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If Postcards Could Talk/By Linda Emley
In Weston, Mo. there’s a shop called the “Sundance Photo Gallery”. It is located in a building that was formerly a saloon, a doctor’s office and a mercantile store and they have a photo exhibit called “Hixon’s Vixens & Vamps”.
These photos were taken by Orval Hixon who was a Vaudeville photographer from 1914 through the 1930s. Orval had a studio in Kansas City and all the great stars of Vaudeville, film and theatre came to his studio to get their picture taken.
Some of the stars were Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Joan Crawford, Marie Dressler, Baby Rose Marie, Charles Buddy Rogers, Olsen & Johnson, Eddie Rickenbacker, Fannie Brice and Will Rogers. There are over 30 actors that have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that came through his studio.
On Jan. 27, 2010, Crosby Kemper III opened the Orval Hixon Gallery at the Kansas City Public Library in downtown K.C. The gallery is located on the vault level of the library and was made possible through a donation by Charles David Hixon, Linda Hixon and James R. Finley of over 150 digital photographic prints, produced from Hixon’s original glass- plate negatives, and by the Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts and Commerce Bank.
They introduced his works with the following words, “Portrait photographer Orval Hixon (1884-1982) was a star in his day — and a star who chose to stay here, first in Kansas City and then in Lawrence, rather than moving to the glamour of Hollywood.
His biography, which can be found at the library, makes for some fascinating reading. But it’s the image, not the word, which is of primary concern in this space … and the new show of Hixon’s work, now on display at the main branch, shows just why Hixon was sought after for almost eighty years.
The show is both art exhibition and history lesson, and it excels on both fronts. Hixon deserves to be remembered and honored by anyone who has ever picked up a camera and tried to capture someone else’s essence with it. “
There is a collection of Hixon’s portraits at the Screenland Theatre in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District. The theater is housed in a 1913 building only a few blocks from the former location of Orval Hixon’s studio.
The Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence also has a collection of Hixon portraits that were donated by Orval. If all this is not impressive enough, 17 of his prints were displayed in the 1976 Bicentennial Show at the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
So who was Orval Hixon and why do we care about his “Vixen and Vamp” photographs? The Kansas City Star wrote about him in 1976. The story was a full page in the Sunday edition and was titled, “Life Caught in Frames of Orval Hixon.” At that time, Orval was 93 and was living in Lawrence, Kan.
It is a wonderful interview with him and his wife Gladys, who’d been his spouse since 1929. In the article, Hixon said he wanted to be an artist, but that dream was shattered as a school boy in Richmond, Mo. when he discovered he was color blind. So through a school friend, he became interested in photography. He got his first camera about 1896 after seeing an advertisement in a magazine. The camera ,which used glass-plate negatives, was offered by a laundry powder company for $2.40.
Orval started out working in Richmond for a local photographer. He swept floors and did lots of work around the studio while he learned portrait positions and photo processing. After that, he went to work for Jewell Mayes at the Richmond Missourian as a printer’s assistant. His time in Richmond with Jewell at the newspaper helped him later in his career. Orval told The Star, “Mayes once told me that ‘whatever you do, you have got to advertise.’ So I advertised on all the theater curtains in town and in the programs.” All good newspaper people know the value of advertising and this lesson stuck with Orval long after he left Richmond.
Hixon quit school and moved to Kansas City in 1903. He had several different jobs on his way to the top. He was a photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad, taking pictures of the company’s land holdings in Kansas. At one point in his career, he took pictures for William Jewell and did portrait work at Kansas State University. Hixon also took night classes at the Kansas City Art Institute, which helped him learn more about composition. He worked for several photograhers before starting his own studio.
Kansas City was known as ‘The Paris of the Plains” and all of Hixon’s Vaudeville images were taken in downtown KC. Many were taken at his studio in the Brady building on the west side of Main Street between 11th and 12th streets. That studio was torn down in 1920 and Hixon opened a new studio at the Baltimore Hotel on 12th Street. In 1930, he moved his studio to the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence.
Orval died in Lawrence in 1982 at the age of 97. He had spent close to 80 years taking photographs. He keep track of all his adventures and said that he had taken around 37,000 pictures during his career. I was talking to Jean Hamacher about Orval Hixon and she was one of the lucky ones who had her picture taken by him when she was a college student. She said he made her look like a movie star. Orval Hixon had an eye for capturing the moment in time that’s frozen forever when the camera shutter opens and then closes again.
Orval’s life wasn’t always easy. He was quoted as saying, “There were long hours. We’d have our session after their stage show then we’d go out for a few drinks and then I’d have to be up for hours in the darkroom.”
If you want to see some of Orval Hixon’s photos, you don’t have to leave Richmond because the Ray County Museum has a collection them on display. All are signed by him and each picture captures the true character of the Hollywood star as only Hixon could do.
There is another Hixon connection to the Ray County Museum. Hixon’s father, Charles Hixon, lived at the “county home,” which is now the museum. He died there in 1936 when Orval was O.N. Hixon of Lawrence, Kan. If you want to read the whole story about Orval Hixon, The Star’s article is on display with his pictures at the museum.
In 1930, Orval took a picture of a young Hollywood actress named “ Baby Rose Marie”. When Rose Marie grew up, we knew her as Sally Rogers on one of our favorite TV comedies, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. When Rose Marie was 80, they asked her about her retirement plans and she replied,” “I’ve been in show business my whole life. Why start something new now?”
On Oct. 3, 2001, she became the 2184th person to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Just like Orval Hixon, Rose Marie spent her whole life working at a job she loved. Confucius, a very wise man, once said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
We can’t go out and quit our day jobs, but it doesn’t hurt to keep looking for that extra job that you enjoy so much it really doesn’t seem like work.
You can write Linda Emley at email@example.com or see her at Ray County Museum.