The Tragic Flugrath Sisters

"Hard to Believe, But All Three Experienced the Same Loss"

by Tim Lussier

Hard to believe, and equally hard to understand, but all three sisters, within a span of eight years, experienced the same tragic loss in their lives.

The family name is Flugrath. However, only one of the three sisters did not adopt a stage name and that was Edna. Sister Leonie changed her name to Shirley Mason shortly after she went into motion pictures, and the most famous of the three sisters, Virginia, changed her name to Viola Dana early on in her movie career.

Edna was the oldest. She was born in 1893. Viola was born in 1897, and younger sister Shirley was born in 1901. The girls' mother had dreams of her daughters being actresses and enthusiastically sought stage work for them. "My mother was possessed to make actresses of us," Viola said, and, knowing the value of being able to dance, she saw to it that they had lessons at a very young age. Much of their young lives was spent performing with touring companies, at Coney Island, Elks Clubs or anywhere else employment could be found.

Since the Flugraths lived near the Edison studios, it was only natural that their mother would seek out jobs for them there. Viola was the first to gain employment in the movies. She was 13-years old, and, before long, little sister Shirley was tagging along. Later, when a role called for a blonde, Viola suggested older sister Edna, and, soon, she, too, was acting in motion pictures.

While at Edison, Viola met John Collins. He fell in love with the young actress, and when she was 16, they were married. "Johnny gave me my first position in pictures," Viola said. "He was always my hero, and he used to tell me that he fell in love with me that very first day."

Collins had come to Edison in 1904 and performed all sorts of tasks, including handyman, until he was finally promoted to director. After marrying Viola, he became her director and wrote many of her films. Under his guidance, she became one of Edison's top stars, and Collins' films were, according to William K. Everson, some of the best to come out of the Edison studio. "Despite extremely perceptive and laudatory reviews for his films of 1914-1918, he is an ignored and unknown figure to most American historians," Everson says (American Silent Film, Oxford University Press, 1978). He goes on to note that Collins' lack of recognition is due in part to the perception that no directorial talent ever came out of the Edison studios. "Collins' films show that not only were we wrong about him but that it is quite possible that other directors of his calibre lie buried with the unseen Edison films."

In 1916, Collins moved to Metro and took his wife with him. The success of the husband-wife team continued, and Dana owed much to her husband for the success she was experiencing in her career.

In the meantime, Edna had left Edison with Harold Shaw when he went to England to set up the first British film company. A couple of years after sister Viola's marriage, Edna married Shaw in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Shaw was a director, actor and writer. He began acting at the Edison studios in 1909. Six years later, he directed his first film. In 1924, he directed, starred in and wrote the adaptation for "Winning of a Continent," which also co-starred Edna.

Shirley also found love at the Edison studio. When she was 13, she met Bernard Durning for the first time, eight years her senior. Because of her smallness and young age, she was asked to be the waving arm from a smoking wreck. However, after some minutes of waving, she became faint from the smoke, and Durning had to rescue her. That was the beginning of a romance that culminated with their marriage when she was 16-years old.

Durning, too, was a director and actor. He directed Shirley in his last film, "The Eleventh Hour" (1923).

Viola was the first of the sisters to lose her husband unexpectedly. They had been married almost five years when Collins was called up to go to war. World War I was in its last days, but Viola said goodbye to her husband, who was leaving for training camp, at the Pennsylvania Station. The next day he was home again with a fever of 104 degrees. He died five days later, one of thousands of casualties of the great flu epidemic of 1918. Although Viola became ill with the flu, too, she overcame it and returned to California to make light comedy, but this time without her beloved John's guiding hand - a widow at 21.

Bernard and Shirley's marriage was both happy and successful. He was making films back East, and he and Shirley were both very content there. Then, Bernard became ill. A short time later, he was gone, too, having contracted typhoid fever. At only 22 years of age, Shirley was also a widow.

Shaw was the eldest of the three husbands. He was 16 years older than Edna having been born in 1877. Their marriage lasted the longest of the three sisters - almost 11 years. During that time, the two had had many memorable experiences. They had stayed in London during the German air raids, spent time in Russia and in Berlin, and had filmed the unrest between the Boers and blacks in Africa. Harold and Edna returned to America in 1923.

Edna retired from pictures and was contentedly operating a beauty shop in Hollywood in the mid-twenties. One day, word came that Harold had been injured in a two-car collision. She rushed to his side, but he had already died. Edna was 33-years old and had become a widow like her sisters.

As if this wasn't enough sadness for the Flugrath sisters, Viola was to experience one more tragic loss of a loved one only two years after losing her husband.

The incident has been recounted in Kevin Brownlow's superb documentary Hollywood (Thames Television, 1980) and the accompanying book, Hollywood, The Pioneers (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979). Viola was engaged to aviator Omar Locklear who was very popular among the Hollywood crowd and had taken many of them up to experience his aerial acrobatics. His skills as an aviator made him perfect movie material, and, in 1920, while engaged to Viola, he was making The Skywayman for Fox.

The filming called for night flying scenes over oil fields in the Los Angeles area. He was to take his plane into a tailspin heading dangerously toward the ground. Sunlight arcs were directed at the plane so it would show up against the night sky. The blinding lights were to be shut off just as Locklear reached the level of the oil wells indicating that he should straighten out the plane. However, whoever was in charge never took the lights off him, and he crashed.

One could ask, "Why?" all three sisters experienced such losses or, even more tragically, why did Viola experience such a tragic loss only two years after losing her husband? Some things can't be explained or understood - and maybe we're not meant to understand some things. What's more important is that these three sisters persevered and went on with their lives. Both Shirley and Viola continued to make films until 1929. Edna died at 72 in 1966, Shirley at 78 in 1979, and Viola at 90 in 1987. Maybe the fact that, as sisters, they experienced the same tragedy made them that much closer . . . and stronger.

End note:

After the death of her husband and prior to the death of Locklear, Viola and Shirley were interviewed for an Oct., 1919, Motion Picture Classic article. Viola expressed great wisdom which, no doubt, contributed to her ability to persevere.
'"For a while I couldn't laugh much, but now we laugh all the time, don't we Shirley?" she said.
'"Yes," replied the sister
'"Perhaps we are just silly," commented Viola, "then, perhaps we are just wise, and we get the best we can out of life, determined not to let sorrow or unhappiness spoil these precious years."'

copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

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