Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Family Tree - Murder, Vaudeville and Silent Flickers

Though claimed to be of Spanish descent, Travilla's paternal grandfather, Harry Richard. was born 1858 in Chester County Pennsylvania where the family located upon coming over from England in the late 1690s. Several settled in the area and nearby Philadelphia, embracing the Quaker faith, while other Travilla's migrated to Missouri and Indiana. When he was less than a year old,  Harry's father Joshua relocated the family to the Araphoe Kansas Territory and the soon to be city of Denver bringing with them mining equipment for the Gold Rush the area was experiencing. Joshua opened a lumber mill and prospered quickly, becoming a respected member of the community. But his death in 1862 left a young widow with two small children to care for. She sold her part of the business, remarried and moved to Leavenworth Kansas in 1863.

Denver 1860

By 1880, Harry was back in Denver, now with a population of 35,000, living with the madam of a Market Street bordello in the city's red-light district. According to newspaper reports, on August 18th, an argument broke out between one of the "girls" and a customer which quickly escalated as it moved downstairs. The commotion woke Harry from a sleep and he rushed downstairs with a gun, where he found the pair struggling. Clubbing the man on the back of the head, the gun discharged, instantly killing the attacker. Panicked, Harry took $80 offered by the madam and for the next few weeks eluded the police until his capture in a Wisconsin hotel where he was living under an alias. A trial was held in October with predictions of a conviction, but according to  and he seemed to settle down when he married Edith Boyker in 1881 and the couple welcomed daughter Edith in 1882.

By 1888, Harry and family relocated to San Bernardino California where Edith was joined by siblings Guy (1889), Elsie (1890), Travilla's father Jack (1892), and Ford (1894.) The couple lost an untamed infant daughter in 1896. The Travilla's owned both a tobacco shop and drinking establishment, "The Office Saloon." A bar with the well-earned reputation of "a rendezvous for toughs; frequented by lewd women, and under the grave suspicion that the Sunday ordinance was being violated." Accusations from patrons of missing money, forged checks, and purposeful intoxication. Illegal dog fights would coat the bar floor in blood, and when the manager's safe was robbed, the newspaper commented it seemed to be an inside job. After numerous appearances before the city council defending the bar from closure, Harry sold the place and moved the family to Los Angeles. In 1901, the clan moved to Avalon on Catalina Island where daughters Sybil (1902) and Connie (1903) brought the total up to seven.

Santa Catalina Island, located twenty miles off the Southern California city of Long Beach was discovered by the Spanish in 1545, inhabited by a tribe of Native Americans who remained until relocated to the mainland in 1820. The island then passed through hands of several private owners where by the late 1880s, it was being promoted as a vacation destination for both local and visiting tourists. Sprung from the few shacks and tents, by 1901, the town of Avalon was a thriving beach-front community filled with small shops and charming homes clustered around the immense Hotel Metropole. Fitting in quite easily among the one hundred or so residents, Mrs. Travilla opened a souvenir shop and Edith co-founded the school newspaper. Harry had finally become legitimate, co-owning a Los Angeles business with his brother-in-law and publishing a lush photographic souvenir booklet on Catalina.

Catalina Island circa 1903. Large green building is the Hotel Metropole.
Running around the islands rough terrain, Guy, Jack and Ford quickly grew into strong athletes, but it was swimming and diving at which each excelled in some fashion. As teenagers, three entered into several state, national and international swimming competitions held on the island with Guy also performing demonstrations of stunt diving . Each young man also held different records that remained unbroken for many years - Guy, for free diving at 67 feet without any equipment except ear packing, Jack for underwater swimming both indoor and out, and Ford with one for high diving of 86 feet and another for staying submerged for 4 minutes and 37 seconds.

Boating in the bay
Tuna Club

Hotel Metropole
Amphitheater and Avalon Bay view
Skills most certainly picked up from a fabled Catalina tradition and rite of passage for many young men - coin diving. To entertain themselves as they waited to disembark the many steamers which pulled into the harbor, many passengers would toss coins overboard into the crystal clear water and watch as hoards of boys and young men would jump from waiting boats to rescue the money before it got lost in the sandy bottom. A good day could bring $8-10 when $15 was a week's wages for most. Or the trio might perform stunts such as eating a banana underwater, or swim among the fish and coral for the amusement of those in the glass bottomed boats floating above where they would retrieve sponges, shells and other unusual marine life for their mother's shop.

Steamer arriving at dock
The Three Travillas

Harry's death by 1910 found Lucille head of household and it was now the responsibility of the three young men to support the family. With not much job opportunity on the island, and an unusual set of skills and talents the trio trained one of the island's human-friendly sea lions to perform tricks and put together a stage act for the Vaudeville circuit. Billing themselves as "The Three Travilla Brothers" featuring "Winks, the Seal with the Human Brain," they opened in Los Angeles in January of 1912.


I'm not saying this is their Catalina backdrop, but it gives you an idea.
Against a backdrop of Avalon Bay sat a giant aquarium the size of a small bedroom - 12 feet by 12 feet by 9 feet high. Constructed of iron riveted framework and giant sheets of thick glass, it weighed over six tons when filled with water. Surrounded by a series of ladders, chutes and slides, the trio and Winks would perform a ten minute routine of tricks that the seal would mimic perfectly, or eat a meal underwater while Winks frolicked above. Publicity stunts of walking Winks from their hotel to the theater popping into shops to surprise customers along the way, or performing long-distance underwater swimming events at public venues kept the act's name in the papers and the next year was spent playing prestigious theaters across the United States and lower Canada before touring England and Europe till the end of 1913.


Returning Stateside, the Travilla Brothers popularity continued to increase with appearances at New York City's famed Palace Theater and a 1915 Ohio Thanksgiving Day appearance before a combined audience of six thousand. The devastating November 1915 Catalina Island fire forced the relocation of their mother and sisters to Los Angeles and 1917 draft registrations show all three claimed their employment vital to the family's support. In May, Jack suffered a severe injury when the chute he was sliding down headfirst came loose and he slammed into the edge of the iron tank. His brothers continued on to the next city, but Jack remained hospitalized for a week before rejoining them.


By 1918, silent film had begun to replace vaudeville in popularity and with the marriage of both Jack and Ford, Guy continued solo until returning to Los Angeles and joining his brothers in the automotive supply business they'd opened. Ford died in 1925 and Guy in 1937.

Auntie Sybie

While it was Travilla's father Jack that opened the door to the entertainment industry William would one day find himself, it was one of his aunts who pointed him towards the specific medium of film. By the time they relocated to L.A., Sybil Travilla had matured into a beautiful and thanks to her brothers, athletic young lady.


Her brother's fame helped her land two roles under the name Sybie Trevilla," but wasn't allowed to work again until she finished high school. The petite, dark hair and eyed teenager signed with filmmaker Mack Sennett, becoming one of his "Bathing Beauties."







Her first of eleven films for Sennett was 1919's "Hearts and Flowers," but the six comedic shorts starring opposite Buster Keaton are what she is most remembered for - billed as Sybil Seely, possibly as an homage to "Winks" from her brother's act.

Dropped the soap gag...

Nip slip
Sybil married screenwriter Jules Furthman in 1920 and retired completely after the birth of her son in 1923. Furthman would later write scripts for Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart during his award-winning career.

Restored "Mama Jean" autographed photo to Travilla. Explains the formality.
Maternal Loss

Travilla's mother "Bess" has been described as a beauty of half-Chinese and half-French ancestry and while she truly was the former, a much less exotic combination of the latter - German and Canadian. Bessie Louise Snyder was born 1897 in a Chicago suburb to William and Estelle Snyder. Her father was an accountant and her mother a published author and early travel journalists. Well-off financially, Estelle pursued philanthropic causes, Bessie attended the Waterman School for Girls and the family took extended vacations. It was on a 1911 trip to Catalina Island that Bessie was rescued from the Avalon Bay surf by a handsome young man named Jack Travilla.

Bessie Louise (far right) on German voyage with family 1912.
The years 1912-1915 found the young couple separated by Jack's stage career and Bessie returning to school with an long holiday in Germany which Estelle wrote and published in 1913's "The Land Across the Sea" which features the only known photo of Bessie at the age of 15. But on December 31, 1915 the couple wed at the Synder's Maywood Illinois home. After dealing with aforementioned family issues, Jack continued with touring with his brothers, Bessie possibly joining them on the road. It had to have been after his near-death accident at Bessie's insistence that Jack retire and the couple returned to Los Angeles, where at some point they moved back to Catalina Island for it's here in Avalon that William "Jack" Travilla was born on March 22, 1920.

Real photo postcard view of Avalon Catalina Island early 1920s.
I'm sure that Grandma Estelle had no intentions of her first grand-son being raised on Catalina Island for shortly after his birth, the family relocated to Maywood where, most probably financed by his father-in-law, Jack opened an auto supply store specializing in tires.


With two different addresses, perhaps Jack had the beginnings of a chain.
But for whatever reason the family moved back to Los Angeles by December of 1921, where tragically, Bessie would die ten months later on September 7, 1922 from broncho pneumonia after a two week illness. While William would remain in Chicago, Estelle and her two daughters moved to California to help raise young Bill. And while Estelle would have a strong influence in his life, by 1924 Jack had remarried, to Ruth Calderwood, a Los Angeles native whose family was well-connected in both political and social circles.

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