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Today, the neighborhood of Talmadge is known for its ornate entry gates and “storybook”-style homes. But back in the 1920s, it had another distinction: Locals called it the “Movie Girl Subdivision.”
The neighborhood, whose citizen’s patrol made our pages this week, was named after three silent-film actress sisters who raised money to build houses there. In their time, two of the Talmadge sisters — Constance (“Connie”) and Norma — were top Hollywood stars.
“For years, Norma vied with Mary Pickford as the number-one female box-office attraction in the country, and Connie was in the top 10 or three,” said film historian William M. Drew. “Obviously, they were very talented and brilliant actresses.”
The brunette Norma Talmadge performed in dramas, sometimes as diva characters, while the blonde Constance “represented the New Woman — an independent, playful young woman seeking adventure,” Drew said. “She was among the actresses who represented this on the screen not only in this country but around the world.”
The third sister, Natalie, gained fame by marrying legendary comedian Buster Keaton.
The wealthy actresses ended up moving to San Diego, where they put up capital to build the Talmadge Park development on the eastern edge of town, past Kensington and Normal Heights.
(Another investor was Sid Grauman of Hollywood’s famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where stars leave their handprints and footprints; Norma Talmadge is said to have inspired the tradition.)
The sisters dedicated the tract in 1926 in a star-studded event featuring the sisters, Keaton and 10,000 attendees. But, as historian Craig Chalquist reports, things didn’t go well: a “downpour soaked everyone, caved a tent and crushed the dedication cake.”
The neighborhood eventually recovered from this slight. The San Diego Union called it “The city’s most attractive close-in residential tract” in 1928. And the three sisters carried on, although their careers didn’t survive the conversion to the sound era.
“Norma did two talkies. People say she had a terrible voice and it ruined her career, but that’s not true,” amateur film historian Greta de Groat. “But like many other silent film people, her films weren’t particularly successful.”
Today, the sisters are little known, even among movie buffs. However, one of them — Constance — lived all the way until 1973.
“They’ve been relatively forgotten because of their gender. It’s as simple as that,” said Drew, who thinks actresses from the silent era got short shrift when they didn’t transition to sound. “If it hadn’t been for their gender, you’d probably see more of their films around in terms of being available.”
But the names of the sisters still live on, at least in the Thomas Guide: A trio of streets on the western edge of Talmadge are named Constance Drive, Norma Drive and Natalie Drive.