Silence blankets the east end of Minnehaha Park, interrupted only occasionally by noisy boys clambering on the basalt outcroppings. But stand very still while the breeze blows just right and you can hear dance hall music coming from a storage building there.
At least that’s what archaeologist Jerry Bryant hears. He’s trying to inspire others to hear the music as well and has planned two days of activities at the northeast Spokane park to jump-start his efforts.
Eight decades ago, Hollywood actors and actresses, producers, directors, cameramen and locals who wanted to brush elbows with moviemakers danced the nights away on the second floor of a large building in Minnehaha Park.
By day it was a movie studio.
Famous names - Tyrone Power Sr., Evelyn Brent, Nell Shipman - rang out across the sets as the crew shot silent films on the dance floor or outside on an open-air set, or for mountainous scenes, up in the rocks.
Power arrived in Spokane in 1918 to scout a site for his film studio. Overnight, the town became drunk with possibility and enthusiasm.
Hundreds showed up at the Davenport Hotel, where Power talked up the new Washington Motion Picture Company. A full-page ad in The Spokesman-Review promised a return of millions on an investment of thousands. The actor used his fame to sell stock in the company; Spokane investors lined up with their money.
The movie company leased the east end of Minnehaha Park and erected an expansive studio around a building that had housed a dance hall, beer garden and bowling alley.
Nineteen-year-old leading lady Brent arrived in Spokane in late May and the cameras rolled on Power’s movie “Fool’s Gold.” A fitting name, really, for within a month Power left Spokane for New York, citing a nervous breakdown. It was apparent Power’s replacement as leading man, Mitchell Lewis, lacked Power’s cachet.
By July, the film studio owed the city $600, investors had lost confidence and the studio went into receivership. The court sold the now-finished “Fool’s Gold” to investors in New York for $39,000 (just $4,000 more than it cost to make the movie) and sold the studio and equipment to another actor, Wellington Playter.
Playter opened an acting and drama school in Minnehaha Park. In what appears to be the last hurrah for the site as a film studio, he spent a significant amount of cash to attract actress and director Shipman to shoot her silent movie “The Grub Stake” at Minnehaha.
Already famous as “The Girl From God’s Country,” Shipman brought her dozens of animals and crew to shoot part of the film (in which she also starred) at Minnehaha and at the Bowl and Pitcher in west Spokane.
Rather than stay at the Spokane studio, Shipman packed up her crew and animals and moved to upper Priest Lake, where she built Lionhead Lodge as her studio and finished the film.
With Shipman’s departure in late summer, the glory months were over at Minnehaha Park. Save for a few documentaries, the studio went unused and fell into disrepair.
Now all the film-related artifacts and most of the buildings are gone. Plywood covers windows in the dance pavilion; inside there’s equipment stored on the first floor. Upstairs, what Jerry Bryant calls “the largest expanse of hardwood flooring I’ve ever seen” - roughly the size of three basketball courts end to end - remains empty and unused.
An archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, Bryant walks his beagle-pug Eisenhower through Minnehaha Park every day. Appreciation of the old buildings and curiosity prompted him to begin researching the park. And, as most passions go, one thing led to another.
Now with the 17-page history of the park that he wrote in hand, Bryant’s leading the charge to return this site to the limelight.
He organized two days of activities and hopes it’s only a beginning of restoration of this treasure trove.
Friday, Cooper Elementary School sixth-graders will dig test holes in what Bryant thinks is the pond Shipman had built - at a cost of $500 - for her beavers.
“If, when they demolished the bungalow, they filled the pond with the debris, there might be some neat stuff in the pond,” Bryant said.
Public tours Saturday afternoon will include the site of the dance hall/ movie studio as well as a two-story stone building in the park that housed a mineral springs resort in the late 1800s.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo