Lights, Camera, Action: La Jolla Historical Society exhibit examines ‘devices and wizardry’ of 1900s film-making


Some of La Jolla’s early cinematic tales are truly destined for the silver screen. There’s the mystery of whatever happened to Baby Peggy, the child star of the silent-film era; the tragic losses of The Village’s Unicorn Theater and Cove Theater; the dramatic life of one-time La Jolla resident and actress Carol Dempster; and campy looks at Andy Warhol’s time working at Windansea Beach.

Behind-the-scenes looks at these, and so many other pieces of La Jolla’s film history, make up the exhibit “History in Motion: Devices & Wizardry in Early Cinema,” which opens Saturday, June 8 at the La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage Gallery, 780 Prospect St.

Using an early 1900s vintage multi-media approach, the exhibit features a study of the silent melodrama films of La Jolla Cinema League; magic lantern-style slide presentations of La Jolla Historical Society archival holdings; stereoscopically enhanced views of the past, using vintage tools and current technology; a survey of the old movie palaces of La Jolla; silent film secrets of San Diego County; surprising multi-media tools of the past with a look to the virtual reality future; and revelations from vintage La Jolla home movies — from underwater films to underground Warhol sightings.

“Cinema provides an opportunity for time travel, especially in this case,” said curator Scott Paulson. “You get to be transported to another time. La Jolla is an interesting town, but it’s hard to imagine what it was like in the 1920s. Photos are fine, but it is so engaging when it is 3-D or motion pictures. That’s what we’re celebrating.”

Shining the spotlight on the La Jolla Cinema League, Paulson added: “They were a delightful amateur film club in the 1920s that made professional silent films. They had access to equipment and they made these wonderful movies and we’ve got them! It was run by a family. They made these spectacular films, some were quasi-experimental. They were responsible for the first viral cat video — they photographed their cat wandering ... sitting in a Quaker Oats box ... I’m sure this was the first.”

A film still from a La Jolla Cinema League production, the amateur film club of the 1920s.

Then there’s the story of Carol Dempster, the silent film star who retired in La Jolla in the 1960s and was “written out of the history books,” Paulson said. “At one point, she just disappeared from everyone’s radar, at a time where you just didn’t do that.”

As for Baby Peggy? With parents in the industry, she was spotted on a film lot and signed to a staggering $1.5 million contract as a child (that’s more than $19 million in today’s dollars). Now, at age 100, Peggy Montgomery lives in the Bay Area. But for a time, she worked at the UC San Diego bookstore. “She wore pancake makeup and 1920s hair, and it still looked good on her,” Paulson said.

Movie posters and biographical information help share these stories and more.

But a film industry cannot survive on actors alone. It needs technology, and in the ever-changing 1900s, equipment was changing faster than a film reel.

“We have magic lanterns, which predate photos and videos as a way to project images and information; and we have stereoscopes,” Paulson said. “They involve looking at a card through a viewer and it becomes like 3-D. They were a great way to do virtual tourism, because many of those slides were of the pyramids or Paris. For this exhibit, you will be able to use your smartphone, and put it in a vintage stereoscope and see a 3-D picture.”

The exhibit also has a collection of 1920s cameras and projectors, and virtual reality booths with looks at long-gone landmarks such as La Jolla’s Windemere Cottage.

And in La Jolla, beloved movie houses provided a place to view these masterpieces.

“There was an early outdoor theater called the Unicorn Theater, and the Cove Theater up on Girard,” said La Jolla Historical Society executive Heath Fox. “There is the story of these houses that developed in that part of the century. And we’ll tell that story through this exhibition.” (The Unicorn Theater closed in the 1980s and the Cove Theater in 2003.)

Logo for the long-gone Unicorn Theater

Concurrent with the exhibit, a curated silent film festival with live music will be presented in collaboration with Vanguard Culture at Idea 1 in downtown San Diego. Titled the “Not-So-Silent Short Film Fest,” the three-themed presentations will be held June 22, July 6 and Aug. 3 (details at

At the La Jolla Historical Society, a short film festival with live music by Paulson’s Teeny Tiny Pit Orchestra, titled “Movies by Moonlight,” will be held evenings Aug. 15-18 (and yes, Paulson made sure there is a full moon those nights). Those who wish to attend can bring a low chair and picnic dinner.

“I’m excited for this exhibit because this is a history that is directly related to this community,” Fox said. “Years ago, we did a project called ‘Judith Dolan: On Broadway.’ As part of that, we covered the history of the performing arts in La Jolla, and it’s interesting to think about how that history developed in parallel to the history of film and theater — and it’s a lot of fun.”

IF YOU GO: “History in Motion: Devices & Wizardry in Early Cinema” is will be open noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, June 8 through Sept. 8 at Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St. Free.