Community Efforts to Save Happyland: Pelham's First Picture House
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For many decades, it has been known that Pelham had a silent movie "picture house" before the Pelham Picture House was built by Clint Woodward of Bronxville in 1921. About all that has been known, however, is that the Happyland Theater existed -- based mostly on a single, widely-published photograph. The well-known photograph shows an unusually large crowd, including many children, posing outside the crude theater building. That photograph appears immediately below.
I have researched the history of Pelham's silent movie picture house known as Happyland. I was truly stunned by what the research revealed since I always had assumed the tiny theater to be a simple, small local business. It turned out to be much, much more than that. In fact, it turned out to be an amazing community venture for the benefit of Pelham youth. It also turned out that the story of Happyland is a story that illustrates how history repeats itself (and how easily we forget).
In yesterday's posting I noted that efforts to save the Pelham Picture House that began in 2001 were not the first efforts to save the Town's only movie theater. I noted that the Pelham Picture House that stands today had to be "saved" once before in 1928. See Mon., Jun. 29, 2015: The Recently Saved Pelham Picture House Was Saved Once Before in 1928. It turns out that efforts to "save" the Pelham Picture House in 1928 were not the first efforts to save the Town's only motion picture theater. There were unsuccessful efforts to save Happyland, Pelham's first motion picture house, in 1920. Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog provides a little of the history of Happyland and briefly details the efforts to save the tiny movie theater in 1920.
In the spring of 1916, a "Child Welfare League" movement gained momentum in the Village of North Pelham. The purpose of the movement was to "make children a priority." Within a short time, the local Child Welfare League movement merged into a broader initiative known as "Happyland."
The Happyland initiative gained great traction in Pelham. A number of specialists in welfare work traveled to Pelham from New York and addressed meetings of adults and, sometimes, large audiences of children and adults. Considerable literature was published and distributed by welfare organizations and by the New York State Department of Health. An experienced nurse gave a talk to mothers and made available exhibits loaned by the State Department of Health.
It appears that as part of this child welfare movement in 1916 or 1917, residents of the Village of North Pelham banded together to support an initiative by a preacher named J. R. Hewitt who appears to have opened a temporary Happyland in space leased at 319 Fifth Avenue. Hewitt opened the temporary facility as "a place of worship and for moving pictures." In October, 1917, projection equipment was installed for the projection of moving pictures. Rev. Hewitt and his wife clearly were the moving forces behind the Happyland initiative in North Pelham.
Among the earliest supporters of Reverend Hewitt's child welfare initiative that came to be known as Happyland were Eugene L. Lyon, a local builder, and William Edinger, a former President of the Village of North Pelham who was also a local landowner. In the autumn of 1918, Edinger offered the use of a lot that he owned, located (according to newspaper references) at 410 Fifth Avenue for the erection of a building for exclusive use by the Happyland movement. Lyon and local men with whom he worked volunteered their labor and built what came to be known as the Happyland Building on the site. It is believed that the photograph above shows the structure built by Eugene L. Lyon and his men. Assuming that the address of the building set forth in local newspapers was accurate (410 Fifth Avenue), today the lot on which the building once stood is empty.
In its earliest days, it seems that there was a single, regular weekly movie program presented at Happyland. Newspaper announcements seem to suggest such a weekly program. One announcement published in early 1918, for example, stated: "Movies Tonight. The regular weekly movie program will be presented this evening at the meeting which will be held at Happyland, the Child Welfare Center, on Fifth avenue."
Happyland quickly became a popular entertainment destination. On holidays such as George Washington's Birthday, the theater offered special screenings of special films. Tickets were required and, on such occasions, were sold not only at the theater but also at a local business known as Kurtze's store located on Fifth Avenue near Fourth Street (today's Lincoln Avenue).
Given Happyland's affiliation with a child welfare program, Christmas also was a special time at Happyland. Free movies such as "The Fairy and the Waif" starring Mary Miles Minter were offered to children with carols, recitations, and a "message from Santa Claus." In addition, for adults, live dramas with a cast of local residents were presented as part of the festivities. In December, 1919, for example, local women presented an "Indian play" entitled "The White Dove of Oneida" in the Happyland Building.
By 1919, Happyland offered a regular schedule of silent films and news reports. Films were shown every Monday and Wednesday evening beginning at 7:30 p.m. Every Friday evening, the programs were dedicated to the children of the town with movies beginning at 7:15 p.m. The silent films played at Happyland at the time included films from Bray Paramount pictographs, Famous Players, Lasky productions, News Weekly and official United States government films. Some of the movies shown at about this time, as indicated in local newspaper reports, included the following: "Leave it to Susan" starring Madge Kennedy; "The Farmerette," starring Gale Henry; "Bobbie Bumps"; "Her Fighting Chance" starring Jane Grey; "Cheating Herself" starring Peggy Hyland; and "The Fairy and the Waif," starring Mary Miles Minter.
The Happyland Building located at 410 Fifth Avenue was far more than a tiny movie theater. It was, for a very short time, a vibrant place of worship as well. According to an account published in 1920:
"The Sunday schedule includes a Sunday school held on Sunday morning and a popular community service on Sunday night with singing and pictures of educational value. On Easter Sunday every child and pupil down to the members of the cradle roll were presented with a copy of the excellent children's magazine, 'Everyland,' and also a potted geranium, the geranium being a gift of one of the ladies of the Happyland committee. While the Sunday school is a separate organization, it has the privilege of meeting in the Happyland building."
By early 1920, according to one account, more than two million feet of motion picture film were screened by Happyland in the Village of North Pelham. One published account noted:
"Hundreds of reels of educational pictures have been shown, bringing to the eye graphic presentation of many of the principal industries of today. Scenes from every land have been shown, sunshine stories and comedies have been part of almost every week's program. The feature pictures are directed with great care and only clean, wholesome subjects are presented."
By early 1920, however, the Happyland Building sat "dismal and deserted" after the Rev. J. R. Hewitt left the Village for Watertown, New York. According to one account, "the town did not support [Rev. Hewitt's] activities any too well." Yet, Hewitt returned to the Happyland Building on at least three occasions after his departure for Watertown to host three "performances" of movies for Pelham residents. After Hewitt's departure, a local newspaper reported that "Hope is expressed that some enterprising firm or person will start a moving picture theatre" in Pelham.
On February 12, 1920, Pelham residents gathered in the Happyland Building in an effort to save the program and to continue the work that Reverend Hewitt had begun. The dinner honored Hewitt for "his efforts in maintaining a place for children's entertainments." The dinner was part of a fundraising initiative to raise monies to fund improvements of the building including the installation of running water. The secretary of the fundraising committee, Jacob A. Wirth, announced that the first three days of the fundraising initiative brought in $300 in subscriptions. As part of the initiative, William Edinger, who owned the property on which the Happyland Building stood, offered the land for sale "at a fair price." Among the most difficult issues faced by those who wished to save Happyland was raising the money to purchase the land from Edinger.
It is clear that the initiative to save Happyland failed. By 1921, the building was still deserted and was used occasionally as a polling place for local elections and a voter registration site. Because it was deserted, the building was the subject of multiple, thankfully unsuccessful, arson attempts in 1921 and 1922. In July, 1922, the building was leased to a couple of local entrepreneurs who opened a business in the building named "Pelham Wet Wash," a local laundry service. A short time later, there was another arson attempt and those entrepreneurs sought police protection.
The little Happyland Building continued to exist until at least 1931. A brief reference to the fact that it remained in service as "an automobile repair shop" apppeared in the August 28, 1931 issue of The Pelham Sun. See Board of Trustees Issues New List of Village Ordinances, Covering Motor Traffic, Protection of Public Property and the Insurance of Domestic Tranquility, The Pelham Sun, Aug. 28, 1931, p. 12, cols. 4-5.
Announcement of movie showings in the Happyland Building seem to end in the spring of 1920. But, the dream that "some enterprising firm or person will start a moving picture theatre" in Pelham soon became reality when, the following year, Clint Woodward of Bronxville built the Pelham Picture House, a single screen movie palace that still stands on Wolfs Lane and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
* * * * *
Below is the text of a series of newspaper articles relevant to the history of Happyland. Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.
"HAPPENINGS IN NORTH PELHAM . . .
This evening a special program of motion pictures will be presented at Happyland, the Child Welfare League headquarters, 319 Fifth avenue, starting at 7:30 o'clock. The usual high class pictures will be shown, including 'Bobbie Bumps.' Washington's birthday, next Friday, there will be two performances of motion pictures at Happyland, one in the afternoon at 4 o'clock and another in the evening at 7:30. An unusually good program will be offered. As the indications are that the advance sale of tickets will be large, arrangements have been made for residents to procure tickets at Kurtze's store, Fifth avenue near Fourth street."
Source: HAPPENINGS IN NORTH PELHAM -- Movies Tonight, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Feb. 16, 1918, p. 7, col. 4.
"IN NEARBY TOWNS . . .
HAPPENINGS IN NORTH PELHAM
The regular weekly movie program will be presented this evening at the meeting which will be held at Happyland, the Child Welfare Center, on Fifth avenue. . . ."
Source: IN NEARBY TOWNS -- HAPPENINGS IN NORTH PELHAM -- Movies Tonight, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Apr. 3, 1918, p. 10, col. 2.
----- . . . . . .
High class programs are being offered at Happyland, 410 Fifth avenue, every Monday and Wednesday evening, beginning at 7:30 o'clock. On Friday evenings, which are set aside for the children, the program begins at 7:15 o'clock. It consists of the Bray Paramount pictographs, Famous Players, Lasky productions, News weekly and official United states government films. . . ."
Source: NEARBY TOWNS -- NORTH PELHAM, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jan. 20, 1919, p. 5, col. 3.
North Pelham . . .
The program for tonight at Happyland will include a splendid Goldwyn feature, 'Leave it to Susan,' with Madge Kennedy and a Gale Henry comedy, 'The Farmerette."
Source: VICINITY NEWS -- North Pelham, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Sep. 22, 1919, p. 5, col. 3.
A stirring photoplay, 'Her Fighting Chance' with Jane Grey, will be shown tonight at Happyland. It is written by James Oliver Curwood and staged by Edwin Carewe."
Source: Vicinity News -- North Pelham, The Daily Argus, Oct. 17, 1919, p. 5, col. 4.
"News of the Nearby Towns
----- . . .
The annual Happyland Christmas entertainment will be held next Friday at 4 o'clock. The program will consist of carols and recitations, a message from Santa Claus, and Christmas motion picture, 'The Fairy and the Waif,' with Mary Miles Minter. This will be free to children. In the evening of the same day, there will be a double program for adults, consisting of the above pictures and an Indian play, 'The White Dove of Oneida' with the following cast: Mrs. Fairchild, Mrs. George W. Seacord; Prudence Fairchild, Mrs. J. R. Hewitt; Tiarata, Juliet Munroe; Chloresta, Fern Dick."
Source: News of the Nearby Towns -- North Pelham, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Dec. 20, 1919, p. 3, col. 6.
"News Of The Nearby Towns
In the Pelhams
There will be a special meeting of the village board tonight. Action upon making the appointment of captain of police will be taken, as well as the appointment of two or three more men to the force.
Some kindly disposed, big hearted gents of the town have been making complimentary remarks about the director of Happyland and are now making an effort to bring this movement to the attention of the people of Pelham. The present appeal now being made in behalf of Happyland, originated with several men who were present at the Father's and Son's dinner, held in the Happyland building on the evening of February 12th last. The purpose of the dinner was to try to get some parents together and to persuade them to be more sociable with their own children. In other words, for fathers to make chums of their boys and for mothers to win and to hold the confidence of their daughters. Some of the men present diverted their strength to the director of Happyland and made rather flattering comment regarding his efforts in maintaining a place for children's entertainments. The work was started in the spring of 1916 as a Child Welfare League, which later was merged into the general movement called Happyland. A number of specialists in welfare work came from New York and addressed meetings of adults and sometimes large audiences of children and adults. Considerable literature has been published and distributed by welfare organizations and the state department of health. An experienced nurse gave a talk to mothers and described exhibits loaned by the state department of health. The popular feature of Happyland is the weekly moving picture program. Over two million feet of film has been screened since October, 1917, when the projection machine was installed. Hundreds of reels of educational pictures have been shown, bringing to the eye graphic presentation of many of the principal industries of today. Scenes from every land have been shown, sunshine stories and comedies have been part of almost every week's program. The feature pictures are directed with great care and only clean, wholesome subjects are presented. The Sunday schedule includes a Sunday school held on Sunday morning and a popular community service on Sunday night with singing and pictures of educational value. On Easter Sunday every child and pupil down to the members of the cradle roll were presented with a copy of the excellent children's magazine, 'Everyland,' and also a potted geranium, the geranium being a gift of one of the ladies of the Happyland committee. While the Sunday school is a separate organization, it has the privilege of meeting in the Happyland building, built in the fall of 1918 by Eugene L. Lyon, the builder, and men of the village who worked with him. William Edinger, an ex-president of the village of North Pelham, very kindly offered the use of the lot for the building. Mr. Edinger has shown interest in the movement ever since its inception. He offers the lot at a fair price and this is our next problem, to purchase the land. The location is favorable, being on Fifth avenue, one block north of the Boston and Westchester station. However, equipment of itself cannot solve the problem of social betterment. Anyone familiar with social service realizes the fact that little can be accomplished of permanent value without competent leadership and intelligent co-operation. All social service, for those able to work, should be directed toward self help. Certain improvements are contemplated in the building, such as the installation of water and other accommodations must be provided. The present campaign for funds is meeting with success and many generous donations have been received by Jacob A. Wirth, the treasurer. The first three days brought in nearly $300 in subscriptions."
Source: News Of The Nearby Towns -- In the Pelhams -- North Pelham, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Apr. 15, 1920, p. 12, cols. 1-2.
"News of the Nearby Towns
----- . . . .
Charles Montimer Peck, who wrote the scenario of 'Cheating Herself,' the new play in which Peggy Hyland is the star, is known to many readers of magazines. Mr. Peck has contributed especially and liberally, to Everybody's Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, and the Cosmopolitan Magazine. His first venture with a Peggy Hyland comedy is 'Cheating Herself" which will be shown at Happyland tomorrow afternoon and evening, 3:30 and 7:15 p.m."
Source: News of the Vicinity -- North Pelham, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Apr. 29, 1920, p. 6, col. 5.
"News of the Nearby Towns
In the Pelhams
North Pelham . . . .
What is to become of the Happyland building? That is the question that is being asked now. Since the Rev. J. R. Hewitt left the village, but three shows have been given in the place although it was built for a place of worship and for moving pictures. The three performances last given, Dr. Hewitt came all the way from Watertown, N. Y., to give them. Although the town did not support his activities any too well. Mr. Hewitt regretted to desert his friends in North Pelham, and is a visitor here occasionally. The building, which was built by volunteer labor, now stands dismal and deserted. Hope is expressed that some enterprising firm or person will start a moving picture theatre there."
Source: News of the Nearby Towns -- In the Pelhams -- North Pelham, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jan. 21, 1921, p. 7, col. 3.
"Wet Wash Laundry In Happyland
The variegated career of Happyland at one time the sole place of popular amusement in The Pelhams as a picture house, bids fair to be brought to a period of usefulness as a mercantile establishment, as William Edinger, owner of the building, has leased it to a syndicate of four men from New Rochelle and Mount Vernon, who have combined with the intention of establishing a wet wash laundry in the old theater building.
Considerable fixing up will be necessary, as the building was badly damaged by fire last fall. Part of the equipment for the laundry arrived on the ground on Wednesday, and will be installed next week. The new firm, it is understood, will have a rate of thirty pounds of wet wash for one dollar."
Source: Wet Wash Laundry In Happyland, The Pelham Sun, Jul. 21, 1922, p. 9, col. 2.
"Attempt To Fire Pelham Wet Wash
Old Happyland Building On Fifth Avenue Object of Firebug's Depredations
Two colored men, proprietors of The Pelham Wet Wash, applied at police headquarters for protection on Tuesday night. They claimed their place of business, which is located at Fifth Avenue in the old Happyland Theater has been threatened with destruction.
One of the proprietors states that on Monday night long after midnight he saw two men drive up in a Cadillac car go to the rear of the building and after starting a fire drive hurriedly away. The fire was extinguished before any serious damage was done.
Questioned by the North Pelham police they could assign no reason for anyone wishing to destroy their business.
The Pelham Wet Wash started business two months ago. This is the third attempt to burn the old theater building. Last year the building was used for polling purposes and for registration of voters. On the last day of registration after the office had been closed it was discovered to be on fire. In extinguishing the blaze some of the registration forms which had been left in the building were so discolored by water that it was impossible to see either the names or the party for which the voter desired to enroll. The result was seen on Tuesday when several voters who declared they had enrolled in their parties were declared blank on the official registration books. Frederick Head and James Buchanan, two of the best known Democrats in North Pelham were listed as unaffiliated on the rolls."
Source: Attempt To Fire Pelham Wet Wash -- Old Happyland Building On Fifth Avenue Object of Firebug's Depredations, The Pelham Sun, Sep. 22, 1922, p. 7, col. 2.