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  • Writer's pictureVeda Dean

'The Oldest Screen Actor'

Did you know some of the first Hollywood stars are buried in Ione?

William Courtright was born Theodore Courtright on March 10, 1848, in New Milford Illinois. When he was very young, his family left Illinois, went west during the California gold rush, and opened a trading post in Ione. In his youth, Courtright attended a public school in Ione and worked at his father’s trading post as a clerk. In 1867, at 16 years old, he ran away from home to pursue acting in San Francisco. There, he joined a Shakespearian repertoire troupe under the direction of Lawrence Barnett, the current manager of the California Theatre at the time. Although Courtright continued with the California Theatre for many years, he found immense success in his minstrel acts, and was quickly known for his original song and dance the “Flewy Flewy,” earning his title “the Flewy Flewy man.”

Courtright was an influential figure in the minstrel scene, performing in many groups and originating multiple popular acts. One of his most popular shows “Big and Little” created with fellow minstrel John D. Gilbert was a black-face act, which unfortunately was incredibly popular among audiences at the time. After a long career acting in minstrel shows and even touring around the world, he returned to his own permanent company that he started in 1871, Courtright Minstrels. 

A minstrel group featuring William Courtright

Courtright married actress Jennie Lee (born Mary Jane Lee) in 1873 who was likely working in San Francisco as a stage actress when they met, although there are no records of her work before appearing on screen. Together they formed a vaudeville duo act “Courtright and Lee” and performed together for 12 years. 

Like many prominent actors in the late 19th and early 20th century, the transition from stage to screen was imminent. The Oakland Tribune reported in 1933 that Courtright did “a little work in motion pictures,” referring to the upwards of 60 titles he starred in. He made his debut with director D.W Griffith in the 1913 short “If We Only Knew.” Griffith is regarded as one of the most prolific motion picture directors of all time, for reference, he coined the term “lights, camera, action.” When Courtright was working with Griffith, he was producing roughly two films per week totaling 450 films for American Mutoscope & Biograph Co.

Still from "Birth of a Nation"

Jennie Lee also started her screen acting career in 1913 in a D.W Griffith production and continued to be a regularly occurring actress in his shorts in the coming years. It is unclear how many pictures she was in because many of her roles were uncredited. In 1915 she starred in “Birth of a Nation,” Griffith’s most acclaimed film of his career-- it was the most profitable, most advanced, and most popular film of its day. The film was most popular among white audiences because of its appeal to certain attitudes about the reconstruction. Historians say that “Birth of a Nation” significantly reinforced negative racial stereotypes as well as contributed to racial segregation. The film inspired several protests against its deeply offensive and inaccurate portrayal of enslaved people in the Civil War. Jenny Lee Courtright was one of many actors who bore black-face while playing her character “Mammy,” a "loyal" Black servant. Because of “Birth of a Nation’s” favorable view of the Klu Klux Klan, the KKK considered D.W Griffith an honorary member. 

Soon after, Griffith directed a follow-up to “Birth” to respond to the claims that the film was racist. “Intolerance” was his response, and subsequently was the first and only film William Courtright and Jenny Lee starred in together, albeit in small uncredited roles. 

Both William Courtright and Jenny Lee Courtright had long careers on the stage and screen and acted until the end of their lives. Jenny Lee died in 1925 and William died in 1933. He was buried beside her in the Ione Public Cemetary where they lay today. 


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