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Charlie Chaplin film was Merna Kennedy’s lone taste of stardom

Charlie Chaplin film was Merna Kennedy’s lone taste of stardom

It’s a Hollywood tradition that a soda fountain is where dreams of movie stardom come true, especially if you’re young and beautiful.

The most repeated story of this type was that of actress Lana Turner who was “discovered” in 1937 at a soda fountain after skipping class at Hollywood High.

But it wasn’t the first incident of that sort, at least according to one of those involved. Merna Kennedy years later told of the shock she and another 14-year-old got while sitting at a Los Angeles soda fountain in 1923 waiting for a ride home from dance classes.

The red-haired Kennedy, just a few years after attending a San Bernardino elementary school, and her friend were surprised to see silent movie star Charlie Chaplin walk into the place, she told the Los Angeles Evening Express of Nov. 1, 1929.

Merna Kennedy, who spent part of her youth in the Inland Empire, and Charlie Chaplain perform in the 1928 silent motion picture, “The Circus.” (Photo courtesy Roy Export S.A.S.)

Not surprisingly, Chaplin, notorious for his attention to under-age girls, noticed them, too, and bought them a soft drink, according to Kennedy. Both girls would later play roles in Chaplin’s life.

The source of that tale was a 1929 newspaper interview of Kennedy, though there is no mention of such an encounter in any of Chaplin’s biographies.

Kennedy’s friend that day was Lillita Louise MacMurray, who would take the stage name of Lita Grey and later become Chaplin’s wife. Grey was related to an historic figure locally – she was the great-granddaughter of Dona Maria Merced Williams Rains, who with her husband once owned the historic Rancho Cucamonga John Rains House.

For Kennedy, it would be only three years after this chance encounter that she got the chance of a lifetime – starring with Chaplin in one of his more successful silent movies, “The Circus.”

That film was a high point of the brief film career for Kennedy whose rise and fall from fame had a fair number of bumps and turns.

She was born Myrna or Merna Kahler in Illinois and was 2 when her parents separated. Her mother moved her and a brother to Texas and finally to San Bernardino, where Merna spent at least the sixth grade at now-closed Base Line School. At that same time, her mother married Thomas G. Kennedy, who was in the produce business in San Bernardino, reported the Sun newspaper, March 3, 1926.

“Merna used to talk about the days when she would be a musical comedy star,” Juliet Weir, who became friends with her at Base Line School, told the Sun in 1926. “She had a lovely voice and wonderful personality and she probably could go as far as she wanted to on the stage.”

Pushed along by her mother in San Bernardino, the 8-year-old Merna became a regular act on the Orpheus vaudeville circuit, dancing and singing while accompanied by her older brother Merle. A Los Angeles Times advertisement on Dec. 21, 1917, billed her as “The Little Sunshine Girl,” as she was to perform at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater, in 2:30, 7 and 9 p.m. shows.

The family later moved to Los Angeles where she took “Kennedy” as her last name. It was there she was adamant about a disinterest in schoolwork. She recalled being sent to the principal’s office at Los Angeles High School in 1925 and “was told not to come back. ‘I never intend to,’ I said. ‘I’m going to the stage.’ ”

And that’s just what happened. Not long after her first meeting with Chaplin, Kennedy got a key part in a play, “All For You,” at Los Angeles’ Mason Opera House. Her friend Grey, now married to Chaplin, came with her husband to watch the show.

Afterward, Kennedy said Chaplin offered to give her a screen test and later signed her to a contract.  “The Circus” took more than two years to film, partially due to a September 1926 fire at Chaplin’s studio on La Brea Avenue, and the star’s reluctance to work very hard. Kennedy was 17 when filming began.

“His studio was a regular summer resort,” Kennedy told the Express. “He works only when he is in the mood. We never worked in the morning.”

Contributing to the slow production was a divorce filing by Lita Grey Chaplin. The “Hollywood’s wagging tongues” (gossip columnists) reported her suspicion that Kennedy and other well-known actresses were romantically involved with her husband. Kennedy denied that, telling the Express, “I was just a victim of circumstances, nothing more.”

After being delayed by the divorce actions, “The Circus,” with Kennedy playing a bareback circus rider, finally debuted in New York on Jan. 6, 1928. It opened Jan. 27 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, where Chaplin and Kennedy took the stage and were introduced before the first showing. The film remained there for a number of months – an estimated 250,000 theatergoers saw it there through March.

It was first shown locally at the West Coast Theater in San Bernardino on May 21, then in other local theaters, such as Pomona and Chino, in July.

Her “lovely red hair and fascinating green eyes photograph dark, but her personality is delightfully effective, and she proves … the most satisfactory leading lady the star has had for some time,” wrote the Sun’s Sue Bernardine following the local opening.

Chaplin received a special award during the subsequent Academy Awards for his writing, acting and directing of “The Circus.”

It would be the only movie that Kennedy did with Chaplin.  She would appear in two other silent movies and 26 talkies between 1929 and 1936, being the rare actor to make a satisfactory transition between the two forms. Her last few appearances, however, were mostly minor roles.

She did make a return to San Bernardino on Sept. 20, 1929, for the lavish dedication and opening of the Fox Theater joining a list of stars including Cary Grant and Robert Montgomery, reported the Sun the following day.

She was back in the news when she married Busby Berkeley, the motion picture dance director, in 1934. Two years later, Kennedy filed for divorce, asking the courts to award her a $3,000 a month settlement. She ended up getting far less in the trial whose details flooded the gossip columns.

Kennedy got herself in print again on May 5, 1938, with a bizarre public filming of herself reading her last will and testament. She claimed this “preview” would make it possible to process her will without any dispute upon her death. She also took advantage of the attention to announce plans to return to motion pictures, which never happened.

Finally, her life came to a very unexpected end at the age of only 35 whens he died of a heart attack on Dec. 20, 1944. Her death in Hollywood came a day after returning from Las Vegas where she had married a soldier, Sgt. Forrest Brayton, only three days earlier.

She is buried with her brother at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood.  About 300 people attended her funeral service, which included flowers sent by Charlie Chaplin.

Help wanted

The Historical Society of the Pomona Valley is seeking volunteers to help with school tours of the Palomares Adobe in Pomona.

School tours of the adobe are done for small groups on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Those interested should send an email to or call 909-623-2198.

8th Wonder

The Big Bear Valley Historical Society has put together an interesting video on the history of the 1883 Big Bear Lake rock dam and its impact on the early years of the city of Redlands.

Rick Keepler and Mark Durban assembled the video, “The Eighth Wonder of the World at Big Bear Lake,” which is on FaceBook (Big Bear Mountain History Group) as well as on YouTube:

Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history.  He can be reached at or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at

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