Cinema’s first Dorothy: Part 1

In trying to piece together the saga of the Selig Polyscope film company, I found a number of articles written about Romola Remus Dunlap, who has an interesting history, especially since she is presumed to have starred in an early version of “The Wizard of Oz” produced in Chicago by the Selig company.

Her story turns out to be extremely interesting, a tale that involves bootlegging and murder.

The above is from Selig’s 1910 film version, which was produced in California.

Selig’s 1908 production seems not to have been a “movie” per se, but a multimedia presentation, as noted on Wikipedia. It also seems not to have been “The Wizard of Oz,” but a touring production of “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays,” based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.

One Web site says, “The Fairylogue and Radio Plays. This was an elaborate multimedia show that toured the midwestern and eastern United States in 1908, and L. Frank Baum himself presented it. Using hand-tinted films, slides, live actors, and a full orchestra, Baum presented dramatizations of The Wizard of Oz, The Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, and John Dough and the Cherub, and a preview of his then-forthcoming new book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. No film from this show is known to exist, but the slides and scripts do.”

Below is an image from Wikipedia of a hand-tinted still from the production.

I’m assuming that the little girl in the picture is Dunlap, who has, at first brush, a rather quaint story.

Let’s start with this death notice in the Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago Sun-Times (IL) – February 22, 1987
Romola Remus Dunlap, who played Dorothy in the 1908 silent-film version of “The Wizard of Oz,” died Tuesday at Weiss Memorial Hospital. She was a longtime Uptown resident. The Oz film in which she starred was shot at the Selig Polyscope Co. at Irving Park and Western and became one of the first color movies: Its reels were shipped to France, where each frame was hand-colored. When Chicago’s pioneer movie industry moved to Hollywood, Mrs. Dunlap’s parents refused to let her go along. She later performed in vaudeville and taught music and dance in Chicago. She was an accomplished piano and organ teacher until her death.

As all newspaper people know all too well, sometimes obits don’t cover everything. Fortunately, this one has many versions, such as the following:

Boston Globe, The (MA) – February 21, 1987
Deceased Name: ROMOLA DUNLAP STARRED IN FIRST ‘WIZARD OF OZ’
CHICAGO — Romola Remus Dunlap, who played Dorothy in the first film version of “The Wizard of Oz,” has died 77 years after auditioning for the role.
Mrs. Dunlap died Tuesday at Weiss Memorial Hospital.
Her mother, Lilian Remus, took her to Chicago’s Selig Polyscope Studios to try out for the role of Dorothy in the 1910 film.
She skipped school to perform and was paid $5 a day for her work. The film, which was in color because the frames were hand-painted, was used mostly to illustrate L. Frank Baum’s lectures on his book.

And here’s what was in the Miami Herald:

Miami Herald, The (FL) – February 21, 1987
Deceased Name: ROMOLA DUNLAP, 1910 ‘WIZARD OF OZ’ STAR
Romola Remus Dunlap, who played Dorothy in the first film version of The Wizard of Oz, has died 77 years after auditioning for the role.
Mrs. Dunlap died Tuesday at Weiss Memorial Hospital.
Her mother, Lilian Remus, took her to Chicago’s Selig Polyscope Studios to try out for the role of Dorothy in the 1910 film.
She skipped school to perform and was paid $5 a day for her work. The film, which was in color because the frames were hand- painted, was used mostly to illustrate L. Frank Baum’s lectures on his book.
In the 1970s, a Chicago Tribune reporter found Mrs. Dunlap living in a North Side building with a cat, a turtle, a parakeet and her clippings.
In her will, she asked that her age not be disclosed.

Tom Brune, in the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote the full obit, which has some revealing detail:

Chicago Sun-Times (IL) – February 19, 1987
Deceased Name: Romola Remus Dunlap
played Dorothy in 1908 ‘Oz’ film here
Romola Remus Dunlap, a silent-film actress who played Dorothy in the 1908 screen version of “The Wizard of Oz,” died Tuesday at Weiss Memorial Hospital. She was a longtime Uptown resident.
Ten years ago, Mrs. Dunlap reminisced about her film days as Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s classic story. The tale was filmed in Chicago at the Selig Polyscope Co. at Irving Park and Western.
“I was very young,” said Mrs. Dunlap, “but I remember my mother taking me to the studio that day and saying, ‘It’s just another movie.’ I never would have dreamed it would have amounted to anything more.”
She and other children in the film didn’t need to memorize lines, but a director told them which way to move as he read aloud from the story.
“Mr. Baum himself took the film on the road and narrated the story onstage,” she continued. “There was an orchestra and we stood offstage, singing occasionally. . . . I remember that after the film, I would come onstage to take a bow and then go to the back of the theater and sell the Oz books.”
The “Wizard of Oz” in which she starred was one of the first color movies, the celluloid reels having been sent to France, where each frame was hand-colored.
Mrs. Dunlop also appeared in the movies “The Four-Footed Hero” and “Mary: Ten Nights in a Bar Room.”
When Chicago’s movie industry moved west to Hollywood, Mrs. Dunlap’s parents refused to let her go along. She later performed in vaudeville and taught music and dance in Chicago.
Mrs. Dunlap was an accomplished piano and organ teacher until her death, and for the last 12 years was organist for the 12th Church of Christ Scientist in Chicago.
Friends said Mrs. Dunlap left a written scenario, titled “The Final Curtain,” for her own funeral service.
The rites will include an organist playing the “Romola Waltz,” which she composed herself, and the reading of parting words she penned for her friends.
Mrs. Dunlap cautioned that no one must say “Rest in peace” during her funeral service.
“She always liked activities more than rest,” a friend explained.
Mrs. Dunlap had no known close relatives.
Visitation is at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Lain-Hursen/Birren and Son Funeral Home, 6125 N. Clark, with services at 2 p.m. Interment will be in Rosehill Cemetery, 5800 N. Ravenswood.
Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Date: February 19, 1987
Author: Tom Brune
Edition: FIVE STAR SPORTS FINAL
Page: 92
Record Number: CHI218192
Copyright (c) 1987 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.

Toward the end of her life, Dunlap was able to reap some residual glory from Dorothy. She appeared in a 1985 documentary, and a parade was held in her honor in South Hadley, Mass., to promote Mount Holyoke College’s summer theatre production of “The Patchwork Girl of Oz.”

Here is a YouTube clip of Dunlap from the documentary, which is rather sketchy.

There is also more information about Dunlap on forums devoted to Baum’s work.

All of this is very interesting background. But for far more interesting background, one has to look back even further. More about that in Part 2.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “Cinema’s first Dorothy: Part 1

  1. frank

    I knew Romola Dunlap when I was a kid in the 1970s. She was a friend of my fathers , and use to give my brother piano lessons. She use to go to the christain science church on grace off broadway. she was always positive. I seen her the day before she died, and she told me that negative thinking was a disease of the mind. Ironic a woman dying is preaching positive thinking. Anyway i heard the next day she was transferred to weiss Hospital , and died. She was definitely the last of her kind in uptown in past movie stardom. She did have a huge turle in her bathroom. She’s still remembered that’s good with these sights. She’s probably playing piano up in heaven right now, or in Oz

    • 535cleveland

      Hi, Frank,

      Thanks for reading and responding. I will have Part 3 up soon, which will contain the fascinating story of her father.

      Thanks,
      Steve

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s