Please welcome guest writer Deborah Hinman – a decade behind me at Reno High School, retired from Ma Bell and currently enjoying a second career with the Renown Foundation. Debbie’s the lead writer and researcher for the Historic Reno Preservation Society’s quarterly, Footprints magazine, and now files this story:
Reno—home of a motion picture company? And a studio occupying one city block in the Old Southwest? And an investor/business manager/secretary who bears the same name and well may have gone on to become an Academy Award-winning director? Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Hard to believe but true, at least on two counts. The company did exist (however short-lived) and the business manager (if one and the same) would someday be very famous. The studio was never built but unless it was a case of fake news of 1920, it very nearly was.
On September 23, 1919, Articles of Incorporation were filed with the Washoe County Clerk for the Tri-State Motion Picture Company. The incorporators were Miss Ida May Heidtman, a wealthy woman from Los Angeles, W. M. Plank and F. R. Capra. Could this have been none other than Frank Russell Capra (at left) as an unknown 22-year-old? Plank was the driving force behind the company. Of his plans, Plank stated, “We expect to spend $25,000 for buildings, and will erect a permanent Alaskan Village and a permanent Western Village. We will use the villages for pictures produced by our company and will also rent them to other producers of Los Angeles who will come here for snow scenes.”
A full-page ad in the Nevada Newsletter, dated January 10, 1920, details the plans for the studio. Tri-State had purchased property in Arlington Heights. The studio would face Arlington Avenue, bounded by Arroyo Street on the north and Pueblo Street on the south. The rear of the studio would face Catherine Street (today Wright Street). The story announced that ground had been broken and construction would begin immediately. The architectural drawings show an elaborate building with large arched windows on the first floor and many smaller arched windows in the floor above. Steps lead to a massive columned portico with a triangular pediment. The poor-quality rendering attached below at least gives an idea of the grandeur of the proposed building, which was to be supervised by architect Stanley C. Flawn.
I believe it’s accurate to say the studio was never built, and definitely not at this location. In looking at the homes on the 1300 block of South Arlington and Wright Streets, most were built in the 1930s when the city was extending southward. According to the Assessor’s records, the earliest house was built in 1926. A blurb in a 1959 Reno Evening Gazette under “40 Years Ago” reads, “Miss Ann Austin arrived in Reno to take the leading role in two movies. She was to perform in the movies The Pulse of Life and The Ranch of the Wolverines, productions of Tri-State Motion Picture Company. The studio was to be located on the Riley Ranch on Arlington Road.” Ann Austin shows one film credit on IMDB for 1941’s Moon Over Miami.
As far as production, Tri-State’s first five-reel feature is listed as The Pulse of Life. The Nevada Newsletter article says the company expects to complete and release the picture before January 27, 1920. Oddly, a film with the same title is listed in IMDB with a date of 1917. None of the names of production personnel match the Reno crew, Ann Austin is not among the cast and it was filmed at Universal Studios, however. The article also announced that still photos from actual scenes were on exhibit at Weck’s Drug Store on the corner of Second and Virginia Streets. The second picture to be produced by Tri-State was listed as Love’s Scars. There is no mention of Wolverines (Tri-State was no doubt waiting for the Western Village to be built).
The Pulse of Life (Reno production) opened at the Grand Theater on April 25, 1920. Read the newspaper ad, “The first motion picture feature to be produced in Reno. With local players in the cast. A dramatic story that is enacted amid scenes of beauty in the environs of this city.” There were no listings for the other two films which probably never got made. Plank and Capra were shown in the 1920 City Directory as residing at the Overland Hotel but just for that one year. I’m not sure what happened to Plank, but if this was indeed the famous director Frank Capra, he certainly went on to great fame and fortune. According to his Wikipedia bio, as a young man after recovering from a burst appendix, “Capra moved out and spent the next few years living in flophouses in San Francisco and hopping freight trains, wandering the Western United States.” The timing fits and he could well have ridden the Southern Pacific to Reno.
Though Tri-State seems to have been disbanded following its first film and has been lost in obscurity, it’s stories like these that give us a real taste of what 1920s Reno was like, with all sorts of entrepreneurs arriving in our city, trying to make a buck with their grandiose dreams. More than likely, no copy of Pulse exists today but I would sure love to see it, or even the still scene photographs. I’ll keep an eye on Ebay—who knows, they might show up some day!
Graphics of Capra and structure courtesy Debbie Hinman