The Return of Annie

Recently discovered film footage of actress Annie Russell from 1916 provides a first glimpse of the starlet.

A still of Annie Russell from 1916 film footage. (Courtesy of University of Georgia Libraries' Walter J. Brown Media Archives) A still of Annie Russell from 1916 film footage. (Courtesy of University of Georgia Libraries' Walter J. Brown Media Archives)

It’s been a long time since Annie Russell graced the stage inside her namesake theatre. Built in 1932 with the help of a $100,000 gift from Mary Louise Bok, the theatre, affectionately dubbed “The Annie,” not only provided the limelight for this world-renowned thespian to perform, but it also gave her an outlet to direct and produce, which she continuously did until her death in 1936. After eight decades, the actress and theatre legend returns to Rollins again thanks to the discovery of 28mm film footage—found in the archives at the University of Georgia—that has preserved the spirit of our beloved starlet.

As with all items donated to the University of Georgia Libraries’ Walter J. Brown Media Archives, Film Archivist Margaret Compton started by sifting through the boxes, reels, and cans.

But there was something about the 28mm footage donated as part of the Howard Melville Hanna family trust that particularly sparked her interest. “I had never worked with a 28mm reel before,” she says. “So I was excited because it meant that the family had shot some film or had collected film to show at home on their own projector.”

While she was looking over the footage, Compton noticed a couple that didn’t look like family members. “The footage looked like it was shot in Maine and I knew that the family was friends with Annie Russell, who had a house in Maine. I thought maybe it was Annie and her husband, Oswald Yorke.”

Compton took her search online where she studied images of Annie Russell kept at the New York Public Library and from the archives at Rollins College. Comparing the film footage to the images, Compton concluded that she had indeed discovered the only moving images of Russell known to exist. But a visit to Rollins sealed her certainty.

Compton met with Olin Library Archivists Wenxian Zhang and Darla Moore, but also Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Jennifer Cavenaugh, a longtime Annie Russell historian and the author of Stage Fright, an original play based on the life of Annie Russell.

“I was able to recognize her house in Maine and helped to confirm that it was indeed her and her husband Oswald Yorke,” Cavenaugh says. “As someone who has read volumes about Annie and who has seen hundreds of still photographs, it really was thrilling to see a moving image of her and to see how playful she was and how happy she seemed in the film. There would be plenty of unhappiness in the future, but in this film she really seems to be joyful.”

Moore was equally delighted. “Seeing this footage is tremendously exciting for those of us at Rollins who have heard so much about the legendary Annie Russell’s talent and charm—a quality that definitely comes through in these films.”

Plans were soon made to bring the footage to Rollins’ archives and to share them with the campus. “With this being the theatre’s 80th season, the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous,” says Olivia Haine, marketing and communications coordinator for Rollins’ theater and dance. “We will be screening this never-before-seen footage of Annie Russell before each show of She Stoops to Conquer (April 19 -27), which Russell performed at New York’s 39th Street Theatre in 1912.” About two minutes of the 11 minutes restored by Compton will be screened each night.