienced on January 14, 1928:

S.S. City of Honolulu

The S.S. City of Honolulu

“For over a decade during the Roaring Twenties, a great white ocean liner would sail from berth 156 in Los Angeles every Saturday. The pier was packed with waving and cheering people looking up at the happy passengers crowding the railings. The vessel’s band on deck played jazz tunes and popular favorites. The captain stood forward on the bridge wing watching the lowering of the gangway amid a hail of colored streamers and confetti. The liner’s whistle would blow at noon, raising the cheering to a higher pitch as the band played ‘Aloha Oe.’ Slowly the great mass of the liner inched away from the dock.”

cloche hats 1920s

Cloche hats were popular in the 1920s

Can’t you just see Ursula leaning over the ship’s railing, laughing with excitement, one hand on cloche hat while waving with the other to her smiling, yet tearful, mother down on the dock?

In my last post, I imagined Ursula aboard the S.S. City of Honolulu sipping cocktails with Elizabeth and young gentlemen admirers. Despite Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, many of the ship’s passengers would have indeed enjoyed imbibing. According to a Los Angeles Times article about the vessel’s sister ship, S.S. City of Los Angeles:

Elizabeth Everyhardy passport photo

Ursula’s friend Elizabeth Everhardy (1924 passport photo)

“During Prohibition, travelers had a strong reason to board a ship that made a monthly voyage. Although liquor was supposedly banned from the ship, the City of Los Angeles held nightly cocktail parties in a library devoid of books.”

After six days at sea aboard the City of Honolulu, one of the first sights Ursula would have seen as the luxurious liner approached Honolulu Harbor was the new 10-story Aloha Tower. Built in 1926 to welcome arriving passenger ships, this lighthouse/clock tower was the tallest structure in Hawaii at the time, and still stands today as a historic landmark and iconic symbol of Hawaiians’ hospitality.

Illustration of the S.S. City of Honolulu arriving in Honolulu Harbor, with the Aloha Tower depicted on the right

Vintage illustration of the S.S. City of Honolulu arriving in Honolulu Harbor, with the Aloha Tower depicted on the right

In his interesting paper “Creating ‘Paradise of the Pacific’: How Tourism Began in Hawaii,” University of Hawai’i professor James Mak describes the over-the-top welcome Ursula, Elizabeth, and their fellow passengers would have received as their ship neared the shore on January 20, 1928:

SS_City_of_Honolulu_Illustration

Vintage illustration of the S.S. City of Honolulu entering Honolulu Harbor

“Reminiscent of ‘Steamer Days’ from many decades earlier, ‘Boat Days’ would be celebrated beginning in the late 1920s to welcome passenger liners arriving at the Aloha Tower in Honolulu. Ships were met by swarms of lei-bearing greeters, newspaper reporters were on hand to interview dignitaries, female dancers performed hula to Hawaiian music played by the Royal Hawaiian Band, and outrigger canoes and coin divers circled the ships. Each arrival became a festive occasion, and it has been reported that many locals left work early to take part in the festivities.”

Unfortunately, there are no photographs from Ursula’s Hawaiian adventure, but here is a short home movie (with period music) taken by another tourist visiting Hawaii that same year; Ursula probably saw some of these same or similar sights:

Film highlights include entering Honolulu Harbor (at the beginning); ­hula dancing (2:18); ‘Iolani Palace (4:24); coastline (5:20); beautiful park-like grounds of a hotel (5:35); Hawaiian boy diving and catching coin (5:48); majestic palm tree (6:10); sugar cane plantation (6:22); and driving in the mountains (7:21).

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Hawaiian Teaser

S.S. City of Honolulu

Ursula and her friend traveled to Hawaii aboard the S.S. “City of Honolulu” in January 1928

 

 

On Saturday, January 14, 1928 in Los Angeles, Ursula and her friend Elizabeth Everhardy boarded the S.S. City of Honolulu, bound for a Hawaiian holiday. I look forward to telling you more about Ursula’s trip, but unfortunately, my schedule has been so busy that I haven’t had as much time to devote to her story as I would like! Please stay tuned.

If you haven’t subscribed to Mystery Dancer yet, but want to be apprised of future posts, please subscribe here. Thanks!

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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 (Part 2)

(Continued from “San Francisco, Here We Come!”)

House_Front

715-717 Baker Street, San Francisco, where Ursula lived as a little girl and teenager

Thankfully, I heard from Sal the next day—Monday afternoon! Through text messages, we arranged for me to come over at 11:30 am Tuesday, Michael’s and my last full day in San Francisco.I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. I was going to get to see Ursula’s house!

On Tuesday morning, Michael and I said goodbye to our friends and their two fluffy cats, and got in our rental car parked out front. We drove in light rain down Lincoln Way along the south edge of Golden Gate Park, then catty-corner through the park and along the Panhandle. Turning left on Baker Street, we started looking for the house after a few blocks. After passing several other Victorian homes on the tree-lined street, we found a parking spot a couple doors down from our destination.

Entryway to 715-717 Baker St.

Entryway to 715-717 Baker St.

The rain had stopped and the sun had just broken through the clouds. A good omen, I mused. We decided I would introduce Michael to Sal and ask if it was OK if he tagged along for the tour. We walked up the 10 steps to the entryway, where twin, green-colored wood doors with oval windows stood side by side: 715-717 Baker St.

A small, hand-scrawled sign instructing visitors to knock was taped next to the apparently malfunctioning doorbell of Sal’s—and previously the Cheshire’s—flat. I rapped on the door a few times, and saw a handsome, somewhat sleepy-looking young man in pajama-like pantaloons and T-shirt walking toward the door.

He opened it and graciously welcomed Michael and me into his home. After smiles and handshakes all around, Sal, a doctor, explained his attire and bed-head by way of saying he’d been on call the night before. He invited us into his bay-windowed living room to chat for a while, before showing us the house. I couldn’t wait to see it!  (To be continued…)

Me in front of  the Cheshire's old house

Me in front of the Cheshire’s old house

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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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