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Hollywood of the East Coast has been discovered.
The statement above was reported in the New York Herald in 1923. How could this be? What is the basis for such a claim? We asked Mrs. Mildred Higgins, who remembers when Hollywood came to Georgetown. Together with Mrs. Higgins’ exciting memories, local newspaper accounts, and information from the Georgetown County Museum and international film archives we began to piece together the story.
On November 6, 1923, a special train arrived in Georgetown. The four Pullman cars carried movie stars and a crew from Paramount Pictures. They had come to Georgetown to make a movie. An enthusiastic group of townspeople crowded the depot to greet the 65 members of the company.
Mrs. Mildred Higgins appeared in the 1924 movie Pied Piper Malone
The Georgetown Times reported, “Headed by Mayor J.W. Wingate, a delegation consisting of Mr. A.G. Trenholm, who has taken great interest in the filming of the picture at Georgetown, Mr. F.M. Brickman, President of the Merchants Association, President F.A. Bell, of the Chamber of Commerce, and others, met the celebrities as they stepped from the train and after delivering a brief expression of welcome and a hearty handshake, dispatched them to the quarters selected among the different homes of the city, where they will be entertained during their stay here.”
Through the efforts of local businessmen and the Civic League, the director, Alfred E. Green, had been persuaded to use Georgetown for the location of the film. The story was set in New England but the November weather was more agreeable in Georgetown. The busy port city with its picturesque homes and bustling commercial district made an ideal setting.
Scene from Pied
Scene from Pied
Thomas Meighan surrounded by children. Thanks to Drina Mohacsi, founder of Young Hollywood Hall of Fame, for identifying Peaches Jackson in the photograph.
The movie was Pied Piper Malone written by Booth Tarkington. It is a sentimental story of a young man in love with a pretty school teacher.
The story is set in a New England town called "Oldport." Jack Malone (played by Thomas Meighan) longs for a life at sea but he loves school teacher, Patty Thomas (played by Lois Wilson). Jack is accused of causing the loss of a ship. Most everyone in town rejects him. Only Patty and the school children believe he is innocent. He is vendicated. Patty pledges her love as he sails away on the ship his family bought for him.
The names of the stars of Pied Piper Malone are almost unknown to us today, but they were famous in 1923. Thomas Meighan was a stage actor who was a vital figure in the theater when he made the transition to the movies. At six feet, with black hair and brown eyes, he was a major star for Paramount.
Lois Wilson is best remembered as Shirley Temple’s mother in the 1934 film, Bright Eyes. When Wilson came to Georgetown in 1923, she was a serene beauty with expressive eyes and one of Paramount’s biggest stars.
Among the cast were several children, known then as “starlets.” They played the principal children’s roles in the movie. The story required a large number of children to follow the hero as scenes were filmed around town. Local school children were chosen as “extras” for the film.
Mrs. Mildred Higgins recalls the day the director came to her school. “On the first or second day that they were here, several of the executives came to the school and explained to the principal how they planned to use the Georgetown children in the movie.
We were brought out to the front of the school building and asked to stand quietly on the steps. The director had someone to choose boys and girls for the scenes to be shot that day. He pointed and said, “You, you, and you.” I was so surprised and elated when I was selected. I think I got picked because of my red hair.
The director told the children who were not selected that some of them would be used at another time, and they were. We were excused from school that day and told to go with the movie crew.
We marched to the Court House on Prince and Screven Streets. Directions were given and, after a little adjusting of collars and sashes and hair brushing, we swarmed around the hero of the story, taking our cues from the real little actors. Soon we were “acting” the best we knew how.
Inside the Court House, we stood in the doorway and listened to a court session going on. We did what the director told us to do. There was a lot of jumping and hand clapping and joyful gestures. We thought we were movie stars.
It was fascinating to watch those young starlets perform. I remember a little boy named Tommy and one little curly-haired blond who could turn on the tears at the drop of a hat.
The Episcopal Church, the Masonic Temple, the Baltimore Steamship Company, the Front Street docks (where the Gulf Marina now stands) were some of the places for scenes. The old Moose Lodge, which used to be the beautiful home of the Kaminski family, was the home of the Malone family in the movie. The Joseph Schenk home was used as the home of the heroine in the film.
The Winyah Indigo Society Hall, the Winyah School, the Wigwam Ice Cream Parlor, on the corner of Front and Screven Streets, and many other Front Street stores were used. There were scenes laid at many places on the waterfront as the hero went away to sea and returned.
There were many scenes on other days, happy ones and sad ones, and we never grew tired of the proceedings. Every day it was something new. Best of all was pay-day. We were lined up at the waterfront and handed crisp one-dollar bills – brand new money.
I think I had about twelve dollars in all. I felt like a millionaire because I had never had that much money in all of my ten years! I used some of it to buy Christmas presents. What luxury!”
When the members of the company were not shooting scenes they enjoyed the hospitality of the people of Georgetown. The cast attended various churches and went sightseeing on the water and to the many interesting old rice plantations. The weather was described as “bright and crisp, perfect condition for taking pictures for the screen.”
At one time it was expected that the company would have to go to Charleston for the filming of the scenes which required a steamship and a four-masted schooner, but through the courtesy of the B.A. Munnerlyn Company they were able to use the Baltimore and Carolina ship and a schooner which the company chartered.
It was during the filming of a scene with the schooner that the female star, Lois Wilson, nearly fell into the Sampit River. The Georgetown Times filed the following report. “It was a part [of the film] showing the departure of Tom on a sailing vessel and his sweetheart on the dock waving a last farewell. In order that Miss Wilson be on a level with the deck of the sailing vessel, a pile of lumber had been raised on the edge of the wharf.
She felt that the pile of lumber was moving under her and the current of the river was accelerating the movement. She was on the verge of complete collapse. She must continue to wave goodbye to Tom, and any effort to save herself would ruin the picture.
By some strange intuition, Tom Meighan sensed the terrible situation. He continued to wave adieus and smile, but he called out, “Lois, don’t look down, look up.” She instantly obeyed and steadied herself until the trying scene ended, and the camera had registered without a flaw the scene but not the emotions of that particular act.”
The Georgetown Chamber of Commerce held a reception and dance to honor the cast and crew of “Pied Piper Malone” at the historical Winyah Indigo Society Hall on Friday, November 16, 1923. Splendid music was donated by the Elks’ Band.
George Fawcett, who played Captain Clarke in the movie, gave a “witty and eloquent little speech” which drew loud applause. Thomas Meighan said that because of the courtesies and kindness of the people of Georgetown he wanted them to capitalize on their being in town. He offered the services of the entire cast to perform in a benefit entertainment to raise money for an appropriate charity.
On Friday night, November 23, a benefit performance was given at the Winyah School Auditorium. In all, $700 was raised for the Health Fund of the Civic League. Mrs. J.S. Higgins, President of the Civic League received the money for the specific purpose of providing for the undernourished children of the Public Schools.
It was estimated that the filming of Pied Piper Malone brought “between ten and fifteen thousand dollars of good hard cash” to the Georgetown community. In 1923, that was a very large sum. It was hoped that other moving picture companies would be interested in coming to Georgetown to make movies.
After three weeks of almost perfect weather the movie company completed their filming in Georgetown and prepared to leave for New York. A large crowd gathered at the depot to say goodbye.
Scenes for the film depicting the Orient were to be shot in New York’s Chinatown, but the company received a far different reception there than they had received in Georgetown. Some of the shopkeepers became angry and threw vegetables and shoes at the crew and cast. The cameraman was almost hit by a lamp thrown from a window.
Thomas Meighan said, “It was pretty bad while it lasted.” A merchant in Chinatown explained, “In many pictures recently, scenes have appeared portraying Chinatown distinctly unfavorably and giving non-residents the impression that the quarter is made up entirely of dives and disreputable houses.”
In February, 1924, Pied Piper Malone played to packed performances at the Princess Theatre on Front Street. The newspaper reported that, “Georgetonians will be given the opportunity to see themselves as well as a number of their friends and children in this big picture. The school children hold a prominent part throughout the outdoor scenes and it is expected that the Princess Theatre will have a record attendance.”
Mrs. Mildred Higgins said, “Being in Pied Piper Malone was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, but seeing the movie when it was shown on the screen was icing on the cake. Recognizing ourselves and our friends filled us with glee, and we were happy to see the movie starlets again on the screen if not in person.”
We can now understand why Georgetown was called the “Eastern Hollywood.” The full statement given by the Thomas Meighan Company to the New York Herald says it all.
“The Hollywood of the East Coast has been discovered. It is Georgetown, S.C., and the discoverers are Thomas Meighan, Alfred E. Green and Tom Geraghty. They have been in the town for the past three weeks with a company filming scenes for Pied Piper Malone, an original story by Booth Tarkington, which is being made into a Paramount picture, and they know whereof they speak.
The town has all the qualifications of Hollywood as a place to make pictures and then some more, according to the motion picture people. With three hundred days of sunshine a year, three rivers, a bay, coast line, sandy shores for ‘sheik stuff’ a street that would do for the Middle West, cotton fields and other conditions Georgetown is an ideal place to film exteriors for motion pictures, according to the information brought back to New York by the Meighan Company.”
by John Coles and Mark Tiedje
Special thanks to Mrs. Mildred Higgins and her daughters, Karen and Loril, and to Debby Summey, Director, Georgetown County Museum
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