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Exhibit explores silent era star's rise from Michigan City

 043021Kayla Vasilko AnitaHill

Kayla Vasilko holds a photo of Anita King, an early 20th century actress from Michigan City. Vasilko, a senior at Purdue University Northwest (Westville campus) and a parishioner at St. Mary in Crown Point, extensive research into King's life has culminated into a exhibit which will open May 1 at the LaPorte County Historical Museum. (Photo provided)

 

BY BOB WELLINSKI

NWIC Correspondent

 

        The name Anita King isn’t likely to ring a bell with most people. Kayla Vasilko, a senior at the Westville campus of Purdue University Northwest (PNW) is making it her mission to bring King “back to life” by sharing King’s story—from humble beginnings in Michigan City to an actress in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, a little over a year ago, Vasilko had no idea who King was, and would soon learn King was much more than a Hollywood actress.

        The St. Mary (Crown Point) parishioner feels divine intervention may have come into play as she listened to Dr. Jerry Holt, a PNW English professor, speak at a function in the fall of 2019. During his talk, Holt spoke of the local history icon and silent movie actress. “When he shared the little bit he knew at that time, I was completely in awe…for what she accomplished as a woman at that time, and I had no idea she existed. So, I knew there was a story to tell,” said Vasilko.

        Beginning May 1, King’s story will be shared via Vasilko’s exhibit at the LaPorte County Historical Museum.  “Bringing her back to life through the exhibit means everything to me,” said the PNW English major.

        Born Aug. 14, 1884 as Anna Keppen to German immigrants, she would later change her name to King. When King was 14 years old, she and her eight siblings were left orphans following the death of their mother. Vasilko discovered family meant everything to King, as she would care for them, even after moving to Hollywood. “Anita was a huge advocate for her family. She worked hard to support her family,” remarked Vasilko.

        King began modeling in her late teens which led to stage acting in Chicago and eventually connecting with actress Lillian Russell. Russell persuaded the then-Keppen to move out west and change her name to King.

        While in California, King worked as an auto show model and became fascinated with race cars. She soon learned to drive and eventually became the first woman to compete in auto races. An accident during a Phoenix race put the brakes on racing and detoured her back into acting. “As one of the earliest female race car drivers at the time, she was paving the way,” said Vasilko.

        A conversation between Cecil B. DeMille and Jesse Lasky, overheard by King, led to another one of her accomplishments. The men seemed to think it would be years before a woman could travel alone across the country on the Lincoln Highway, which King was determined to prove them wrong. In 1915 driving a Kissel car, King did just that as she became the first woman to drive solo from coast to coast. The feat earned her the starring role in the movie, “The Race.”

        The majority of her movie credits are from the silent movie era. Vasilko noted King did her own stunts in her films, “which was unheard of for women at that time.”

        King made her last movie in 1919 about the time the silent movie industry started to transition to the “talkies” -- pictures with sound. Vasilko said King didn’t have an eloquent speaking voice. However, King’s family heard, from King herself before she passed away in 1963, that she faced a lot of negativity, as many women did, in the film industry. “She was an advocate and spoke up whenever she could. She was becoming more and more outspoken and they didn’t like that and saw it as a time to cut her out, said Vasilko. Vasilko added that didn’t stop King as she started writing her own pictures.

        King used her success to help other actresses who dealt with harassment from Hollywood’s male directors and actors by “funding a safehouse for young women chasing their dreams in Hollywood.”

        Vasilko sees a little bit of herself in King. “She had a strong personality, was determined and had really big dreams. So, as a young woman myself, facing a lot of the same things, and a lot of the same goals, I really do see a lot of myself in her. She inspires me.”

        Determination and dreams motivated Vasilko to dig deep and put together King’s exhibit. “It’s definitely been a learning experience. Adjustments along the way, some positives and some setbacks.”

        She recalled things started off well, including receiving several grants for the project. Then the pandemic hit as she was scheduled to fly to Hollywood for research and to bring back artifacts. “I was deeply discouraged. I looked at the story I was trying to tell about Miss King who faced a lot of trials and how she rose against that so gracefully. That really inspired me to keep going and to think creatively about how to continue the project, even during these difficult times.”

        Creative thinking led to her using grant money saved due to the pandemic travel restrictions to be used to borrow more artifacts for the exhibit.

        Combing the web turned up few resources. The big find was locating King’s great-niece, Lucianne Boardman, of Wisconsin. Vasilko spent hours interviewing Boardman, gaining valuable stories and information, including “more credible sources in terms of newspapers and older articles written about King in her time.”

        Vasilko said, while the exhibit's opening schedule is still being firmed up, Boardman and her family will be present along with heirlooms of King, including original photos from the family, costumes, wigs and posters. The exhibit will run through July 30.

        Mr. Lynne Kissel and his wife, Jeannie agreed to display their 1914 Kissel Touring car, one similar to the one King drove. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” exclaimed Vasilko.

        Vasilko located one of King’s original films, “Snobs” (915), at the Library of Congress. She used grant funds to preserve the movie, which will be shown during the exhibit. Vasilko explained, “At the time it was filmed, movies were put on a material that is highly flammable. We’ve lost a lot of our silent movies because they haven’t been restored yet.”

        Beside Dr. Holt, Vasilko credits Dr. Paul Hecht and Dr. Mary Beth Connolly with their help on the project.

        Although Vasilko has no idea how many hours she has wrapped up in the project, she calls it a “labor of love.” “I hope to do a book eventually and continue with this project after graduation--working to tell her story in as many ways as possible. I feel her story will inspire a lot of people. She was determined against terrible odds, against discrimination, set backs, and trials. She didn’t waver. I think that is an important message for everyone.”

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