Becoming Theda

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Hi guys!!! So on Saturday, I attended the Camp Doughboy WWI Weekend at Governor’s Island in New York and, to be honest, it was a breath of fresh air compared to Rev War living history events. Don’t get me wrong, I love sticking lard and cuttlefish bone in my hair in the name of history, but doing a little time traveling into a different era is fun and gave me the great opportunity to meet new and wonderful people as well as seeing some familiar faces in different periods.

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The Slav Squat meme is alive with the NJ Field Music Group

There’s also a lot more options for women to portray doing a WWI era impression and the original clothing is easy to come by (I was so relieved to be able to fit into some of the original dresses because I am way too lazy to learn how to machine sew anything). The best part of all was that there wasn’t a washtub or bed jacket in sight! Whee! The event was hosted by author Kevin Fitzpatrick and the United States WWI Centennial Commission and it featured the neatest living history demonstrations from the Ebony Doughboys to war horse veterinarians and even an original tank!!!

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No, Matt, you can’t drive it (alone)

Erik and his students began a WWI era drum and bugle corp about three or four months ago and this was their first big day performing. Needless to say, I can’t be more proud of them and how well they play. The kids are wearing original uniforms and all of them are playing on original instruments from the period with even older drums going back to the Civil War. They were a huge hit at Governor’s Island, and with good reason! Also, Erik is adorable in uniform leading his army of militarized Boy Scouts. Lisa Killroy is responsible for most of the photos here, so shoutout to her!

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Photo courtesy of Vlad Kfrg

Like the American Revolution, women were instrumental in the war effort. Women were employed in munitions factories providing weapons and ammunition for the troops, working in the Land Army to keep up agriculture, and even worked in the military.

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Women’s Land Army poster from 1918

With the passage of the 19th Amendment, around 25,000 American women served overseas along with their male counterparts. In the WAAC, women cooked, did mechanical work, clerical work, or any other sort of labor in order to free up the soldiers so they could kick some Hun-ny Bun. While their husbands were away, women would serve in the jobs they left behind such as police, firefighting,  train conducting, office jobs, and more.

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Women firefighters in London ca 1916

Russian women took it further and introduced Women’s Death Battalions for shock troops (it would be a future impression if I didn’t have to shave my head. Maybe a bald cap would work?)

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Russia doesn’t mess around

Women also held fundraisers selling war bonds to send to the boys “over there”. War bonds were government issued debt securities to finance military operations in wartime, women sold these to do their bit at home.

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1918 era war bond poster

There’s a whole lot of options for women to do as a cool WWI impression, so naturally I had to come up with my own just to rock the boat a little. I had done nursing for Rev War in the past and while it was frowned upon because guys are salty and I used special effects makeup for it, so I kinda wanted to do something different. To be honest, I really wasn’t feeling being a land girl or anything really military since the fashions of the time period were just plain gorgeous and I really enjoyed the films of the era, too, so my mind was starting to wander over to asking myself why hasn’t anyone covered the Hollywood involvement in WWI. Celebrities such as Buster Keaton, Walt Disney, and Humphrey Bogart served as soldiers in WWI, but no one had thought of covering the Hollywood aspect of WWI. Jackpot, new impression! Screw all of this, I’m gonna play movie star!

So onto the interwebs I went hunting down female celebrities in silent film era Hollywood. I was going to pick a female star, make myself up to look like her, visit the troops, and be fabulous. This was perfect, something totally up my alley… but there was just one problem; wasn’t everyone producing films in California? Nope! In the 1910s, most films were being produced in Fort Lee, New Jersey! There’s a small museum in Fort Lee dedicated to the birth of Hollywood complete with old movie posters, props, and costumes. There’s even one of Theda Bara’s costumes from her Cleopatra film ther– wait a minute!!! I could portray Theda Bara Hollywood’s first sex symbol! Yes!

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Crazy eyes and Snake Boobs? I’m all over this!

Now, you’ve probably never heard of her since all but four of her 40+ films were destroyed in a fire in Fox Studios in 1937, but she is Mama Goth; Theda Bara is the beginning of the kohl eyed, black clad, culture-defying goth style Hot Topic should be selling (not My Little Pony tutus). During the 1910s era, people enjoyed seeing sweet little ingenue heroines such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, no one could even possibly imagine a woman being evil on screen… And then Theda happened

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America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford

Theda Bara, whose name was an anagram for Arab Death, was born under the shadow of the Sphinx in Egypt to an unnamed French actress and Italian sculptor. She possessed the wickedest face in the world, communed with dark spirits every other night, brought death and ruin to every man who dared to love her, ate raw steak and lettuce for lunch, and was able to seduce just about anyone. #relatable #same #onmywaytostealyoman.

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She’s a vamp!

Rather than portray the sweet little heroine who modestly suffered through awful circumstances like Lillian Gish, Theda was a succubus who preyed on men draining them of their energy and finances– and she got away with it every time. She was the prototype for the femme fatale of the noir films, but rather than being punished for her sins, she succeeded in her evil doings. Her kohl rimmed eyes penetrated her victims’ souls capturing them in her haunting gaze right before ensnaring them in her cold, pallid embrace. In past lives, she was Cleopatra, Lucretia Borgia, Elizabeth Bathory, Jezebel, and other horrible women in history. She was the Vampire who stole the hearts of fools then dashed them to pieces.  She was man’s greatest fear: a sexually liberated women.

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“Kiss me, my fool” a phrase Theda immortalized

Like the Sphinx, Theda Bara is a total mystery… Or, at least that’s what her publicists, Al Selig and John Goldfrap, wanted you to believe. In reality, Theda Bara was a nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati born Theodosia Burr Goodman born July 29th 1885 to a middle class family. Her father was a successful tailor, her mother a wigmaker; her siblings, Lori and Marque, were all close to little Theodosia.

she was born with resting bitch face

As a child, Theodosia was something of an escape artist constantly running away from home but not getting very far on the account of wearing her mother’s heels and dresses as she did it. She was a notorious bookworm and history buff insisting on wearing a somewhat revealing costume to portray Queen Esther for her Bat Mitzvah claiming to be historically accurate (we’re essentially the same person). She developed her flair for the dramatic in high school wearing capes to class (Catholic school wouldn’t let me do that. I tried) and participated in school plays.

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In spite of her parent’s protest, she dropped out of the University of Cincinnati to pursue her talent for theatre and moved to New York. Her parents supported her decision even if they didn’t agree with it making sure her expenses were paid for. She participated in local community and Jewish theatre productions and for a long time, she remained undiscovered until 1914 when she played an extra in the film The Stain

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She played a nun

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I’m having Catholic School flashbacks now. Send help.

By this time, she renamed herself Theodosia deCoppet taking her Swiss mother’s maiden name since she was worried her name Goodman might not get her a Hollywood deal (antisemitism is the worst). the director, Frank Powell, noticed how well she took direction and decided to cast her in his upcoming film A Fool There Was based on a Rudyard Kipling poem The Vampire. The poem was actually based on a painting done by Philip Burne-Jones depicting a succubus-esque vampire woman over a possibly dead or sleeping man

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“Wake up. Lemme smash. Plz”

The poem was turned into a play and then the play was adapted into a film. William Fox of Fox Studios purchased the rights to the film and hired Frank Powell to direct it in 1915. Theodosia’s Vampire was a huge success singlehandedly saving Fox Studios from debt by raking in 3 million in cash.

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For the next five years under the Fox Studios contract, Theodosia became Theda Bara, the Vamp we’ve completely forgotten about yet still recall somehow in our subconscious. Theda started out making $100 per week yet by the end of her career, that amount turned into $4,000 and became one of the top film stars of the era. She had her own cosmetics line as well as perfume line; young girls, nicknamed Baby Vamps, dressed like her. Her films crowded theatres. She even had a Coca Cola ad in 1915!

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She made it!  Over the next five years, Theda vamped in films such as Cleopatra, Salome, Under Two Flags, La Belle Russe, The Serpent, The She Devil, Carmen, When a Woman Sins, and more.

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Now, exactly why did I choose to portray Theda? Other than the fact she’s awesome and has a snake bra? I chose her because while she was a homewrecking vampire on screen, she was the polar opposite off screen. While in New York, she frequented museums working closely with the curator to do research for her historical films, she was a costumer making up costumes for her roles on the fly when they didn’t suit her, she loved animals and occasionally appeared on set with her dog, she was sweet and mild mannered with the brightest spark of wit that delighted everyone who met her.

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Theda starring as Carmen. She was given an opera costume but hated it, so she took an old shirtwaist, ripped the sleeves off, fashioned a skirt from some old curtains, added some gaudy jewelry, and made her own costume

When not on set, Theda was found reading. She laughed with her mother and sister over what her press agents made up about her over breakfast and remained close to her family. She rarely drank and had a loving relationship with her husband Charles Brabin whom she married in 1920 and the pair of them hosted fantastic parties in the forties and fifties (she hid her prop skeleton in the bathroom to prank her guests). She regularly answered fan mail and enjoyed corresponding with her fans. She was a suffragist claiming to “have the face of a vampire but the heart of a feminist.” She was charitable, particularly with the war effort. She would donate film costumes to be put up for auction to raise money for the war effort. On the steps of the New York Public Library, she raised $70,000 in war bonds! In 1918, she received a telegraph from the 158 Infantry Regiment based out of Arizona asking her to be their regimental Godmother and sponsor them. She not only agreed to sponsor them, she went out to visit them in California before their departure to France! She was moved to tears meeting the regiment for the first time as the regiment sang Tramp, Tramp, Tramp changing the lyrics to “vamp, vamp, vamp” in her honor. They made her an honorary lieutenant and she autographed an American flag while there for a regiment based in Pennsylvania. In gratitude, the regiment gave her an ebony communion cup (they didn’t realize she was Jewish but she treasured it nonetheless). While filming Cleopatra in California, officers such as Major General Liggett visited her (Mrs Liggett watching over her like a hawk the entire time). She also tended to the wounded in California hospitals between film shoots. This was why I chose Theda, she was a vampire with a love for her country and the brave souls who defended it.

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Theda and Major General Liggett
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Theda and Major General Liggett
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how the war was actually won
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Theda selling war bonds and killing it in that dress
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Theda entertaining soldiers who visited the set of Salome
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Theda visiting the wounded in 1918

 

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I also chose her because she starred as Madame DuBarry

 So as for my Theda Bara ensemble, I went full into character. I used a combination of Besame and modern cosmetics (and some glue sticks) to try and recreate her look along with a black wig I styled accordingly. I bought an original 1910s era dress, although I DO want to recreate one of her costumes at some point this year (not the snake boobs one…). For the whole day at Governor’s Island, I remained fully in character sashaying around the camp eager to engage anyone willing to talk to me.

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  Before the event, I listened to her radio interview from the 1930s to imitate her voice (I couldn’t stop talking in that midatlantic accent long after the event was finished. I tried). Very few people recognized me, but that was okay since it gave me the opportunity to give a little information on the history of film as well as bring Theda back to life. While there, I made terrific new friends such as Colleen Darnell and her husband, both egyptologists and just plain fascinating people overall.

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Photo found on Colleen’s Instagram Vintage_Egyptologist. Little known fact: the suffragists found their arguments more persuasive with a little firepower
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Making new friends is the best part of entering a new era
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Met a British Tommy from the Collings Foundation. He helped me from really slipping when I tripped down some slippery brick steps. Not exactly the vampiest move around, but I recovered

I successfully “vamped” General Pershing (he was just the sweetest guy), and I got to do some real acting– something I haven’t done in years.

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Me, Colleen, and General Pershing. Photo found on  Colleen’s instagram vintage_egyptologist

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Erik was my unwitting fool I vamped into utter ruin for the day

 

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Kiss me, my fool!

I’m really looking forward to doing more WWI era events and resurrecting the Vamp once more. When she learned that all of her films were destroyed in a fire, she was heartbroken convinced that no one would remember her; I plan on making sure that never happens.

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7 Comments

  1. What a fascinating piece! I wish that I had known of the event. My dad was a doughboy. I still have his dog tags, discharge paper and a program from a 1917 camp show that featured George M. Cohan, among others.
    As a silent film fan, I’m stiil hoping that Theda Bara’s “Cleopatra” will turn up someday.

    Like

  2. I HAVE heard of Theda Bara! I think it’s great that you portrayed her. I had no idea so many people are interested in re-enacting that era. I first read about her, years ago, in a book called “Remember When”. Now I need to find that book. I know it’s somewhere in my house! Another tidbit from that book: Would you like to sin / With Elinor Glyn / on a tiger skin? Or would you prefer / to err with her / on some other fur?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a wonderful article! I enjoyed the beautiful pictures of you becoming Theda Bara. Joan Craig, author of Theda Bara My Mentor Under the Wings of Hollywood’s first Femme Fatale,

    Liked by 1 person

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