Library Puts New Spotlight on KC’s Photographer to the Stars

Just a four-minute walk from Kansas City’s old First National Bank at Baltimore and 10th Streets —now the home of the downtown Central Library — some of the biggest names in American entertainment once made their way to a small photography studio and a man they trusted to cast them in just the right light.

Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. Fanny Brice and a local ingénue named Billie Cassin (who’d eventually become Joan Crawford). One by one, they sat, stood, preened and posed for Orval Hixon.

Hixon photographed hundreds of rising stars of vaudeville, stage and early film from 1915 to 1930, first setting up shop in the old Brady building on Main Street and later in a ground-floor studio in the Baltimore Hotel at 11th and Baltimore. A master of lighting and expert at touching up negatives to enhance features or backgrounds, he was a sought-after resource for members of the Orpheum and other performing circuits who came through Kansas City and looked to build, maintain or polish their visual brands.

More than two dozen of his subjects are now immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Their images, as captured by Hixon, are featured in the Kansas City Public Library’s latest exhibit of his work, Stars on the Walk of Fame: Celebrity Photography of Orval Hixon, in the gallery named for Hixon in the lower level of the Central Library.

It is the third collection of Hixon’s work to rotate through the space adjacent to the old bank vault converted by the Library into a 28-seat, mini-movie theater. The exhibits draw from a collection of 150 of Hixon’s celebrity prints, donated to the Library by Hixon’s son Dave, great-nephew Jim Finley and their wives.

It’s part of what Finley calls “preaching the gospel of Orval.”

“He would have been famous if he’d gone to Hollywood, which he was asked to do, but he said that he saw how they worked out there. I don’t think he wanted somebody telling him what to do and when to do it,” says Finley, 75 and himself a photographer who got to know his great-uncle in the latter years of Hixon’s life. Hixon moved his studio from Kansas City to the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kan., in 1930, and died in 1982 at age 97.

“I don’t think he was star struck, either,” Finley says. “He enjoyed his craft and the same care he took for famous people, he took for common people coming in off the street.”

A few hundred of Hixon’s 11-by-14 glass plate negatives survive today — he’d saved them for “sentimental reasons” — and Finley and Dave Hixon are working to introduce the images to new generations. Finley owns the Sundance Photo Gallery in Weston, Mo., sharing the space with Mort Reeber, who peddles classic cameras. They have turned the comfortably cluttered space on the town’s main drag into a Hixon shrine, displaying and offering for sale an array of Hixon’s images along with an assortment of Reeber’s cameras.

The Library staged its inaugural exhibit of Hixon’s photos in 2010. A second set of images, focusing on dancers, was mounted a year and a half later and remained on display until early this year.

The Stars on the Walk of Fame exhibit includes Jolson, Cantor and Crawford (then Cassin). Also, screen greats Theda Bara and St. Louis-born Wallace Reid; Kansas native Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who acted in the first best-picture Oscar winner, Wings; and the Singer Midgets, the Central European troupe of performers who gained their greatest fame as the Munchkins in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.

Then-child star Baby Rose Marie was 5 when she posed in 1930 — the last theatrical subject photographed by Hixon in Kansas City. She would become best known for a role on television decades later, as tart-tongued Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

“Look at the people who came to him,” Finley says from behind the glass counter of his small-town gallery.

“I just want him to be recognized. Because he kind of flew under the radar here.”

–Steve Wieberg

(Photos by Orval Hixon, courtesy of Sundance Photo Gallery)

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