Monday, July 14, 2008

James Irvin Russell, Theatrical artist, Architect, Riverman

Image: Advertisement in the Barnesboro Star (PA) for the silent movie, “The Mark of Zorro” with Douglas Fairbanks coming to the RUSSELL Theater, circa 1920s. Theater was owned and operated by my father’s uncle, Nicholson Russell, the father of James Irvin Russell

A couple of weeks ago, a group of us genealogical bloggers accepted an Independence Day assignment to write about an independent, free-spirited character in our family. I immediately thought that most of my ancestors met that criteria or I would not be sitting here today in Monroe, North Carolina. They had the adventuresome spirit to leave home and neighbors, travel over long distances with all their belongings; cruise across the Atlantic Ocean; and emigrate to a new country. I don’t take the gumption of my ancestors for granted. But for this assignment, I needed to focus on one individual. So, my second thought drifted to the life and adventures of James Irvin Russell (1908-1991).

From his obituaries (see References at end), I learned
“… He was a theatrical and commercial artist. His portraits of notable persons include those of George Washington Carver and Booker T Washington commissioned by the Florida State Tuberculosis Board …”

"… But, Mr Russell was probably more well known for his excursions into the jungles of South America by way of the Amazon River. He made eight trips, mostly alone, down the Amazon starting when he was 63, hitchhiking in dugouts, canoes, barges and other semi-primitive ways of river travel. He made his last trip down the Amazon in 1979, when he was 72 years old. …"

In the mid 1990s, I visited James Irvin Russell's nephew in Johnstown, PA, who was named after his much admired uncle. However, his middle name was Edwin- James Edwin Russell. The nephew had gone to Jacksonville, FL, during his summer vacations from school and worked beside his uncle as he constructed several artistic homes in a community called Coquina Gates. From this nephew, I obtained two manuscripts written by James I. Russell, one was a 22 page typewritten autobiography; and the other, an 18 page journal of his trips town the Amazon River, the longest river in the world. Later at home, I transcribed the biographical information for my genealogy. I don't think the manuscripts were ever published; I believe James Russell died before he could finish the projects.

However, there were a number of newspapers and magazines which did indeed feature articles of James' adventures. The Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville, Monday, 19 July 1971, published a lead article, "River Rover Won't Give Up" and subtitled, "Amazon's Source Led Boatman On". The article was written by James’ friend, Ron Sercombe, who he had known for 20 years. Then again eight years later, on Sunday, 17 Dec 1978, the newspaper came out with, "Down the Amazon River- At age 70, adventurer makes 10-year-old dream come true", by Cynthia Parks (Times-Union staff writer). Finally, The Gulf Travel Club's "Odyssey" Magazine, May/June 1978, printed, "RIVER MAN JIM RUSSELL: His Sixties Haven't Slowed Him Down" by Peggy Payne.

All these articles came out AFTER James Russell built seven houses including a chapel in a community called Coquina Gates in Jacksonville, FL. The homes were built in an artistic style with flagstone floors, round shaped windows, exposed wooden rafters and beams, and the liberal use of Coquina Rock in walls, fireplaces, and garden walls. And yes these talents of James Russell were also featured in a Sunday Magazine Supplement on 29 Mar 1964, entitled, "Talent for designing vaudeville sets now used in creating houses”.

It is no wonder that James I. Russell, ran out of time before he could complete his autobiography which he planned to title, "My Wild Sixties".

Image: In 2001, I visited the Jacksonville home of the late James I. Russell. On the walls of the den were maps of James’ South American journeys down the Amazon River, as well as his “practice” cruises down just about every river and swamp in northern Florida. Mrs. Anna (Mathews) Russell modeled one of the native baskets that James picked up in South America. A wild cat skin hangs on the wall behind Anna and is mentioned in James’ journal. The balsa craft that James floated down the last leg of the Amazon River was named after his patient wife, “The Anna Nery”. It was built by his Peruvian guides, who were the same father-son duo who guided an earlier National Geographic exposition.

Mrs. Anna (Mathews) Russell, shows me a house that her husband, James, designed and built in the Coquina Gates community of Jacksonville, FL. Coquina rock is quarried from layers of the lime shells of the sea animal, Coquina. The unique building material was also used in the construction of the Spanish fort in St. Augustine, FL.

I recently re-read all the newsprints on James and also his unpublished autobiography which he started out with the subtitle, “The Little Movie House”. James was born in Barnesboro, Cambria Co, PA, which is the same county where Johnstown is located. That may ring a bell as the site of one of the most disastrous floods in our nation’s history. Over 2,000 persons were drowned in the rushing waters that broke from a dam on the Conamaugh River in 1889. James claimed the disaster was one of the reasons he had river water in his blood.

James theatrical art days began when he joined his brother and sister and they played music in the stage pit as silent movies were shown on the screen of their father’s RUSSSELL THEATER in Barnesboro. Later, James quit high school so he could become a licensed projectionist. He loved the movies.

James had a natural talent for art and painting. Unfortunately, his father’s theater closed down after the Crash of 1929. James went on the road as an advance man and publicist for "Punjab, the Very Essence of Hindu Mystic Powers” a traveling vaudeville show. James wrote:

“I traveled up and down the east coast and much of the mid-west designing and painting colorful displays that covered the entire front of the theatre from sidewalk level to above the marquee. … After two years with Punjab, and tired of traveling from one city to another, setting up in cold and drafty backstage rooms and temporary work shops, I wanted to stop moving and stay in one place. When Punjab's show opened in Pittsburgh, our next booking was scheduled for Charles Fienler's VIRGINIA THEATER in Wheeling, West Virginia. I settled down in Wheeling for the next seven years.”

Using search engines on the Internet I was surprised and delighted to find the old theaters and landmarks which confirmed the words of James’ autobiography. I found pictures of the VIRGINIA THEATER in Wheeling and other theaters at which James worked as he crisscrossed America during the Great Depression. There was THE HOLLYWOOD THEATER on Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon (now on the National List of Historical Places), The GRAND TABOR OPERA HOUSE in Denver, Colorado (which is currently being renovated to its historical splendor). And remarkably, I found a picture and story regarding a vintage sailing vessel "THE STAR OF INDIA", formerly called the ENTERBE. The ship was preserved during the 1930s and now houses the San Diego Maritime Museum. While working on art projects for the grand opening of the museum, James shared meals and bunked in the captain's quarters with a 6 ft, 8 inch, Brit who was called ”Lofty”.I wish I could share the whole manuscript with you in this blog entry but it is too extensive. I plan to post it on my father’s genealogical web site next to the 19th century journal of Thomas W. Russell. The journal is the only other piece of autobiographical writing (except this blog) that I have encountered during my research. So I will close with one more excerpt from James’ manuscript. The team which is renovating the Grand Tabor might be interested in the story. Wouldn’t it be neat if there are some old pictures of James I. Russell’s art work still extant in some forgotten, dusty, cob-webbed room of the old building?

The Grand Tabor Opera House, a vintage photo (left) and the House as it looks today in the process of renovation.

“Soon after I started work at the theater, Mr. Tabor engaged Elliot Daingerfield, who was one of England's most prominent scenic artists, to paint the asbestos curtain. An amusing thing happened after the curtain was completed. Workmen were placing a portrait on the top center of the stage proscenium arch, when Mr. Tabor happened to come down the aisle, looked up and said, "Who the hell is that guy?"

"Shakespeare, the bard of Avon", said one of the men on the set crew."

"Who ever heard of him?"

"Take it down and put my picture up there."

“During the time I worked at the Tabor Grand, the original asbestos curtain hung from the high loft on the back stage. Each year on the anniversary of the grand opening night the curtain was lowered for the audience to view.”

Oh, what about the picture of Zasu Pitts? Let me squeeze in one more anecdote from Russell’s autobio:

"For the next eight months [at the Hollywood Theater in Portland] we worked 10 to 14 hours a day. One night I remember, the manager, a Mr. Gill, a tough Irishman and in a bad mood, charged through the shop while we were working late. I was painting a poster effect in water color of Zasu Pitts. Gill looked it over and said, 'Mr. Russell that would be alright if you can make it look like Zasu'. We had not been compatible from the start. I was tired and water soaked and just stopped trying to please him. A few weeks later he fired me."


James Irvin Russell, obituaries

Photo and history of "The Star of India"

Google Book Search: Wheeling (WV) in Vintage Postcards (scroll to page 117 for the Virginia Theator) (also look in

The Tabor Opera House


Joni said...

Hi Bob - I found your blog while bouncing around this morning. This is really interesting. I lived at Coquina Gates in the early 1980's, and really enjoyed being reminded of how fascinating Mr. Russell was. By the way, I am now in NC as well. Cheers! Joni in Concord

Bob Kramp said...

So, You're a former resident of Coquina Gates. I enjoyed a tour around this artistic community with James I. Russell's widow, Anna, in 2000. If she is still living, she would be about 95 years old. They have one daughter living in CA (she's on facebook) and one living near Raliegh, NC, but haven't heard from either in awhile. Neat, Bob in Monroe, NC

Anonymous said...

ageabiteI had a friend, Julian Burke, who was a locally known artist living in one of the little houses.
This was in the early '70s I believe.
Being 6'2, I had a bit of trouble navigating the low ceilings in the houses, but I loved the style!

Jeff Northcutt said...

In the early to mid 60's, my father rented the house with the huge door (which I just learned is named Nor'east). My parents were divorced, but my brother and I would stay there on weekends. I remember Jim, Anna and their daughters, Randy and Debbie, I believe. Everyone was super nice. There was a swimming pool Jim had built that was later filled in. It was shaped like a porpoise and there was a tile mosaic of a saber tooth tiger on the bottom of the pool. And once a year they would hold a "Hootenany" and people would come from all over to play music, roast marshmallows and drink. My brother and I have very fond memories of Jim, his family and Coquina Gates. Thank you for posting this article.

Jeff Northcutt said...
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