Last Great Silent Picture Show

Michelle Boltz / Washburn Review

Mulvane’s newest exhibit, The Last Great Silent Picture Show, opened on Feb.6 and features artist Orval Hixon, who was an Official Orpheum and Shubert Vaudeville photographer from 1914-1930s. Orval Hixon owned a studio in the Biltmore Hotel in Kansas City, Mo. where early silent film stars of that era would travel by train from California to request Hixon’s services for their Hollywood portfolios. James Finley, Hixon’s great-nephew, had this to say about his great-uncle. “He liked to work as his own boss instead of moving to Hollywood.”

After Hixon’s death in 1982, Finley discovered Hixon’s photographs, along with other memorabilia, in a studio that was built on Hixon’s farm, and decided to carry out his legacy by displaying them in his studio, the Sundance Photo Gallery in Weston, Mo. This special exhibit is also in conjunction to Washburn’s Silent Film Festival, which takes place on Feb. 26 and 27 at White Concert Hall.

Hixon was also known to use an early “photoshop” technique in some of his photographs by dissolving part of the images on his 11×14 glass negatives using potassium ferricynanide (an oxidizing agent used to remove silver from negatives), then covered parts of the negative with lampblack and etched and painted the rest for a unique effect. Hixon mixed his own glass, developed them, fixed them with a valium spray, and treated the glass like a canvas for his photographs.

Some of the silent movie film stars photographed by Hixon were Joan Crawford, Al Jolson, Will Rogers, Buddy Rogers, and (Baby) Rose Marie. Over 30 actors photographed by Hixon are on stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Seventeen of Hixon’s prints were also on display in the 1976 Bicentennial Show at the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts.

Washburn University Alumna Marsha Anderson and photography professor Mary Wayne Dorsey recently bought one of Hixon’s original studio cameras and donated it to Washburn where it was displayed in the photography department before it was put on permanent display at the Kansas City Public Library.

“I appreciate Marsha Anderson and Mary Wayne Dorsey from Washburn for having again getting access to Hixon’s camera, and able to put his camera on display,” said Finley.

The display is called Shooting Stars: The Celebrity Photography of Orval Hixon, and is first of a rotating series that will appear in the permanent gallery until July 31. Admission is free, and is located at 14 W. 10th St. in Kansas City, Mo.

The Last Great Silent Picture Show features both Hixon’s photographs, and one of the cameras that were used in his studio. Hixon continued his love affair with photography until he passed away at the age of 97 after almost eighty years in photography. The display will be at Mulvane Art Museum until March 21. Hours for the museum are Tues. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wed. – Fri 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and weekends 1-4 p.m. Admission is free. Mulvane Art Museum is located at 17th and Jewell in Topeka, Kan.