One of America’s greatest movie directors and several prominent actors stood on the stage of the old Greek Theater in Pomona’s Ganesha Park entertaining an audience of empty seats one night in 1917.
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree — yes, that was his real name — decided to step forward on the moonlit stage to invoke the words of Marc Antony, because “It’s most apropos here in this wonderful place at such an hour.”
Gazing into the darkness, the noted British actor and manager of His Majesty’s Theatre in London began the familiar “Friends, Romans, countrymen. ...”
Even Julius Caesar might have been impressed by the midnight theater festival that broke out briefly in the park.
This odd assemblage was the end of a sort of after-party tour of Pomona on Aug. 17, 1917, for a group that included Tree, famed director D.W. Griffith and stage actor DeWolfe Hopper. It followed the preview of Griffith’s latest silent film earlier in the evening at Pomona’s Belvedere Theater.
The director and his party of Hollywood notables had just sat through the three-hour movie, “The Downfall of All Nations,” in downtown Pomona. The title for the film when it made its formal premiere in New York City on Sept. 5 was its better-known name, “Intolerance.”
Pomona was one of several Southern California towns whose theaters were used to show previews of silent movies before they were given full release. A year earlier, Griffith used a Pomona theater to preview a more controversial classic, first called “The Clansman” and then renamed “The Birth of a Nation.”
Griffith rented the Belvedere on Aug. 16 and 17, promoting “The Downfall of All Nations” in advertisements, barely disguising it as a production of the Italian Feature Co. and a director called Dante Guilio. “If you miss this,” warned the ad, “you will regret it the rest of your life.”
Arriving after a long ride on the region’s bumpy roads, Griffith attended the second night with several prominent people including cast members Lillian Gish and future Tarzan Elmo Lincoln, as well as Hopper.
(Hopper is best known as the actor who first orated the then-little-known poem “Casey at the Bat” in 1888. He would go on to perform the poem theatrically more than 10,000 times, turning it into a classic bit of baseball lore. He was apparently not motivated to recount Casey’s tragic strikeout on that night in the park.)
After the film, the Pomona Chamber of Commerce somehow enticed the celebrities to take a tour of the city’s impressive outdoor Greek Theater, beginning around 11 p.m.
The moonlit theater apparently inspired the visitors.
“What a spot and what a scene here in the starlight under a semitropical sky at the midnight hour and among the everlasting hills,” enthused Tree. “I have not felt quite such an inspiration since I saw Rome and the Palatine Hills by moonlight in 1914.”
The motion picture they saw that night, shown on 12 reels, was advertised as costing $500,000, an unheard-of amount for a film in those days. It was accompanied by music from an eight-piece orchestra. Reserved seats were 25, 50 or 75 cents.
“Intolerance” was actually four stories, “a portrayal of the intolerance of the ages,” noted the Pomona Progress after the first showing Aug. 16. The article called it “a try-out of the biggest thing in moving pictures the world has ever known.”
“Intolerance” became an artistic success but mostly a financial failure. Interestingly, the Progress writer after the preview predicted that it would not to be as successful as Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.”
Perhaps the writer was just not a history buff or a movie fan.
Or it might be that sitting through three hours of the stories of Babylon, the persecution of Christ, the Reformation and a modern-day story of corruption was just too much for his posterior.
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @JoeBlackstock