Friday, June 13, 2014

Part II Nell Shipman: Making movies at Lionhead Lodge

By Mary Jane Honegger

Intrigued by Nell Shipman’s story, I purchased a couple of books about her time in the Pacific Northwest and recently finished reading Lionhead Lodge, a first-hand account of Nell’s adventures in Spokane and North Idaho written by Lloyd Peters, a Spokane youth who caught the acting bug while watching Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunny Brook Farm at “the beautiful new Clemmer Theatre in Spokane.”

In his autobiography, Peters shares the delightful tale of how he and his brother, Ray, got started in the movie industry through a little bit of luck and a mail order ad that offered “movie lessons and a twelve-hour talent tester with make-up box by James Cruise for only $15.00.”

Well, that is my picture career.  I got into the movies, 
practically in my own backyard! - Lloyd Peters

Inspired by the Pickford movie, the two young men ordered the kit.  Once they mastered everything from “clowns to witches” they decided to offer their services to the Washington Motion Picture Corporation, a movie company with a recently built movie studio at Minnehaha Park in the Spokane Valley.  The studio had produced one movie, Fool’s Gold with Tyrone Power and Victor McLaglen in 1918. 

The two, carpenters by trade, applied for work and were hired part-time, building sets for various pictures.  The studio later hired their father and suddenly the whole family found themselves in the movie business.

In 1922 Hollywood actor Wellington Playter came to town and started a movie school at the studio called the “Playter Photo Players.”  The boys signed up for classes twice a week.  At $10.00 per lesson, that was a lot of money for the time, but the boys were determined and their parents decided to support them.  Peters learned a lot during the months he took classes and says he got “his money’s worth.”  

The author, as he played in Wolf's Brush,
Mt. Lookout.
By the time Nell Shipman and her collection of animals arrived, the three Peter’s men were familiar faces around the studio.  The local headline read, “Movie Star from Hollywood to form company with local Businessmen.”  Nell and her director, Bert Van Tuyle, formed Nell Shipman Productions and set to work on her first film at the Spokane studio, The Grub Stake.  The men were hired to be in charge of the carpenter shop and were to build eleven sets for the movie.  Lloyd, with his great makeup expertise, also ended up playing six different characters in the film. 

Nell feeding bears in cages built by Lloyd and Ray Peters
at Lionhead Lodge on Priest Lake.
 The Lloyd brothers followed Nell to upper Priest Lake when she and Van Tuyle decided to move their movie studio to the North Idaho wilderness.  Throughout the next exciting couple of years, they worked as both carpenters and character actors, often again playing more than one part in the same film.  If not acting, they were building cabins, sets, or cages for Nell’s many animals at both the Minnehaha studio and later at the movie studio on Priest Lake, which Nell named Lionhead Lodge.

Lloyd recounts the challenges of making movies in the North Idaho wilderness – the rough roads, lengthy boat trips, ticks in the spring, and dangerous
ice and snow during the winter months.  He shares tales of lugging movie cameras and equipment on early morning hikes to get to location and tells how Nell kept spirits up for cast and crew with her smiles, praise and her good sense of humor.  He remembers hikes in the surrounding mountains to look for new locations with Nell and her son Barry, who later became a successful Western movie writer. 

Nell was so pleased with my work today
that she stood up with me for a picture
with my own camera.  To me this was very
In the end, a couple of bad breaks ended Lloyd and Ray’s career in the movies.  Financial difficulties dogged the production company and bad health undermined Van Tuyle.  In what Lloyd calls uncharacteristic of the man, he became angry and fired both brothers a day apart.  Despite being fired, Lloyd remembers his movie experience fondly and regards both Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle as being remarkable and talented people.

 I want folks to know they just don’t come any finer than Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle. – Lloyd Peters

Although Peters never followed his acting career, his fond memories of the three action-packed years he spent working with Nell Shipman never left him.  He enjoyed sharing his memories through interviews and his written account, Lionhead Lodge.

Lionhead Lodge, Ye Galleon Press, 1976, can be purchased on Amazon.  

Nell Shipman Films
In 2007, local producer, director, and editor, Paul Brand, of Pretty Good Productions; and the Idaho Film Collection at Boise State University, produced At Lionhead, a documentary that follows the story of silent movie actress, director, and producer Nell Shipman from 1922 to 1925 at her production studio called Lionhead Lodge on Priest Lake in northern Idaho.  The film, written by Boise State University professor Tom Trusky, stars Bonnie Bedelia as herself and includes archive footage of Nell Shipman, Lloyd Peters, Joseph Walker and Barry Shipman.  Trusky, who died in 2009, was a noted film historian who was known for recovering the films of Nell Shipman.  The film, can be found on Nell Shipman DVD VOLUME 3, From Lionhead Lodge.

Brand worked on all three volumes of the Nell Shipman's Collection.  These DVDs and other books about Nell Shipman can be purchased online at the Boise State University Bookstore.  

Nell Shipman DVD VOLUME 1- A Girl From God's Country
Nell Shipman DVD VOLUME 2 - The Short Films
Nell Shipman DVD VOLUME 3 - From Lionhead Lodge (Includes all of Nell Shipman's surviving films made in Idaho.)

NOTE: All the photos, with the exception of the book cover and the final photo, were scanned from the book Lionhead Lodge.


Anonymous said...

Nell and her company did some amazing work considering the wild country, weather, primitive equipment, and the logistics of handling all the animals - some of which were semi-wild.

Her story is one of those little-known histories of the pacific northwest. Sadly, just when she started finishing some of her projects, the movie theaters were moving to the studio system and independent producers like her did not have a market for their films.

Sadly, Professor Tom Trusky of Boise State University passed away shortly after the DVDs were released. Tom was the foremost expert on all of Nell's works and losing him was a great loss for Idaho and film history.

If you do locate the DVDs which the BSU bookstore still sells note that the graphic design work was done by my daughter (and I think they look very good).

Paul Brand
Pretty Good Productions

Mary Jane Honegger said...

Thank you Paul for adding your insights on Nell Shipman. Your interest in saving and sharing her story shines through in word and deed. Thanks to you, her films have been updated to DVD format so that they will not once again be lost to outdated technology. And ... congratulations to your daughter on her graphic design work. I agree with a proud dad - the covers are fabulous!