‘Will ‘o Wind’

Ursula, age 11

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

Last October, I featured a couple of posts on Ursula’s time at the Egan School of Drama, a private drama school in Los Angeles, beginning when she was 11 years old. What I didn’t know then was that her father, Alfred, had just died the year before.

Perhaps her mother, Clara, hoped that keeping busy with drama school would help Ursula through a difficult period. And keep busy she did. As described in the posts “A Jackpot of Clues, Part 2” and “Ursula’s Teachers: The Best in the West,” Ursula studied acting, voice, singing, dancing and fencing with some of the foremost performing arts instructors of her day.

A while back, I found in my “Mystery Dancer” album a beautiful photo of Ursula from that time. In costume, she is wearing a fringed cape and satiny-looking, tasseled cap. Penciled on the back of the photo is a note saying, “Will O Wind, 11 yrs, picture in front of theatre.” Was that the name of a play she was in? I didn’t know what it meant, and forgot about it for a time — until I came across an article in the Los Angeles Times dated April 26, 1914 (a hundred years ago!).

There she was, in a photograph of a performance of “Wan o’ the Wood“:

“…a pretty child story that brings together the fairy queen, the elfs, the wood-nymphs, the Indian boys and girls, the butterflies and bluebirds, Dan o’ Dreams and Will o’ Wind, not to mention a cinnamon bear.”

Eleven-year-old Ursula (left) in the outdoor play "Wan o' Wood," part of the Los Angeles May Festival 100 years ago

Eleven-year-old Ursula (left) in the outdoor play “Wan o’ Wood,” part of the Los Angeles May Festival 100 years ago

The photo depicts Ursula, in the role of Will o’ Wind, and other cast mates from the Egan school performing a Maypole dance outdoors, in “the beautiful Hooker Gardens…with its wonderland of roses and famous peristyle of climbing flowers.” The acting troupe performed the play three times that day as part of the city’s big May Festival.

While the newspaper picture is of poor quality, it illuminates the cryptic caption and photo of the be-capped and be-caped Ursula I found in the album. Now we can imagine Ursula as the character Will ‘o Wind, dancing and acting in a lovely garden setting with other girls and boys as they relay the story, which, according to the article, was told in pantomime and dialogue, and was “the narrative of all that is wonderful and mysterious about the deepest, most impenetrable part of the forest.”

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.

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.