Fifty years ago, give or take a few years, everyone in America knew Pearl White as the Queen of Movie Serials. Pearl started working in motion pictures in 1910 but it was not until 1914 when she was given the leading part in “Perils of Pauline,” a twenty part serial, that her image became imprinted forever on the mind of the American movie fan. A promotion project by HEARST newspapers, “Perils” was exhibited week by week in almost every town in the nation while simultaneously a chapter was printed in local papers. In Topeka, the STATE JOURNAL’S Saturday night edition, week after week, devoted the entire back page of Section One to the syndicated story while the serial was being exhibited at the Crystal Theater.
There was a song hit too, “Poor Pauline,” available in sheet music and on a Victor phonograph record, sung by the renowned Billy Murray. The lyric which enumerated Pearl’s perils, still sticks in the memory.
One night she’s drifting out to sea;
Actually, Pauline was not left to mortal danger at the end of each installment. The film may have snapped, and there were probably many delays--One Minute Please While the Operator Changes Reels--thus increasing the suspense. Though we may remember differently, historians assure us that Pearl was saved at the end of each installment. Any belief to the contrary is a figment of movie folklore.
Pearl white lived so long in the atmosphere of jazzed up dangers and thrills that when she went to put down the scenario of her own life she altered it to fit some of the cliches of a dramatic movie plot. Hence when one pursues her autobiography, there is doubt all the way as to where it is fact and where pure fantasy. For instance, Pearl gave herself an Irish father and an Italian mother rather than the actual prosaic forebears that qualified her for the DAR. She claimed to have begun acting as little Eva in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at the age of three and to have been a circus performer on a trapeze at seven. Fantasies, both.
Actually Pearl grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and her education reached the second year in high school, which was a good deal of schooling for 1907. But she was stage struck and began getting bit parts in a stock company which had it’s base in Springfield. When eighteen, Pearl left home to join a theatrical company playing southern Kansas and Oklahoma towns. She was no great success and was frequently “at liberty.” Some five months after she left home, about the middle of August 1907 Pearl appeared in Topeka. In her autobiography, “Just Me,” (New York, Doran, 1919), she tells the story:
After a couple of days I got a job with a company in a town nearby, Topeka, Kansas. But the show closed the day after I joined. The next company that broke into town was “The Trousdale Stock,” the same company on which I had been fired before. The woman they had taken on in my place was evidently not so good either, so they discharged her and took me back. Now this show didn’t last so very long, but I got my salary and a wonderful thrill on the opening and closing nights.
It is impossible to verify this story completely but the Trousdale Stock Company did open at Topeka on Sunday, August 24, 1907 at L. M. Crawford’s Air Dome, a summer open air theater, located at 912-14 Kansas Avenue. The Air Dome advertised 1000 seats at 10 cents and according to the TOPEKA STATE JOURNAL the Trousdale company was a good one and drew one of the largest audiences to the season. Pearl was yet too inexperienced to have attained a leading role.
Though Topeka was a quiet town at that time, Pearl White managed to find divertissement
and excitement in an escapade that had a taste of the chase and suspense of her later film episodes. Though the young actress may have exaggerated the details somewhat, the setting is factual enough. The Asylum-South Topeka street car did run out to the State Hospital and a ride out there on a holiday or Sunday was a common diversion for Topeka citizens and visitors.
There is an insane asylum in Topeka. I don’t know whether it was the character woman’s idea or mine, anyhow we decided we’d go out and pay said asylum a visit. We’d gone through the building and started to go away when I spied a lot of women out in a little yard. They were some trusted inmates who were not watched very closely, and they did prove themselves to be less crazy the we. I had on--I remember--a bright red dress, and she had on a picture hat with a couple of green plumes in it. These bright colours must have made an impression on the crowd, because they all gathered around us, and began to chatter and laugh.
One woman walked up, whom we took to be a nurse. She was doing some very fine embroidery work, and talked very nicely to us telling us not to mind the other women, “that they were all nuts.” Then with a remark that she loved my red dress she left us, and started bawling out the others. Just then a real nurse came up and told us that visitors were not allowed in that part of the grounds. She also told us that the woman to whom we were just talking was insane and very violent at times.
Gee! They were getting me all fussed up by now and I didn’t have much faith in anybody’s sanity, even my own. So we started to get out. There was an awful howl and the woman with the fancy work leaped into the air, and started toward me. I lost no time ducking behind a high bench, but she was right on my heels and chased me around in circles until she was captured by two attendants.
Frightened by this experience the visitors started for the gate and the attendants began to line up the patients preparatory to taking them to their dormitories. Pearl’s friend began to give her some advice. “Never run from a crazy person. Stop and look them in the eye.” Just at that moment the woman who had chased Pearl before gave a shriek and started after her again. The actress did not hesitate but ran for her life, her friend shouting after her, “Look her in the eye.”
Pearl’s story continues:
You can bet I didn’t look back, but kept right on toward the trolley car that was to take me home. I must have made a wonderful sprint because when I leaped on the car, I glanced back and my pursuer was a good ways behind and had evidently given up the chase, for she was starting back.
I noticed the people in the car sort of all moved away from me, and also that the car didn’t start. I was probably so scared that I was getting hysterical, but it dawned upon me that the people in the car had seen the wild dash and took me for an escaped lunatic. I broke out with a hysterical laugh, and two men got up, each seizing me by an arm, and began to pacify me and to force me out of the car. Of course, I put up an awful argument, but out I went. They dragged me back to the asylum.
Now the woman who had been chasing me was quietly walking back with an attendant who in turn had been chasing her. My friend was sauntering along toward the gate, gayly swinging her mesh-bag, and laughing at me. Then the mad woman again broke loose and started toward her. She stopped and with her arms akimbo prepared to look said mad woman “straight in the eye.” I don’t guess that’s a good stunt because it didn’t turn out so well. The crazy woman leaped forward and grabbed herself a green plume, but evidently it was tacked on pretty tight to the hat, and the hat pinned to the false hair of my friend. Anyway off came hat, transformation, and all, and the poor old woman dropped to the ground in a clumsy mess and passed out of the picture.
I was left with the two men holding me . . . So they dragged me into the asylum to claim the credit for having captured an escaped lunatic, meaning me. Of course, the authorities told them their
mistake immediately, and I was allowed to go on my way, collecting my swooning friend en route to the street car.
Inexperienced as she was at this time, Pearl was shaken by her ordeal. Later she would be able to meet greater threats and dangers with steel nerves and unwavering courage. In Topeka she needed some support.
When we arrived back to our rooms we were in a nice state of nerves, and were advised by some of the members of the company to take a “hooker” of gin. Now Mr. Gordon’s gin and I had never met before, so consequently I was leading a nice little “bun” around that night when the performance started. I was playing “Madge” in “Old Kentucky.” We used a horse in this opera, but said horse didn’t travel with us. They picked up one in each town that we played. The horse that I drew this night had never acted before. I was in the third act climax, dressed in jockey’s clothes, supposedly to have just won a big race. They led the horse onto the stage for the curtain, amid cheers from stage hands and supers for a curtain call. Here again historical fact comes to the support of Pearl’s story. Though the play that night was advertised as “Princess Lou,” it was a standard melodrama. “In Old Kentucky,” played under a phony name in order to avoid the payment of a royalty fee. Such a stratagem was common in those days according to Henry Corbett, a Topekan who that very same summer was the musical director (piano player, that is) with another stock company playing the same air-dome circuit. He said, “We all did it.” And certainly “Princess Lou” had all the features of “Old Kentucky”--a race track setting and a real live horse. Pearl’s Topeka story ends dramatically:
Now this night I was not too steady--the electric lights were more or less dancing before me and I must have slipped too far back on the horse’s hips, when the orchestra struck up “My Old Kentucky Home.” The curtain started to descend, the horse bucked, and I was pitched over his head out into the audience, landing in an old man’s lap. I wasn’t hurt, but was so scared and surprised that I was only about semi-conscious.
There was a little flight of stairs going up onto the stage, so I made for this. There were only about six steps, but I was taking no chances, and I climbed up these stairs on my hands and knees. The audience began to howl with laughter, and I couldn’t imagine what was the matter, until I reach the stage and found that the fall had been too big a strain on my satin jockey pants, and--going up the stairs on my hand and knees--with my back to the audience, they had made the discovery before I did. This was a bad opening with the company but every thing went on quietly after that, and we played on until the air-dome circuit closed in September.
One might disagree that this was a bad opening. The slapstick finale might have been an incongruous ending for a sweet, sentimental drama but considering Pearl White’s peril-studded future it was quite appropriate.
Through the next three years the young woman received her theatrical training in the rough and tumble life of traveling stock companies and medicine shows. She gradually worked her way east, and by 1910, in New York, got her first movie part.
For the next four years she played a variety of roles in emotional drama or pie-slinging comedies. By 1912 she was fairly well known but her real fame came with “Perils of Pauline.” From then on she was fixed in the genre, and appeared in a dozen serials filled with dangerous stunts and strenuous adventures. Having earned two million dollars by her work in the movies she retired to France in 1924. She died at the age of forty-nine, on August 4, 1938, of a liver ailment, in a Paris hospital. A sister, Mrs. Loy Williams, resides in Topeka.
Pearl never became temperamental, snobbish or vain. In her work she was willing, courageous and hard-working. She remained in manner always much as she was in Topeka--boisterous, naive, friendly and frank.
Sources: Pearl White, Just Me, New York, 1919.; Wallace E. Davies, “Truth About Pearl White,” ;Films in Review, December, 1959, 634-37; Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement II; John W. Ripley, “Pearl White--Queen of the Serials, Ms.