Mabel Normand in a Hartsook portrait, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Hollywood’s public acts of charity often come with an ulterior motive. Such is the case with Republic Picture’s magnanimous naming of its gigantic new sound stage in December 1940 for beloved comedic actress Mabel Normand, who neither stepped foot on the lot nor ever shot a film there, per Brent Walker in “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory.” While a wonderful remembrance of the gifted comedienne, the gesture served as a subtle promotional tie-in for Republic’s upcoming remake of a Normand film, “Sis Hopkins.”
Herbert Yates’ Republic Pictures began operations in 1935, when Yates merged production companies Liberty Films, Monogram Pictures, and Mascot Pictures. The newly formed corporation leased Mascot’s production facility, the former Mack Sennett studio at 4024 Redford Avenue in Studio City on which to produce films.
Republic Studios, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
By the late 1930s, Republic purchased the lot outright and announced a large expansion of facilities, adding new office space and up-to-date sound stages. Film Daily reported on December 13, 1940 that the $250,000 stage, the first under Republic’s new $1-million building campaign, would be named after comedy superstar Normand, in recognition of upcoming shooting on a remake of the Normand film “Sis Hopkins” starring Republic’s rising star Judy Canova.
The December 21, 1940 Showman’s Trade Review noted that the shrewd Yates decided to name the stage after Madcap Mabel in recognition of her pioneering film work with legendary comedy producer Mack Sennett, who first constructed the lot in 1928. The Los Angeles Times also pointed out in a December 12 story that Normand never worked on a sound stage. Yates’ personal assistant William Saal was organizing the special festivities, scheduled during a shooting hiatus for the studio, and trying to arrange a national radio hookup. Unfortunately many newspapers incorrectly reported that Normand worked for Sennett on this lot, a mistake most never seemed to have corrected. Mabel never walked on or worked on the lot because she made her last film in 1927 at the Hal Roach lot in Culver City, a year before the Sennett Studio was constructed in Studio City.
On the evening of December 27, 1940, Republic hosted hundreds of people at the grand dedication ceremonies inside the cavernous stage, including its own stars and executives John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Judy Canova, George “Gabby” Hayes, Joseph Santley, John Waldron, Paul Guerin, M. J. Siegel, and Smiley Burnette.
A detail of the Mabel Normand plaque, courtesy of Marilyn Slater.
They invited a huge contingent of former Mack Sennett stars and employees such as Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby, W. C. Fields, William Beaudine, Eddie Sutherland, Ma. St. Clair, Eddie Cline, Louise Fazenda, Charlie Murray, Jimmy Finlayson, Chester Conklin, Heinie Conklin, Monte Banks, Jack Mulhall, Edgar Kennedy, Mae Busch, Polly Moran, Eddie Quillan, Eddie Gribbon, and Harry Langdon. Other industry executives and creative personnel such as Paramount’s Y. Frank Freeman, Jack Warner, Wesley Ruggles, Raymond Griffith, Frank Lloyd, Tay Garnett, Roy del Ruth, Charles Reisner, Lloyd Bacon, William Farnum, Wallace MacDonald, Charles Ray, Raymond Hatton, and Noah Beery also attended the grand festivities.
Republic’s own Harriet Parsons, daughter of gossip columnist Louella Parsons, shot the ceremony for inclusion in her one-reel newsreel, “Meet the Stars” Episode #8: “Stars Past and Present,” which is included as a bonus extra on Cine Museum’s recent Mack Sennett DVD set. Still photographers shot many photographs of Canova, Siegel, Fazenda, Sennett, Farnum, Finlayson, and Chester Conklin posing with the plaque. In this way, the studio could both celebrate the memory of gentle Mabel while promoting both the expansion of its growing lot and the forthcoming “Sis Hopkins.”
William Farnum, Mack Sennett and Judy Canova pose with the Mabel Normand plaque, Screenland.
On December 28, the Los Angeles Times described the ceremony as “a novel observance,” one uniting past and present. Former silent star William Farnum served as Master of ceremonies, noting Normand’s kindness and generosity to those in need which rivaled her gigantic comedy talent. He was followed on stage by Republic executive M. J. Siegel and Mack Sennett. The veteran comedy producer referred to his former love as “the little girl with the golden heart.” Following the unveiling, a screening of Normand’s feature “Mickey” followed.
Republic’s Judy Canova pulled the strings whisking the plaque’s cover away. The 200 lb. bronze plaque, designed by J. R. Savage of New York, contained the words, “We dedicate this stage to the memory of a lovable artist, Mabel Normand. May we never forget her – a great soul who pioneered and gave purpose to the early motion picture. Through this new art she brought laughter and beauty otherwise denied millions burdened with despair and drabness.”
After the filming of “Sis Hopkins,” Republic built a 90 by 150 foot ice skating rink in the stage for the film, “Ice Capades of 1941,” a rink 1/2 inch thick and costing $50,000, per Industrial Refrigeration in 1941. The soundstage went on to host taping of the renowned TV series, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” amongst others. The stage is still in current use on what is now called CBS Studio Center, with the plaque still visible to all who visit its hallowed space.
While the plaque honoring Mabel Normand remains mostly unknown today, it recognizes the wide talent, skill, generosity, and big heart of one of cinema’s greatest pioneers.