Larry in Paperland
as published in Steve Rydzewski's SLAPSTICK! #4, July 2001, the Magazine Devoted to the Appreciation,
Documentation and Preservation of Early Film Comedy
When Zera Semon died in 1901 at the premature age of 54 he had spent a
life dedicated to the stage, travelling
Canada, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the United States with his troupe of
artists. He was an all-round prodigy,
well-known for his gift shows that included ventriloquism, pantomime and
highly-skilled magic acts
in which he was aptly aided by his wife and his son Lawrence "Larry" Semon.
Magic had been some tradition of the family since Larry´s grandfather
Emanuel Semon became involved with the tours of Herrmann the
studied his magic routines.
Zera´s show was a success, but he remained poor and things turned out even
worse when he had to close down
during a disastrous trip to California at the end of the 19th century.
This shattering experience obviously prompted Zera upon his death-bed to ask
abandon the stage, study cartooning and embark on a career in the newspaper
business so that he had a reliable job to earn his living.
Zera had a knack for drawing cartoons
and taught Larry, who had inherited his talent, his first steps which the
young boy gladly took up2.
In a contemporary interview Larry
recalls that he used the pages of his Latin grammar to draw an
"animated" cartoon in the upper corners. By flipping the pages one could see a
round of boxing 14.
Larry complied with his father´s last wish.
After attending High School in Savannah, Georgia, Larry went to art school
in New York 14 and later began work on the staff of several
Philadelphian newspapers before he went on to The New York
Telegram, The Morning Telegraph, The New York Herald and
finally to The New York Evening Sun 5.
Larry apparently did not have to face great obstacles entering
newspaper business and his father was only too aware of this:
Jacob Semon, Larry´s uncle, was a popular figure
in the city. His tobacco shop that opened in the
Merchants' Hotel, opposite the State House and later moved to Chestnut Street,
where the theatre was located, was a rendezvous for many prominent men.
Soon after his first wife Anna had died he married the daughter of Thomas
Jackson, a well-known newspaper man 1.
Taking articles into account that were released soon after rumour spread that
Larry had signed his 3.6 million dollar contract with Vitagraph, Larry
in fact needed to pull strings to find a job: the Toledo Blade
titled Larry Semon proved
poor cartoonist but gets laughs as screen comedian 7, while his
former colleagues of the New York Telegram, which on the occasion
the I Knew Him When-Club, were even harder in their judgement: they
remembered him as a conscientious objector to work [...]
supposed to be as funny in his attempts at cartooning as a cry for
help. A short time back he was known for his
hangdog expression and
a constant fear of drawing the little blue envelope instead of his
One member of the staff put it even so far as to mention
as a cartoonist he was a good jockey, for one city editor told
him as man to man that he would be better off if he got out of that line of
work. Apparently he needed the advice 12, see also
Sometimes it seems he even turned members of his staff into cartoons: at
least this is what the cut-out of the jigger indicates, since
Larry attached to it an apology to fellow worker Bradford, who usually
occupied the colour half slot above Larry's for his Enoch
Pickelweight comic strip.
The cut-outs suggest Larry´s drawing talent being an extraordinary one and
even more so when one considers that he was in his early twenties. His work was
of equal quality to some of the other contributors and far ahead of most
of them. He succeeded very well
in drawing faces as well as all parts of the body. In particular he
had the gift to draw hands of which many artists claim that it is
a terrible job to do.
Whatever Larry contributed to the North American is
of a well-balanced composition which gives his drawing
a mature impression5.
Undoubtedly, Zera would have been proud of him.
Speaking of maturity, Larry had the strange habit of frequently changing his
signature with every new item he submitted. So while
his artistic style showed consistency in itself there obviously were
other fields where he was still in an experimental phase.
Larry's Charming Ethelinda, re-interpreting his collegue's
With these evaluations in mind it seems odd to learn from other
sources that Larry at the early age
of eighteen already had a high reputation in New York cartoonist circles and
that President Taft sent for Larry from the White House to draw his caricature
It would be difficult to judge his ability
had not some of his earliest professional art work been found in a volume
of the North American3 that ranked
among the most respected papers of old Philadelphia. Initially, Larry had
been working as a general handy man in the art department of the paper
2. As far as it could be traced back Larry had begun to
contribute cut-out paper toys in Spring 1909 to the children´s section of
the Sunday magazine taking the place of Ted´s colour halves.
After some alternating turns
with M.A. Hayes his cut-outs became a regular gimmick. Larry´s art work along with the other
half page comic features of his colleagues survive in beautiful and luminiscent
colours. Printed on acid paper, however, the pages are unfortunately prone to
fall to pieces and had to be preserved using massive amounts of
archival tape for this issue of Slapstick. Larry's cut-outs include all kinds of immobile and moving characters
which cover figures to put up, jumping jacks or technically more elaborate
jiggers with rotating heads and pendulum eyes.
nursery figures such as Simple Simon4, the comic heroes of his staff such as Hays' and
Wiedersheim's Kaptin Kiddo, the awkward heroine of
the Grif series
It's Only Ethelinda, or typical scenes of foreign cultures designed
to teach the children. The
latter demanded from him a slight detachment from his cartoons towards
a more elegant and serious style; a transition that he easily mastered.
A Jolly Jingling Johnson Jigger. Larry had obviously turned his
colleague Bradford into a jumping jack.
Of Larry's art work which is available for this publication,
though no example of his New York Telegram era was at hand,
it seems that Larry prepared his best work
while he was with the North American. Instances of his later work illustrate
that he seldom took the
time or had the time to elaborate the details of his cartoons so that
they remained as pen and ink versions. An exception make the posters
he designed for
the promotion of his own films. These items are a delight
considering the fact that many poster artists failed to capture the
essence of Larry's facial expressions though they did a good
job depicting the vivacity of his comic movements. As even later
cartoons of Larry show he remained one of the best to do his own portrait.
The most unfortunate cartoon by Larry that could be found was a comic
strip called Marcus, the Boarding House Goat, which
he did around 1913 for the Post-Dispatch.
For an advertising campaign of Tuxedo Tobacco he
drew very similar characters (see comic strip in 11). Not that his technical skills would have been deplorable, but what
makes the series disappointing is that he did not create his
own characters. Instead he would obtain a Goldbergish style that
was en vogue then.
But without doubt this is another proof
of how well he knew to adopt different styles and maybe he was even
asked to imitate the work of one of his most popular drawing contemporaries. Another drawback of these
instances is that they are indeed not particularly
funny (see 12). But one can imagine that it is easier to
technically adopt someone else's style than to fill it with life.
Larry would not keep his drawing expertise to himself. As
contemporary newspaper clippings demonstrate he trained his second wife
Dorothy Dwan in the art of cartooning. Recently, an appraiser
who was hired to assess a gouache painting
from the twenties by a certain Lucille Carlisle6 assumed that Larry also
nurtured her drawing talent. But this is speculation. Of what else is
known for sure Larry handed down his drawing talent to Virginia, his only
daughter, although he probably never trained her. Virginia was an avid
amateur painter, who took lessons and indulged in her passion in the afternoons
after all the housework had been done. She never went public.
Hays and Semon sharing one newspaper page in the
Sunday North American.
Although Zera inspired Larry to
make the best of his artistic talent
he probably did not suggest he abuse his knowledge of magic tricks.
But this is what Larry did - systematically - and we had better not
guess at the horde of magicians whom he made see red. On 18 July, 1909
Larry started his series Mysteries of Magic, Past and Present, Exposed,
again in the North American and again in its Sunday magazine, but this time
as a contribution to the women's section. Usually occupying three or four
columns, he weekly explained the trick of popular illusions. As to
what the North American volumes available indicate, the
series terminated at the end of March, 1910 after 35 episodes.
Some of them, such as levitation acts, referred to the routines which
Herrmann the Great used on the stage, others were collections of
smaller sleight-of-hand mysteries or, like the Trunk
Trick, they came right from the treasure trove of Zera Semon himself. Larry
illustrated each exposure by a black and white ink drawing that as
usual was his own work and in doing so displayed yet another drawing
style. And again he would be playing around with his signature.
It remains obscure why Larry decided to expose all those magic tricks.
Maybe it was in order to preserve a great repertoire of magic
knowledge. At least this can be inferred from
what he told magazine writer Elizabeth Peltret:
The old magicians are gone now, [...]. They were too careful of
their secrets and so in most cases those secrets died with
Given that his intentions had been so gentle, why did he reveal the
tricks to the public and in doing so robbed audiences of their wonderment?
Why did he not write a book that would only be traded in magic circles?
What mainly triggered him to publish the tricks had
obviously been money. When it is true that he was on the staff of more
than one paper he probably had the income of a freelance worker and so
had to secure payment wherever possible. And since the subheader of each
By Lawrence Semon - Son
of the late Professor Zera Semon, one of the most noted magicians of
it adds the assumption that he was -understandably- anxious to make himself a
Be it as it may, everybody who has to make a living from the mystery of magic
tricks must have been aghast about his behaviour
and if these articles were not enough,
Larry even had the guts to conclude his articles with the appeal
Those who want an explanation of any particular trick of
any magician, past or present, may obtain it by addressing
Mr. Semon, in care of the Sunday North American, and inclosing a
stamped envelope for reply. In writing, state distinctly the trick you
desire to have explained. Do not ask for more than one trick in the
It is very likely that Larry wrote the answers to his readers'
enquiries by hand or typewriter and autographed them. It would be
interesting to learn whether some of these replies still exist.
One might assume that in publishing his articles Larry cut off his
connections with the conjuring guild for good. The more it is
surprising that he was a most welcome guest in the Los Angeles Society of
Magicians (L.A.S.M.). The Magical Bulletin of 1922 reports the event
and is much in praise:
We thought by this time, all the Motion Picture Magicians had
been discovered. It was Matt Martin who found the Dean of them all,
Larry Semon. Larry attended the Los Angeles Society of Magicians show
at the Gamut Club and was so impressed by Matt Martin's work, he
invited him to the studio.
Matt wandered out, expecting to meet a mere inquisitive movie
actor. Instead he found Larry Semon, a very clever magician. Even
Larry's camera-man, George Baxter, is a magician and member of the
L.A.S.M. 8: 173, see also 10.
Since Larry's misdeeds had been those of a rather unknown youngster more
than 12 years ago, most of the L.A.S.M. members either did not remember or
even not know about them. Those who remembered presumably ignored the case
in favour of the fact that they were having a great star in their circle.
When Larry was on the North American he had probably reached the height of
his achievements as a cartoonist and when he was featured in the
Sun he had reached the pinnacle of his career.
A new challenge proved motion picture
industry and last not least his drawing ability was a splendid
foundation that helped him sketch his ideas so
that he had a valuable means to go quickly into production.
Jacob S. Semon veteran tobacco merchant dies from heart disease.
Philadelphia Inquirer, 1923.
Larry Semon Film Comedian Dies on Coast.
New York Herald Tribune, 9 October, 1928.
Larry Semon Mourned. As ´Clown of Tragedy´. Life Drama Closed.
Los Angeles Herald, 9 October 1928.
The cinema caricaturist.
Classic, April 1922.
Semon the Jester.
Motion Picture Classic, December 1920.
Remembering the Great Silents Part I.
Classic Images, (165), March 1989.
Larry Semon proved poor cartoonist but gets laughs as screen
Toledo Blade, 10 May 1920.
A new magician discovered in filmdom.
The Magical Bulletin., 9(12), May 1922.
On Location with Larry Semon.
Motion Picture Magazine, November 1920.
Magic: a pictorial history of conjurers of the theater.
Cranbury: Rosemont, 1985.
Richard M. Roberts.
Larry Semon - the Cartoonist as Comic. Part I.
Classic Images, (286), April 1999.
...make good is getting now 3,6 million dollars (only fragmentary
New York Telegram, 28 May 1919.
Pictures and Picturegoer, pages 24-25, May 1925.
Ruth Wing, editor.
The Blue Book Of The Screen, chapter Larry Semon.
Hollywood, California, 1923.