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Growing Up in Hollywood North

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Hollywood North, image,
Film Street in Trenton, Ontario.

Growing Up in Hollywood North
Without a Freaking Clue

by Michael Libling

(June 10, 2019 – Montréal, Québec) Knowledge is everything, or so I’ve been told. But when it comes to the history that inspired my novel, Hollywood North: Life, Love & Death in Six Reels, ignorance was everything.

I grew up in Trenton, Ontario in the 1950s and early 1960s. Although I left for Montreal when I was fourteen, the town never quite left me. Indeed, every small town I’ve ever written about has been Trenton to some extent, but Hollywood North is my first piece of fiction to identify the town by name and to embrace its bizarre history. Thing is, through all our years of actually living in the town, neither I nor my two older sisters were fully aware of that history. At best, we had heard only the vaguest of rumors regarding the haziest of events. It was as if our parents, our neighbors, and our teachers had conspired to keep large chunks of the “good old days” a secret from us kids. Either that, or something in the drinking water had wiped the memory of every grown-up in town.

James Cagney, Henry Comstock and a Cast of Thousands

Only after leaving, and many years later, did my sisters and I begin to glean the intriguing details of Trenton’s past. Among the so-called secrets were the deadly Grand Trunk train wreck of 1898, the British munitions plant explosion of 1918, the plane collision of 1937, and the fact that Henry Comstock, founder of Nevada’s famed Comstock Lode—the richest silver strike in American history—was born in the town. Heck! The same Henry Comstock who was a go-to character for so many TV westerns.

Growing Up in Hollywood North, image
Photo of Michael Libling by Matthew Cope. Used with permission.
Most incredible of all, we had never heard that a silent movie studio had once operated there and that Trenton was arguably the first place in Canada to be dubbed “Hollywood of the North.” This was particularly galling to me. I was a huge movie fan, after all, a devoted follower of the two local movie houses and their Saturday matinees, the Century and the Odeon that stood on opposing sides of Dundas Street West. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that my parents owned a small restaurant, the Theatre Bar, next door to the Odeon, and I got in for free. Another perk were the hot dogs and hamburgers my mother delivered from the restaurant to my seat as the matinee carried on through lunch.)

To this day, the matinees and the atmosphere they generated remain vivid. Even in the early ’60s, the traditional format prevailed: a newsreel, cartoons, shorts, an episode of a serial, coming attractions, and two features. Yes, two! Better yet, on any given week the films we’d see could be from any given era—from present day to the ’40s or ’30s, or even silents from the ’20s and teens.

Ben Turpin. Fatty Arbuckle. Laurel and Hardy. The Three Stooges. Abbott and Costello. Hopalong Cassidy. Johnny Mack Brown. The Durango Kid. And pretty much every incarnation of Tarzan from Buster Crabbe to Johnny Weissmuller to Gordon Scott to Jock Mahoney. I saw them all on the big screen. Had I known at the time my hometown had had a hand in making movies, as well, it might have been life-changing—a career in movies within the realm of possibility. While my father had mentioned that James Cagney’s Captains of the Clouds (1942) had been partially shot at the Trenton RCAF base in the early days of WWII, my knowledge of Trenton’s Hollywood connection went no further.

Welcome to Secretville

I can’t recall exactly how I came to learn about Hollywood North and the movie studio that operated in the town from 1917 to 1934. Perhaps it was a case of osmosis, the details arriving one by one, abstract and incremental. Until 2006, that is.

This was the year I found Peggy Dymond Leavey’s The Movie Years in Brighton, Ontario’s cozy little Lighthouse bookstore. Released by Belleville’s Mika Publishing in 1989, the painstakingly researched The Movie Years was (and remains) a revelation. The content hit me like Buster Keaton’s proverbial ton of bricks.

How was it possible no one had ever told me that Trenton was once home to a movie studio?

Why wasn’t the history celebrated?

Why wasn’t there a museum, historical markers on the 401, and the like?

Why wasn’t there a big HOLLYWOOD NORTH sign on the top of Mount Pelion?

Sure, the town managed to erect a commemorative plaque to the long-gone studio on the aptly named Film Street in 1992, dedicated no less by Gordon Sparling, the legendary pioneer of Canadian cinema. But why did the city fathers wait so long to get around to it? I wonder, had Peggy Dymond Leavey not written The Movie Years, would there be a plaque in place today?

Notably, Gordon Sparling appears in Leavey’s Acknowledgements and her wistful closing thoughts:

“Trenton was the place Gordon Sparling had referred to as ‘Little Hollywood’, a dream that might have been,’ the place where once the movie people had pinned their highest hopes.”

Even at that, as Leavey notes, it “was the only early movie studio in Canada to have survived more than a year or two.”

Crazier still (to me, at least) was that many of the locals who had been involved in Trenton’s movies had been regular customers in my parents’ restaurant. And not one had ever uttered a word about their showbiz careers. Augie Larry, for instance. I went to school with his son, Pat, and I’d chatted with Mr. Larry dozens of times. How had it never come up that he’d had roles in both Carry On Sergeant, the costliest silent film in Canadian history, and Catches and Splashes, a one-reel comedy talkie that was Hollywood North’s final production? Had I been in his shoes, I would have blabbed about it forever.

Most crushing, however, was Leavey’s observation that Mount Pelion was a frequently used movie location. C’mon, already! My beloved Dufferin Street School stood at the base of Pelion. Winter recesses were spent sleigh-riding on that mountain. In summer we built forts up there. And not a single teacher, grades one through six, had had the wherewithal to fill any of us in on any of it?

Yup, there I was, walking where movie stars had walked, and totally oblivious to it.

Broadway Stars! Hollywood Stars! And One Real-life Murderer!

The names might not be familiar now, but many Broadway and film stars of the era made their way to Trenton. Marguerite Snow. Holbrook Blinn. Monroe Owsley. Tyrone Power, Sr., father of Tyrone Power who had starred in a favorite of mine—Zorro (1941).

With all of the above in mind, the plot of my novel began to take shape. But it was only with the 2010 arrest of the commander of CFB Trenton for serial rape and murder that I knew for certain what Hollywood North needed to be.

First published as a novella in the Nov/Dec 2014 edition of the venerable Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, it was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2015. As interest in the novella grew, I was asked to expand the story into a novel. Frankly, a novel is what it should have been from the get-go.

Hollywood North: Life, Love & Death in Six Reels
Hollywood North, image,
Published by ChiZine Publications, Hollywood North: Life, Love & Death in Six Reels is a broody, rueful subversion of the traditional coming-of-age story. Highlighted by dark humor, richly-drawn characters, and a wealth of vintage movie and TV trivia, this offbeat novel delves deep into the vagaries of human nature, incorporating elements of mystery, fantasy, and horror. As for the storyline, I offer this variation on the jacket copy …

Jack Levin is the boy who finds things. Gus Berry is the boy who wants things. Annie Barker is the girl who believes in things. Each is an outcast in their own way. Each is obsessed with movies, TV, comic books, and unexplained phenomena. And each lives with the fear bad things are heading their way.

Welcome to the 1960s and sleepy small-town Trenton, Ontario. Where hunting, fishing, arson, and drowning are the favored pastimes. Where dogs maim, trains derail, planes collide, and people vanish. Where secrets, lies, and selective amnesia pervade the adult agenda. Where only Gus, Jack, and Annie sense an unsettling connection to it all. And where piece by gruesome piece, this dauntless trio works to uncover the mystery at the malevolent heart of Trenton’s dark past … and darker future.

Next time you’re barreling down the 401, and before you pass the exit for Trenton, set aside an hour or two to explore. Check out the commemorative plaque on Film Street. Take in the view from Mount Pelion. Visit the wonderful little Trent Port Museum in the old police station at 55 King Street. Both the town and I have a story to tell—a story unique to Canada’s one and only original Hollywood North.

Also see: Michael Libling’s official webpage.
Also see: ChiZine Publications: Hollywood North: Life, Love & Death in Six Reels.

Northernstars logo imageBorn in Trenton, Ontario, Michael Libling is a writer, a 2015 World Fantasy Award nominee, and a former advertising creative director and radio host. Since 1993, his short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, SciFiction, Amazing Stories, OnSpec and several anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. His non-fiction credits include the oft-circulated “Genrealities”, an essay that appeared originally in Canadian Notes & Queries Magazine. Hollywood North: Life, Love & Death in Six Reels is his debut novel.