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Helen Gibson with a nice dress
This original article was created by Larry Telles, author of a book on the life of Helen Gibson, and is the exclusive property of Silent Hall of Fame.
Helen Gibson (August 27, 1891 – October 10, 1977) was a trick rider, rodeo performer, film actress, vaudeville performer, radio performer, and film producer. She is considered to be Hollywood’s first professional stunt woman.
She was born Rose August Wenger in Cleveland, Ohio, one of five girls, to Swiss-German parents, Fred and Annie Wegner. Her father had wanted a son, and encouraged her to be a tomboy. Rose saw her first Wild West show in Cleveland in the summer of 1909 and answered a Miller Brothers 101 Ranch ad for girl riders in Billboard magazine. They taught her to ride, and she performed in her first 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show in St. Louis in April 1910. The Miller-Arlington Show closed in 1911 in Venice, CA. Thomas H. Ince was producing for the New York Motion Picture Company and hired the entire cast for the winter at $2,500 a week. Each performer was paid $8 a week and boarded themselves and horses in Venice. They rode five miles each day to work in Topanaga Canyon, where the films were being shot. In 1912 Rose made $15 a week for her first billed role as Ruth Roland’s sister in Ranch Girls on a Rampage.
Like many of those riding extras, Rose continued to perform in rodeos between pictures. At the Second Los Angeles Rodeo in 1913 she was featured in the Standing Woman Race. But it was in Pendleton, Oregon, in June 1913, where she met Edmund Richard (Hoot) Gibson. They began working together, and at a rodeo in Salt Lake City they won everything. They went on to perform in rodeos in Winnipeg, Canada and Boise, Idaho, and arrived back in Pendleton a few days before the Pendleton Round-Up was due to begin. However, because rooms were almost impossible to obtain, they decided to “tie the knot” as married rodeo couples were given preference. They won enough money to return to Los Angeles, where Hoot worked as a cowboy extra at the Selig Polyscope Company. Rose also worked for Selig and for the Kalem Studios in Glendale.
The Hazards of Helen adventure film series. The highly successful series had begun with Helen Holmes in the lead role for the first 48 episodes, but Rose was given her chance to replace Helen Holmes for two episodes when she took ill. The Kalem New York office executives were so impressed by her work, they instructed Glendale to keep her on when Helen Holmes and her husband, Hazards of Helen director J. P. McGowan, left to form their own company. Now rechristened ‘Helen’ by the studio, she proved to be a capable replacement. Gibson performed in The Hazards of Helen for 70 episodes until the series ended in February 1917. Kalem tried producing another serial starring role for her, The Daughter of Daring. But Kalem was in decline and rather than risking financial failure producing feature films, ceased production in 1917 and was sold to Vitagraph. Universal offered Helen a three-year contract at $125 a week for 2-reel and 5-reel pictures. Her Universal contract ended with the winter of 1919 and she signed with Capital Film Company for $300 a week, but Capital was already losing money and went out of business in May 1920.
Hoot Gibson, who had joined the Army tank corps, returned from the war on Christmas 1918 and Universal gave him a contract to appear in 2-reel westerns. He found his wife had become a very successful movie star while he was away, but his ego couldn’t handle it and the couple divorced in 1920. That same year Helen created Helen Gibson Productions to produce her own starring vehicles. The first was to be No Man’s Woman. The money gave out before the picture was finished, and it bankrupted Gibson personally. A year later the film was released by another studio with a new title, Nine Points of the Law. In March 1921, the Spencer Production company hired Gibson to star in The Wolverine. They were so pleased with her performance they put her on the payroll at $450 a week. However, before shooting began on her second picture, her appendix ruptured, putting her in the hospital battling peritonitis. The studio replaced her.
By the time she had recovered from surgery, Gibson’s popularity as a lead had waned. In September 1921 an independent company hired her for a 5-reeler but folded without paying the cast or crew. Horseback riding while filming the picture put Gibson back in the hospital, forcing her to sell her furniture, jewelry and car. She made personal appearances in connection with bookings of No Man’s Woman and The Wolverine in theaters and at rodeos, including visiting her old friends at the 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma.
In the spring of 1924 Gibson got a job trick riding with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s Wild West show along with other rodeo performers such as Ken Maynard, and performed in their ‘after show’ for two-and-a-half years. In September 1926 Gibson joined a Hopi Indian act and worked the Keith vaudeville circuit out of Boston.
She returned to Hollywood in 1927 and began doubling for stars such as Louise Fazenda, Irene Rich, Edna May Oliver, Marie Dressler, Marjorie Main, May Robson, Esther Dale and Ethel Barrymore. She worked constantly as a stunt double and in uncredited or bit parts.
In 1935, Helen married Clifton Johnson, a studio electrician who had been a chief gunner in the Navy. In 1940 he asked for active duty, and while he was serving in World War II, she carried on working as an extra and became treasurer of the stunt girl’s fraternal organization.
In Universal’s Hollywood Story (1951), she was cast as a retired silent film actress alongside Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum, and Betty Blythe, and earned $55 for one scene. Tony Curtis, then unknown, was assigned to escort Gibson and Blythe to the premiere at the Academy Award Theater, where The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce gave each silent star a plaque “for your outstanding contribution to the art and science of motion pictures, for the pleasure you have brought to millions over the world, and for your help in making Hollywood the film capital of the world.”
Helen continued to take character parts and extra work until 1954, when the couple moved to Lake Tahoe. After trying unsuccessfully to sell real estate they returned to the San Fernando Valley. Gibson suffered a slight stroke in 1957, but it did not prevent her working as an extra in film and television. Her last role was in the autumn of 1961, in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for which she was paid $35; she was 69 years old. She retired in January 1962 on a Motion Picture Industry Pension of $200 a month plus social security. The couple moved to Roseburg, Oregon where she spent her later years fishing and giving the occasional interview. Helen died of heart failure following a stroke in 1977 at age 86.
Click to enlarge
Helen Gibson in "Winning the Franchise" (1920).
Helen Gibson and Leo Maloney in "Winning the Franchise" (1920).
Helen Gibson in "Winning the Franchise" (1920).
Helen Gibson looks at the governor's train racing head on towards the wild engine in "The Governor's Special" (1916).
Helen Gibson makes a life-threatening jump from the speedy onto the wild engine in "The Governor's Special" (1916).
Helen Gibson puts the wild engine on reverse and prevents a catastrophe in "The Governor's Special" (1916).
Helen Gibson tries to stop a runaway train in "The Wrong Train Order" (1915).
Helen Gibson tries to reach an emergency break in "The Wrong Train Order" (1915).
Helen Gibson in "Ghost of the Canyon" (1920).
Helen Gibson is tied to the tracks in "Ghost of the Canyon" (1920).
Helen Gibson fights for her life in "Ghost of the Canyon" (1920).
Helen Gibson chases a runaway locomotive on motorcycle in "The Open Track" (1916).
Helen Gibson jumps from the motorcycle onto the locomotive in a life-threatening stunt in "The Open Track" (1916).
Helen Gibson speaks with two investigators in "The Open Track" (1916).
Helen Gibson with a nice hat.
Helen Gibson - Good Luck.
Helen Gibson with a nice smile.
Helen Gibson in a polka dot skirt.
Helen Gibson in a nice portrait with a big smile.
Helen Gibson in a breathtaking stunt for the film "The Governor's Special" (1916).
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