Remembering Silent Screen Star Theda Bara

Oct 8, 2015

Theda Bara
Credit Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Cincinnati’s first movie superstar – silent screen actress Theda Bara – will be celebrated with a panel discussion and rare film clips and photos at the Main Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County downtown Sunday.

Between 1915 and 1920, when she made 40 silent films, Bara's popularity was "second only to Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, according to The Guardian. She died of stomach cancer in 1955, at age 69.

Her breakthrough role was the sultry femme fatale in “A Fool There Was,” a 1915 silent film inspired by Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Vampire." Her performance inspired the expression "vamp" -- a woman who could entice and exploit honorable men, bringing their ruin – and made her one of the first film sex stars.

She’s also credited with being the first female movie star to wear eye makeup, with her look created by cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubenstein.

Theda Bara as Rosa in "Sin" (1915)
Credit Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

The “Theda Bara: The Vamp” program was organized by reference librarian and historian Brian Powers to celebrate the 100th anniversary of “A Fool There Was.” Her career will be discussed by UC professor Kevin Grace, who is editing Bara’s unpublished memoir; silent cinema historian Hank Sykes; and historian Dave Lewis. It begins 2 p.m. Sunday in the Huenefeld Tower Room at the Main Library, 800 Vine St.

She was born here in 1895 as Theodosia Burr de Coppet Goodman, named after Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia, according to a 1920 Enquirer story. She grew up in Avondale going to the silent movies after Walnut Hills High School classes. After graduating in 1903, she studied two years at the old Cincinnati College of Music before moving to New York.

Her career ended before talking pictures premiered in 1927, according to an Enquirer story I wrote in 2011. Her last film was "Madame Mystery" (1926) with Oliver Hardy, directed by Stan Laurel. See all of her film credits here.

Theda Bara's 1903 Walnut Hills yearbook photo
Credit Kevin Grace

In the 1920s, Bara built a white stucco Spanish villa at the corner of Ledgewood Drive and Victory Parkway. The building, adjacent to the Xavier University campus, was used as an honors students residence until it was demolished by Xavier in July 2011.

I thought you’d like to see the arcane language used to describe motion pictures in this Nov. 21, 1915, Enquirer story (provided by Powers) about her films playing at the old Alhambra Theater,138 W. Fifth St., downtown:

Theda Bara, the former Cincinnati girl, who has been creating a genuine sensation in the motion picture field, will be seen in two of her latest picturizations at the Alhambra Theater this week, Wednesday and Thursday, “Destiny’s archangel,” as she has been styled by some critics, will be seen in the Fox interpretation of “Carmen.” Many thrilling incidents and scenes mark this production, particularly noteworthy being the leap of horse and driver from an 80-foot cliff.

Friday and Saturday Miss Bara will star in another production, “The Two Orphans.” This photoplay was said to cost the producers $200,000, and has been elaborately mounted.

Credit Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County