The Michelenas: Early Latin Stars of American Show Biz

The various members of the Michelena family were some of the first successful Latin stars in American show business. The paterfamilias Fernando Michelena (1858-1921) was a Venezuelan opera singer. He married Frances Lenord (1867-1912), a soprano and pianist. For a time (through 1891), the pair traveled with the Abbott English Opera Company, which specialized in performing English translations of popular grand operas. Led by Emma Abbott, it was also the first female-run American opera company. After the company folded, Michelena became a well-known voice teacher, and eventually became President of the Arrilliga Musical College in San Francisco. His three daughters would each pursue stage and screen careers.

Vera Michelena (1885-1961), the eldest, was primarily a stage star of comic operas and musical comedy. Her career was launched with a touring production of Princess Chic in 1902. Starting out in a supporting role, she was playing the lead by the time the tour reached San Francisco, where it played for many months. She appeared on Broadway ten times: The Tourists (1906), The Girls of Holland (1907), Funabashi (1908), The Girl in the Train (1910), Ziegfeld Follies of 1914, Ned Wayburn’s Town Topics (1915), Flo-Flo (1917-1918), Take it from Me (1919, in which she performed her famous “Vampire Dance”), Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, and Love Dreams (1921).

In 1908 and 1909 she performed abroad in London and France. She also toured with shows frequently throughout the U.S., as with Lew FieldsHanky Panky (1912), with music conducted by her first husband Paul Schindler. In 1913 she starred in L. Frank Baum’s The Tik Tok Man of Oz in L.A. and San Francisco.

In the mid teens she dabbled in films, no doubt inspired by the success of her younger sister Beatriz. Vera made just two pictures: Driftwood (1916) and The Devil’s Playground (1917). The latter also featured Harry Spingler, whom Michelena maried after divorcing Schindler in 1917. The pair divorced in 1921.

In 1922 she married performer/songwriter Fred Hillebrand. The pair performed together in vaudeville and touring productions of musicals through much of the 1920s. After about 1927, her career took a back seat to his. You can read all about him here. The pair lived together in Bayside, Queens during their last decades.

The Love Master (1924)

The least well known of the three siblings was Teresa Luisa Michelena (1889-1941). Through fathered by Fernando, she was born out of wedlock to another opera singer named Catherine Maddock. Teresa was raised by her mother and a stepfather. In 1912 she married fellow actor Walter Hitchcock; they appeared in at least one film together, the 1914 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she played Eliza. That same year she was in a film called Life’s Shop Window. Under the pen name of Mrs. Walter Hitchcock she wrote the scenario for the 1917 film Captain Jinks’ Cure. In 1917, Hitchcock passed away. She subsequently married an actor named Joseph Barrell, changing her professional name to Donna Barrell. The pair appeared together in The Love Master (1924), which she also scripted. She was also one of the writers on A Certain Young Man (1928) starring Ramon Novarro, Marceline Day, and Renee Adoree, She also contributed to the screenplay for the 1933 Educational short Merrily Yours, starring Shirley Temple. Unlike the other members of her family, she appears not to have been a singer.

The most lastingly famous member of the family, Beatriz Michelena (1890-1941) was the baby. As a child she had appeared in Princess Chic with her sister. More notably, in 1910 she made a hit in the San Francisco production of The White Hen alongside Max Dill. This led to a fortuitous development on another front. At the tender age of 17 she had married a San Francisco millionaire named George Middleton, a lumber heir who was mostly involved in automobile sales. In 1912, Middleton had set up a movie company to make promotional films for his cars. In 1914 he switched it over to melodrama films starring his wife. These movies were far more intelligently produced than one might expect from a vanity operation, with many of them adapted from literary and stage works, and cast with professional talent. The films of the California Motion Picture Company were Salomy Jane, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (both 1914), Mignon, The Lily of Poverty Flat, A Phyllis of the Sierras, Salvation Nell, The Rose of the Misty Pool (all 1915), The Unwritten Law and The Woman Who Dared (both 1916). There was also a production of Faust, but it went unreleased as the company went bankrupt. None of its lavishly underwritten films turned a profit. In 1917, Middleton and Michelena bought the company’s assets and gave it another go as Beatriz Michelena Features. The films of this period were Just Squaw and The Price Woman Pays (both 1919), Heart of Juanita and The Flame of Hellgate (both 1920). After this they folded for good.

In 1927 she realized a lifetime goal by touring Latin America with her own productions of the operas Carmen and Madama Butterfly. She appears to have separated from Middleton at some point during this period. In her later years, she kept afloat by selling off sections of her old film studio.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.