How moving pictures died in Tacoma
Who knew? Tacoma was home to a flourishing silent film industry in the Roaring ‘20s.
It was news to Mick Flaaen until 2011.
Once the Tacoma-based filmmaker found out he dreamed of making a documentary about what was pitched back then as “Hollywood-by-the-Sea.”
He spent the last 14 months producing “A Totem Tale,” an early version of which will be screened Friday at the Rialto Theater. It will be shown before the 90th anniversary presentation of “Eyes of the Totem” — the once long-lost 1927 silent movie filmed locally.
By now, many people know about the improbable discovery in 2015 of “Eyes of the Totem.” Flaaen’s film goes beyond that story to explore Tacoma’s short-lived film industry and the man who brought it here: H.C. Weaver.
“I made it for this community,” and for people 90 years from now, said Flaaen, 58.
Still not down to a final cut, the nearly two-hour-long “Tacoma version” of the documentary includes scenes and details especially for locals.
Highlights include film buffs exploring the Tacoma backyard where the film vault for Weaver’s studio still lies, and the historians tracking down the identities of people in the film despite the absence of closing credits.
In one case, the team confirmed that Bonney Lake resident Joanne Ribail’s mother, Peggy Ann Sessoms, played the main character’s infant daughter.
“They called (my mother) the ‘Baby Peggy of the Northwest,’” Ribail told The News Tribune in 2015. “I was shocked. She never said anything about it.”
Flaaen said incidents like this showed him that sharing Tacoma’s past has value.
The idea for the documentary was inspired by an interview Flaaen did in 2011, when the short film he did as a class project at Clover Park Technical College “got lucky.”
Flaaen, a “late bloomer” in his words, had returned to school only a year earlier following early retirement after many years as a long-haul trucker.
He’d dabbled with acting and theater but his “first passion” began with his 9-year-old self, a movie camera and an 8mm projector.
Then, in 2011, his short film “Paint,” a look into the culture of Tacoma street art, made the rounds of local and national festivals.
In an interview with The Weekly Volcano, Flaaen was asked if he was headed to Hollywood. When he said he wanted to stay local, the writer told Flaaen he wouldn’t be the first person to try to make movies in Tacoma — an offhanded comment that stuck with Flaaen.
After some research, he found Harvey C. Weaver and the subject for another movie.
Weaver originally dreamed of building his “Hollywood-by-the-Sea” in Seattle with Tacoma a close second. He convinced some of the richest men in the City of Destiny to buy in and help construct H.C. Weaver Productions, a five-acre studio at Titlow Beach.
“If we stayed here for 100 years and made a new picture every three months, we could show some new beautiful views in every picture,” Weaver told The Tacoma Ledger in September 1924.
From 1925 to 1927, Weaver made three movies: “Hearts and Fists,” “Eyes of the Totem” and “Heart of the Yukon.”
Because films normally were shown for only a few weeks and discarded, the three movies were presumed lost forever. Only 30 percent of the nearly 11,000 American feature-length films made in the silent era (1912-1929) have survived, according to a 2013 report by The Library of Congress. The survival of one made outside of California is even more rare.
Flaeen was fascinated by this snippet of Tacoma’s past, even though his college professors had never heard of Weaver or any of his movies. That told him the story needed to be told.
Still a student at the time, Flaeen wasn’t ready to take on such a huge project and shelved the idea.
Four years later, “Eyes of the Totem” was found in Manhattan, in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art, and Flaaen was finishing his degree at the University of Washington Tacoma.
He sneaked onto Team Totem, the local group that brought a digital copy of the movie to Tacoma and worked to get the film re-released, and started work on his documentary.
The team became used to its meetings being filmed and Flaaen whipping a Go-Pro camera out of his pocket to capture the important moments, said Lauren Hoogkamer, the City of Tacoma’s historic preservation coordinator who tracked the long forgotten film to MOMA.
Like “Eyes of the Totem,” which boasted a director and lead actress with roots in Washington, Flaaen’s production team is driven by a cast of locals.
He met producer Steffen Hauglum and graphic designer Kate Rambeck in college classes.
Justin Tamminga, the composer and sound designer, was in a band with one of Flaaen’s professors at Clover Park. He composed the music for some of Flaaen’s earliest projects.
The goal in bringing “Eyes of the Totem” to Tacoma was to connect people to the city’s past in a way lectures and books don’t, Hoogkamer said. Flaaen’s documentary takes that a step further.
One scene shows historian Michael Sullivan, a member of Team Totem, exploring H.C. Weaver Productions’ film vault at Titlow Beach. The vault still sits in the same spot, but now it’s part of someone’s backyard.
The bunker-like structure once housed the flammable reels of nitrate film. The current homeowners found better use for it — as a shed, Sullivan said.
Team Totem found no artifacts in the vault, but is still tracking down clues to the location of Weaver’s other two movies. Copies of the films are rumored to be in Brazil and in the hands of a private collector, Hoogkamer said. Another copy of “Eyes of the Totem” might be in Belgium.
As for his own film, Flaaen is nearing the end of the production process.
“It’s good to be at this point,” he said.
And Weaver’s rationale for making movies in the Northwest has only been reaffirmed in his mind: “This is an incredible place to shoot.”
Movie time in Tacoma
The long-lost film, “Eyes of the Totem,” and “A Totem Tale,” a documentary on Tacoma’s silent movie, will be shown later this week.
Opening reception of the “Showtime in Tacoma: Theaters and Performers” exhibit at the Tacoma Historical Society Museum, 5-7 p.m. The exhibit, which looks at the history of theater and the performing arts in Tacoma, will be on display June 7 through Sept. 9. The museum at 919 Pacific Ave. is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, admission is free.
Screening of the documentary, “A Totem Tale,” at 6 p.m. at the Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma, followed by a screening of “Eyes of the Totem” at 8:30 p.m. There will be an intermission between showings and celebration at the Pythian Temple on 926 Broadway.
A ticket to see both movies can be bought for $15 at the Broadway Center box office or broadwaycenter.org. Period costumes are encouraged.
A walking tour, “Walking with the Eyes,” led by filmmaker Mick Flaaen and historian Michael Sullivan, starting at 10 a.m. at the Fireman’s Park totem pole.
“Eyes of the Totem” 90th Anniversary Party and a presentation by Sullivan, starting at 6 p.m. at the Pythian Temple, 926 Broadway. No cover charge, modest charge for food and beverages. Period costumes welcomed.
What’s next for ‘Eyes of the Totem’
Tacoma film lovers might one day get to see “Eyes of the Totem” and “A Totem Tale” together at home one day.
Team Totem, the local group that’s worked to have the long forgotten silent movie re-released, is trying to acquire the original film reels from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The idea is to use them to produce a high-quality digital copy of the film, said Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan.
In the meantime, the plan is for “Eyes of the Totem” to make its way along the film festival circuit before it is released online or on DVD.
The Tacoma Historical Society, which owns the rights to film, plans to submit the feature to two silent film festivals in San Francisco and Italy. But films that are available commercially typically aren’t chosen, Sullivan said.