Building a New Ruth Stonehouse

Born this day 130 years ago, silent screen actress Ruth Stonehouse (1892-1941).

Now, while I do bristle whenever the word “historian” is applied to me (not being a professional in a profession with justifiably high standards), I am reasonably conscientious about what I do, which means making a good faith attempt to cross check vital facts with multiple sources when possible. It’s not always possible (or frankly convenient given the volume of output), but when we are found to be in error in some consequential detail, we typically make the correction. Above all we try not to fall prey to internet distortions, a kind of plague in all fields, where misinterpretations become mischaracterizations become misstatements, and it just snowballs like the telephone game. Often you can spot them because they reach whopper proportions. But sometimes, you catch it by just being curious. So we’re afraid we have to blow the whistle on a canard spread widely about Ms. Stonehouse: she was in no sense a founder or “partner” with Broncho Billy Anderson and George Spoor in the creation of Essanay Studios. She was not a “business woman”. You’ll find her described that way all over the internet. She most definitely directed several movies, and wrote several. And that was not at Essanay, but at Universal. I think I perceive how this misconception grew. She was an ACTRESS at Essanay from early in its inception, and someone described her as a “founding member”, and then later people incorrectly interpreted that as meaning a “founder”, and so on and so forth.

I am sensitive to this one and thus pick up on the distinction easily. And I’m sure that so does Al Gore. To their discredit people often disregard the careful language one uses, in order to simplify. Gore got lambasted by a bunch of idiot politicians and members of the press who opportunistically decided to interpret his statement “I took the lead in inventing the internet” as him saying “I invented the internet”, which he did NOT. He never said that. You know who says things like that, just SAYS it? That’s right, Donald Trump. What Gore said, and I heard it right the first time, when everyone else chose not to, was “I took the lead in securing support and funding for the PROCESS of internet research and development.” If he’d said it THAT way, everyone would have accused him of being boring. You can’t win if you’re Al Gore (except he actually did win). Similarly in a dispute with a snotty venue manager I once got huffy and mentioned that someone involved with my show was a member of the founding team of the very festival that was employing him, which he then misreported to the director by saying that I claimed that my friend had founded it. I had merely meant she had been there at the beginning, not that she was the founder. Snotty little punk!

At any rate, this is the case with Stonehouse. I became suspicious of the claims when I noticed that she wasn’t even mentioned in David Kiehn’s authoritative book Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company. If she’d been Anderson’s business partner, he would have given her a least a shout-out. Stonehouse was apparently just an early employee at Essanay. There are terrific quotes by her here and though the website doesn’t cite the primary source, I credit the statements, because why on EARTH would anyone change these quotes by this obscure, long dead silent screen actress? (That’s why I’m not a professional historian, you see. Logic is sometimes good enough for me, short of proof. Historians generally insist on being able to point to the empirical evidence to back up what they say). At any rate, Stonehouse is quoted as saying she was developing a dance act for vaudeville, and had even lined up bookings, when the daughter of George Spoor wrote to her to convince to come work for her dad instead, at the new movie studio he’d recently started. So there you go. Ruth Stonehouse and Gertrude Spoor had both studied dance with the Castles, and became friends. That’s how it came about.

We can applaud her nevertheless! Stonehouse was born in Denver and raised in Arizona, which was still a territory at the time. She moved to Chicago in 1910, which put her in close proximity to Essanay, where she started the following year. Most of her nearly 200 pictures were made at Essanay, where she remained until around they folded in 1916. At Universal she got to direct herself in a series of shorts throughout 1917, much as Mabel Normand had at Keystone. Her character was usually named Mary Ann, an orphan girl, although she sometimes played other characters such as the titular one in Tacky Sue’s Romance (1917).

In 1918 Stonehouse appeared in a film with Harry Houdini called The Master Mystery. The following she directed herself one last time at Universal in a western entitled Rosalind at Redgate. The next couple of years seemed to have been her peak, during which she co-starred with Harry Myers in the serial The Masked Rider (1919), in comedies like The Flour Flusher (1919) and Hale Hamilton and the original Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1920) with Eugene Pallette and The Land of Jazz (1920) with Eileen Percy.

Stonehouse continued to work steadily until the end of the silent era, at which time she married Felix Hughes, uncle of Howard Hughes. Her previous marriage, from 1914 to 1921 had been to screenwriter Joseph Anthony Roach (no apparent relation to Hal Roach). Most of Joe Roach’s 50 credits were scenarios for silent films, including movies his wife starred in at Essanay, and some of Arbuckle’s self-produced shorts with Buster Keaton. His last credit was on a picture called Ferocious Pal (1934) starring Kazan the Wonder Dog.

Stonehouse remained active in the movie colony’s social scene following her retirement. That phase of her life lasted only about a dozen years, as she was felled suddenly by a cerebral hemorrhage at age 48.

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