A Surprise Discovery Marks 1st Anniversary of ‘Mystery Dancer’

Ursula and her parents on San Leandro Bay (San Francisco)

Ursula and her parents on San Leandro Bay (San Francisco)

Guess what? MysteryDancer.net just marked its first anniversary. When I started this blog, I had no idea what, if anything, I would find out about Ursula and her family. It turns out quite a lot, and there is more to come!

I also had no idea I would enjoy this project so much. I love researching Ursula’s life and times, and sharing her story and photos with you, my readers. Thank you for coming along for the ride.

Two-year-old Ursula and mother Clara

Two-year-old Ursula and mother Clara

Now I have a tale of synchronicity and surprise for you. You may recall that I started this blog and my “search” for Ursula after buying an antique photo album at last year’s Leiper’s Fork yard sale from Yeoman’s in the Fork, a rare book and document gallery that had participated in the community event.

Just this past weekend, my husband, Michael, and I were visiting Leiper’s Fork again, after having gone to a nearby vintage and antique “pop-up” event. It was a brief stop to re-fuel ourselves and check out a gallery or two. We were pooped, so didn’t stay long before heading for home. As we pulled out of our parking spot, it crossed my mind to stop by Yoeman’s in the Fork just for fun, but I quickly dismissed the thought because we were tired and the store was in the opposite direction of home, a 45-minute drive.

Apparently, I was even too tired to check e-mail on my iPhone. If I had, we would have zipped over to the bookstore in a heartbeat. For when I got home and opened my e-mail on the computer, there was a message from Mike Cotter, Yeoman’s in the Fork’s director of operations.

“Ursula…” read the subject line. After a brief moment of curiosity (“Hmm,” I thought, “Is he writing to me about a recent Mystery Dancer post?”), I opened the e-mail. There, to my shock and amazement, were the words:

I just turned up an entirely new photograph album that belonged to Ursula!”

At Yeoman's in the Fork: Mike Cotter and me holding the newly discovered album and loose photos

At Yeoman’s in the Fork: Mike Cotter and me holding the newly discovered album and loose photos

Wow! I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t wait to see it. The very next day, Michael and I headed once again for Leiper’s Fork, this time expressly to stop at the bookstore.

When we got there, Mike Cotter retrieved the album from the back and set it gingerly on the countertop. About 10 inches wide by 6 ½ inches tall, it is bound by string in what looks like a homemade, soft leather cover with flowers, leaves and the word “Photos” outlined in pen. Inside are dozens of variously-shaped photos glued onto pages of black construction paper. They are images of Ursula and her family engaged in many different outdoor activities, as well as scenic shots taken around Grass Valley, California, where Ursula’s mother grew up, and San Francisco.

Needless to say, I bought the photo album, which, along with the first album, as I learned from Mike, was part of a 2-semi-trucks-worth collection of books and documents that Yoeman’s bought five years ago from an estate in Virginia. What a wonderful, and serendipitous, anniversary “gift” to celebrate the birth of Mystery Dancer!

I will share many of the photos with you in future blog posts, but for now, this post includes just a few of the highlights from the newly purchased album. And who knows? Yoeman’s is still processing the collection, so it’s possible yet another Ursula album will turn up!

Ursula and her dollies outside the Cheshires' Los Angeles home

Ursula and her dollies outside the Cheshires’ Los Angeles home

A Jackpot of Clues, Part 1

Russian Dancer inscriptionA picture may be worth “a thousand words,” but the actual words on the back of this photo have yielded a trove of clues about Ursula Cheshire. First off, we have confirmation that this young girl’s name is Ursula, as the Yeoman’s in the Fork bookseller mentioned before I bought the album. We also learn that not only was she a dancer, but also a singer and an aspiring Shakespearean actor—all at age 11! The slacker.

Using the clues this photo revealed (this is so exciting!) and poking around on the Internet, I have deduced that Ursula most likely lived in or near Los Angeles at the time this photo was taken, sometime in 1911 or later.

Ursula as Russian Dancer

Ursula at age 11 the day she performed a Russian dance at the Hotel Virginia in Long Beach, CA

This picture shows Ursula in costume for a Russian dance she performed that day at Hotel Virginia in the burgeoning seaside resort community of Long Beach, California, about 25 miles south of LA. You can still see the foundation of this grand hotel at Ocean Blvd. and Chestnut Ave. It had marble columns, a curved staircase, decorative oriental rugs and mahogany European furniture. Hotel Virginia became too expensive to operate during the depression era and closed in 1932. It was demolished in 1933, the year of the Long Beach earthquake (I’m not sure if the two events were related).

You can read about the construction and history of Hotel Virginia (including its inauspicious beginnings) in a fascinating passage about Long Beach’s tourism, recreation and leisure, circa 1885-1967, on page 56 of a historical statement published in 2009 by the city. (That’s where I found this color image of the hotel.) It’s amazing what you can learn from the interwebs in the comfort of your own home!

Hotel Virginia

Hotel Virginia

I have discovered a lot about the other morsels of information offered up in the inscription, but, speaking of morsels, I’m really hungry and need to eat dinner, so I’ll tell you more this weekend!