Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Robert Leicester Wagner and The California Almanack

I'd never heard of this little book before, but it looked interesting so I brought it home from a recent estate sale.  It's a slender volume, in the proverbial plain brown wrapper, with the title Rob Wagner's California Almanack, Sixth Edition.

Inside, it's dated 1922.

I had never heard of Rob Wagner, so I started looking for information on him on the Internet.  What I discovered was absolutely fascinating.  Someone needs to write a screenplay based on the life of this man.  Or a biography at least. 

Robert Leicster Wagner (1872-1942) helped pioneer film criticism and coverage of the film industry with his magazine Rob Wagner's Script.  Born in Detroit, Wagner started out as an artist for the Detroit Free Press and The Criterion magazine, and was art editor for Encyclopedia Brittanica in London from 1900-1902.  

Wagner moved to Paris to study art, then returned to the States and worked as a portrait painter.  He moved to Santa Barbara, California and in 1910 he migrated down the coast to Los Angeles. There he connected with his cousins, who were working for a guy named D.W. Griffith in the nascent film industry.  It didn't take Wagner long to jump into the film industry with both feet.  In 1911 he made an autobiographical film featuring his two sons and his own artwork, called "The Artist's Sons."  

Wagner got a job teaching at Manual Arts High School in LA and in 1915 filmed a documentary about the Los Angeles school system. Among Wagner's students at Manual Arts were a young man named Frank Capra and another named Jimmy Doolittle.

The Internet Movie Database picks up the story:

During this period [Wagner] switched from portrait painting and teaching to writing, penning a series of articles on the film industry for the Saturday Evening Post, which was eventually compiled into a book, "Film Folk" (1918). The series helped revive a sagging industry that was suffering economically before World War I.

By 1918 he was a good friend with Charlie Chaplin, becoming his publicist and confidante. ... 
He briefly worked for Mack Sennett as a gag writer, and then shifted over to Hal Roach Studios to direct a series of short films featuring Will Rogers. He also was under contract for Famous Players-Lasky where he wrote for or directed some minor films. He also was associated with actor Charles Ray.

[Sidebar:  Someday I'm going to tell you about Charles Ray.  He's another lost star of early Hollywood.  Now back to the story....]

In 1921, Rob Wagner, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith co-founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which later became the Motion Picture & Television Fund, to provide financial aid to film industry workers who fell on tough economic times. Wagner was an original member of the Board of Trustees, along with Harold Lloyd, William S. Hart, Jesse Lasky, Irving Thalberg and others. 

During the 1920s, Wagner wrote for many magazines including Liberty and Photoplay. In 1929, he founded Rob Wagner's Beverly Hills Script, which later became simply Rob Wagner's Script. It carried film reviews and features on film, art and literature.  Wagner never paid his writers (some things never change) but his contributors used Script as a forum for their own views.  Script's contributors included Charlie Chaplin, Upton Sinclair, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Will Rogers, Louis L'Amour, and Ray Bradbury.

IMDB.com continues:  Often Wagner, who was an ardent Socialist, opened his magazine to explore political issues. He gave Upton Sinclair fair coverage of his bid for governor of California in 1934 when most other news organizations refused. And he published the controversial final speech from Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" in 1940.

In 1942, Wagner died of a heart attack in Santa Barbara with his wife and brother, James R.H. Wagner, at his side. His son, Leicester, took over the magazine for a short period. His widow continued publishing Script until 1947 when it was sold to Robert L. Smith, general manager of the Los Angeles Daily News. But without Wagner, the magazine lost its personality. It folded in 1949.

Wagner's personality also shines through in the little Californa Almanack I found at the estate sale.  He modeled his Almanack after others:

"Courteous Reader [Wagner wrote]:

" There are two great geographic divisions on the earth's surface -- California and Elsewhere; and as the Almanacks of Elsewhere, with their absurd seasons, weather predictions, and hints on the care of the body are utterly useless in this Terrestrial Paradise, I feel it my duty to publish a California Almanack, both in the interest of science & the Wagner family.

"...I shall include recipes for making griddle cakes and glue, suitable epitaphs, hints on health, happiness and vacuum cleaners, the best times for marriage and divorce, snappy stories from Hollywood, the use of divining rods in oil speculation, how to get into the Movies, and other useful information." 

Wagner even created an "advertiser" for the Almanack: 

"CAL-ORINE -- The Fountain of Perpetual Youth!  For ages men have sought it...but it was not until Cabrillo said his galleons int San Diego harbor, that the age-old search was rewarded!  Here in CALIFORNIA men first bathed in The Magic Fountain and were made young.  Here they came to partake of The Lotus, never caring to return Elsewhere.

" Since that time the sons of Adam have poured into CALIFORNIA -- somnambulists, scenario writers, neurotics, ne'er-do-wells, morons, extra people, sad-eyed Susans and weary Williams -- all the inframen of Elsewhere -- and after one bath in the glorious sun and moonshine, have come out beautiful in body and spirit.... For sale by all Elsewhere druggists (except in Florida where the word California is forbidden by law).

"If you can't come to CAL. -- use CAL-ORINE."

Since this is a family blog, I'll let you decide whether you want to squint at the picture above to see what Wagner's "Cal-orine" was supposedly made of.  No wonder they called this era "The Roaring Twenties."

Bohemian lifestyle references and tongue-in-cheek approach notwithstanding, Wagner articulated the California dream that so many people sought between the Civil War and the middle of the 20th century:  the land of sunshine, where you could reinvent yourself.  How interesting to know that this fellow most of us have never heard of, was so deeply involved in the industry that (for better and worse) promoted and perpetuated the dream.


Here's the IMDB short bio of Rob Wagner:  http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0906080/?ref_=fn_al_nm_2

You can look at a back issue of Rob Wagner's Script here:


Wagner's papers are stored at UCLA:  http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt2n39n8xr/

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