William S. Hart plays the male lead in the ca. 1898 Chicago production of "Romeo and Juliet," which
called on Hart to make five costume changes.
"The material did not seem to be like ordinary costume goods at all," Hart writes in his 1939 autobiography,
My Life East and West. "Everything was thick, heavy silk, beautiful cloth and fine brocades. It seems to me
that the costumes alone would have played the parts."
Hart filled out Romeo's costumes to critical acclaim. In his autobiography he includes a review from critic Amy Leslie:
"William S. Hart played Romeo from a purely romantic standpoint of youth and fiery impetuosity. He did not grow
old in the night of agonies thrust upon him, but was a boy through it all, quite to the very end. His Romeo is not
matured by tragic sufferings. Some moments of Mr. Hart's Romeo were most real and all of it was sympathetic and graceful."
Well, except for the part where he got caught on stage guzzling a bottle of beer during the parting scene on opening night.
It seems he had instructed a stage hand to fetch him a beer for after the show. Eager to please, the quick-heeled boy returned
too hastily, handing Hart the open bottle just as the actor got his cue.
"I was only human," Hart writes. "Down my throat it gurgled."
"How we finished the scene I do not know. I only know that I expected surely to be discharged. A production that
cost a fortune the opening night the star's big scene! For any sane man to do such a thing was beyond all reason.
The damned bottle was still foaming and still clutched in my right hand. I spoke my last line as we passionately kissed
'Dry sorrow drinks our blood. Adieu! Adieu!'"
"God! It was terrible but it was funny! I changed into my last-act costume and after the curtain fell went to Miss Arthur's dressing-room to apologize
and to be discharged." (Julia Arthur, a big-name star, played Juliet.) "I knocked ... the door was opened.
There she stood in all her glorious beauty, her dark eyes dancing, her husband beside her. She looked at me but
she spoke to him, 'And Ben, you don't know the worst of it the selfish beast! It was a QUART BOTTLE!!'"
Next to come for Hart was Klaw and Erlanger's original Broadway production of "Ben-Hur" in 1899.
Image and caption from "My Life East and West" (1939).
William S. Hart
Biography by Friends of Hart Park
When William S. Hart began his film career in 1914, he initiated a fresh approach to Westerns that continues to influence the genre today. Although Western motion pictures were already very popular, for the most part they were exercises in mediocrity, filled with "impossibilities or libels on the West," according to Hart in his 1929 autobiography, My Life East and West. But in the course of appearing in or producing more than 60 movies over an eleven-year span, William S. Hart created a film style that revealed a more authentic vision of the Old West. At the same time, he made a major contribution to film history by developing and embodying the prototype of the frontier hero. Fame, artistic recognition, and wealth were Hart's rewards.
A Childhood in the West
William Surrey Hart was born in Newburgh, New York, probably in 1864. During his boyhood, his family traveled extensively in the Midwest as his father searched unsuccessfully for the ideal site to build a gristmill and make a permanent home for his family. Young Bill was raised in a pioneer atmosphere; he had contact with Indians, ranchers, and cowboys and learned Indian sign language and a little of the Sioux language from his playmates. He gained a respect for Indians and their cultures that he never lost.
Hart's First Career
The Hart family returned to New York while Bill was in his early teens, and it was there that he developed an interest in the stage. By 1900 he had appeared in productions from New York to San Francisco to Montreal. He received critical acclaim for his own production of The Man in the Iron Mask and his creation of the role of Messala in Ben Hur.
Hart's first Western role was also in a stage production: in 1905, he was cast as "Cash" Hawkins in The Squaw Man. His subsequent stage roles were primarily Western and included the lead in an enormously successful production of The Virginian.
Two Gun Bill
While touring with the company of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in 1914, Hart decided to move to California to make Western films. In his autobiography, he wrote, "I was an actor and I know the West. ... I had to bend every endeavor to get a chance to make Western motion pictures." Hart obtained parts in several Westerns and collaborated in writing screenplays, and his film career was launched.
As a filmmaker, Hart drew on his childhood experiences, insisting on using realistic costumes, locales, and situation. The public loved "Two Gun Bill" and his movies, and he obliged the fans with one success after another. He became one of Hollywood's top actors and most successful directors.
La Loma del los Vientos
Some of Hart's Westerns were shot on and around a ranch in Newhall, California. In 1921 he purchased the property from Babcock Smith. After completing Tumbleweeds (1925), his final film and one of his finest, Hart commissioned Los Angeles architect Arthur Kelly to design a magnifient Spanish colonial-style mansion, which Hart christened La Loma de los Vientos (Hill of the Winds) and occupied in 1927.
Hart filled his home with treasure reflecting his interest in the West, including Navajo textiles, Indian costumes, guns and weapons, and Western paintings and sculptures. In his retirement, he became active in the operation of his ranch and deeply involved in Santa Clarita Valley community affairs.
He wrote more than a dozen novels and short stories as well as his fascinating autobiography, My Life East and West.
Hart's reputation as a Western figure put him in contact with other prominent personalities of the day. Western enthusiasts, such as Will Rogers and Wyatt Earp, and important artists, including Charles M. Russell, C. C. Crisadoro, and James Montgomery Flagg, visited the ranch or corresponded with Hart.
The Hart Legacy
True to the spirit of Western heroes he had portrayed on screen, Hart was humbly grateful to the fans who had supported his film career. "While I was making pictures, the people gave me their nickels, dimes, and quarters. When I am gone, I want them to have my home." When he died in 1946, he left the bulk of his estate to the County of Los Angeles, stipulating that his house and the ranch property were to be used as a museum and public park.
Today, the Parks and Recreation Department of Los Angeles County operates and maintains William S. Hart Park, which includes hiking and nature trails, a large picnic area, a campground, an exhibit of farm machinery, an assortment of live animals including a herd of bison, and approximately 110 acres set aside as a wilderness area.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angles County is responsible for the interpretation of the historical portion of Hart's bequest, which includes his home and its contents and several other buildings. The Friends of Hart Park and Museum, an active group of local citizens, provides volunteer support services.
La Loma de los Vientos stands today not only as a tribute to William S. Hart but as a valuable and edifying museum. Hart's personal effects and movie paraphernalia are displayed in his home along with Indian artifacts and Western American art that he amassed. These materials form a major resource for understanding the American West as it was perceived in the early part of the century.
1. Note: Original piece from Friends of Hart Park said 1925.
Hart biography ©Friends of Hart Park • Used by permission.