Bonney Lake woman solves ‘Eyes of the Totem’ film star mystery

Joanne Ribail and her husband Ron dress up in traditional 1920s fashion for the re-release of Eyes of the Totem on Friday

When historians discovered the lost 1926 Tacoma-based film, “Eyes of the Totem,” last year in the basement of the New York Museum of Modern Art, work on restoring the movie began immediately.

The Tacoma Historic Society finally had some answers after years of searching for a collection of three silent films that were all made in Tacoma by Weaver Studios, which operated near Titlow Beach 90 years ago.

After watching the film, though, members of the society still had one question left; who was Baby Sessoms, the child star of the movie?

As it turned out, Bonney Lake resident Joanne Ribail had the answer.

Movie star mother

Four years ago, Ribail was casually organizing a box of her mother’s old photographs, portraits and other belongings when she came across a news clipping she was not familiar with.

The small article, written in 1926, featured Ribail’s mother, Peggy Anne Sessoms when she was 3 years old (she changed her name to Adams when she married).

In the article, Sessoms was called Baby Sessoms, or Baby Peggy of the Northwest, and she stars in the movie “The Totem Pole Beggar,” which was eventually renamed “Eyes of the Totem.”

“When I first saw the article, I didn’t really think of it,” Ribail said. But the article stuck in her mind, and four years later, she found it again and started talking to her friends about it.

That was when one of Ribail’s friends pointed her to the News Tribune, which published a story about the finding of the film last spring.

Ribail set out doing her own research, and after a few dead ends and false leads, found a photo in the Tacoma Public Library archives of her mother with Wanda Hawley, the adult star of “Eyes of the Totem.”

Although the description of the photo named Sessoms as “the unnamed young girl playing (Hawley’s) daughter,” Ribail was positive the child was her mother.

With this proof, Ribail emailed the Tacoma Historical Society and told them of her discovery, and they immediately and enthusiastically replied, wanting to bring Ribail in to talk with her and to show her a clip of the movie to make sure.

Although Ribail was convinced Baby Sessoms was her mother before she saw the clip, she was still excited to see her on film.

“What a gift to give,” Ribail said. “It’s a really good gift she left us, to get to see her again. A different version of her, but I got to see her again.”Stills of Baby Sessoms from the movie "Eyes of the Totem."

Coincidental

On the day Ribail visited the Tacoma Historical Society, she picked a parking spot a block or two away from the building and walked the rest of the way.

After talking with Lauren Hoogkamer, city of Tacoma historic preservation coordinator, and local filmmaker Mick Flaaen, they went to show Ribail where “Eyes of the Totem” was shot.

After walking around town to see different scenes seen in the movie, including the Pantages Theater marquee, they finally stopped at where the iconic totem pole was situated for the film.

To Ribail’s surprise, the parking spot she chose was the spot where the totem pole in the movie stood, which Ribail said was a complete coincidence.

“It gave me goose bumps,” Ribail said later.

First showing in 88 years

The re-release of “Eyes of the Totem” was greeted with a enthusiastic crowd that completely filled the Rialto Theater in Tacoma. Many of the film’s fans came dressed in 1920s attire, including Ribail, who dressed as a flapper.

“I have much respect for women who wear those dresses,” Ribail said. “They are heavy.”

The Rialto was the theater where “Eyes of the Totem” was first released at in 1926.

“Eyes of the Totem” was one of three major silent films made by Weaver Studios, which based itself near Titlow Beach in Tacoma 90 years ago, according to local historian Michael Sullivan, who is working on the “Eyes of the Totem” project.

The first of Weaver Studio’s three films to be made was called “Hearts and Fists.”

“Eyes of the Totem,” was the second movie made by the studio company, and it was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who eventually went on to make The Thin Man movie series.

The third film was called, “Heart of the Yukon,” also directed by Van Dyke.

All three of these movies have a tie-in to the Klondike in the Yukon, Sullivan said, because filmgoers at the time were interested in seeing films set in exotic, unknown places.

“The good thing about having a studio up here is you were close to Alaska and have landscapes that look like it could be anywhere in the far north,” Sullivan said. “And of course, they had Mount Rainier, so they had snow for a good part of the year to be able to shoot Arctic type scenes.”

Reach Ray Still at rstill@courierherald.com Follow him on Twitter @rayscottstill.