Stars & Dreams

Stars & Dreams

Florence Lawrence was an unusual woman, to say the very least. In an era when women were not even allowed to vote, she became one of the first superstars of the silver screen. And she also became a passionate automobilist as well as an accomplished mechanic. And if that wasn’t enough to ensure that she was a media sensation in an era when women were not allowed to vote and the Jaxon was promoted as a car so easy to drive, a child or woman could operate it, she also became an inventor that contributed to the early evolution of the automobile.

Herb Jeffries was inducted into the Black Filmakers Hall of Fame in 1979 and in 2004, the Wester Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. His musical career spanned seven decades from the 1920s to 1995, and included gigs with Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and the Earl Hines Orchestra. He had a film career that included four major pictures.

Hollywood history is littered with forgotten celebrities, many of whom had long, rich, and diverse careers. Consider Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler). Her film career spanned nearly thirty years. Although Lamarr had no formal training and was primarily self-taught, she was intrigued by science and in her spare time worked on an array of projects. She developed and patented an improved stoplight. She also helped improve various aviation designs for Howard Hughes while they were dating. During World War II, Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed and the course altered. Intrigued she devised a frequency hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed, and friend, composer and pianist, patented the idea. The concept would be later improved upon and became the science behind Bluetooth technology.

Florence Lawrence was moderately successful as a stage actress before transitioning with the advent of the motion picture. She made her film debut in 1906 with Biograph Studios and was know to fans as “The Biograph Girl.” Lawrence was one of the movie industries first super stars and by 1912 was earning an astounding $500 per week. Her career spanned decades and the film credits included more than 300 motion pictures. Still, by the late 1920s her movie career was, for the most part, over. After suffering severe burns while attempting to save an actor in a studio fire, and extensive surgeries, she found herself more and more relegated to working as an extra or making step on appearances.

Florence Lawrence loved high performance vehicles and in 1912 acquired a Lozier. Photo Historic Vehicle Association

By 1909, Lawrence was wealthy enough to afford an automobile, something she had become enamored with after a friend provided her with an exhilarating ride through the countryside. She often noted in conversation that driving provided her with an unbridled sense of excitement and of freedom. After ownership of a succession of ever more powerful automobiles, in 1912 she purchased a Lozier. Over the course of a four-year period cars built by Lozier had been driven in every major race in the United States and several in Europe. No other car of the era broke as many records for speed, for 24-hour endurance runs or for long distance touring without mechanical failure. All of this came with a price. As an example, Lawrence’s six-cylinder Knickerbocker Berlin model carried a factory list price of $6,500. As the beautiful starlet performed much of her maintenance and repairs, and often took long drives unaccompanied by mechanic or driver, she was a popular focus of interviews and news stories.

After a friend was severely injured in an accident, Lawrence began giving thought to ways for improving automotive safety. In 1914 she devised an innovative mechanism that signaled turns to trailing drivers. With the simple push of a button, a flag was raised and lowered on the rear bumper of the automobile to inform other drivers what direction the car was turning. Next, she developed an ingenious device to alert drivers of a pending stop. When she depressed the brake, a small sign reading “stop” would pop up at the rear of the car. Unfortunately, she failed to patent any these developments. Likewise, with another that she developed in 1916, the first electric windshield wiper. Even without the patent she prospered from the invention by establishing the Bridgwood Manufacturing Company for the manufacture and distribution of the wiper motors as well as other aftermarket items.

Florence Lawrence in a 1908 studio promotional shot.

Herb Jeffries success was blunted by the segregation that was an accepted part of American society at the time. Still, he persevered and found opportunity in adversity. Herb Jeffries was born Umberto Alexander Valentino on September 24, 1913 in Detroit, Michigan. Firm evidence of Jeffries’s race and age is hard to come by, but census documents from 1920 described him as mulatto. Raised in Detroit, Jeffries grew up in a mixed neighborhood and dropped out of high school to earn a living as a singer. He first performed with the Howard Buntz Orchestra at various Detroit ballrooms. It was at speak easy that his musical talents were noted by Louie Armstrong. Armstrong introduced the young man to Erskine Tat at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. As this was an all African American band, and as New Orleans jazz was extremely popular, Jeffries began promoting himself as a Creole.

His big break came during the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress International Exposition and a contract to perform with the Earl Hines Orchestra on Hines’ national broadcasts live from the Grand Terrace Café. His first recordings were with Hines in 1934, including “Just to be in Carolina”. By 1940, he was singing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and then recorded with him from 1940 to 1942. His 1940 recording of “Flamingo” with Ellington, released in 1941, sold more than 14 million copies.

Touring through the former Confederate states, as the bands playing was restricted to tobacco warehouses and “Negro” only theatres, Jeffries noticed that young African American boys filled theatres to watch the westerns even though they were often an all white cast. Slowly an idea came to mind, create an African American cowboy hero. Jeffries made his debut as a singing cowboy with Harlem on the Prairie, the first African American western with an all-black cast. The movie was shot in 1937 at Murray’s Dude Ranch (“The World’s Only Negro Dude ranch) in Apple Valley, California, with Jeffries performing all his own stunts. The film received a write-up in Time magazine and Jeffries assumed the persona as the “Bronze Buckaroo.” This and other films in the series, Harlem Rides the range, Two Gun Man From Harlem and the Bronze Buckaroo, were shown exclusively in “Negro” theaters.

Jeffries, Lamarr and Lawrence, three forgotten celebrities. Three inspirational and fascinating people. Three reasons to delve into history. #jimhinckleysamerica





The Wild Ride

The Wild Ride

The battered Winton that was used in an ill-fated attempt to drive across the country in 1901. Photo Detroit Public Library

“Covering the North American continent from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic Ocean in an automobile has been attempted by Alexander Winton, president of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, of Cleveland. That the expedition failed is no fault of the machine Mr. Winton used, nor was it due to absence of grit or determination on the part of the operator. Neither was the failure dur to roads. The utter absence of roads was the direct and only cause.” Scientific American, August 3, 1901.

I have long had an obsession with the years between 1890 and 1930, an era of dramatic change and societal evolution. In recent weeks it has been my distinct pleasure to share the history of this exciting and fascinating period in time through feature articles, community education programs developed for Mohave Community College, Zoom based presentations and the Jim Hinckley’s America social media network. Quite often I give reign to the imagination as I consider what it must have been like to live in this era. How did people adapt to such a rapid transition? William “Buffalo Bill” Cody went from being an acclaimed eleven year old “Indian fighter” to buffalo hunter, Medal of Honor winning combatant during Civil War, and international celebrity with his wild west shows. He also purchased a Michigan from the Kalamazoo automobile manufacturer and served on the board for the National Old Trails Road Association.

Ezra Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail with an ox cart. He also toured the country in a National automobile, flew across the country in an airplane and helped build the first service station along the National Old Trails Road in the Cajon Pass of California. Henry Starr was a frontier era outlaw turned movie star. He began robbing banks and eluding posses on horseback, and ended his prolific career by attempting an escape by automobile. Wyatt Earp ended his days hanging around movie sets in Los Angeles and befriending up and coming movie stars.

In part people were able to adapt as the transition only appears dramatic when viewed in the context of centuries. They had time to contemplate, to give thought to the developments that were transforming every aspect of life. From the launching of the first automobile manufacturing company to a transcontinental drive was a period of almost ten years. in 1916 there was still a market for horse drawn wagons and carriages, albeit a shrinking one, and so Studebaker was producing these as they had since the 1860s as well as automobiles. Even in the modern era, another period of historic and dramatic transition, we had time to learn to adapt. The payphone was replaced by cell phone over a period of years. I started writing in 1990 on a 1948 Underwood typewriter, began using a word processor program in 2000, but did not need to fully abandon the typewriter until a few years later.

In a nut shell a primary reason the year 2020 has caused such consternation is that there was no time to adapt to a dramatic transition that has forever altered every aspect of life. It is the uncertainty that has made everyone as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. On the personal level in less than two weeks 2020 went from the breakout year for Jim Hinckley’s America travel network to a near complete collapse. An extensive schedule of international and domestic speaking engagements was cancelled. Work with thirty two tour companies was canceled. Advertising sponsors closed. The community education programs I teach at a community college were canceled. Two business associates died of COVID 19 induced illness.

Everything from education and business to the economy, politics and even the entire foundation of international relationships has forever been altered. We are in for a very wild ride in the months to come. In generations to come people will look back on 2020 much as we view the era between 1890 and 1930. They will wonder how we survived and how we adapted. They will ask why the Untied States abandoned its position as a world leader and play armchair quarterback as they mediate on the ramifications. They will also find inspiration in how we met the challenge, how we adapted, and how some found opportunity in the crisis.

Here at Jim Hinckley’s America it has been the best of times and the worst of times. I have learned a bit about how to use Zoom, how to develop and harness the power of live stream programs and had the opportunity to develop some cooperative partnerships. I have lost associates and watched friends loose their businesses. So what can you expect from Jim Hinckley’s America in the months to come?

  • A regular schedule for On The Road With Jim programs as I share the best of the Arizona outback
  • Our critically acclaimed presentations on the Zoom platform
  • With the acquisition of new equipment, improvements to the live stream Coffee With Jim program
  • Expansion of our advertising sponsor packages so we can offer something for every budget (currently starting as low as $6.25 per week)
  • Further development of community education programs on the economics of tourism, development of heritage tourism, and building cooperative partnerships to foster development of tourism
  • Additional work with the developers of the Route 66 Navigation app to ensure this continues to be the number one aide for Route 66 travelers
  • New series as exclusive content on our Patreon based crowdfunding website

Also, we are adding trivia contests to the Sunday morning Coffee With Jim program. And in limited partnership with MyMarketing Designs, I am writing blog posts for their clients. I am also negotiating to have the Five Minutes With Jim audio podcast syndicated as a radio program. And now that the warehouse is open, I can again begin selling autographed copies of my latest book, Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66

Interesting times. Challenging times. Tragic times. Times ripe with opportunity. Unnerving times. Exciting times. Confusing times. Historic times. The wild ride continues.