Norma Talmadge home

From the New York Dramatic Mirror, April 17, 1920, p. 744, 765

Before They Were Stars VI

Norma Talmadge

By an Old Timer

One of the Few Big Screen Stars Who Has Had No Stage Experience--Was Born in Brooklyn--Her Gifted Family

The first member of our "Before they Were Stars" club to claim New York as a birthplace is presented this week. Dainty Norma Talmadge first saw the light of day not in New York City proper, but across the river in Brooklyn improper! Brooklyn bears the same relation to New York as Allegheny to Pittsburgh or Oakland to Frisco, yet infinitely larger and more important than either of the other two. It is the butt of all vaudevillians and even a play or two relies upon many of its laughs because of references to Brooklyn. And doesn't it make members of Brooklyn the Beautiful (according to its borough press agents!) good and mad to hear those same references? We say it does. We bet right here that "Buddies," for all its New York success cannot play across the Bridge unless the censor removes some of those jokes and slurs and slams or else changes the locality.

But to return to Norma. Yes.

She Was Born in Brooklyn

And Manhattanites please take notice that the old despised borough has put one over on you. Where is there a more popular star than Norma? And oh, don't you wish you might claim her as your own?

The Talmadges are an old Brooklyn family and distantly related to the celebrated De Witt Talmage (though the spelling of the name differs, the noted divine economizing in letters!) and Mrs. Talmadge was a member of the famous Amaranth Amateur Dramatic Society in her younger days. Old theater-goers remember this celebrated organization in which a number of big Broadway dramatic stars had their first training.

Edith Kingdon (Mrs. George Gould) and Robert Hilliard were both members before they went on Broadway and a number of names long forgotten in theatrical history were first seen on Amaranth programs. Percy Williams, the vaudeville manager, played many a part in the old Academy of Music and was always considerate of amateurs because of his early associations.

Mrs. Talmadge, with the family modesty, confesses that she was by no means a shining light in the society, playing only small and insignificant roles, and so the girls could not have inherited any dramatic talent from her.

Like all Children

they loved acting and Norma made up many little plays for them to perform after school, often with the family as the only audience.

She and Constance commenced their school days at P.S. No. 9 on Vanderbilt Avenue, and after three o'clock there were many larks with the cellar or back yard as their theater. A number of "animal" acts were included in the repertoire for the youngsters were particularly fond of bringing stray dogs and cats into the home to be nursed back to health and then formally adopted. Constance, who had ideas of becoming a circus star in future years, would get up acts surrounded by the animals or swing from a trapeze while Norma looked on with wonder and a wee bit of jealousy. All that she did was write the plays, improvise the scenery and costumes and act the leading part! It seemed little in comparison to the tricks of her small sister.

Then came high school, and Norma's gift was soon recognized and many a part in the school plays was given to her. She never dreamed of a stage career, and if she had not lived in that despised burg might not have thought of picture work. The Talmadges after leaving the Park slope located in Flatbush. Now, at that time there was just one big attraction in Flatbush, a thing of mystery that everyone was anxious to penetrate.

[Photo omitted: Talmadge holding feather fan. Caption: Miss Talmadge is one of the most popular and most widely experienced of film players. Her newest picture is "The Woman Gives" (First National)]

The Vitagraph Studio

presented a new interest in the staid old suburb, devoted then to quiet homes and a class of people interested in their churches, clubs and a few other things along similar lines. Incidentally the Vitagraph has changed the locality and it is needless to say that one would not recognize it today as the place where Norma and her family lived ten years ago.

A huge wall encircled the Vitagraph "lot," above which could be seen the glass top of the main studio, a few chimneys and the upper story of the main building. The gate was guarded as closely as if it were the entrance to a king's courtyard and it was impossible to gain admittance through the office without a definite appointment. But there was no law preventing folks from gathering across the street and watching the famous ones entering to take up their duties within the magic area and no law preventing one from following the Vitagraph "bus" and watching while a scene was shot. No wonder that half of Flatbush went picture mad and the other half had aspirations to picture careers.

It was quite natural

That Norma should go to the Vitagraph with about a million other screen-struck ones, at the summons for a number of "extras" for a big picture. Her pretty face and charming manner won the engagement for her and soon there was a real part which though small, was an opportunity.

Those were the days of one and two reelers and many of the pictures have long been forgotten, but not the personality of Norma Talmadge, which stands out strong. Ask any old-time fan who he liked in the days when the Vitagraph was one of the big aces of the General Film and he will name Norma among the very first.

A Few of Those

who were prominent at the Vitagraph when Norma played small roles are not nearly in her class now, though then they were head and shoulders above her in the eyes of pictures "fans" and received many times her salary.

Norma is one of the few leading stars who has

No Stage Career

however limited, to her credit. She never posed for artists as Mabel Normand did, and so is unique in our series of "Before They Were Stars."

So many of the prominent stars can fall back on a stage career, if need be, and these contend that dramatic training is absolutely essential for success upon the screen. Norma is the proof that there are two sides to every story. Without doubt she would be at ease in a stage role; if so, her screen training is almost entirely responsible, and she owes the camera a debt of gratitude for showing her what she could do best of all.

If stage stars can shine on the screen, the reverse should also be true and there are few managers who would not willingly accept Norma Talmadge because advertising is not the only factor that has built up her reputation, she has made good by her charm and good acting, her personality--as with many an other genius that is what has made her great.

In the Old Vitagraph Days

there were many visits to picture theaters made by the various leading men and women and once in a while, after she was playing larger roles, Norma was the center of attraction. The applause with which the crowded houses greeted her showed the company that she was getting a big following and then came along some of those contests for popularity. Norma won several and was in the front ranks of others and almost every school girl in the world commenced writing her letters. All sorts of requests from "where do you buy your clothes" to "how could I become a picture actress?" but each and every one contained phrases of appreciation.

This big batch of mail for Norma attracted a lot of attention and when the pictures in which she appeared made big sales, Vitagraph was convinced that she had the making of a star.

From Europe came demands for more of her pictures. The Vitagraph, before the war, was one of the best sellers abroad. In fact, it was claimed by one who knew whereof he spoke, that the European sales paid all the studio expenses and other incidentals so that the American output was practically velvet.

Of course low salaries were paid all around and so there was an immense profit for those concerned in the partnership. When the first troubles began to be evident in the General Film, the Vitagraph kept to the original policy and would not meet the high salaries that outsiders offered its players. Several of their stars went over to the enemy but they felt that Norma was secure as she was young and just beginning her career. Who would leave so well known a concern even for a few more dollars a week?

The Organization of the Triangle

by Messrs. Griffith, Sennett and Ince caused much consternation in the General Film quarters. They engaged a number of big Broadway stars who had hitherto despised the screen. Billie Burke made her first picture under their auspices. Douglas Fairbanks sprang into screen popularity. De Wolfe Hopper, Beerbohm Tree and a dozen other leading lights, all followed the call of the Triangle.

One of the three, I think it was Griffith, had noticed Norma's clever work at the Vitagraph and made her an offer to join the Triangle. It was a wonderful opportunity and the salary seemed astounding to her. It included a promise to give Constance a few roles (she had done a little at the Vitagraph) so the whole family immediately shook the dust of Brooklyn from their feet and took the long, long trail that led to the Triangle Studios.

It proved to be a profitable trip in many ways. Norma had several good roles but her work in "Panthea," following soon after Madam Petrova's appearance in the stage version, made a tremendous success. This one part alone was enough to stamp her as a star of great ability. Constance, too, had her first big opportunity on the Coast. In "Intolerance" she had her initial success, and since then has gone straight ahead. Had the sisters remained at the Vitagraph, who knows?

The Next Change

was to Select. Norma's work stands out big and true in these pictures which were always selected after she had passed on them herself.

A First National star is what she is now, for all her pictures are released by them. First came "A Daughter of Two Worlds," released in early February.

What is the Secret

of her success? That is a vital query, but there are so many ways to explain it that one is at a loss for the real solution. She is young and good looking--two necessary attributes for screen successes. She has personality and great charm (two more!), she wears her clothes well and uses exquisite taste in their selection; in the choice of plays, her great care not to offend public decency is plainly shown; she seems to have a real joy in everything she does, a joy that is contagious to associates and to those who see the finished product; altogether she is a splendid type of healthy American girl, tireless and ambitious to do better and bigger things.

She is considerate, too, and has helped many of her old friends at the Vitagraph, less fortunate than she, and has never forgotten those who were kind to her in the days when she was starting out on the path to Fame.

Back to Bibliography
Back to Norma Talmadge Home

Last revised, June 28, 2002