Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

  I was working on an article on Elgin Lessley, as he was on the 1915 train to New York with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle as they made their way to Fort Lee to make films for Triangle. I was running into a problem in that I am ‘driven’ by photographs but was having a hard time finding pictures of Elgin.  In my crying about not finding images of Elgin, a dear friend, William Thomas Sherman suggested that I look in the yahoo group created by R. Scott Jacob with photos done by Melbourne Spurr.  I wasn’t lucky in locating Elgin, so I will set that project aside. 

 Why, because. . .  I found Melbourne Spurr and his father E. Willard Spurr, thanks to R. Scott Jacob. What a lovely gift.








Marilyn Slater


. . . This is a magnificent father and an equally gifted son. During World War I, Ervin Willard Spurr and the Times-Tribune arranged to take pictures of every man in the services and even those who were enlisting in the Waterloo, Iowa area, so that those young men struggling in the war would be included in the pages of history. Melbourne had his draft card and was ready to go but his hearing was unfortunately not good enough to allow him to serve.

 When a popular realtor by the name of G. E. Brebner had a stoke his photograph taken by Ervin Willard Spurr, before the stoke was displayed in front of Mr. Spurr studio. It showed the smile for which Mr. Brebner was famous and Willard added a poem about the smile.


Ervin Willard had been in Waterloo for 17 years but in 1923 left for Los Angeles, California, by automobile to open a studio.  He traveled with his wife and son, Wilbur Shimer, a former solder, an auto mechanic and the family bulldog, ‘Jack Horner.’ The automobile was a new 5-passenger sedan and the route was over the old Santa Fe Trail.



Melbourne E. Spurr preceded his father and family, by a couple of years before and purchased a lot across from the Ambassador hotel, for a studio with a residence, the plans were drawn by architect J. G. Ralston.  The Spurr studio in Iowa had become internationally famous for the scores of awards that Ervin Willard had won and he was now on the way to capture Hollywood. In 1929, E. Willard moved his personal studio to Pasadena.


Melbourne Spurr was born December 22, 1888 in Iowa and although Melbourne had hoped for a career in front of the camera.  There is a photo in the Spurr collection of Melbourne in a costume for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920) however, he does not actually appear in the film. According to the 1920 census, Nettie was living with her son, and it indicates that she is divorced from Willard, there is a reference that this may have happen as early 1916, Nettie also tried a turn in the movies.

Melbourne was extremely hard of hearing, which may account for the difficulty that directors had in working with him and his difficulty in finding work. Another, tail of a dog, Melbourne owned a baby wire-haired terrier, for which, Mr. Wrigley, the manufacturer of jaw exercise (gum) offered $1,500.  However, Spurr was too attached to Bozo to part with him. Perhaps, Mr. Wrigley got a photo.

Fortunately, Melbourne was his father son and found work at the Fred Hartsook studio.  In the Spurr Collection were a number of pictures, which I have identified as Hartsook, which were done by Melbourne so need to be reevaluated.  He took photos of all the stars including Vilma Banky, John Barrymore, Hobart Bosworth, Fanny Brice, Betty Compson, Marion Davies, William DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Pauline Frederick, Buster Keaton, Jacqueline Logan, June Marlowe, Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, Norma Talmadge, Alice Terry, Bryant Washburn, and tons more.

Mary Pickford seems to have understood the quality of Melbourne eye.  Lita Gray, Mrs. Charlie Chaplin was captured by the Spurr camera in a wonderful photo taken in 1924 right after the return of the Chaplins from Mexico. There are over 1,000 photos in the Spurr Collection at the Yahoo group and a remarkable number are the iconic images of the 1920’s personalities. 




By 1929, the artistry of Melbourne Spurr was given a lovely tribute in the August ‘Studio Light’ the publication of the Eastman Kodak Company; his photos were used to illustrate the magazine. The 1920’s was his decade.

As the individual studios became aware of the importance of celebrity portraits, they developed their in-house photo departments and artists like Spurr moved into creating portraits of other notables like presidents, artists, authors and other celebrities. The era of George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Eugene Robert Richee and Melbourne Spurr had passed.

Melbourne was married to the beautiful Kathryn Harris, of the famous million dollars back and then there was the German actress, Lena Malena.





There was a rather thrilling story told of Lena Molena saving Melbourne after he lost the oar of the boat and was unable to swim so Lena took the rope in hand and towed the boat back to land.  She battled rip tides off Catalina Island in the dark for hours.  The Coast Guard dragged her from the icy sea.  In another report the row boat was a yacht in which they were sailing overturned. 

Melbourne lived until he was 76, much honored, he is buried at Hollywood Forever in the Chandler Gardens and still remembered.

Reference Information



1917, June 5, California Draft Registration Card, age 28. Photographer

1918, July 2, Waterloo Times Tribune, Photographs of All County Men in U.S. Service


1920, October 10, Waterloo Times Tribune, The Man Behind the Smile

            “I know him when I see his smile,

            As to feeling bad; I never heard him say,

            I know his smile lits his face,

            Because he wears it every day.


He never complains when things go bad

            He always sees the joke

            He’s there in very many ways

            To cheer up other folks


Seeing good in every one;

            Mistakes he never mentions

            He has confidence in every one

            And their good intentions.


One day when the sky was cloudy

            He called on Spurr to have a view

And the clouds began to scatter

And the sun came breaking thru,


You will know him whom you see him

In Spurr’s case, ‘twill be worth your while.

So cultivate the friendship of

The man behind the smile.”


1923, April 28, The Evening Courier, E. Willard Spurr Will Locate at Los Angeles

1924, November 29, Modesto Evening News, Introducing: Mrs. Charlie Chaplin

1927, September 21, San Antonio Light, Heroine-Risks Life-Saves Man

1928, February 2, The Amarillo, Hollywood’s newest romance

1929, August, Studio Light,

1930, January 21, Premier Syndicate, Dorothy Herzog, The Film Shop


Melbourne Spurr ... movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/spurr

R. Scott Jacob, biography




Leatrice Joy

Marion Davies