Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On a balmy autumn day in 1923, a young boy riding his pony along the banks of the Schuylkill River near Valley Forge stumbled upon the mortal remains of a once-famous movie star. De­spite the mud and tangle of weeds, he recognized her at once. She was well preserved and the boy wondered-as he raced back to his grandfather’s house in nearby Audubon-if the carcass couldn’t be salvaged.

“Couldn’t we keep her in the barn?,” he begged his father and grandfather. “She won’t take much space.” The elder Wetherills were unim­pressed and remained uncon­vinced. It would be an awful lot of trouble to go and fetch her, they told young Reeves and, besides, she probably belonged to someone else. In any case, keeping her in the barn at Mill Grove was simply out of the question. And so the remains of the Toonerville Trolley were left to molder in the weeds under the bridge at Betzwood, despite the valiant efforts of young Reeves Wetherill to rescue them.

Had Reeves Wetherill gone exploring a few months later in a junk yard on the outskirts of Phoenixville, he would have discovered the twin sister of the Toonerville Trolley he had found in the weeds and muck at Betzwood . Both of these abandoned relics had only recently ended their brief – but colorful – careers in front of the cameras of the Betzwood Mo­tion Picture Studio. Between 1920 and 1922, millions of Americans had flocked to movie houses to see these battered trolley cars and to laugh at the antics of the irasci­ble “Skipper” and his eccentric friends. Americans had been familiar with the Toonerville Trolley long before Betzwood’s film versions reached the silent screen. Fontaine Fox’s unique and witty cartoons, syndicated in more than three hundred newspapers across the coun­try, had been amusing readers since 1908. Because the car­toons proved so popular, the Betzwood Film Company believed they might provide the basis for a successful series of short comedy films.

At the height of his career, Fontaine Fox drew a single­-frame cartoon of his celebrated Trolley and the cast of Tooner­ville characters for daily news­papers, as well as a multi-box comic strip for the weekend editions. Each week, fans across the country looked forward to the further adven­tures of the quaint and bat­tered Trolley with a mind of its own, the Trolley’s equally unpredictable “Skipper,” his enormous Swedish house­keeper, “Powerful Katrinka,” the “Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang,” and others.

The cartoon was popular because many early twentieth century commuters identified with the mishaps of the Too­nerville Trolley. As automo­biles became more common, the old trolley lines – rooted in the rapidly fading lifestyle of the previous century – fell into disrepair. Plagued by break­downs and crashes, those neglected and decaying street­cars offered daily misadven­tures to their intrepid passengers – misadventures which were amusing only when created by Fontaine Fox. The cartoonist had also capital­ized on a source of popular humor in America in those days: the quaint ways of “small town folks.”

After several years in syndi­cation, Fox’s Toonerville car­toons had spawned countless fanciful offshoots. There were lithographed toy Trolleys, motorized miniature Trolleys, Powerful Katrinka and Mickey (“Himself”) McGuire dolls, books, souvenirs, and a host of Toonerville games. The offspring of Fox’s fertile imagi­nation literally came to life in 1920 with a series of Tooner­ville Trolley movies made by the Betzwood Film Company.

When the Wolf Brothers of Philadelphia, owners of the former Lubin Film Company studio at Betzwood, deter­mined in 1919 that they had squeezed as much commercial mileage out of their series of “Eastern Westerns” as possi­ble, they began casting about for successful subjects. The filming of Betzwood’s final Western is believed by many to have inspired the idea of the Toonerville Trolley series. Visiting the film crew shooting on location at the bottom of one of the Port Kennedy quar­ries (now located in Valley Forge Park), one of the Wolf brothers is said to have joked that the little shuttle cars used by the quarry laborers re­minded him of the Toonerville Trolley. And from that casual remark sprang a series of sev­enteen two-reel comedies based on Fox’s celebrated comic strip.

Fontaine Fox, enthusiastic about the project, conceived a design for constructing a di­lapidated Trolley precariously balanced on one “truck” or set of wheels, and churned out several scripts transforming the Skipper, Katrinka, and friends into flesh and blood characters. Fox came to Betz­wood to supervise the project and, with the help of studio craftsmen, built his narrow­-gauge trolley, a delightful contrivance which stole every scene in which it appeared. Balanced as it was on a ful­crum in the center of the truck, the Trolley constantly tipped and rocked, not only when the fat ladies boarded, but even when the wind blew gently. Chains attached underneath checked the tilting before the rocking became too danger­ous. The exact means of powering the Trolley remains somewhat of a mystery, how­ever. An article by Frank Donovan, Jr., which appeared in Railroad Magazine in 1939, suggested that the Trolley had no motors, and was either pulled by a truck on flanged wheels, or pushed by a regular electric car using a push-pole to create the illusion that it was self-propelled. Several Mont­gomery County residents who took part as extras in Be­tzwood films insist that the Toonerville Trolley ran under its own power. Recently sal­vaged Toonerville films seem to show that the Trolley moved, stopped, lurched, and moved again under circum­stances where it would have to have been self-propelled. Most likely the Trolley utilized elec­tric motors, was powered by hidden batteries, or even used the overhead guy wires.

Providing their Trolley with a right-of-way in a convincing rural setting posed no problem for the Betzwood crew mem­bers. As part of the prepara­tion for the first production of the series, a line of narrow­-gauge trolley track was laid on the studio grounds, parallel to, and only a few yards from, the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and extending almost as far as Port Indian, a mile down the Schuylkill River. Many fake building fronts used in previous films still stood on the lot and these undoubtedly helped to set the scene. For more interesting topography, the studio also planned to use the narrow­-gauge tracks of a small mining operation on the slope of Mount Misery on the other side of the river in Valley Forge. But a hair-raising epi­sode soon changed everyone’s mind.

Frank Donovan recalls that Fontaine Fox and Dan Mason, the actor hired to play the Skipper, attempted to test the Trolley themselves in its maiden voyage down the mountainside. The brakes failed and they found them­selves hurtling wildly toward disaster. Ever-resourceful, Fox began leaping from side to side and rocked the car so violently that it jumped the tracks and skidded to a halt. On another occasion, when plans had been painstakingly laid for filming a scene during which the Trolley would be derailed – and the entire cast had been instructed in the art of falling in specially-padded costumes – the Trolley jumped the tracks ahead of schedule, dumping the unsuspecting actors and actresses down a steep bank into thorn bushes. The cameraman, patiently awaiting the prearranged cinematic “accident,” missed the real mishap.

After these calamities, Betzwood’s production staff turned its attention to the standard-gauge line of the Phoenixville, Valley Forge and Strafford Railway Company, which ran from near Washing­ton’s headquarters in Valley Forge to downtown Phoenix­ville. (The line never even came close to Strafford – its builders ran out of money.) This little line, curving and winding up and down the hills and passing in front of a dam on Valley Creek, became an ideal setting for the Toonerville movies where, ultimately, most of the Trolley footage was filmed. Much like its fictional counterpart, the Phoenixville, Valley Forge and Strafford Railway Company line was lumbering into extinction and for several hours each day the track was not in use.

A second Trolley, nearly identical to the first, was spe­cially built on a standard­-gauge truck for use on the railway line, and it was kept in the company’s car barn at Williams Corner. Most scenes were shot close to the car barn to avoid disrupting service on the Phoenixville, Valley Forge and Strafford Railway, and on occasions when filming ran behind schedule, the Skipper’s Toonerville Trolley had to be lifted off the tracks by a gang of men and set aside to let the genuine trolley pass. Because there were two Toonerville Trolleys, and because both were constantly being refined, “The Trolley” as it appears in extant films never looks quite the same twice. Sharp-eyed loyal fans must have won­dered about the lights, win­dows, dents, smoke stacks, numbers, and other details which appeared and disap­peared from one film to the next.

Fleshing out Fox’s charac­ters was as important to the success of the Toonerville films as was the construction of the Trolley itself. Skipper and Katrinka were brought to life by Fox with episodes which were, at first, lifted from his cartoons: the Skipper stops the Trolley to pull a tooth with a rope … the Trolley breaks down and must be pulled by a broken-down mule … the Skipper stalls the Trolley on a bridge to retrieve a bottle of liquor he’s hidden in the creek … and Katrinka slices home­fries by pushing potatoes through the blades of an elec­tric fan.

The characters of the Skip­per and Katrinka were success­fully cast by Ira M. Lowry, the studio’s director-general, who produced and directed virtu­ally every film made by the Betzwood Film Company. Lowry, who had learned the movie business from his father-in-law, the legendary Siegmund Lubin, hired vet­eran character actor Dan Ma­son to play the Skipper, and an obscure actress, Wilma Wild Hervey, to play Katrinka. Ma­son, with fifty years of vaude­ville experience, devised an endless series of eccentric mannerisms to portray the Skipper’s endearingly peculiar personality. The zany Hervey was his perfect foil. While movie magazine reviewers criticized many aspects of these films, the Skipper and Katrinka consistently enjoyed accolades and acclaim.

Other major cartoon charac­ters given life in Fox’s film scenarios included the Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang, played at Betzwood by Bob Maximilian; Cynthia Snoop, played by Helen Gerould Rose; Thaddeus Bumstead, played by Fred O’Beck; and the immense Aunt Eppie Hogg, played by Wilma Wilcox, about whom nothing is known but who weighed in – at least for the films – at six hundred pounds. Aunt Eppie Hogg’s attempts to board the Toonerville Trolley forced all the passengers to rush to the opposite end to keep the vehi­cle balanced. She usually fails to board altogether and is resigned to ride on a flat bed truck pulled by the Trolley. Her attempt in Toonerville Fol­lies to play Shakespeare’s Juliet to the Skipper’s Romeo results in a smashing success: the balcony collapses.

Ingenue parts were played by the attractive Betty Bovee, a Lowry “discovery.” The direc­tor had spotted her in a news­paper photograph of spectators watching a tragic fire in Philadelphia. Bovee’s horrified expression convinced Lowry that she had the mak­ings of “an emotional actress” and he set out to find her. Noting that the unidentified beauty carried what appeared to be a leather music case, he hastily dispatched a scout to interview teachers and stu­dents at music schools near the fire. “Miss Bovee was inter­viewed at her home and after much persuasion and the offer of a lucrative contract, gave up her desire for the concert stage,” announced the studio.

Most of the minor Tooner­ville characters – Constable Withers, Tomboy Taylor, and the village plumber among others – were apparently played by local talent who were never identified, and whose names are now lost. Dozens of local extras partici­pated in crowd scenes and baseball games, and the studio never had to look far for chil­dren to play the Toonerville urchins. Whenever filming took place, as many children as could sneak away that day from Port Kennedy’s one-room school were close at hand. Always one step ahead of Miss McClain, the truant officer, they watched the Trolley and the Skipper with amazement and took great delight in toss­ing around the papier mache “telephone poles” when Ka­trinka wasn’t using them to kill snakes.

Possibly the most difficult member of the cast was the alarmingly emaciated mule which occasionally had to pull the Trolley. Looking as though it was only moments away from the Grim Reaper’s grasp, the beast was in fact surpris­ingly stalwart – and stubborn. It held up filming for nearly an entire day by absolutely refus­ing to budge, and the produc­tion crew was ordered to use an old farmer’s trick to moti­vate it. They lighted a fire under it. The mule obligingly moved forward – but just far enough to place the Trolley directly over the flames.

In addition to Lowry, the production staff included Ralph Stone, responsible for continuity and titles, and Jimmy Ferrick, who as art director added a distinctive Fontaine Fox-style cartoon character to each subtitle card. The efforts of Spence and Ferrick, as well as those of Katherine Hilliker, who wrote the titles for a few of the early films before departing for Hollywood, captured the fla­vor of Fox’s cartoon caption.

The idea of my husband lead­ing a double life when it cost double to lead a single one!

Love may be a disease, but to Cynthia Snoop, it was a pestilence.

It ain’t wise to load up with live ammunition when you’re nothin’ but a cap pistol.

Interiors such as Bang’s Restaurant, the Palace Hotel lobby, and Katrinka’s kitchen were built as sets in the spacious sunlit (and electrically-lit) studio buildings at Betzwood where, after nine years of productions, the col­lection of scenery and props seemed virtually unlimited. While some of the sets ap­peared convincing, others are obviously stage settings. In­ consistency and spotty quality were, in fact, the most common criticisms made of the Toonerville films.

Prohibition humor played an important role not only in Betzwood’s story lines, but also in the early advertise­ments placed in trade journals of the day. First National Pic­tures, a distribution company that handled the initial offer­ing of Toonerville movies, placed a full-page advertise­ment in the October 16, 1920, issue of The Exhibitors Herald announcing that the Skipper “busts the 18th amendment and feels better.” A few weeks later a second full-page adver­tisement offered a synopsis of the plot of The Skipper’s Narraw Escape.

We Are Sorry to Say
The Skipper is not a good citizen
He believes in his Home Brew
Sometimes he busts the constitution wide open
And gets a Snoot full ….

The advertisement featured a cartoon figure of the Skipper with his flask of raisin cider and an upside-down Tooner­ville Trolley.

Perhaps the best Prohibi­tion joke of all, however, was that – unknown to the studio’s owners – someone was running a quality bootleg opera­tion on the company’s three hundred and fifty acre prop­erty. Many locals can recall how, as children, they rounded up empty bottles and redeemed them at the studio for ten cents each. Perhaps this still was partly responsible for several cast members’ inspired performances!

The Toonerville Trolley series made its debut in Sep­tember 1920 with the release of The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All Trains. It was fol­lowed a few weeks later by The Skipper’s Narrow Escape. By the end of the year two more films, The Skipper’s Treasure Garden and Toonerville’s Fire Brigade, had been released, and heralded by advertise­ments which not only ap­peared in The Exhibitors Herald, but also in Moving Picture World. Early in 1921 Moving Picture World carried positive reviews of the Toonerville offerings.

No better proof is needed of the merits of this Toonerville Trolley comedy than the way it was re­ceived on the Strand Theatre program … The house yelled with delight at the novel and uproariously funny adventures of Fontaine Fox’s famous one-truck trolley car and its equally noted skipper….

For the Toonerville films premiere at the Stanton Theater in Philadelphia in March 1921, the studio’s publicity department arranged an elaborate stunt. A series of articles appeared for several days in the city’s newspapers claiming that the Toonerville Trolley was on its way to Philadelphia. The reports described – in a folksy, country way – the daily adventures and misfortunes. On the day of the premiere one of the two trolley cars was pulled through the streets of Philadelphia by a modern car of the Rapid Transit System much to the delight of spectators who lined the sidewalks. Occasionally the trolley was stopped to give free rides to the children.

The beginnings of the Toonerville Trolley series seemed auspicious and the film company owners, production crew, and cast members undoubtedly shared a great sense of optimism as they looked forward to producing more films in the summer of 1921. But trouble loomed on the tracks ahead.

Early in 1921 First National Pictures abruptly halted the full-page advertisements for the films. Trade journals decreased the amount of space given to reviews and exhibitors’ comments. And the few published comments no longer were as enthusiastic as they had been. “It brings the tributary smile,” wrote the manager of the Rex Theater in Salmon, Idaho, “but lacks action.” Another in McGee, Arkansas, believed that “about every other one is fair, others no good.” Inconsistent quality plagued the films. While The Skipper’s Narrow Escape was genuinely amusing, Toonerville’s Boozem Friends featured a long and tedious episode at the lunch counter in Bang’s Restaurant with a thoroughly unappetizing smorgasbord of the stalest jokes the Betzwood title writers concocted.

Customer: “Waiter, there’s a collar button in my soup!”

Waiter: “Not so loud, Sir, or everyone will want one.”

More problems affected the 1921 production, Toonerville Follies. Centered around a talent show organized to raise money for the new parson, the film preserved little more than the painful and pathetic attempts of Toonerville’s citizens to resurrect decaying Vaudeville routines. Toonerville Follies was somewhat entertaining, but two major sources of humor in earlier films – Powerful Katrinka and the Toonerville Trolley itself – appear only incidentally.

The novelty of the Toonerville films quickly wore thin. Similar to many of today’s television “pilots” that garner rave reviews, only to be followed by a series that fails to generate the anticipated excitement, the Toonerville Trolley found it impossible to maintain a freshness and originality. Nevertheless, after the first series of films had been completed, plans were immediately made for a second run. A press release, issued early in 1922, announced that “a contract, said to involve more than a million dollars, had been consummated between Associated First National Pictures, Inc., and the Betzwood Film Company for the production of a second series of twenty-four Toonerville Trolley comedies.” In response to complaints made by many fans, the studio promised that the new series would focus significantly more attention on the trolley car.

Moving Picture World favorably reviewed four of the second series of films made in 1922. The Skipper’s Policy, a tale of insurance fraud, was described in April as “fully up to the standard of its predecessors.” and Dan Mason was again singled out for his “delightful portrayal.” Toonerville Blues, featuring the Toonerville softball team with Katrinka as the champion slugger of all time, was characterized two months later as “deliciously humorous … the characterization of small town folk are excellent and the funny situations and mirthful subtitles frequent.” After so promising a start, however, the studio found it impossible to maintain a consistent level of quality. A review of Toonerville Topics published in August noted that “perhaps the story isn’t quite as strong” as the first films in the series, and by October a reviewer of The Skipper’s Sermon complained that “the story is slight and the incidents have been spread out in order to cover two reels.” The Skipper’s Sermon was the last Toonerville film made.

A few comments by exhibi­tors found their way onto the pages of the Exhibitor’s Herald in 1922, suggesting that the Toonervilles remained popular only in small, remote places. The manager of a theater in Boynton, Oklahoma, sug­gested that “everyone who will not laugh at the Skipper or Katrinka needs a doctor badly.” But the manager of the Rialto Theater in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, observed that, “the acting isn’t so funny, but my patrons all seem to enjoy Too­nervilles.” Next to this com­ment the Exhibitor’s Herald published nine enthusiastic letters written by theater man­agers who had just shown the latest efforts of Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton. Exhibitors were losing interest in the Toonervilles and distributors were no longer willing to invest money to advertise them. Competition in the comedy film business was intense, and the few audi­ences that might still enjoy Toonervilles were being quickly weaned away from them with meatier fare. Dur­ing the early 1920s movie­goers were being treated to a feast of quality comedies from actors and actresses destined to become great masters of their craft. Betzwood’s tired Skipper and the old Tooner­ville Trolley were competing with Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard, Larry Semon, and Buster Keaton and possessed no more chance of survival than did the old trol­ley lines.

Production of the Tooner­ville Trolley films at Betzwood abruptly ceased in summer 1922, far short of the twenty-­four films specified in the contract. The Wolf Brothers, who had bought the studio as an investment, had seen their last profits dwindle and disap­pear. The studio sat idle for two years before finally being sold.

After the Toonerville Trolley had made its last celluloid run, Dan Mason and Wilma Hervey were hired – sans Trolley – by a small studio in New Jersey to re-create their Toonerville characters, with different names, in a series of “Plum Center” comedies. These films, in which Mason played a character called Pop Tuttle, were apparently similar to the Betzwood productions – but much worse. Reviews of Betz­wood’s final Toonerville film, The Skipper’s Sermon, and the first of the Plum Center mov­ies, Pop Tuttle’s Clever Catch, appeared side-by-side in the October 1922 edition of Moving Picture World.

Despite the failure of the Betzwood Motion Picture Studio, the concept of making movies in mythical Toonerville did not fade completely. A few years after the studio’s closing, Fontaine Fox was summoned to Hollywood to try his hand at filmmaking once again. He concentrated on fleshing out another of his Toonerville cartoon characters, Mickey (“Himself”) McGuire. The first of these films was silent and successful enough that a series was produced as sound films in the thirties. A young actor, Mickey Rooney, played the role of McGuire.

With the creation of sound films, Betzwood’s Toonerville Trolley films were never in demand again. Because many of the Montgomery County studio’s films were produced on nitrate film stock, few prints exist today of most of the Toonerville Trolley films. Films were routinely discarded after circulation, and those not abandoned eventually fell silent victims to nitrate decom­position and industrial refiners which recovered the silver content of old unwanted films. But fate has been kind to Toonerville.

Of the seventeen Tooner­ville Trolley films produced at Betzwood, prints of at least seven have survived. Two nitrate prints found their way to the collections of the Uni­versity of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) where, a few years ago, they attracted the attention of the California­-based Toy Train Operating Society. Dedicated to the ap­preciation of mechanical de­vices that operate on rails, the society decided to save the films from destruction and members offered to work with UCLA film archivists, if they would, in turn, be permitted to transfer the films to video format for distribution. Now, after an absence of six dec­ades, the films are being en­joyed again by enthusiasts. A Los Angeles dentist, Hillel Lazarus, who had extensively researched the Toonerville Trolley films, was the master­mind of this noble – and expensive – project.

Prints of Toonerville Trolley films exist in the collections of the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. An effort has been launched by the Betzwood Film Archive at Montgomery County Commu­nity College to save them from oblivion. In 1990 the college received a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts which made it possible to complete restoration of one of the Toonervilles selected from the George Eastman House holdings. Restoration of an­other has been made possible by private donations and a grant from the Montgomery County Foundation. In addi­tion to known Toonerville films, others are rumored to be owned by individuals and commercial film distribution concerns. However, their condition – a critical factor­ – remains unknown.

As for the fate of the old movie trolley cars themselves, the stories are many and as varied and contradictory as the ridiculous Toonerville movie plots. Some of the confusion may have arisen because few realized that two were used in filming at Betzwood. The lore and legends seem endless. According to the reports, the Toonerville Trolley ends its days under the bridge at Betz­wood … is abandoned in the car barn of the defunct Phoenixville, Valley Forge and Strafford Railway Company … travels to Hollywood to make another movie … is hauled out for Halloween parades … is scrapped in Morris Goldberg’s Phoenixville junkyard … is placed in Philadelphia City Hall’s courtyard as a booth for selling Christmas Seals … is sold for scrap during the World War II … attends the American Trolley Industry’s convention in Atlantic City … and comes to rest in a “squat­ter’s village” near Phoenixville to which devoted fans pilgrimage to pay their last respects. Oddly enough, parts of some of these stories can be verified.

Perhaps, movie buffs dream, some kind – although eccentric – soul eventually took pity on a Toonerville Trolley and hauled it home for safe­keeping. Can it have been stored in a barn or garage or carriage house all these years? Maybe, just maybe, it has been secreted away in some remote warehouse, where it remains­ – caked with mud, dented and scratched, eaten by rust, with bolts corroded, wheels locked, windows broken, and brakes long gone – needing only a few well-chosen cuss words and a good swift kick to get it ready for the road again.

 

For Further Reading

Bardeche, Maurice. The History of Motion Pictures. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1938.

Eckhardt, Joseph P. and Linda Kowall. “The Movies’ First Mo­gul.” Jewish Life in Philadel­phia. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1983.

____. Peddler of Dreams: Siegmund Lubin and the Creation of the Motion Picture Industry. Philadelphia: National Museum of American Jewish History, 1984.

Griffith, Richard. The Movies. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Kowall, Linda. “Lights! Camera! Fire!” Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine. October 12, 1980.

Seldes, Gilbert. The Movies Come From America. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937.

 

The author wishes to thank Hillel Lazarus of Los Angeles for his help in uncovering information necessary for the writing of this article.

 

Joseph P. Eckhardt of West Point, Pennsylvania, is a professor of history at Montgomery County Community College, Blue Bell. He has researched the history of the Lubin Film Company of Phila­delphia and the Betzwood Motion Picture Studio, Valley Forge, for more than a decade. In addition to publishing several articles, the author has assisted in the creation of museum exhibitions and video documentaries.