On March 23rd, at San Francisco's historic Roxie theater, three films about the self-proclaimed Norton I, Emperor of the United States, will be screened!
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The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign — the San Francisco nonprofit that works to research and document the life and legacy of the San Francisco eccentric and visionary, Emperor Norton — presents a special Emperor-focused film night.
In the middle of the twentieth century, several popular Western-themed American television shows aired full episodes interpreting the story of the San Francisco eccentric and visionary, Emperor Norton.
These included the show Death Valley Days, which aired a Norton episode in 1956, and the more-famous Bonanza, whose Norton episode ran ten years later, in 1966.
Three decades earlier, Columbia Pictures created a series of theatrically released film shorts based on stories highlighted in the syndicated Strange As It Seems comic by John Hix (1907-1944). Hix was the main rival to Robert Ripley, of Believe It or Not! fame.
One of these Columbia shorts, from December 1936, appears to be the earliest dramatic film portrayal of Emperor Norton. (For much more on this film, see the Campaign’s article here.)
Film nerds, take note! The copies of this 1936 film short held in institutional and private archives — including the Library of Congress and the Pacific Film Archive, in Berkeley — are of the Academic Film Company’s 16mm reissue of the film in 1947 for the non-theatrical rental market. This reissue, retitled Emperor Norton, does not include the original Columbia titles.
The Campaign will be showing its own 16mm print of the original 1936 short, including original titles, as it was shown in theaters in early 1937.
All three films are rarely seen on the big screen. Here’s the full roundup:
Emperor Norton the 1st (1956, b/w) — Season 4, Episode 21, of Death Valley Days — 30 mins.
Directed by Stuart E. McGowan. Written by Ruth Woodman. Produced by McCann-Erickson, Inc., for the Pacific Coast Borax Co.
Before George Takei was Sulu and Cesar Romero was the Joker, both actors — and many others who went on to greater fame in other roles — played in episodes of Death Valley Days. This episode, originally aired on 15 June 1956, features Parker Garvie as the Emperor in one of the more historically accurate “teevee Western” renderings of the Norton tale.
Bonus: Includes the fabulously canned and over-earnest commercials for 20 Mule Team Borax detergent and soap that aired with the original.
The Story of Norton I: Emperor of the United States (Columbia Pictures, 1936, b/w) — Part of the Strange As It Seems series created by John Hix — 9 minutes
Produced by Richard C. Kahn. Adapted and written by Sherman Rogers.
A “modern-day” stock trader giving his co-workers an impromptu history lesson is the framing device for a charming series of imagined vignettes from the life of the Emperor.
Includes a comical scene with a character in blackface — unusual for a film of this era.
Among the production credits: The editor of this film, Robert Newman, is the uncle of the singer, songwriter and composer Randy Newman.
The Emperor Norton (1966, color) — Season 7, Episode 23, of Bonanza — 60 minutes
Directed by William F. Claxton. Written by Robert Sabaroff.
As played by Sam Jaffe, the Emperor Norton who is an emergency guest at the Cartwright ranch takes on a vaguely Germanic air in this episode that originally aired on 27 February 1966.
When the Emperor urges Chinese workers to stand up for their rights, a wealthy business owner — played by Parley Baer, familiar to many as the curmudgeonly Mayor on the Andy Griffith Show — brings him up on insanity charges. Ben stands as the Emperor’s lawyer, and Mark Twain shows up as a character witness — but the outcome depends on whether the Emperor’s design for a suspension bridge will actually work.
50% of all proceeds from this screening will benefit The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign.
Members of The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign (Emissaries of the Empire) can get free tickets at the box office on the day of the show. This event is also free or discounted for Roxie members.