Silent Film Benefit Saturday
This Year’s Silent Film Benefit Revives Unforgettable Memories of Star’s Visit
The Catalina Island Museum’s Silent Film Benefit commemorates its 25th anniversary on Saturday with the return of Wings, the first film ever honored as “Best Picture.” Although the benefit celebrates the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking, the event itself has made its own brand of history. During its earliest days, the benefit attracted a number of silent film stars who were still living in the Los Angeles area. For its inaugural in 1988, the benefit kicked off with the first showing on the island of Wings, which has always been recognized as one of the silent screen’s greatest movies. Arrangements were made to bring to the island Buddy Rogers, the handsome star of the movie, whose reputation was established by the film, and who will be known forever as having been married to Mary Pickford.
Everything was in place for Rogers’ arrival when bad news struck suddenly. Buddy, who was 84 at the time, had fallen in the shower after a round of golf and had broken several ribs. Was he still planning to come? Buddy answered with a resounding yes. He loved Catalina Island, and nothing was going to stop him.
Chuck Liddell, an islander known for his deep love of Santa Catalina history, was given the enviable task of picking up Buddy at the Express terminal. But the day looked headed for catastrophe. Buddy could hardly make his way down the gangplank.
“He was in excruciating pain and could barely walk,” Chuck recalled during a recent interview. “But the worse news was when he told me he couldn’t attend the movie! He said, ‘Chuck, Richard Arlen [his co-star in the film] was my best friend, and he’s just died. Of all the stars in the film, I’m the only one left.’ At this point, he’s crying. Then, he says to me, ‘In the film, I have to tell Richard’s parents that I had to kill him and that he’s dead. If I see that scene, it will be like I really killed him! I just can’t be in the theater during the movie.’ At this point, he’s really crying.”
Chuck came up with an ingenious plan: “I told him we were going to sit at the front of the theater, near an exit sign. I said, just before the movie begins, wave to the audience, and as the lights go out, I’ll sneak you out through the exit. I’ll drive you back to your hotel, and you can take a nap. Then, I’ll have you back in time for intermission when we’ll repeat the process. It worked beautifully. No one found out that he wasn’t in the theater while the entire film was shown.”
But Chuck wasn’t out of the woods yet. “Buddy couldn’t walk, but insisted on going to the ball after the film. He wanted to meet the TV star Gregory Harrison, who grew up on the island. So, I take him, and he says to me: ‘We old actors have ways of making people believe we’re still virile. You and I are going to act like old friends and walk arm in arm. But you’re really supporting me. But whatever you do, don’t let go of me or I’ll tumble like a pile of bricks!’ So, we walk into the dance, arm in arm and everything is alright until a city councilman across the room is flailing his arms, insisting we come to his table. We’ll never make it, and Buddy whispers to me to just keep going and ignore the guy. And that’s exactly what we did.”
With the hour getting late, it looked like Chuck might be able to get Buddy back to his hotel and grab some well-deserved rest. No such luck.
“After the dance, the yacht club wanted him to make an appearance,” Chuck remembered. “He insisted on going, and when we entered, the room erupted into applause. Later, I’m making excuses for him and getting ready to leave, when he says ‘Nonsense, I feel great!’ He looks at me and says, ‘Chuck, you go home now. The only thing old actors like me need is applause! I can walk from here.’ And he did. I went home exhausted, and he regaled the crowd for the rest of the evening.”
Buddy Rogers’ appearance was so successful that the museum began the tradition of having a celebrity attend every Silent Film Benefit. Sadly, the stars of the silent film era have now almost entirely perished. But Chuck Liddell will never forget the first star of the first Silent Film Benefit.
“It’s going to be very moving to see the film and Buddy on the screen again,” Chuck reflected. “I’ll never forget my weekend with Buddy.”
The Catalina Island Museum’s Silent Film Benefit Presents Wings takes place on Saturday, May 12 at 1:00 p.m. in the theater of the Avalon Casino. This year’s celebrity guests are Cissy and William Wellman, Jr., children of the legendary director of Wings, William Wellman. The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and history. The museum, its digital theater and store are located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic Casino and are open 7 days a week, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets to the Silent Film Benefit, the museum may be reached by phone at 310-510-2414 or at its website: CatalinaMuseum.org.
A Catalina Island fisherman invented the first glass-bottom boat tours in 1896.