The Last Round-Up of Evelyn Nelson

The short life and career of silent screen star Evelyn Nelson (1899-1923) are tantalizing in their thwarted promise and in their mystery. Originally from Chloride Arizona, Nelson was to star primarily in westerns, although her first known credit was apparently in something called the “Bull’s Eye Follies”. The sole source for this credit comes from a caption to this photo, which also identifies silent actress Blanche White (wife of Leo White) as the other dancer:

To add to the mystery, this photo does not look like it represents a live stage show. It looks more like a scene from a movie, or perhaps some sort of site specific dance event, which was not uncommon then or now. But I do believe I have deduced the answer. In 1920, Nelson appeared in the silent comedy Don’t Park Here starring Monty Banks, and directed by Charley Chase. Don’t Park Here was a production of the short-lived Bull’s Eye Film Corporation, created in 1918 as a division of King Bee, and merged into Reelcraft in 1920. As to their “Follies”, I’m guessing it was some sort of promotional event to publicize the launch. In light of this, the frequently used phrase “She started her career dancing in the Bull’s Eye Follies” dissolves into misleading nonsense.

Nelson appeared in five other comedies in 1920, all with Jimmy Aubrey and Oliver Hardy: Springtime, The Decorator, The Trouble Hunter, His Jonah Day, and The Back Yard. 

Next, Nelson made 14 features between 1921 through 1923, most of them Jack Hoxie westerns in which she played the love interest, or female lead, and where her rural Arizona background must have come in handy. Her last picture was Desert Rider (1923).

Sadly it all ended in tragedy in June, 1923, when her mother found her dead in a gas-filled room. Two notes were found. One read, “I want rest more than anything in the world and I’m going to find it.”. The other said “I am just about gone and will soon be with my friend Wally”. As to the former, Nelson had been working hard making movies without a break for three and a half years. If she felt suicide was her only escape from the grind, she must have felt coerced to do so, a fairly common predicament. The pressure to earn large sums, often exerted by family members, can be immense. As to the latter note, “Wally” referred to Wallace Reid, dead of narcotics overdose six months before. Some have suggested that Nelson and Reid had been involved, but Reid, who was married to Dorothy Davenport, had broken the affair off to avoid negative publicity. This may be logical embellishment; I’ve not yet come across anything substantive to bolster the surmise.

For more on classic comedy and silent cinema please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.