Theda Vamps the Durand-Hedden House

Yo waddup, my peasants? It’s ur gurl with her non-serious WWI impression again.

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So lately, I’ve been doing some more research into what Theda looked like when the stage makeup came off and her authentic self shone through because frankly, I was getting sick of wearing the black wig and the pencil thin eyebrows. It wasn’t natural, it wasn’t her and nor was it me– not that being me really matters when you’re portraying a silent film celebrity! She described herself as a brunette in her assertion of vampires being brunette; she claimed that a vampire had to be a brunette because “the popular idea of a wicked woman is a dark and midnight beauty.” This is where I got a little confused because in some of the movie magazines of the era she’s depicted with black hair, but others brown hair.

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So I said, “ehh screw it! Let’s see what happens!” after I saw a few recolored photos of her with brown hair.

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I wound up ditching the wig and instead using my clip in bangs that I normally used for faux-regency styles, pinned my normal hair into a soft low bun, and threw my antique velvet hat overtop it. I ditched the harsher makeup I was using for a softer, more natural look while still keeping the vampy tones with the kohl eyeliner and dark lipstick and, I must say, I like it! 

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I have a lovely “new” 1918 velvet dress festooned with an antique third liberty loan drive pin to commemorate her dedication to the selling of war bonds on the third and fourth liberty loan drives. I found this delightful little number online and it reminded me A LOT of the velvet dresses she was apt to wear in various photos, plus the pop of royal blue was too fun to pass up!

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Photo by Chad Hunt

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Photo by Lisa Kilroy

The event I went to on Sunday was the WWI day at the Durand-Hedden House in Maplewood, NJ.  I personally adore this site because of its welcoming atmosphere and its lived-in feel. It’s a museum that’s not a museum and I’m so here for it!

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It’s the second time Theda has visited and she may have had too much fun regaling the public with the off screen shenanigans– or lack thereof, she was a total bookworm in real life– and her contributions to the war effort. The displays this year were spectacular, Vinny portrayed a marine and had a terrific display of things a marine carried on him as well as a German medical kit!

 

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Dawn and Joel had a lovely display of their Victrola and phonograph complete with records and cylinders.

 

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Lily rolled out with the big guns and showed a beautifully detailed display of Dr. Anna Tjomsland as well as other contract surgeons in the US army.

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Photo by Lisa Kilroy
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And, of course, there was the bae and the band!

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Photo by Lisa Kilroy
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Photo by Lisa Kilroy
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Photo by Lisa Kilroy #baewatch

For my display, I brought out the usual; my photographs, magazines, trade posters, and other various memorabilia. It’s been getting harder and harder to find anything Theda related these days– especially anything that’s affordable!

 

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With my fierce AF look for the weekend out of the way, I now want to talk about why Theda, why not do something actually war related if I’m doing WWI era living history? Isn’t it a little insulting to women who are doing “serious” impressions to be doing something as ludicrous as a campy actress just so I can prance around in a skimpy orange dress and play pretend? Well, the answer is that we’re all playing pretend when we do living history, so why not? Pretend military rank isn’t real rank, we’re not actually fighting any real Huns– at least I don’t think so– The last time I checked, and correct me if I’m wrong, living history is a combination of make-believe and teaching history. When we do living history demonstrations, we are representing important history, but if we only focus on strictly the military, we’re doing a massive disservice to our audience who will only walk away with a snippet of history thinking it’s the big picture. We’re not really soldiers or officers or Yeomenettes or nurses from 1918, we’re people from 2018 representing history. Sure, it’s important to play the part, but we’re all actors, none of it’s real. No one is superior to another in real life; at the end of the day, we’re all just a bunch of nerds trying to make history cool– myself included.

For living history, the bigger picture is something difficult to explain and no one person can do it, which is why different impressions beyond the military are essential. During wartime, all facets of life are impacted somehow and more often than not, people tend to forget that when there’s big guns and manly men in uniforms. There was more to life than being in the trenches in 1918 and many living historians tend to forget there’s an entire world right above their little imaginary trench that is being affected. It’s also important to remember that not every woman in 1918 was a nurse or in an auxiliary corp or anything relating to the military but still managed to contribute to the soldiers overseas… And that’s where Theda comes in.

Theda Bara’s life was completely affected by the war, too; her brother Marque was in the signal corps, fellow stars such as Buster Keaton were serving in the army, and other stars such as Norma Talmadge were starring in propaganda films. Prominent directors such as D.W Griffith were churning out war films like Hearts of the World starring the beautiful Lillian Gish. Being typecast as a vamp meant she wasn’t exactly in a position to do any real propaganda films and the one she did do was after the war ended and she hated every moment of it.

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Every. Last. Moment

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Figuring starring in war films wasn’t going to be her strong suit as a vampire, Theda opted to take time out of her hectic, factory work-like schedule to do as much as she could for the boys “over there.” Theda provided comfort for the troops; she would visit them while they were stationed in Camp Kearney, spend time with officers on set while not vamping Marc Antony, do not one but two liberty loan drives, write to each and every single soldier who sent her a letter, donate regularly to the Red Cross, and even visit sick soldiers in makeshift hospitals.  After her successful liberty loan rally on the steps of the New York Public Library, the Stage Women’s War Relief asked her to return to work with them to raise war bonds and in that one afternoon, she sold a whopping $300,000 in war bonds receiving a personal thanks from president Woodrow Wilson… Who–oddly enough– disliked her films preferring more “wholesome” Western types. She also met with General Pershing at Camp Kearney for Movie Star Day there in 1918 after adopting the 158th Infantry regiment. There’s a 1918 movie magazine that documented the momentous event stating that she received a presidential honor when she visited!

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Three quarters of a mile is a lot, and it might be a little unbelievable– and I didn’t believe it at first either– but then I found this photo from the Arizona Memory Project and now I’m a believer!

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Theda’s up on that little stage!

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While at Camp Kearney, she even spent time with the private soldiers playing baseball!

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The men even showed off for her with some field games!

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When she adopted the regiment as her godsons, they presented her with a locket engraved “Theda Bara Godmother” on one side and on the other side “Presented by the Men of Her Regiment” over two crossed rifles. This locket is described in her jewelry collection that was put on display in January of 1966 alongside a dark cameo with diamonds, an onyx cigarette holder, and several brooches, pins, necklaces, and watches dripping in jewels.

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Theda at the 3rd Liberty Loan Drive in May of 1918

Theda’s contributions didn’t end at war bonds and camp visits; she risked her life in the face of a deadly pandemic to take care of the troops. On October 19th of 1918, Theda visited the R.C convalescent home at Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana to provide comfort for the soldiers recovering from influenza there as well as sign autographs and help out however she could. She took a risk and didn’t wear the gauze face mask around the sick because she wanted them to see her and not a surgical mask; she, fortunately, had the advantage over the disease because she had contracted the flu prior to her visit in September of 1918. A newspaper called “News in Los Angeles and its Vicinity” wrote a short article on it  on September 5, 1918 saying she was attended by several nurses and physicians as well as her sister Lora. You can see how happy the soldiers were to see her and how equally happy she was to see them in these photos from the Red Cross, and it’s that sort of happiness I want to capture and preserve for posterity.  Theda’s service in the war was, what she said, the proudest moment of her life and it deserves a place in living history every bit as much as every other doughboy and “serious women’s impression.”

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Theda brought happiness to soldiers who needed it the most and– frankly– that’s what I want to portray because it’s something feasible to me. Post germ theory medicine is all Greek to me, I’m not very good at farming or knitting and I’m absolutely hopeless with any sort of mechanical tools. I can, however, make people laugh and keep things entertaining, so who better to portray than Theda? I want to portray someone who used her theatrical talent and her star power to provide a listening ear, a brighter day, a dash of hope, and a bit of comfort to those who are willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. Besides, I don’t think I would make a very good nurse…

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“What do you mean there’s no leeches?!”

 

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