Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Excerpts of Interview with Minta Durfee Arbuckle by Don Schneider and Stephen Normand

to contact Don and or support
his movie preservation efforts write or call:
The Movie Museum
408 N. Water St.
Owosso, Michigan 48867
phone: 1-989-725-7621

taped Sun, July 21, 1974 Reel 3A

Minta: I haven't seen the show (the musical, Mack and Mabel) yet, I'm only telling you from hear- say, but I understand that it was even in the papers, but I'm going to say this even before I see it on Wednesday matinee, and that is, that wasn't any young girl, that I know of, who was as beautifully bred; and she was absolutely a FIEND for reading and learning. After she'd get thru with her bumps and bruises and everything else that happened in the old days at Keystone, she'd go home and run a bath with Epson salts and she would lie there until it was cold, and she'd take a book into the bathtub and read and read and read and READ. And when I was told by someone who had seen the show, that this man playing Mr. Sennett says to her, "Why you can't even read," - that breaks my heart, tears came to my eyes when I heard such a thing. She also was the type, that if she KNEW you, and she knew that you were doing anything, that was different and it was something that interested her, after she got thru her bath and had something to eat, she'd get dressed and go over and visit you, or visit somebody else, and she never thought much of the time of the evening, that never seemed to make any difference to Mabel, and it didn't make any difference to anybody else. So when she went over to William Desmond Taylor ('s) home, she had heard that he spoke French beautifully, and she was French and Irish and so she had been studying French, but as you well know, you have to carry on a conversation to be able to perfect yourself in any language, you can read it all your lifetime, but if you don't have somebody to talk to - I learned that the first year I went to Paris. You've GOT to have somebody to talk to. And that is why it is so MEAN of people to make remarks about her, because I'm telling you, I KNOW this! That she never LOVED any other man in the world but Mack Sennett. And at the ending of her life, after she had been struck on the head by this Mae Busch, and she had refused to go back into the studio again, because she already had her wedding dress ready to marry, and this woman came and was with us and no one liked her when she came, this Mae Busch, and then at the end of her life, when she finally became tubercular, and I worked in, and played the heavy and finished my four years contract in "Mickey" - and that little thing would have a hemorrhage of the lungs and then she would take a swig out of a bottle, to stop the bleeding, and the coughing, and do all of her own stunts, nobody ever did any stunts for her, and if you've seen "Mickey" you'll be amazed to see that girl sliding down, where she'd fallen, she'd have been not only killed but she'd been crushed to pieces - from this mansion where we made "Mickey" over on Western and 24th Street - and that day, in the morning, she and I were talking, she said, "Oh, I better take my goop," - she always called it `goop', "Because I feel like I'm gonna have a little hemorrhage."

"Well," I said, "Don't do your work, don't do that scene today, do something else dear."

And she said, "Oh, no, that's the way the schedule goes. No, I'll do it."

Lew Cody worked with us in that, and he had a great sense of humor, terrific sense of humor, and was a marvelously-read man, and they were very great friends, we were ALL great friends, and we all liked each other very much, and her nurse told me, who is still living that she finally married Lew Cody, when she was a complete invalid, a bed-ridden invalid. And he was getting sick, and finally was in a wheelchair. And one of the nice things I want to tell you about him, when Mabel was getting so bad, in such BAD condition, and she had really made her will, but she was going to will something to Lew Cody, he said, "Don't you dare to do that, because I've never supported you." They'd only been married a couple of years when she died, and then he died. She died out at Monrovia, of tuberculosis, and I was living in New York and my sister was here, and she saw her the day before she passed on. And Lew Cody passed on out here. But Mabel was one of the most wonderful girls that ever lived. She never ate a meal at night that she didn't feed somebody, if she knew they were hungry. Our cars, we always had big cars, we lived at the beach because Roscoe loved the water, and so did she, they were very wonderful in the water together. But there'd either be a great big box of groceries, with her name, on the way home, to please leave it. One place was the grandma of Blanche Sweet. Or there'd be a check for somebody. And when we worked on the streets and in the parks, if she saw a child with a scratch or a bruise, or a little runny nose - and if I was working with her, she'd say, "Mintrattie," - and by the way, she would, she would give you a nickname if she loved you dearly, so she always called me, `Min-trattie' instead of `Minta' and Roscoe, because, she called him `Big Otto' because over at Lincoln Park why there was an elephant over there that belonged to the Selig Company, called `Big Otto,' and she called him `Big Otto.' And she called Mr. Sennett `Nappy' because he would often have his hand across the front of his tummy (like a napkin). That was her love salutations. In this, I understand, in this show, the man playing Mr. Sennett, called her a dope fiend and everything else, and she was NEVER a dope fiend, and she never, never had any injections or anything of the kind. The only thing that she ever took was this cough syrup, and this was given to her by a doctor and administered to her by her nurse, Julie Benson, who is still living, - she was with her for a number of years. I can't rave ENOUGH about her. I need her to help me because they never made one girl like Mabel Normand. I remember one time after she passed on, she was only 33, why I was down at Hamburger store, which for years has been the May Company, and Mose (sic) Hamburger saw my mother and I walking along, and he came up and said "Hello. Well, Mama Durfee, we've lost our beautiful child. I'm so heart-broken I don't know what to do. Do you know that little thing bought $15,000.00 worth of baby layettes, she loved children so much. THIS was Mabel Normand." And for anyone to have her depicted other than a beautiful - she was a little imp and she was a little imp, and she was a lot of fun, and she liked to play jokes on people. Things of that kind. But she was only a child, she wasn't of age when I knew her, at first. I haven't seen the show yet, but I go on Wednesday to see it, matinee, and believe me, I imagine I'll take my pen in hand and write to Mr. Merrick, because they better change it before they get to New York. I really think that when people do that sort of thing, they ought to be SUED, absolutely sued. To leave such an impression. This young man that I am talking about, Stuart Oderman, he's a school teacher by profession, but he's a wonderful musician, and his whole love is so nostalgic about - he LOVES everything that is nostalgic about pictures. And he plays for the museum in New York, and every place that he can. He's going to play here at the Masquers, August the first, for old pictures, and he went to see it, and he came back and was almost in tears because he too had heard from, and not only from me but from other people, what a remarkable, wonderful girl she was. She was just a CHILD, absolutely, a beautiful, beautiful child, and I'm almost dreading to go see it, but the tickets have been sent me, so I shall go. And you'll hear more from me after it's over with, too.

Don: Do you remember first meeting Mabel?

Minta: Oh, yes! I met her right over at Keystone. You see, we came home from the Orient in 1913, and it's a strange thing that the stage seemed to be losing its glamour because every company that came out, they would end their contracts, like on the Orpheum Circuit, and the Sullivan-Considine Circuit, or the plays, the legitimate plays, they would all quit here, and the first thing you know, everybody was meandering over to the Sennett Studio because we didn't have any scenery, all you had to do was to lift the lock on the great big wooden fence, or gate, and come in. Because we made everything in parks, Echo Park, that's down where Aimee Semple McPherson's big church is. And we worked in Griffith Park, and we worked in the streets, or if there was a fire, somebody went to the fire with a camera, and some cop, and one girl would usually run along, and then we'd make the picture up, the story up, afterward. . See, we didn't have any picture writers, for years, for the first two years we were there, each comedian worked out his own gags. And we'd sit around a table, and maybe Mr. Sennett would say, "Now that gag looks like it would be good for Ed Kennedy, or that would be good for Chester Conklin. Maybe we started out with the idea that it was going to be some gag for MY husband, or for Charlie, but that's the way that we made our pictures. They were all spontaneous and every one of our Keystone Cops ought to have a dowry (dollar seat?) in heaven for what they did, enough to KILL them, and for such little pay. And when I think what they pay some men today, who must have mattresses and these great big cardboard boxes to break their falls, and all that kind of thing, and maybe they'll work for a hundred, or five hundred or a thousand dollars, and our darlings, those wonderful, wonderful dedicated people, we were the most dedicated company that ever lived. And we were all a big family, and everybody there had always been in some kind of show business, in the entertainment world, every one. And each one would come in; I'll never forget the day that Slim Summerville came in, I think he was about 6' 3'', and he probably weighed 95 pounds, and with him was little Bobby Dunn, who hit him at about the hip line, and they came in from a carnival show that had closed, and Bobby Dunn was famous for doing dives with two white horses into a pool, and of course Slim did whatever they do in carnivals, then he loved to play pool. He was a pool shark. So of course, Sennett, when he saw this combination, "All right, stay. Just get along with the rest of us." And that's the way that everybody built up the (sic) Keystone. Today the pictures are classics, they never could be made again, under any living circumstances, because you'd NEVER get dedicated people. And there's hardly anyone that's in pictures that sometime or other didn't work at Keystone. Of course WE were there four solid years. Six days a week, and from 8 until 6 in the evening. And I wouldn't have missed it for all - as they say - for all the tea in China. Because it was the greatest feeling of friendship and hard work and we were making people happy and if it had not been for my husband's ability to direct well - after he joined it wasn't long before he was directing, because he'd done a lot of tabloid musical comedy, which we had when we were first married, and he was wise. He was great for having his own company, as he called it, because everybody wanted to work for him, and they knew exactly what he wanted, and therefore, he KEPT UP their releases, and WE first went to Keystone, there was no such thing as a release. It was catch as catch can, because there had to be three reels in New York City or there wouldn't have been any Keystone, so I'll never forget the evening that Mr. Sennett asked Roscoe, Mabel and I to go with him to the famous old Van Nuys Hotel (downtown LA), whose cuisine was considered one of the finest in America. And Mr. Sennett LOVED to eat. So finally, before dinner was clear over he handed Roscoe a check, and he said, "This is yours, Big Boy, because we have NOW got the release, and we owe it to you because you've kept up the reels going," and he handed us a thousand dollar check. And of course neither one of us had ever had one of those in our lifetime.

Don: Was it three reels a week?

Minta: About three reels a week to get out. Sometime 2 1/2, but always 2, always 2. But he had his OWN, you might say, group of people, who worked with him all the time. And another reason why they liked him, he always saw to it that they had a good lunch.

Don: They need energy.

Minta: Well, they needed the energy, but I know one time, down at the beach, they worked all day on Saturday, in the sand and the water, and there was a very beautiful restaurant, Venice, at Venice. And these boys had just worked - and the girls, too, everybody had worked, I had worked in it too, but WE were living at the beach, so of course we would be going home. And we went down to this cafe at Venice. And one of the boys looked up and he said, "Chief," - most of them called him "Chief," Can we - ?" He said, "Eat what you want. Now you've worked just like BEAVERS today. Now, eat whatcha want." So the chap who always acted more or less, well, as his chauffeur and he was his right hand bower, as they say. Joe Bordeaux, he was wonderful. He got up and came to him and said, "Do you really mean it?" "Of COURSE I mean it." Anyway, when he took the bill back to Mr. Sennett, Sennett said, "My goodness sakes alive! Roscoe, that's a terribly big luncheon bill." "All right, take it out of my salary, and I shall never direct another picture for you as long as I live. I'll just work." Sennett got excited. "Oh, my goodness, Gi-gi-give that to me! Give it to me, give it to me, give it here." Because he knew there was NOBODY keeping up the releases, like Roscoe was. And never had any trouble with anyone. Charlie was a fine director, but he was a slow director, and he had never really directed until he came to us. Really directed. He had worked in his own vaudeville act, which he took from his father, "A Night in an English Music Hall" is the way he came over (to) the Sullivan and Considine Circuit, and besides that, he did lots of tiny little intricate little things with his hands, little things that he played with, and he would do that over and over and over again, - and Roscoe and Mabel they did so many things that were activity, running and falling and dancing and riding in these old jalopies, falling out of them and all that kind of thing, so with theirs, it was easier to make progress. That was the idea. And when they took a poll all over the world, who was the best-liked comedian, believe it or not, my husband was the one who came up with it, that he was the best-liked comedian all over the world,after the Keystone pictures GOT all over the world, and the reason for it was, he was SUCH a BOY, had a boyish countenance, and all these foreign mothers love their boys, you know, THEIR BOYS are always the first. The girls don't amount to very much. So that is the reason, and the other reason is, he never did anything that a child would pick up from him, that wasn't right. Charlie had one bad habit, or he had a couple of them. One of them was, he would put his fingers up to his nose (thumb his nose), and the other was that he would be eating with a fork and he would take the fork and scratch his head, or scratch under his arm pits, and things like that, (that are vulgar) - well, children pick up these things from a person that they LIKE. And he had to be admonished about that a great many times, and he finally cut it out. But that was the trouble with him when he first came. And that is a certain type of English comedy, doing those kinds of things. And my husband was the first man to sign a million dollar contract. That was not a million dollars for each picture, that was a million dollars a year. That was done with Paramount. Mr. Adolph Zukor signed him to that.

Don: Can you tell us about the occasion when you first met Mabel Normand?

Minta: Well, the occasion that is amusing to me, firstly, we had been for some months in the Orient, doing Gilbert and Sullivan and comic operas, and we came home, up to San Francisco, and there was NOTHING doing, so we came down to Los Angeles, which is our home, my birthplace, and - Roscoe was always an eager beaver to work. He LOVED to work, just loved to work. And he went around, trying to find jobs, but there were no jobs. So someone told him to go out on the Big Red Car, which used to run out to a place that is now Glendale, that was called Tropico in those days, because of the heat, I guess, and get off at Effie Street, and there was some kind of shindig, that's the expression the man said to him, "There's some kind of a shindig going on there, Arbuckle, and maybe it's something you'd fit into." Well, Roscoe always looked like Jackie Gleason. When he was dressed up, he was immaculate, looked fine in his clothes; he was not sloppy-fat, he was hard fat, because he weighed 15 pounds when he was born. He was very athletic, agile. And this car ran about once every hour. So he got on the big red car and came out and got off at Effie Street. And when he stepped off the car, he stepped into dust pretty near up to his waistline, and he had on white shoes, white trousers, a blue coat, straw hat, and of course a white shirt and a blue tie. So he saw this gate, and he opened the gate, and went in on the stage, it was nothing but a wooden stage, nothing in there, but a little `igloo' as I call them, with a little open door someplace or other, three or four of those up in there, and he walked around, and there was nobody around, there wasn't a living soul, and he started to hum., and finally a door opened, and a man with a great big head of hair, greying hair and a mouthful of tobacco juice, opened the door and said, "You'd be here tomorrow morning at eight o'clock" and banged the door to. Well, of course when you work on the stage, those kind of things never happen to you. You usually have to bring your credentials, such as a picture, and (a list of) what your wardrobe consists of, and what you can do and what you can't do. Well, he thought he better hang around a little bit longer, because he knew the car probably wouldn't be back for another half hour, and so he was wandering around again and he started to sing, and he had a gorgeous voice, and so he was just over to lift the handle on this wooden door to get out, when this door opened up again, and the same head came out, and more of the same tobacco juice was spit out, and this fellow pointed to him this time, and he said, "Look here, Big Boy, you be here tomorrow morning at EIGHT O'CLOCK. How do YOU know, you may be a STAR someday." - And THAT MAN was Mack Sennett. That's the way Roscoe met there. So when he got home, he talked with my mother, and she said, "Well, dear, if I were you, I think I'd go out tomorrow morning." He said, "Well, I don't know what kind of show business it is, Ma'am, but it's terrible, why it's ridiculous. I never heard of anything like that." "Well now, dear, you've looked around for work and there isn't any; why don't you go out and just SEE what it's going to be." So, he'd do anything that SHE asked him to do, anyway, and he went out. He went in, and the moment he found out that it was Mr. Sennett, Mr. Sennett said, "You're with US." He said, "Stick around, stick around." And later on, in came Mabel, this beautiful, beautiful, dark-haired beauty, a little beauty, and Ford Sterling, I don't know, somebody else, and Alice Davenport, we called her "Mother Davenport," she was the mother-in-law of Wally Reid. He married Dorothy Davenport. And from the Davenport family comes the famous Fannie Davenport, one of the greatest theatrical women that we ever had in the history of the American theater. So the moment that Mabel and Roscoe met, she being so petite and beautiful with dark hair, and he a big, boyish, golden blonde, his hair almost gold at that time, golden, and they just looked at one another and they just kind of went over and stood together, and Sennett said, "Well, I guess you two better work together." That's the way they got together. And you never saw anything more perfectly matched in your whole lifetime than those two together. Never. When Roscoe passed away, his hair had become a light brown, but it was just the color of gold when I married him, just as golden as any golden thing you've ever seen. They were such water dogs, they loved the water, they did everything under the sun in the water. But I think one of the most famous things that I have in my own autobiography, is this story: We lived at the beach and we had our first servant there. So at eleven o'clock every Sunday morning Okie used to bring down those blue and white Japanese tablecloths and put them on the sand, and our friends who were going to come down to swim - as a matter of fact, we had 35 bathing suits in the basement of our house, anyhow. They just left them there. Mabel of course, she would come down, but she had always rented an apartment, but she came down every Sunday and she and Roscoe would SWIM from in front of our house, to the Venice pier and back again, at 11 o'clock every Sunday morning. So one Sunday morning they came back, and instead of the two of them getting out of the water immediately and coming up on the sand, there was something going on, you couldn't make up your mind just exactly what it was, but I could see her arm over something, and I don't know what it was over, and nobody else did. Some people were standing, and of course all the strolling people on the strand, naturally came every day - it became a regular excitement on Sunday, to see these people dining, all these stars, and people from the theater, and they were all standing there, and nobody could make up his mind WHAT IT WAS that was going on out there. Well, what it was, as they were swimming back, from the Venice pier, up came a dolphin, and instead of Mabel being frightened like anybody would, - because NONE of us knew anything about dolphins in THOSE days, - she just put her arm over the neck of this dolphin and he swam right along with them. And do you know, EVERY SUNDAY, for nearly a year, he came and swam with them, down and back, until one day they came back and then he disappeared, and they never saw him again. Isn't that interesting? Isn't that wonderful?

Don: What was the address of the house eat the beach, what street or what?

Minta: I couldn't tell it to you right now, from anything in the world. There's one thing that I cannot even remember. Never could. And that's numbers. Because sometimes, in the years that we lived down there, we didn't live in the same house, we didn't OWN this house, we would rent. I know it was across from a man by the name of Wiggins, he was one of the biggest men of the Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles; we lived across the street from him. But I was trying to think of it the other day, but it's not necessary for me to worry myself about that now.

Don: Is it North or South of the pier?

Minta: It would be North of the - because the strand, the ocean, was South of us. And so, anyway, Nat Goodwin and all those different people, you see, they used to RENT the houses, we didn't own the house, we didn't buy it, but this house was quite large, this particular one, and it had the glass porch on it, that Roscoe and i would sleep on, when the house was full of people like my mother and sister and brother would come down and anybody else that stayed over. And there was a house in the rear of it, where the room for the servant Okie, was. So that's where I was, we were sleeping there at night. Or rather, that morning we were there, asleep. I wasn't asleep because I've never slept much unfortunately. And when we heard this terrible "Unnhhhh, unnhhhhh" groaning, I was immediately up; Roscoe was asleep; we were sleeping on the front porch, of course all the family were inside. Add up comes this cab driver with Mabel with blood all over from top to bottom, where this awful Mae Busch had struck her over the head with a vase. That's as far as I'll go right now. I'm getting hoarse.


He didn't want to live any other place, she used to have to drive us away, she said, "I'm not going to have any of that business living with me, and you're going to come home to mother, and you're going to, - you're married, you're going to be yourself." But that didn't always work out, because he was always wanting her to be with him. And everybody else had the same attitude toward her. So, consequently, I'll never forget, he had a wonderful write-up. He did the Mikado, and they said he did one of the greatest Mikado's that's been done by anybody, in the history of comic opera. And the newspapers had written him up, and everyone, and I'm trying to think of the name of the critic at the time in Los Angeles, everybody was frightened to death of, because he was so critical. So we came home between the matinee and the night show, and the streetcar went right past our door, and it wasn't very far, because it was - everything was down on Main Street, and the farthest you ever went down there, was as far as Sixth Street (it was residential by there), and we were working down at First Street, at the Ferris Hartman Comic Opera Company. And we came home, and while the dinner was being put on the table, he and my young brother, Paul, who was only about 7 years old, they used to save all the corncobs and these corncobs, throwing them at one another, in between, while waiting..(excerpt ends here)

from interview, taped Aug. 27, 1974, Reel 6B, In Minta's living room, with Stephen Normand, grand nephew of Mabel Normand

Started taping in the middle, after talking quite a while in the living room. Minta was telling Stephen about Mabel.

Minta: Imagine, $15,000.00 for the baby layettes.

Stephen: She was very good, wasn't she.

Minta: Well, yes. I can't say enough. I know there's a God in the Heaven, and I KNOW that she's sitting right up there with Him.

Stephen: I'm SURE she is. I've really enjoyed listening to all your nice things you say about her. It's nice to speak with someone who really knew her and lived with her and knows the TRUTH about her, and not all this scandalous rubbish.

Minta: She was a terrible tease, she was a tease, you know. This story, I have to tell about Charlie Chaplin, because we met Chaplin, and he was so typical, of what he is, a low-caliber background family. When we met him, he had on a black and white suit, I called a race-track suit, you know what I mean? Black and white? We were alerted that he was coming; Mr. Sennett got a wire and he read it to Roscoe and Mabel and myself, and it said, "Please see this man. He's on the Sullivan and Considine Circuit, and he'll be so-and so and so-and so." So we went to see him, and he was sitting in kind of like a loge, and he had an old, worn-out Inverness coat, you know what I mean, what an Inverness coat is, and a silk plug hat that was kind of battered down a bit, and his gag was, that his cuffs were on strings, you see, on his arms. He had a McHooley's cat, as they say, and he's leaning out and he's looking down trying to watch a performance on the stage. SO finally, he gets so enthusiastic about it and all, - this is the way he patted his hands (the fingers sort of limply hit the heel of the other hand and slid off toward the body) then he fell right out flat, did a pratfall right on the stage. That was the act of "A Night In An English Music Hall;" he had taken it from his father. His father did this all over England, and probably Europe all his lifetime. So we met afterward, backstage, Sennett, Roscoe, Mabel and I, and Mr. Sennett said to him, "Wouldn't you like to come down to Keystone." He said, "Well, I have another week down at San Diego," - that was finishing the end of the tour. See, the whole media was going OUT, as far as theater was concerned, at that time. Everything finished in Los Angeles. That's why everybody migrated to Sennett, because you weren't worried about spoiling the scenery or anything else, when they would open the door and walk in. (They used no scenery, but shot on actual locations.) So he came, and he was very, very, very shy. And of course I found, that people with real genius often are very shy. My husband was shy, except when he was working, or knew you very well. And SHE was shy (Mabel.) When you took Mabel and introduced her to anybody, in a large party, she didn't burst in like Liza Minelli or somebody like that, she was SHY. Roscoe was shy, she was shy, Charlie was shy. And Chester Conklin was very, very shy. Only when they were working with you, that was different, you see. So he came out, and we didn't have much you could hide behind, but he would stand way off and watch what they were doing. Well of course, it's an entirely different media than the stage. So finally, Sennett said to me, he always called me `Mrs. A,' he said, "Mrs. A., you're going to have to work with this Englishman, we can't pay him a salary," as little as it was, "unless you - I'm going to put you with him, because you get along with everybody. You LIKE everybody. He's very peculiar." I thought it was funny that Sennett called me for a rehearsal, and I thought to myself, I don't know who I'm going to rehearse with. I wasn't working those few days. Well, when we got there, they'd built up just a piece of plasterboard, they had a picture on the wall, and they had a table there, and on both sides they had a chair; they had a door there (on two sides of a U) and a door here. Now I never looked up to see that there was a ceiling on the set, you see, we never had those things. I thought this was funny (odd) sic. He said, "This is for Chaplin. See what he can do."

To Continue...

Return to Main page