Aug 162018
 

Writer, actor and cinematographer William Colfax Miller (1911-1995) had worked in the film industry in Hollywood and Mexico, before he moved to Lake Chapala with his third wife, Virginia Downs Miller (1914-2005), in the early 1980s.

Miller was born on 29 May 1911 in South Dakota. He moved to Chicago after graduating from high school in 1928 to attend the Armour Institute of Technology where he majored in chemical engineering.

William C. Miller in Spain, 1938. Credit: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

William C. Miller in Spain, 1938. Credit: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

His interest in the film industry soon took him to Hollywood where he worked for several movie studios until January 1938 when he left the U.S. to go to Europe and fight in the Spanish Civil War. While participating in the 3,000-strong Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers fighting fascism in the Battle of the Ebro, Miller was diagnosed with tuberculosis and removed from combat. He returned to the U.S. a year later, after working on a war documentary for the Spanish Communist Party’s film office.

Later in life, Miller claimed to have left the U.S. in 1939 because he was a Marxist, and was therefore no longer welcomed in Hollywood. He decided to move to Mexico because he had heard that, having being a commander with the Lincoln Brigade, he could be made a General in the Mexican Army. This turned out not to be true, but Miller remained in Mexico anyway. Miller’s claim to have been a commander in Spain was equally untrue; this was a classic cross-border promotion. While not in any way diminishing Miller’s contribution to the Spanish Civil War, the archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade show that Miller’s rank in the volunteers never rose above “soldado”, the lowest rank possible.

Equally, Diana Anhalt relates in her book about American political expatriates in Mexico how Miller wrote to her a few years before he died claiming personal involvement in the first attempt on Trotsky’s life in Mexico City in May 1940, an attempt led by artist David Alfaro Siqueiros who later became a personal friend of Miller and his third wife. However, when Anhalt phoned Miller to double-check the details, he back-tracked on this claim and admitted that he “had never actually participated in the attempt but, yes, he had known about it”.

Soon after he moved to Mexico, Miller met then-president Lázaro Cárdenas who hired him as his official photographer to film a series of short documentaries during the final year of his administration. Miller then began combining work as a cinematographer with roles in acting and directing.

Miller claimed to have participated in more than 150 films in Mexico; this may or may not be an exaggeration. Unfortunately, for some of the claims made in earlier biographies, independent corroboration is lacking. It has proved impossible to verify, for example, the claim made in regard to Forgotten Village (1941) that “Bill commandeered an entire village, persuading the people to be photographed and adapting the script.” (El Ojo del Lago, July 1989).

As an actor, Miller apparently appeared in Soy Puro Mexicano (1942) and Espionaje en el Golfo (1943). He worked behind the camera on Luis Buñuel’s Subida al Cielo (1951) and was assistant director on the the award-winning documentary Walls of Fire (1971). Miller was also one of the photographers employed to work on a documentary film given the working title of The Spanish Republicans In Mexico. While it is unclear if this film was ever completed, the Brownsville Herald in November 1943 reported that Miller’s specialist contribution to this project was “agricultural documentary photography” to complement the “industrial photography” supplied by Walter Reuter, a well-known German photographer who was resident in Mexico City.

Miller was credited as “Technical Director” for the satirical comedy El Brazo Fuerte (1957), filmed by Walter Reuter in the picturesque small village of Erongaricuaro on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro. This film won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival but was not released in Mexico until 1975.

Miller also apparently worked with Pathé Newsreel, published a Mexican Motion Picture Directory and recorded numerous talking books, as well as being appointed Director of Cinephotography for the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

Miller was married three times. His first marriage, in Hollywood in 1932 to Ruth Elizabeth Timberlake (1911-1940), ended with her death in 1940; they had one daughter. In 1948, Miller married Roseann Sparks (1923-1968) in Atizapan de Zaragoza on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1948; they lived in Cuernavaca and had a son and two daughters. In November 1969, a year after he lost his second wife, Miller married Virginia Downs. The couple lived in Cuernavaca and opened the Akari Gallery, the city’s first major art gallery, before moving to Lake Chapala.

The Atari Gallery was one of the venues for a group show by Clique Ajijic in February 1976. The Clique Ajijic was comprised of eight Ajijic artists: Tom FaloonHubert Harmon, Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, John Peterson, Synnove (Shaffer) PettersenAdolfo Riestra and Sidney Schwartzman.

Among the other “Ajijicans” attending the opening in Cuernavaca were Peggy Koll, Margo Thomas, and Bruce and Patricia Wightman.

William Colfax Miller, who led a rich, varied and productive life, died on 15 September 1995.

Sources:

  • Diana Anhalt. 2001. A Gathering of Fugitives. American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965. Archer Books.
  • Anon. 2005. “William Colfax Miller.” The Volunteer (Journal of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) Vol XXVII, No 3 (September 2005), 22.
  • Anon. “William Colfax Miller.” Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.
  • El Ojo del Lago: August 1985, July 1989.
  • The Brownsville Herald (Texas): 19 Nov 1943, 15.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

May 102018
 

Among those active in the Lakeside Little Theater twenty-plus years ago was Norman Schnall (1923-2003) who moved to Ajijic with his wife, Claire, in 1998.

Schnall’s professional name as a film and television actor was Norman Burton. As a stage and screen actor, Schnall appeared in more than 40 movies, including Pretty Boy Floyd (1960), Planet of the Apes (1968), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Save the Tiger (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Bloodsport (1988), as well as in dozens of TV programs.

Schnall was born in the Bronx, New York (of Russian and Austrian parents) on 5 December 1923. He was a good friend of Beat authors Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, and is the basis for the character “Normie Krall” in Kerouac’s masterwork, Visions of Cody (1973).

Other Beat Era artists and authors with links to Lake Chapala include George Abend, Ernest Alexander, Clayton Eshleman, Jack Gilbert, Don Martin, Anne McKeever, Arthur Monroe, Ned Polsky, Alexander Trocchi, Stanley Twardowicz, ruth weiss, and Al Young.

Schnall studied at the Actors Studio in New York in the 1950s under Lee Strasberg and appeared in several Broadway plays including The Wedding Breakfast, Sound of Hunting and Anna Christie. He became a devotee of the method school of acting, and later taught method acting in Lakeside, California.

Norman Schnall as Felix Leiter.

Norman Schnall as Felix Leiter.

His first film role was a minor part in Fright (1956). He appeared in over 40 movies and dozens of television programs during the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps his best known role on screen was as the villain Felix Leiter in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. Movie trivia buffs will know that Schnall played the gorilla Hunt Leader in the science fiction film Planet of the Apes.

After retiring, Schnall and his wife lived for some time in Prescott, Arizona, before moving to Ajijic.

Schnall was also reputed to be a fine artist and painter, though I have not yet seen any of his work.

In November 2003, Schnall was killed in an auto accident in the U.S. while on his way back to his home in Ajijic.

Sources

  • IMDB entry. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0123680/ [28 April 2018]
  • Dave Moore (compiler). 2010. “Character Key to Kerouac’s Duluoz Legend.” http://www.beatbookcovers.com/kercomp/ [28 April 2018]

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomes. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

 Posted by at 6:07 am  Tagged with:
Jan 292018
 

Roscoe (“Rocky”) Karns lived in Ajijic with his wife (Kate Karns) and family from 1971 until his death on 5 February 2000. Karns had retired from careers in acting and sales and devoted himself in Ajijic to his painting and working as producer and director on shows at the Lakeside Little Theater.

Roscoe (“Rocky”) Todd Karns Jr., was born in Hollywood, California, on 15 January 1921, to character actor and comedian Roscoe Karns and his wife Mary Fraso.

Rocky Karns as Harry Bailey

Todd Karns as Harry Bailey

Karns’ movie career was interrupted by four years service in the Army during World War II.

After the war, when Rocky was assigned to work in Los Angeles as a military recruiter, he and his wife, Kate, established their home in Hollywood and Rocky began to build his acting career even as they started a family.

Rocky’s most significant movie role was as “Harry Bailey” in the classic Christmas holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart (playing Harry’s elder brother “George Bailey”) and Donna Reed.

The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture. Though it did not do terribly well when it was released, it has gained popularity in recent years and has now made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films ever made.

Todd Karns. Moulin Rouge. (sold 2012 at Capo Auction)

Todd Karns. Moulin Rouge. (sold at Capo Auction, 2012)

Karns had minor roles on several other films, including My Foolish Heart (1949), It’s a Small World (1950, Battle Zone (1952), Invaders from Mars (1953), China Venture (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).

He also worked in television, co-starring with Helen Chapman in a sitcom entitled Jackson and Jill (1949). In 1950, he also worked alongside his father, the star of a popular cop series, Rocky King, Private Detective.

Karns retired from acting in about 1954 and began a 17-year career in sales and public relations for the North American Philips Corporation, eventually becoming its West Coast manager. In 1971, Karns retired from the company and moved to Ajijic. During his “retirement”, Karns focused on his painting, and on directing local theater shows.

Todd Karns. Circus. (sold 2012 at Capo Auction)

Todd Karns. Circus. (sold at Capo Auction, 2012)

Karns directed numerous plays at the Lakeside Little Theater (LLT) , beginning in 1973 with Barefoot In The Park and The Pleasure of his Company. Other plays directed by Karns at LLT included the comedies Sauce For The Goose, Squabbles, Marriage-Go-Round, Noel Coward In Two Keys, The Gin Game and Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, as well as the fantasy A Visit To A Small Planet, the thriller Wait Until Dark, and the drama On Golden Pond.

Karns’ art career in Ajijic enjoyed similar success. Karns had begun painting shortly after the end of World War II.

Todd Karns. 1971. Street scene. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Cantu.

Todd Karns. 1971. Street scene. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Cantu.

After moving to Ajijic, Karns soon began to exhibit and sell his art at local shows. In December 1974, for example, one of his paintings was auctioned in a charity fund-raiser organized at the San Antonio Tlayacapan home of Frank and Rowene Kirkpatrick, alongside works by Rowene Kirkpatrick, Sidney Schwartzman and Antonio Santibañez.

In March the following year Karns joined Gail Michaels and Synnove Shaffer (Pettersen) for a three-person show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

Karns was an active participant in the Clique Ajijic, a group of eight artists who formed a loosely-organized collective for three or four years in the mid-1970s. The other members of Clique Ajijic were Sidney Schwartzman, Adolfo Riestra, Gail Michaels, Hubert Harmon, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Tom Faloon and John K. Peterson (the only member of Clique Ajijic who had been a member of the earlier Grupo 68).

In 1989, Karns was accorded the honor of a solo show by Sidney Schwartzman, owner of the Schwartzman Galería in Ajijic. Karns was quite a prolific artist and his works, with their charming naiveté, do occasionally turn up in online auctions.

This is an outline profile. Contact us if you would like to learn more about this particular artist or have information to share.

Sources:

  • El Ojo del Lago: March 1985; January 1989.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 4 January 1975; 15 March 1975; 28 February 1976.
  • anta Cruz Sentinel. “Local Theatre Attractions”, Santa Cruz Sentinel (California), 9 March 1941, p 10.
  • Vincent Terrace. 2011. Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010. McFarland & Company.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Sep 182017
 

Roland Varno, the only Dutch actor to play in films alongside Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn, left Hollywood behind on retirement and settled in Chapala Haciendas, overlooking Lake Chapala.

Roland Varno was his self-chosen stage name. He was born Jacob Frederik Vuerhard in Utrecht on 15 March 1908. He grew up on Java, returned to the Netherlands as a teenager and worked, among things, as an illustrator at Het Vaderland.

He then moved to Berlin, determined to try his luck with the blossoming film industry in Germany. His first film part seems to have been in Jugendtragödie (“Tragedy of Youth”, 1929).

Roland Varno, Publicity shot for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931-2

Roland Varno, Publicity shot for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931-2

Roland Varno’s best-known film role came in the German classic Der Blaue Engel (“The Blue Angel”, 1930), which starred German sensation Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings. He also had a part in Der Mann, the seinen Mörder sucht (“The Man in Search of his Murderer”, 1931).

While in Berlin he was discovered by a talent scout of the Hollywood studio MGM and invited to travel to the U.S. to play the lead role in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Unfortunately his ship across the Atlantic was delayed and the part was given instead to Lew Ayres. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the two men became best friends.

In 1932 Varno married Elizabeth (“Betty”) Tyree. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl, but later divorced.

While Varno was never an A-list Hollywood superstar, this dependable, handsome, character actor, just under six foot tall, who spoke several languages, found work on dozens of films in the 1930s and 1940s.

He also made two movies in the Netherlands, both released in 1934: Malle Gevallen and the successful soldier comedy Het meisje met de blauwe hoed (“The girl with the blue hat”).

Greta Garbo and Roland Varno in "As You Desire Me" (1932)

Greta Garbo and Roland Varno in “As You Desire Me” (1932)

His best known scene in Hollywood was a dance with Greta Garbo in As You Desire Me (1932). He also appeared with Katherine Hepburn in Quality Street (1937), and in Gunga Din (1939), Three Faces West (1940), Women in Bondage (1943), The Return of the Vampire (1943), My Name is Julia Ross (1945), Three’s a Crowd (1945), Flight to Nowhere (1946) and Scared to Death (1947).

Roland Varno in My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

Roland Varno in My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

During World War II, Varno worked in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and had parts (ranging from a spy to a freedom fighter) in propaganda films  including one entitled Hitler’s Children. He also added Japanese to the list of languages he spoke either fluently or semi-fluently.

After the war he played in radio and television series in the U.S., including Space Patrol (1950), The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (1951-1958) and 77 Sunset Strip. He also worked as a truck driver, carpenter, encyclopedia salesman and broker.

Varno made his last movie appearance in Istanbul (1957) but continued to do occasional TV work, among which was some on the set of the miniseries War and Remembrance (1988-9), based on the novel by Herman Wouk.

After his retirement in the early 1970s, Varno moved to Chapala, where he directed two plays for the English-language Lakeside Little Theater: The Bad Seed in November 1976 and Harvey in November 1979. The actors in The Bad Seed included Norma Miller, the 11-year-old daughter of photographer Bert Miller. Another photographer, Toni Beatty, a family friend of Varno from his time in California, visited him in Ajijic and stayed in the village for several months with her husband Larry Walsh in a casita owned by acclaimed American photographer Sylvia Salmi.

Roland Varno died in Lancaster, California on 24 May 1996 at the age of 88.

Family links:

  • Varno’s sister, Anneke, was the Netherlands’ “Dear Abby” for many years.
  • Varno’s son, Martin Varno, wrote the script for Night of the Blood Beast (1958).
  • Varno’s daughter, Jill Taggart, is a sound engineer with numerous credits to her name.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

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