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Charleroi silent movie star draws renewed focus

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 5:39 p.m.
Jim Ference | Trib Total Media
Drawing of actress Olive Thomas from Charleroi, by Nikki Sheppick of the Charleroi Historical Society, in the window of the Coyle Theather in Charleroi, on July 30,2014.
Olive Thomas

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There was a time — nearly a century ago — when the name Olive Thomas was prominently displayed on movie theater marquees throughout the mid-Monongahela Valley.

Now, thanks to the artistic talents of Nikki Sheppick of Charleroi and the ongoing fundraising efforts of the Mid Mon Valley Cultural Trust, there's renewed interest in Thomas, a Charleroi native who reigned as a heralded star of motion pictures before her tragic death at age 25 in a hotel in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1920.

“I have been advocating putting more art/murals throughout town, especially at The Coyle and the adjoining structures that belong to the Cultural Trust,” Sheppick said in reference to her drawings of Thomas that are featured in a showcase at the Coyle Theater and on the front of one of the former Calistri family buildings. “We thought it would be appropriate to spotlight Olive Thomas because she is so much a part of Charleroi's history. She brought attention to the town around the world.”

Sheppick, a longtime leader of the Charleroi Area Historical Society and a member of the Cultural Trust, said the Thomas drawings have been drawing attention.

“People have been inquiring as to who she was,” said Sheppick, who studied at the Fort Wayne Institute of Art in Indiana. “It's encouraging to know that people are interested in Olive as well as the history of our community.”

Melanie Patterson, a North Belle Vernon businesswoman who serves as chairperson of the Mid Mon Valley Cultural Trust, agrees and said her group will enhance and advance that interest with a unique fundraiser this fall.

“I have found Olive Thomas to be a very interesting woman with a great story made even more intriguing because she hails from Charleroi,” Patterson said. “Her life reflected that which seems to be typical of a movie star today, one filled with glamour, glitz and tragedy.”

Patterson said the Cultural Trust is looking forward to a “great opportunity” to share Thomas' story with people throughout the Mid Mon Valley by honoring her memory as a world-famous silent screen film star with a “Flapper Fete” from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, at The Willow Room in Rostraver Township. The event also will serve as an early celebration of Thomas' birthday (Oct. 20).

A private screening of “The Flapper,” a 1920 comedy starring Thomas as the “notorious” protagonist Genevieve King, will be shown at the Oct. 17 fete. The critically acclaimed movie was the first United States film to portray the “flapper” lifestyle, which became a popular fad of the 1920s.

The event also will feature a “Coyle Cocktail” at a cash bar, a complimentary champagne bar, hors d'oeuvres, “Coyle cupcakes,” flapper fashions from area antique shops, a flapper photo booth, and a strolling magician in Roaring ‘20s style.

“We are encouraging those in attendance to wear their own flapper costumes, and prizes will be awarded,” Patterson said.

Chinese auction items will be available and a silent auction will be held offering a grand prize of a weeklong stay at a private oceanside condominium in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Patterson said only 200 tickets ($50 each in advance) will be sold for the event and can be purchased from her, Sheppick or the other new Trust members – Donna Vesely, Marty Schiff, Ken Thompson, Joyce Kossol, Camera Bartolotta and Larry Cowell. Tickets also are on sale at The Back Porch restaurant in Speers and the Prima Diva Boutique in Charleroi.

Proceeds from the event will be directed toward much needed repairs to the roof of The Coyle Theatre and two adjoining buildings “to prevent further deterioration of this historic theater,” Patterson said.

Olive Thomas was born Oliveretta Elaine Duffy on Oct. 20, 1894, in Charleroi, a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Duffy. According to a Sept. 13, 1960, story by reporter Bob Wiper of The Valley Independent, the family, which also included Olive's younger brothers, William Duffy and James Duffy, initially lived on Third Street and then later in the Macbeth Apartments before moving to McKees Rocks when Olive was a teenager.

Her father, who was employed at the Shovel Works in Charleroi, died in 1906. Her mother was remarried to Henry VanKirk and that marriage produced a stepsister, Harriet VanKirk, for Olive Thomas.

Various sources indicate that Olive worked at department stores in downtown Pittsburgh after leaving Charleroi. She was only 16 when she married Bernard Krugh Thomas of McKees Rocks in April 1911. They divorced in 1913, and Olive moved to New York City.

It was in New York that she worked as an artist's model and landed a cover photo on the Saturday Evening Post. She was hired by the Ziegfeld Follies and its racier counterpart, Ziegfeld Midnight Frolics, an after-hours revue staged on the roof garden of the New Amsterdam Theatre.

“She became the center of attention of the in-crowd there,” Darlene Pennline of the Charleroi Area Historical Society told a Women's History Month audience in 2006 at the Charleroi Senior Center. “An executive from Triangle Pictures was among those who liked her style and offered her a movie contract. She made her motion picture debut in 1916 and appeared in more than 20 Hollywood films in the next four years.”

It was through her work in films that she met actor Jack Pickford, the brother of silent film star Mary Pickford, and they were married in October 1916. In 1918, film mogul Lewis J. Selznick signed Thomas for his company.

By 1920 Olive had become one of the brightest young stars in America.

That glory faded to tragedy while Thomas and Pickford were on vacation in France.

Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.