THE PERILS OF PAULSON: Librarian strives to revive the past with old La Jolla movies

Are you tired of the talkies? Got a hankering for a good old-fashioned silent movie in black and white with subtitles, live music, exaggerated facial gestures and slapstick movements?

If, so, then the place to be is the south lawn of Wisteria Cottage on the night of Thursday, Aug. 20, when the La Jolla Historical Society will team up with UC San Diego librarian Scott Paulson to present a collection of short silent films made in La Jolla by La Jollans in the 1920s.

“Talkies are just a fad, anyway!” jokes Paulson. “They won’t last!”

The films will show La Jolla in the Roaring Twenties with posh cars, finely landscaped homes, big jewels, flapper gals and Gatsby guys. Set locations include Casa de Mañana, the Scripps family home, and the steep biological grade going up to the top of Soledad Mountain.

The films were all made from 1926 to 1929 by the La Jolla Cinema League (LJCL), which was comprised of well-to-do La Jollans who had the means to buy the best equipment and fund a state-of-the-art development lab.

LJCL was a big, bright spotlight in the town’s history. The chief photographer was P.H. Adams, the scriptwriter was his wife, Elizabeth Adams, and the director was Ms. R.G.S. Berger. Tickets for the films were sold at The Little Shop and Putnam’s Pharmacy. Screenings were held at the La Jolla Woman’s Club and the American Legion Hall. The events were usually sold-out, with many people being turned away.

One film showing in 1927 netted $200, which was sent down South to aid Mississippi flood victims.

The LJCL, which produced some 10 feature-length movies and numerous shorts, was associated with a larger national association, called the Amateur Cinema League that put out the magazine, “Movie Makers.”

Some examples of LJCL’s full-length movies include: “The Uninvited Guests,” a haunted house ghost story and “Consuelo di Capri,” an Italian-themed romance.

Beverly Hjermstad and Alison Royle, the daughters of LJCL founders P.H. and Elizabeth Adams, gifted the entire collection of LJCL films to the La Jolla Historical Society and the San Diego History Center.

Scott Paulson, the outreach coordinator for the Communications & Engagement Department at UC San Diego Library, became involved with the films because of his background as curator of the silent movie collection at the library. Paulson has done a great deal of research on the LJCL films and teamed with Miriam Polcino to do the lab work necessary to preserve and enhance each film.

Paulson wears a number of different hats for his library job. He is an authority on cultural activities from the past (which he hopes to bring back into fashion) like toy pianos, magic lanterns, paper theatres, radio dramas and steampunk teas.

Paulson said his work as a curator of such icons from days-gone-by evolved because “it needed to be done and no one else was doing it. These things need to make a comeback because they were — and still are — valid, important cultural art forms.”

And while Paulson’s exhibits, events and film screenings to promote them may seem whimsical, madcap or a bit odd at first glance, they are all examples of historic preservation work. “All the things I do are meant to be fun, but they are also educational events that are the product of a great deal of historical research,” he said.

Paulson’s Aug. 20 silent film screening will mark the beginning of a bi-annual event (February/August), which he will curate for La Jolla Historical Society, featuring some of the melodramatic short films created by the LJCL. These include “Virtue’s Reward” (or “Blood for Bonds”) the story of a plot to defraud individuals of their stocks and bonds; “Avarice,” the tale of a greedy, old miser; “A Midsummer’s Day,” a love romp; and, two special effects pieces, “The Chess Game” and “Viral Kitty.”

Paulson said he loves old silent movies. “They’re not all comical and slapstick, like the Keystone Cops,” he points out. “Many are elegant, beautiful and even breathtaking — especially when they’ve been properly restored. You have to realize that when movies were silent and featured musical accompaniment, they were very close to live theater.”

With the help of fellow musician, Christian Hertzog, Paulson will score the films at Wisteria Cottage with a bandwagon full of unusual musical instruments he’s collected over the years. The audience will also get to participate because Paulson will be distributing the instruments with instructions on how (and when) they should be played during the films.

The Force that is Paulson

Paulson has been working on the UCSD campus ever since he graduated with a joint degree in music and linguistics in 1984. Slowly, he has created his own job description at the library. For instance, Paulson started doing silent movie showings after he was given the assignment to clean out a storage room cluttered with old films. He took on the task of preserving, protecting and presenting these gems so the library acquisitions would become public knowledge.

Paulson has also developed the annual Toy Piano Festival, which took place earlier this month. The festival has become so important that the Library of Congress has created a special call number for the toy piano scores created for the festival each year by professional and academic musicians (M175T69).

Paulson’s Paper Theater event is coming up Aug. 30-31. It will feature elaborate examples of scale model paper theaters with “performances” by little paper dolls. Paper theater was once the chief way people got to know about theater production companies. Director Franco Zefferilli (“Romeo and Juliet”) for instance, has said he first learned about theater by playing paper theater at home with his mother.

In touting a Magic Lantern performance, Paulson said it is an early version of a slide show, with gas-powered light projected through a series of painted glass slides to tell a story. Missionaries, showing slides of their travels in Africa, gave the first lantern performances in this country. In the mid-1800s, the story from the novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was also performed by way of a magic lantern.

To catch Paulson at his best, tune into his old-time radio show on 8 p.m. second and fourth Thursdays. His first production was a detective drama about a lady gumshoe called “Del Mar Detective.”

The Adams Sisters on their parents’ films


I remember mother talking about the wonderful time spent creating these movies. Many were filmed at Capri, our grandmother’s beautiful home on the La Jolla coast.


I hold a warm spot of pride in my heart when I think of the ingenuity and creativity that went into the La Jolla Cinema League films. Although our father was the photographer, I’m sure our mother and grandmother were the inspiration for plots and casting. To see our parents, in their younger years, acting in their creations, is such a trip.


We grew up enjoying these melodramas and giggling when we saw pictures of our handsome father charming a young woman “of vampish tendencies,” our grandfather acting as a Russian spy, and our uncle hanging by the neck. Dad was ahead of his time shooting moving pictures in the 1920s, using animation, creative lighting effects and handmade titles. How entranced he would be today with the audio/visual technology available on computer.