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From the archives: Lulu and her silent-movie-era camera

Sep. 20, 1973: Leontine (Lulu) Phelan with a hand-cranked Bell & Howell camera used in the early day
Sept. 20, 1973: Leontine “Lulu” Phelan with a hand-cranked Bell & Howell camera used in the early days of the motion picture industry.
(Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)

Los Angeles Times staff photographer Steve Fontanini and staff writer Charles Hillinger visited with Lulu in her Santa Barbara home. Hillinger’s story in the next morning’s Los Angeles Times began:

“There’s nothing new about nudies,” the pert little old lady said as she peeked out from behind the viewfinder of the early-day, hand-crank movie camera.

“One of the first full-length movies to be banned in theaters across the country was made with this old Bell and Howell.”

Leontine “Lulu” Phelan, 81, was talking about the movie “Purity,” starring Audrey Munson, filmed in Santa Barbara in 1916.

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“Audrey,” Mrs. Phelan recalled with a chuckle, “came out stark naked.”

Mrs. Phelan said she, too, had appeared before the camera.“But not in ‘Purity,’ mind you. If I had, they would have fired Audrey and hired me.”

Mrs. Phelan’s husband was Bob Phelan, pioneer motion picture cameraman who died in 1966 at the age of 81. Phelan shot many of the Charles Chaplin and Marie Dressler films.

Mrs. Phelan was a film editor, her husband a cameraman “when Santa Barbara was the motion picture capital of the world.”

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“Hundreds of one-, two- and three-reelers were filmed in Santa Barbara,” she said.

Before World War I, there were 15 movie companies based in Santa Barbara.

“Flying A Studios at State and Mission Streets claimed it was the largest movie studio on Earth. It had an interior stage where movies were first filmed under artificial lights.

“There were movie lots all over town.

“Many of the early custard pie comedies and railroad and cliff-hanging serials were filmed in Santa Barbara.

“Some of the ‘Perils of Pauline’ were made here. But Santa Barbara was a small town. So, by 1917, the film studios were drifting down to Los Angeles, closer to big city backgrounds. Hollywood became the heart of it.”

Bob Phelan’s camera – one of the first Bell & Howells ever made – plus a number of other memorabilia from Santa Barbara’s old film days are in the parlor of Lulu Phelan’s adobe home.

The house in downtown Santa Barbara is a historic shrine.

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It was built in 1856 by Mrs. Phelan’s grandmother, Señora Ordaz de Rochin, and is known as the Rochin Adobe.

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The Bell & Howell camera is now at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

This post was originally published on Oct. 16, 2015.

See more from the Los Angeles Times archives here


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