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Lulu and her silent-movie-era camera

Lulu and her silent-movie-era camera

Sept. 20, 1973: Leontine (Lulu) Phelan with a hand-cranked Bell & Howell camera used in the early days of the motion picture industry.

This photo by Steve Fontanini accompanied staff writer Charles Hillinger’s story in the next morning’s Los Angeles Times:

“There’s nothing new about nudies,” the pert little old lady said as she peeked out from behind the viewfinder of the early-day, hand-crank movie camera.

“One of the first full-length movies to be banned in theaters across the country was made with this old Bell and Howell.”

Leontine (Lulu) Phelan, 81, was talking about “Purity,” starring Audrey Munson, filmed in Santa Barbara in 1916.

“Audrey,” Mrs. Phelan recalled with a chuckle, “came out stark naked.”

Mrs. Phelan said she, too, had appeared before the camera.

“But not in ‘Purity,’ mind you. If I had, they would have fired Audrey and hired me.”

Mrs. Phelan’s husband was Bob Phelan, pioneer motion picture cameraman who died in 1966 at the age of 81. Phelan shot many of the Charles Chaplin and Marie Dressler films.

Mrs. Phelan was a film editor, her husband a cameraman “when Santa Barbara was the motion picture capital of the world.”

“Hundreds of one-, two- and three-reelers were filmed in Santa Barbara,” she said.

Before World War I, there were 15 movie companies based in Santa Barbara.

“Flying A Studios at State and Mission Sts. claimed it was the largest movie studio on earth. It had an interior stage where movies were first filmed under artificial lights.

“There were be movie lots all over town.

“Many of the early custard pie comedies and railroad and cliff-hanging serials were filmed in Santa Barbara.

“Some of the ‘Perils of Pauline’ were made here. But Santa Barbara was a small town. So, by 1917, the film studios were drifting down to Los Angeles, closer to big city backgrounds. Hollywood became the heart of it.”

Bob Phelan’s camera – one of the first Bell & Howells ever made – plus a number of other memorabilia from Santa Barbara’s old film days are in the parlor of Lulu Phelan’s adobe home.

The house in downtown Santa Barbara is a historic shrine.

It was built in 1856 by Mrs. Phelan’s grandmother, Señora Ordaz de Rochin, and is known as the Rochin Adobe.

Mrs. Phelan is a seventh-generation California.

Her grandmother’s great-great grandfather was Jose Francisco Ortega, first commandant of the Santa Barbara Royal Presidio when it was established in 1782.

The Presidio was the last in a chain of four military fortresses built by the Spanish along the coast of Alta California, the last military garrison established by Spain in the New World.

The walls in Mrs. Phelan’s home are two feet thick and now are faced with wooden siding.

“This is the only adobe in Santa Barbara that has remained in the same family since it was constructed,” said Mrs. Phelan.

“The house is made of adobe and tile gathered from the ruins of the Presidio. It actually was made of material from the first building erected in this city.”

“All the school kids in Santa Barbara go through here at one time or another,” she said, “And many, many more.

“One Sunday not too long ago, 800 people traipsed through my living room, parlor, bedroom and kitchen. I love having them all.”

Her home is a museum of the early motion picture industry in Southern California, of early Santa Barbara.

Bob Phelan’s collection of Indian artifacts also is housed in the abode – one of the finest collections in the state.

And Mrs. Phelan is a walking encyclopedia of information about the Chumash Indians, the Spanish and American periods and early American years of the city.

And of course, the movie industry.

For more, check out this article on The Rochin Adobe from the Santa Barbara Independent website.

The Bell & Howell camera is now at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

Follow Scott Harrison on Twitter and Google+

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1 Comment

  1. October 18, 2015, 11:40 am

    Scott, this was a very interesting article. As a native Californian, I never realized that the movie industry started in Santa Barbara before migrating down to LA. Great post!

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