Eyes of the Totem

Eyes of the Totem film still

A silent movie, shot in 1926 around Tacoma and thought to be lost forever, was recently rediscovered by Tacoma’s Historic Preservation Office and is scheduled to be re-premiered on September 18, 2015, at Tacoma’s historic Rialto Theatre. The film, The Eyes of the Totem, was directed by the legendary W.S. Van Dyke through H.C. Weaver Studios, which operated in a large facility near Titlow Beach nearly 90 years ago. The film took its name from the still standing Tacoma Hotel totem pole, and features historic sites around Tacoma and Mount Rainier as its backdrop.

Van Dyke made two other films for Weaver Studios before going on to Hollywood to direct The Thin Man series and Tarzan the Ape Man. Weaver Productions went under when the public’s attention turned from silent films to movies with sound. Historians spent decades searching for a remnant of the cinematic work, but came up empty, until Lauren Hoogkamer, Tacoma’s Historic Preservation Coordinator, stepped in last year. “Right away I was pretty confident that I was going to find it,” said Hoogkamer, “As an historian and a journalist, I always feel you can find it if you really dig.”

Hoogkamer contacted the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which has a collection of Van Dyke’s papers. Among the collection were the five reels of Eyes of the Totem, which hadn’t been opened from their case since the 1920s. When asked about the cost to get the film back to Tacoma, the museum gave a $40,000 fee; the cost was eventually negotiated down to $4,500.

In late 2014, the reels were digitally transferred to a DVD. Surprisingly, after more than 80 years, it was discovered that the fragile nitrate film had experienced minimal damage. It was a “one in a million find,” according to Hoogkamer.

As part of its re-release, local composer John Christopher Bayman is working on an original musical score to accompany the silent film. “This movie strikes me as having a sense of humor,” Bayman said, “I’m so glad this movie was found and the story can be told.”

The film is a crime tale that goes unsolved “until the eyes of the totem shed light on the mystery,” said Hoogkamer. An exhibition trailer will be produced, along with additional programming and background materials highlighting the film’s historic context.

A group of dedicated history buffs and Tacoma-philes, known as Team Totem, is working to bring the film back to Tacoma and restoring the five-reel feature film. They’re seeking to raise $25,000 for the costs of composing that score, transferring the film from its original nitrate, and preparing the other programming.

If you’d like to be a part of this unique opportunity to see Tacoma’s history come to life, there’s a Kickstarter campaign where you can donate and read more about the film, the studio, and the golden era of film in Tacoma.

Supporter thank yous include Beautiful Angle posters, Eyes of the Totem t-shirts, original letterpress artwork, seats to exclusive early premiere screenings, and more. At last check they had raised $13,755 of the $25,000 goal, with 26 days left! The deadline to contribute through Kickstarter is June 29, 2015.

Photos: Eyes of the Totem film stills courtesy of Team Totem