If you’re new to Mystery Dancer, welcome! The best place to start is at the beginning and go from there.
Ursula had originally planned to go back to Hawaii and her job as a typing instructor at the Honolulu Business College after a month’s visit in California. But something made her change her mind. Maybe she decided teaching was not for her, or perhaps she enjoyed being back home among her friends, mother and other relatives so much that she chose not to return to the Islands. Or perhaps the lure of Hollywood was too strong to ignore.
By 1929, the year Ursula returned to Los Angeles, California, the movie business was in full swing. The economic downturn that started that October did not initially affect the film industry. With 20 Hollywood studios in operation by the end of that decade, an average of 800 films were released per year and the demand for movies was stronger than ever, according to AMC Filmsite. At that time, silent movies were giving way to “talkies”—films with synchronized sound, including dialog, sound effects and music. As an accomplished performing artist based in Los Angeles, Ursula may have had dreams of becoming a cinematic star as the “Golden Age of Hollywood”—the 1930s—dawned.
Here is where I need to tell you that some time ago, I received an e-mail from a Mystery Dancer reader named Janet who told me she actually knew some of Ursula’s relatives around 1949-1950. She even had some family photos, including one of Ursula, that I had never seen! We had an interesting phone conversation, of which I will reveal more in a future post when the timing is right. But one tidbit she shared with me is relevant now.
When Janet was a little girl, she was close with Ursula’s mother Clara, whom she called “Grandma.” Well, Grandma told Janet and her family that Ursula “was in the movies.” Wow! This was exciting to hear, as I hadn’t yet come across any photographs or information that had indicated that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true; Ursula was a singer, actor and yes, dancer living in Hollywood, and she had sung several times on the Warner Bros. radio station KFWB. Would I find any other evidence of a film career?
A couple of months after speaking with Janet, I came across an interesting “Society” blurb in the August 2, 1931 Oakland Tribune while researching digitized newspaper archives. It reported that Ursula was visiting from Los Angeles, and friends and former classmates would be holding several events in her honor. Nothing surprising there. But the news item went on to state that Ursula “lately has appeared in singing roles in musical comedy films.” Bingo! I had found another piece to the puzzle.
The newspaper did not name any specific films and I have found no more information online, but the photo of Ursula that Janet sent me makes me think it possible Ursula landed a role in a movie featuring a plot set in Hawaii. With her beautiful singing voice, striking looks and Hawaiian experience, she would have been a natural.
This dramatic, undated photo was taken at the studio of Hollywood photographer Philip Newberg. On the back of the print is scrawled “Ursula Claire” (Ursula’s first and middle names)—was that her stage name?—and “‘Maui’” (in quotation marks). Was that a movie title? If I’m right, what was this movie about? I could find no record of a film by that name made in that era. This part of Ursula’s life will have to remain a mystery…for now!