Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Ink-Slinger Profiles by Alex Jay: Larry Semon

Lawrence “Larry” Semon was born in West Point, Mississippi, on February 9, 1889, according to his World War I draft card. However, another date, July 16, 1889, that has been used by many sources, was from the Blue Book of the Screen (1923). His parents were Zerubbabel Semon and Irene Rea, who married in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 2, 1874, according to the Pennsylvania, Church and Town Records, 1708-1985 at Ancestry.com.

An 1867 Philadelphia city directory listed Zerubbabel, a resident at at 740 South 8th Street, whose trade was “segars” at 515 Chestnut. Zerubbabel, who learned the art of magic from his father, Emmanuel, shortened his name to Zera and became a traveling performer. His skill was noted in the Mower County Transcript (Lansing, Minnesota), April 26, 1877:

Professor Zera, the great Sleight-of-hand performer and Ventriloquist, is the finest artist in his profession that we ever saw. He is simply inimitable and unapproachable,—standing alone upon the climax of ultimate achievement.
Later, he would be known as Zera the Great and assisted by his wife and sister. (There were seven sisters of which two were younger than Zera.) Semon’s parents were performing in Mississippi when he was born.

Semon’s childhood was told in the Blue Book of the Screen (1923) and the Brooklyn Sunday Eagle Magazine, May 3, 1925. The Blue Book said:

Larry was thoroughly trained in pantomime before he was twelve years of age, but they managed his education, despite road life, and the youth finally went through the high school at Savannah, Ga.
This early professional career was a hard one for the youth. Travel accommodations were poor; the troupe often had to build its own stage in some barnlike structure in order to put on the show; the company frequently slept on benches, and all the other discomforts of the small town afflicted them.
Larry might have been a singer of note but for an accident. At 12 he had a magnificent soprano voice, and won a gold medal in San Francisco for his singing. But during his first football game at Savannah high school he came out of a scrimmage with an injured neck, which caused an abnormal development. His singing voice was gone.

New York Dramatic Mirror 4/13/1895; performance in Canada

Semon’s childhood as told in the Sunday Eagle Magazine:
…“My parents were poor, although honest and addicted to hard work. They were actors working in a traveling road show, traveling through Mississippi when I came along. This disrupted the show for a while, as ma and pa were the mainstays; but pretty soon, after a few months, I guess, they resumed business at the old one-night stands.”
Then Larry explained that in those days each show was composed of several teams, of which his parents were one, and each team had to do two acts, as there were never nun; than three teams on the bill. If each team didn’t do a double act the show would have ended at about quarter cast nine and the customers might have started a riot—which often happened, anyway.
A road team in those days consisted of a pair of sadly overworked thespians who had to include in their act singing, dancing, acrobatics, a general knockabout turn, with a little sleight of hand thrown in for good measure. As soon as Larry could walk he was taught all the different tricks cf the stage and soon became proficient in all of them. This explains the origin of his startling versatility.
When he reached the age at which other children begin to attend school the junior member of “The Three Semons” was given a good sound fundamental course in education by his father, who carried around a set of text books. Larry was made to study, and study hard...

Daily Olympian 11/3/1896

Not mentioned in the childhood stories was Semon’s unexpected journey which was reported in the Atlanta Constitution (Georgia), September 28, 1900:

Got to Savannah All Right.
Ten-Year-Old Boy Travels All the Way from Newfoundland. 
Savannah. Ga.. September 27.—Tagged and addressed, so that he could not get lost; a boy of about ten years reached the city yesterday. He was Master Lawrence Semon and the tag sewed to his coat bore the address of Mr. Lewis Lippman, 23 Jones street, west. The boy is a nephew of Mrs. Lippman. His mother is dead and his father recently met with a serious reverse of fortune during the storm in Newfoundland. For these reasons Mrs. Lippman decided to take young Lawrence and bring him up. Accordingly he was tagged and shipped from Newfoundland to Savannah, making his way without any difficulty.
Semon was eleven years old at the time and his mother was very much alive. The aunt’s name was Emma, according to the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, who was about the same age as Zera. (One census said she was two years older and another said a year younger.) Semon and his parents have not been found in the census.

Six-and-a-half months later, the Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania), April 12, 1901, published a death notice for Semon’s father:

Semon.—On April 9, 1901. Zera Semon, aged 53 years. Funeral services on Friday, at 10 o’clock precisely at the residence of Mr. Mortis Rosenberg, 716 Franklin street. Interment private. Kindly omit flowers.
The Blue Book said Semon was present at his father’s death bed and explained how he got into cartooning:
Semon, Sr., was an artist among other accomplishments. The son inherited the taste for drawing and often sketched comic pictures. He recalls that he used the pages of his Latin grammar to draw an “animated” cartoon in the upper corners. By flipping the pages one could see a round of boxing. He still has the book to prove it.
The father, upon his death bed, asked Larry to give up the stage and take up the study of cartooning. The son complied, and entered art courses in New York. How well he succeeded is proven by his employment upon the Herald, Telegraph and Telegram of New York as cartoonist. Finally the New York Evening Sun featured his work, and Larry felt that he had fulfilled his father's dying request.
In the Sunday Eagle Magazine, the story was very general:
...Larry was made to study, and study hard, until he was fourteen years old, when both parents died, leaving him flat.
Larry emphasized particularly the influence that his enforced study has since had upon his career. Naturally it was a good influence, and has helped him over more than one rough spot on the bumpy road to fame. Among other things, his father, Zera Semon, had a talent for drawing, which was imparted to the son, but was greatly augmented by the elder’s persistent tutelage.
For a number of years Semon was raised by his aunt in Savannah. While in high school, his name appeared at least twice in the Atlanta Constitution on June 22, 1902 and March 13, 1904: “…Before the dancing began there was a Punch and Judy show cleverly manipulated by young Lawrence Semon…”

However, in the Sunday Eagle Magazine, there was no mention of his aunt:

...When Larry was stranded in Savannah by the death of both parents he was left friendless, jobless and with hardly a nickel to his name. Then followed long lean years of adversity. He was hardly old enough to go staging it around the country alone and there was no place for him on another road team. So he spent most of his time in Savannah, interspersing some spasmodic schooling with different jobs.
But all this time he was convinced that as long as he had some talent for drawing he would become an artist and pass up the stage as a career. With this idea in mind Larry migrated to Philadelphia some years after and landed a job with the Philadelphia North American as a general handy man in the art department. He wasn't around very long before they found he could really draw and pretty soon he was doing odd bits of cartooning that appeared in the paper—creating a mild aura of approval that didn't displease the creator a bit.
A death notice for Semon’s mother appeared in the Inquirer July 16, 1906:
Semon—On July 14, 1906. Irene M. wife of the late Zera Semon and daughter of Jane Elizabeth and the late Samuel M. Rea. The relatives and friends of the family are invited to attend the funeral services on Tuesday afternoon, at 3 o’clock, at her late residence, 655 Preston st. Interment private.
Semon was 17 when his mother died. The date of his move to Philadelphia is not known. He had a job as an engraver, according to a listing in the 1908 Philadelphia city directory, and resided at 131 South 10th. Co-incidentally, there was another Lawrence Semon in the Philadelphia directories; his middle name was Charles, born around 1876, and the son of Simon H. Semon.

Semon was a member of the Balbazoo Club, an amateur theatrical organization of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. The Inquirer, February 4, 1908, reviewed their production:

“The Merry Kiddo,” a thoroughly down-to-the-minute “musical accident,” by Arthur K. Sterns, was presented last night at Mercantile Hall, Broad street...The play was brimful of laughable songs and jokes and proved an unqualified success.
One of the best hits of the evening was a burlesque, “Madame Flutterby,” which kept the audience in an hysterical state. Other amusing stunts were the “Rehearsal with a Broadway Show” and the Gibson Girl specialty.
Prominent among the cast were Harry Meyers, Harold Sycle, David Strumpf, David Grossman, Lawrence Semon, Walter, Lyons, Samuel Fernberger, Isadore E. Saunder, Jack Livingston, Alvin Wolf and Leonard Hass.
Semon also had a guardian, Wallace G. Bobb, who was a physician according to the 1900 census. How this came about is not known. The Inquirer published a number of legal notices that named both of them; below are two of them:
(March 2, 1909)
Feb. 17. Semon. minor—First and final account of Wallace G. Bobb. Guardian of Lawrence Semon, a minor.
(March 30, 1909)
No. 58—Semon. minor—First and final account of Wallace G. Bobb. Guardian of Lawrence Semon, a minor.
Semon’s twentieth birthday was on February 9, 1909. The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marriage Index at Ancestry.com said Semon married Augusta Rosenbaum in 1909. Their marriage may have been the reason why Bobb withdrew as Semon’s guardian.

Semon has not been found in the 1910 census. A 1912 New York City directory said he was an artist and resided at 552 West 118th Street. A 1916 directory placed him at 9 West 47th Street and working as a cartoonist.

Semon told the story of his move to New York City in the Sunday Eagle Magazine:

...Larry Semon then began to show signs of the big town itch. He figured that he had something to sell and the best thing to do would be to try and place it with the biggest market, so, reversing Horace Greeley’s advice, he went East and landed in New York City in the dead of winter and with but a vague idea of his next move.
“It was an awfully cold day,” Larry said, “and there was a big snow storm in full blast—not a very encouraging prospect for a bright young cartoonist trying to pry off a job in New York. When I went out on the street after leaving the train I took one look at that storm and decided that maybe I’d.better go back to. ‘Philly’ and get another job, for I had already given up mine on the North American.
“Then I thought that would be kind of silly—as long as I was in New York I might as well try a couple of places. A ‘newsy’ came along and I asked him the way to the nearest newspaper office. He directed me to the office of the Evening Telegram, while I bought a copy of the ‘Telly’ from him. The next move was to get installed in a cheap hotel, which I did, and read the Telegram up in my room. It struck me that they were a bit weak on sporting cartoons, so. I put on my coat again and walked over to their office.
“The sporting editor finally saw me and, oddly enough, asked me for a sample of my work. I asked him to wait a few minutes and to give me an option on a job until I could get back with a sample. He agreed and I tore back to the room, batted out a sport cartoon and ran back to the ‘Telly’ with it. I guess he liked it because he let me on the staff at thirty-five dollars per.”
“Per cartoon?”
“No, per week, and I was tickled to death to get it. I felt like a prince. And from that day on things began to look up.”
Incidentally this is probably a world’s record for getting a job on a New York paper. Larry figures that a half hour after he saw the editor for the first time his name was on the payroll.
In a short while the art editor thought the young cartoonist’s talents could be used to better advantage on the editorial page for political cartoons, so he was transferred and began to draw “heavy” stuff. Larry Semon drawing pictures of Mayor Gaynor, Charles Evans Hughes and Charley Murphy would make a pretty funny picture by itself. But nevertheless he did; and his efforts were greeted by no less success than his sporting work.
Semon produced over a dozen comics. He drew the debut of The Fads of Miss Fashion, September 19, 1910, for the Evening Telegram. One of his strips was Marcus the Boarding House Goat.

Vaudeville provided another outlet for Semon’s talent. The New York Herald, September 25, 1914, noted his participation in a special event:

It will be baseball week at the Palace Theatre, beginning Monday night, when the Pittsburg Pirates will make up a big theatre party. Thursday night the Giants and Boston Braves will be present, with the stars and managers in the boxes. Baseball specialties will be introduced in all acts, and Lawrence Semon, Evening Sun cartoonist, will draw pictures of the diamond favorites.
Muskegon Chronicle 9/9/1915

Semon’s next opportunity came from a newspaper veteran looking to break into movies. The Sunday Eagle Magazine said: 
Larry had succeeded in working up a considerable local prestige when his big chance came. Commodore J. Stuart Blackton, an old Herald man and even then prominent in newspaper circles, heard that Semon was in the theatrical business before his newspaper work. As he was looking for someone to produce comedies for him he casually asked Semon if he would like to go out to the coast and try a hand at the game. Larry thought it would be a good chance for a change of scenery, so he took the offer.
“You know,” said Larry at this point, “the newspaper game is a great deal like marriage. Those who aren’t in it want to join the bunch inside and. the folks already in it want to get out—generally speaking, of course.”
In California at this time there was a dearth of good comedians, so Larry, besides writing and producing comedies, also took a hand at acting. This, as he explained, was simply a question of the old thespian lure asserting itself. Since 1918, when Larry first went to the coast, he has concerned himself with comedy work until now he stands among the few really great moving picture comedians of the country.
Perhaps the secret of Larry’s success, if there is a secret to any success, is his everlasting activity. He is never still—always on the go. If he is not engaged at the studio he is laying plans for another production, or polishing up on a bit of business for the picture he may be working on.
Larry always works with an eye to the future and he said that he has always been able to use whatever knowledge he may have stored up. Thus when he was a traveling kid with a show he was taught, and to a large extent taught himself, to draw and made use of his talent later with the Telegram. When the call came from the movies he was able to respond and make use of his knowledge of the theater. And now again he is going to make use of his drawing ability on a comic strip of the Hollywood studios.
Larry finds it very hard to get away from himself. He wanted to be an artist instead of an actor and now he finds himself playing the dual role.
The Atlanta Constitution, December 2, 1919, noted the success of the former Savannah resident:
Savannahian Signs Big Movie Contract 
Savannah, Ga., December 1, Special.—Savannah was interested today in news that a Savannah boy, Larry Semen, has just signed a contract with the Vitagraph people for three years at a salary reported to be $1,200,000 a year. Semon started in as a cartoonist and is now a star comedian. As a tad, he did sleight of hand stunts and painted window signs in Savannah for the fun of the work.
Semon signed his World War I draft card on June 5, 1917. It said he lived in Brooklyn at 51 Clark Street, and his occupation was “ Motion Picture Director, Vitagraph Co. of America, Elm [illegible] Flatbush, Brooklyn”. A 1917 Los Angeles city directory said he resided at the Hotel Clark and was a director at the Vitagraph Company of America.

The 1920 census recorded Semon in Los Angeles at 2037 Harvard Blvd. and his occupation was “Actor and Director/Motion Picture”. Three Japanese men (a cook, a butler and a chauffeur) boarded there. Below is Semon’s entry in the 1921 Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual:
Semon, Lawrence; also director; b. West Point, Miss., 1889; educ. Savannah, Ga.; early career, played child parts on stage with Zera Semon, his father; pro. magician, cartoon artist and tumbler in vaud.; screen career, Universal, Palace Players (dir. Frank Daniels Comedies); Vitagraph (“Players and Puppy Love,” “Rooftops and Ruffians,” “Huns and Hyphens,” “Pluck and Plotters,” “Traps and Tangles,” “Scamps and Scandals,” “The Head Waiter,” “The Grocery Clerk,” “The Fly Cop,” “The Suitor,” “School Days,” “The Hick”); writes all his own comedies. Ad., Vitagraph, Hollywood, Cal.
Semon passed away October 8, 1928, in Victorville, California. His death was reported in many papers including the Berkeley Daily Gazette, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Larry Semon Dies of Pneumonia in Desert Hospital
Noted Screen Comedian Who Lost Riches Also Loses Fight for Life.
Victorville. Cal., Oct. 8 (AP)—Larry Semon, motion picture comedian, died, here today.
The comedian had been waging a losing battle against death since last Friday, when he was stricken with double pneumonia. He sank rapidly and his life was despaired of Saturday.
Semon came to a sanitarium in the Mojave Desert near here about six weeks ago in an attempt to recover from a nervous breakdown which came several months ago after a series of financial reverses incurred in the motion picture business. Never of robust health, he seemed unable to rally from the depression and illness.
His wife Dorothy Dwan, screen actress, and her mother, Mrs. Nancy Smith, attended him, during his illness.
Once a Cartoonist.
Semon was, born in West Point, Miss., 39 years ago. The stage claimed him as soon as he was old enough to appear in juvenile parts. Then he became a magician. Later he worked as a newspaper cartoonist but the stage called him again and he toured in vaudeville as a tumbler.
Semon’s first efforts in the films were in comedies of the “slapstick” variety, in which he made a fortune. On turning to the producing field he encountered both happiness and tragedy. While working as an actor-producer he fell in love with Miss Dwan, his leading lady. They were married in 1925 in New York.
The business of producing films was said to have led Semon into a program so ambitious that it swamped him financially. Last March he filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy, listing liabilities of nearly $500,000.
Syracuse Journal 10/9/1928; the photographs mentioned in the captions were not included because they were very dark

Semon’s filmography is here.

—Alex Jay


Thanks for that profile. Fascinating story of early Hollywood...would make a great movie or play!
Great research. If you look at Semon's last comedies, Dummies or A Simple Sap (both 1928), you'd swear you were looking at a burnt out old comic in his late 50's. There's a life lesson in Semon's story: Don't worry yourself to death!
Good work on your nice little bio on Larry Semon, Alex Jay. Before moving to the big New York papers, Larry was cartooning & illustrating for Philadelphia's North American. If you and your readers want to know more about this tragic figure, I encourage you to look for Semon's biography by author Claudia Sassen through McFarland Publishers, coming very soon! Loaded with photos and info from friends and family and years of research. – SteveR, Phila.
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