The Adventurous Life of Silent Film Comedienne Wilna Hervey Showcased at Betzwood Film Festival

LL Book coverThroughout her adventurous life as a silent film star and art colony trailblazer, 6’3,” 300-pound Wilna Hervey tackled the world on her own terms. At this year’s Betzwood Film Festival, the woman who brought the Toonerville Trolley’s “Powerful Katrinka” to life on screen will be celebrated with a retrospective look back on her colorful life and the screening of four of her surviving silent comedies. The films will be shown at their original projection speed and accompanied on the theater organ by Don Kinnier.

The evening also will include a book signing reception with silent film historian and Montgomery County Community College emeritus history professor, Joseph P. Eckhardt, author of the newly published biography, Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason.

The film festival and book signing are scheduled for Saturday, May 9, at 8 p.m. in the College’s Science Center Theatre, 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell. Tickets cost $15. Tickets are available at the box office the night of the program, or visit mc3.edu/livelyarts or call 215-641-6518 for tickets and more information.

Beginning in 1920, Montgomery County’s own Betzwood motion picture studio turned the popular and nationally syndicated Toonerville Trolley cartoons of Fontaine Fox into live-action, two-reel comedy films. Wilna Hervey captivated audiences with her portrayal of Powerful Katrinka, a hefty, innocent creature oblivious to the extent of her own physical strength. “Only seven of the seventeen Toonerville Trolley comedies have survived…and the Betzwood Film Archive has copies of four,” says festival founder Eckhardt. “These films contain some very funny episodes and wonderful sight gags based on Wilna’s portrayal of Katrinka.”

Hervey may have been the right physical size to portray Katrinka, but it was her larger-than-life roles as a skilled portrait painter, award-winning enamel artist and hostess of some of the Catskills’ wildest parties that made her a legend. She was joined in her life adventures by Nan Mason, the surprisingly tall daughter of Wilna’s Toonerville co-star, Dan Mason, while filming at Betzwood. The two young women became inseparable, and ultimately life companions. When Hervey’s cinema work began to wane, they moved to the famed artists’ haven of Woodstock, N.Y, to pursue their dreams of becoming professional artists.

Living in one of the few American communities where they could comfortably be themselves, Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, known locally as “the Big Girls,” carved out extraordinarily creative and unconventional lives. An irrepressible enthusiasm permeated all of their endeavors, from trying their hand at farming to raising funds for local causes through their “full moon” soirées attended by some of the era’s top writers, painters and musicians. Their go-for-broke lifestyle and enduring, nontraditional partnership not only inspired their artwork, but Eckhardt’s interest in writing about them.

“The more I learned about Wilna and Nan’s unique approach to life, the more I felt that their story needed to be shared,” says Eckhardt. Advance reviews of Eckhardt’s book, Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, have been favorable, with Robert S. Birchard, film historian and author of Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, calling it “a consummate example of the biographer’s craft.”

Professor Eckhardt taught both history and art history at Montgomery County Community College from 1968 until his retirement in 2007. His biography of Philadelphia film pioneer, Siegmund Lubin, The King of the Movies, was published in 1997. Eckhardt founded the annual Betzwood Silent Film Festival in 1989 to preserve and showcase the memory of the silent movie industry that once flourished in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

In 2012, he established the Betzwood Film Archive, donating his extensive personal collection of Betzwood photographs, memorabilia, and artifacts to the college’s Brendlinger Library, which already held a collection of surviving Betzwood films. The library subsequently launched a website dedicated to providing online digital access to the entire collection.

“The worldwide level of interest in the Betzwood Archive has been remarkable, and a bit unexpected,” says Eckhardt.

Thus far, the website has attracted nearly 39,000 visits from film fans and scholars alike, representing 109 countries. Eckhardt, who monitors the site on a daily basis and responds to frequent questions and requests for information, reports “it is not unusual to find someone in Nepal or Peru reading about the Betzwood cowboys or a scholar in Paris researching the technology of the Betzwood studio film processing plant. We have also had a number of emails from the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the actors and directors who once made films at Betzwood.”

Some of these descendants of the stars have even come to the annual Betzwood Film Festival from as far away as Texas to see their once-famous ancestors on the silver screen. The Betzwood Film Archive can be visited online at mc3betzwood.wordpress.com.

Follow “Destination Arts” at Montgomery County Community College on Facebook at facebook.com/DestinationArts for information about performing and fine arts events at the College.

~ by Lauren Somers

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