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Flapper Has `Virtual' Fan Club in Noe Valley
By Fontaine Roberson
As Thomas Gladysz talks about Louise Brooks, his voice rises. His excitement is palpable as he relates little-known facts about the silent film star who died in 1985 at the age of 78.
"She had an incredible life," says Gla-dysz. "She knew Gershwin and Fitzgerald. She danced with Martha Graham. She had an affair with Chaplin." And in the two years since Gladysz created the Louise Brooks Society Web Site -- a "virtual fan club" at www.pandorasbox.com -- Brooks has acquired many new admirers, some from as far away as China.
From his home on Church Street, Gladysz clicks through page after page of pictures and text. "It's the largest and most comprehensive Web site devoted to any single star," he says. "There is a chronology of her life, a picture gallery, interviews and articles from vintage film magazines, a history of the Jazz Age, a filmography, and lots more.
"My site is the world's first fan club in cyberspace," Gladysz continues. "It is different from other fan pages in that it is interactive. People send me articles, photos, Xeroxes of magazine covers -- all kinds of stuff -- from all over the world. I put these things on the site to share with everyone."
Yes, Gladysz -- a bookseller by day and Webmaster by night -- has found his bliss. "The Louise Brooks site will never be complete," he says. "It is something I am continually working on. When I have free time, I develop pages or do research. For me, its not work -- it's fun."
Louise Brooks appeared in 24 films between the years 1925 and 1938. She is best remembered for her roles in two classic German films, Pandora's Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). After her acting career was over, she turned to writing about the movies and became a well-respected film critic. Almost a quarter of the films she made are now lost, but Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl are both available on video.
In Gladysz's view, it is Brooks' beauty, her trademark "bob" hairstyle, and her fierce independence that have made her a symbol of the 1920s flapper era and somewhat of a 20th-century icon.
"It's ironic that Brooks is probably least remembered for what she actually was -- a gifted actress. At a time when movie acting tended to be melodramatic, Brooks was subtle, erotic, and natural. She was ahead of her time," he says.
"After she left Hollywood to do her best work in Europe, she was blacklisted by the Hollywood studios for refusing work here," Gladysz adds. "When she returned to the U.S., the studios started the rumor that she had a bad voice that would not do well in `talkies.' That wasn't true, and she did eventually begin to get small parts from directors who liked her work."
Gladysz saw his first Brooks film in 1991, when he happened upon Pandora's Box at Video Wave on Castro Street. "I rented it on a Friday night, then went to bed and got up and watched it again on Saturday morning. I'd never done that -- watched a movie over and over again. I was totally wowed by her. Louise Brooks just sort of has these extra-cinematic qualities that people are transfixed by."
He looked for a fan club to join but was disappointed to learn that none existed. He decided to form his own club, and soon realized that the best way to reach the greatest number of people was on the Internet. He taught himself HTML (the computer language used to create Web pages), and in a few weeks created a site with all the information he had collected on Louise Brooks, including pictures and reprints from old magazine articles.
When the Louise Brooks Society went online in August 1995, there were only a few general sites devoted to silent and early film, along with a half-dozen sites on stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglass Fairbanks Sr. Since then, many more celebrity sites have sprung up. As the silent film buff community on the Web has grown, the sites have formed links to create a network of movie star memorabilia.
Gladysz's own Web site is the place to see rare snapshots of Brooks and even oddities such as the 1920s San Francisco Chronicle ad featuring Brooks modeling an ankle watch -- a flapper fad. He has even received mail from two of Brooks' relatives, who gave him a bit of family history and some photos of Brooks.
The visitors to the site -- Gladysz says he's had about 36,000 hits so far -- run the gamut "from a film director in Greece and a professor in Peru to people from the Middle East and folks in Canada and Belgium and Finland. There's even a fan in Singapore, who had never seen Brooks' movies," Gladysz says. "He had only seen a few postcards and read about her" before logging on to the site.
More than 350 people from 25 countries have become full-fledged members of the Louise Brooks Society.
But Gladysz's Web page is not just a chat room for Louise Brooks' fans. Several university professors have used it as a reference in their film classes, including one of the most famous film professors of all -- film critic Roger Ebert, who teaches at the University of Chicago.
"I met Ebert when he was in town on a recent book tour, and I was happy to learn that not only is he a Brooks fan, but he's used my site to get background information for the class he teaches," says Gladysz.
Next year should bring even more Brooks admirers since Turner Classic Movies will broadcast several of her films in early 1998. The cable channel will also debut a documentary on the actress.
Meanwhile, Gladysz has organized an exhibit called "Louise Brooks: Portraits and Memorabilia," featuring 1920s photos, movie magazines, sheet music, cigarette cards, and other ephemera from his collection. The exhibit will be on display during September at What's for Dessert, the corner cafe at Church and 27th streets.
Gladysz has also parlayed the skills he learned developing the Brooks Web page into creating Internet sites for the Booksmith (his day job) and for the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
But Louise Brooks is still his first love.
"I formed the Louise Brooks Society as a way of sharing my enthusiasm with others. And this has happened in ways I could never have expected," says Gladysz. "Making a connection with other people, communicating about shared interests -- these things are what a virtual fan club is all about."
To check out Louise Brooks online, go to http://www.pandorasbox.com. For a live, close-up view of Brooks memorabilia, stop by What's for Dessert, 1497 Church St., Tuesdays through Sundays Sept. 2-30.