Savannah’s Massie Heritage Center alumni exhibit shines spotlight on silent film star

A portion of the Massie School exhibit about silent film actor Larry Semon.

Credit: Enocha Edenfield for Savannah Morning News

Credit: Enocha Edenfield for Savannah Morning News

A portion of the Massie School exhibit about silent film actor Larry Semon.

Savannah loves its claim to fame as a popular place to film movies and television shows. It’s easy to think that our time in the spotlight is recent history, but the city has been part of Hollywood since the early-twentieth century in one form or another. One of those ways is through silent film actor Larry Semon.

Semon lived in Savannah for part of his early life, even attending Massie School, which is now Massie Heritage Center. To coincide with a biography about the esteemed alumnus, Massie has added a special exhibit focusing on Semon, his time at Massie, and his film career.

Massie Heritage Center Curator Steve Smith said it was actually Semon’s biographer, Claudia Sassen, who brought the museum’s attention to him. Sassen was researching his early life and reached out to Massie for help since he had attended school there.

“She saw a [class] picture of him and recognized him right away.”

Smith said that Semon wasn’t originally from Savannah but had been raised on the road by his parents who were traveling magicians.

“They actually had a carnival show that they managed and ran, so he was always around entertainers, jugglers, gymnasts, acrobats, magicians, and clowns. He just absorbed all of it because he was multitalented.”

On top of being able to perform a lot of physical acts, Smith explained that Semon was also a talented, self-taught illustrator.

Massie School Alumni Corner

Credit: Enocha Edenfield for Savannah Morning News

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Credit: Enocha Edenfield for Savannah Morning News

Silent film star attending Massie at turn of the last century

Semon attended school at Massie from around 1900, when he was 11 years old, to 1904.

“His parents, I guess, kind of decided he needed more stability. They had some disasters that happened, and they were having some financial troubles. They were over in Newfoundland, so they shipped him to Savannah in 1900 to live with his aunt and uncle, the Lippmans.”

Since his uncle was a pharmacist and owned his own pharmacy, the Lippmans were able to provide Semon with a stable home life. Unfortunately, his father died in1901and his mother died in 1906. According to Smith, Semon described his life in Savannah as a sad time, but that didn’t stop him from performing.

“After I found out that he was in Savannah, I thought, well, maybe I'll just look at the newspapers and see if his name turns up. You can go to Galileo and do a search of the old Savannah papers. I just typed in ‘Larry Semon,’ and he was all over the place. People were raving about him and about the awesome performances that he gave.”

The skills Semon had learned from his parents and their traveling show certainly came in handy. There are articles detailing his puppet and magic acts.

“A lot of the sleight of hand stuff, he could do all that, which back then, he was doing some pretty advanced stuff.”

After he graduated from Massie, Smith said he was not sure what high school he attended. “I don't have any record of him attending Chatham Academy. That was the only high school at the time.”

Illustrations by silent film actor Larry Semon

Credit: Enocha Edenfield for Savannah Morning News

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Credit: Enocha Edenfield for Savannah Morning News

Shared tricks of the trade through illustration, short reels

Around 1907 or 1908, he moved to Philadelphia where he began working as an illustrator for a newspaper. “He made a lot of magicians mad because, as an illustrator, he started illustrating the tricks of the trade.”

It wasn’t just magicians’ secrets that he was drawing. Semon’s cartoons contained many physical sight gags that were popular with vaudeville performers. It wasn’t long before he was actually performing those tricks on stage in New York City. That led to his involvement in film.

“He got into film around 1916 and started doing a lot of short reels,” said Smith. Single-reel films back in the 1910s were similar to TikTok videos today. They were short films that portrayed short stories or simply a series of stunts. “Apparently, people back then were kind of like we are now. They didn't have much attention span for a movie."

Smith continued, “He was an amazing physical actor. Back then that's how you portrayed the characters, through exaggerated movement. Everything was just over the top. He was kind of like a pioneer in that, and it’s entertaining to watch him do it. He did a lot of his own stunts too, which is pretty impressive stuff because some of it was downright deadly or could have been.”

It wasn’t long before Semon was producing his own feature films. Unfortunately, it appears he wasn’t very good at budgeting. His silent film version of “The Wizard of Oz” was a commercial failure and left him so in debt that he was forced to declare bankruptcy.

“And that's what really did him in. He got very stressed out about that, and he had an emotional breakdown.”

Not long after that, Semon died. Even though his years in film were short, Semon left a lasting impact on performers who were inspired by him. Now he’s finally being remembered in the city he called home during his childhood.

Smith said this alumni corner exhibit, currently featuring Semon, is only a sample of things to come.

“We have had, in the past, information about [alumni]… but nothing like a really featured presentation about their lives. So, [Semon’s] the first. We'll try to do Johnny Mercer next, and Stratton [Leopold] should be fun.”

If you’d like to learn more about Semon, Massie Heritage Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and is located at 207 E. Gordon St.


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