Orval Hixon | Kansas City Times | 21 Jul 1976

by Alice Hartmann - Staff Member

He is, by his description, in the "old, old school of photographers."


His life's work covers the walls of his home here. Along the entryway and in the basement room that still serves as his studio are the faces of America's onetime heros and heroines intermingled with the faces of the not-so- famous. There is a portrait of Katherine Kaelred, a girl from Cincinnati who became vaudeville's vamp as Theda Bara. Downstairs is a framed picture of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, America's World War I flying ace.


On the wall is a picture of Al Jolson, a vaudeville singer who later starred in the first of the talkies. In another frame is a photograph of Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, known as the Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, whose personal life scandalized and entertained Americans in the early 1900s.


Orval Hixon, 93, knew them all. He was, and sometimes reluctantly still is, a portrait photographer.


"I kept a lot of these old negatives just to remember." Hixon said as he dug through one of his many file cabinets in his studio recently.


But the old negatives and the prints Hixon still produces from them also make others remember.


In 1971 Hixon's portraits of vaudeville entertainers were displayed at the University of  Kansas Museum of Art here. Seventeen portraits are now on display at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, part of a year-long exhibition on the performing arts in America.


Hixon is a bright, cheerful little man who delights in his memories. He moves slowly but adeptly about his studio. He moves through his memories the same way. Age has weakened his hearing but not his spirit.


He keeps up with some of the entertainers, filling scrapbooks with clippings on the whereabouts of former vaudevillians and letters from fans.


But even with his continuing interest in his work, Hixon is surprised ..........


Hixon said he wanted to be an artist, but that dream was shattered as a schoolboy in Richmond, Mo., when he discovered he was color blind. So, through a school friend, he got interested in photography.


He got his first camera about 1898 after seeing an advertisement in a magazine, he said. The camera, which used glass late negatives about 2 1/2 inches square, was offered by a laundry powder company for $2.40 worth of sales.


"I sold a couple of dozen packages of bluing (a laundry powder used on white clothing)."


He began an apprenticeship soon after. His first job, one summer during school, was an assistant to a local photographer. There he spent a month, between sweeping floors and generally keeping the studio cleaned, learning about portrait positions and photo processing.


He later took a job as a printer's assistant with the Missourian, a newspaper in Richmond. That same year, after quitting school, he headed for Kansas City where he tried unsuccessfully to get a job with The Times as a news photographer.


"If I hadn't done this ( become a portrait photographer) I'd have worked in newspapers," Hixon said. "I've been hanging around newspapers all my life. I like the smell of ink."


Hixon stayed in Kansas City after his arrival in 1903, did some work with two photographers who had a contract with the Union Pacific Railroad to photograph all lands in Kansas belonging to the railroad, and then started apprenticeship with Lyman Studebaker, the owner of a Kansas City portrait studio. "I worked for seven years for a fella name of Studebaker," Hixon recalled. "When I first went to see him he asked me if I smoked. I told him no. So he told me, I'll sign up a contract with you for $6.50 a week and if you don't smoke, at the end of the year I'll allow you $1 extra a week."


"So I worked for him, and every year at Christmas he'd give me an extra $52."

..... (saved his money for 7 years and decided to start out on his own) .....


His first studio was in a building on Main between 11th and 12th. He moved in 1920 to a studio on the ground floor of the Baltimore Hotel.


Hixon estimates he has taken 37,000 photographs ..... (actually 37,000 sessions) ...... He kept and still keeps records of sittings. He did 15,000 while in Kansas City, 1,200 as a photographer with a special studio at William Jewell College at Liberty and 20,000 at a studio in Manhattan, Kan., where he did portrait work for Kansas State University.


The record books list each client, the number of poses and the number of prints ordered. Listed are the not-so-famous clients who came for a picture to commemorate a graduation, an engagement or business promotion.

And then there are the famous, who used their pictures to publicize their appearances at theaters in Kansas City and elsewhere on the vaudeville circuit.

Those photographs were important to the performers. In those days before rapid travel and exposure through television, booking agents for theaters often relied on photographs for hiring purposes.


Many performers were very particular about their pictures, Hixon said.


"Sometimes we'd work for two or three hours with them," he said. "They had different posses, costume changes. They'd want glossies for the newspapers, 11-by-14s for the theaters. They'd have a bunch made, use them at a theater, then collect them when they left. But if they had to run to catch a train, or the kids would take 'em, they needed more."


Hixon said he was introduced to the entertainment world by a partner at his studio. He kept up his business by following the advice of his former boss at the Richmond newspaper, Jewell Mays.


Mays once told me that "whatever you do, you have got to advertise.' So I advertised on all the theater curtains in town and in the programs.


"The performers would come and if they liked me they would be back."


Mrs. Gladys Hixon, whom the photographer married in 1929, said her husband is considered "one of the best portrait men there is..."


Hixon wouldn't give much of his own opinion on that subject. When asked about his favorite from those , he hesitated, seeming to ignore the question, and then moved slowly to a picture of a blond woman wrapped in pearls and furs. Her name was Valeska Suratt, a vaudeville comedienne and stage star who inherited the vamp tradition of Theda Bara.


That's his girl friend," Mrs. Hixon said teasingly. The remark brought a smile to Hixon's face. Then he began a story---half to his visitors, half to himself--about Miss Suratt, her love for flowers and a 1920 Packard car.


"I always had to have fresh flowers in the studio for her, " Hixon recalled. "She loved flowers, especially May flowers."


"I remember the one time she arrived for a sitting and said she wanted some May flowers. We got into my Packard and drove and drove to find some. I didn't even know what they were, and we never found any. But it was a lovely afternoon and we had a nice drive."


At times Hixon would go out to find his subjects : An old news vendor who sold papers in downtown Kansas City became the subject of a photograph called "Home of a Noble Soul" taken in 1918; a carnival performer who worked under the name of "Chief-AllO-Fire," who was hired off the sttreet to pose for Hixon in Indian constume; the scores opf unidentified women dancers scantily dressedc or undressed, photographed in artfully placed shadows.


Hixon remembers then all: The pictures he took of Sally Rand, kGinder Rogers, Jean Horlow as a child and Eddie Cantor. He tells a story of photographing Will Rogers by flashlight at a ceremony opening a new telephone sysytem in Manhattan and one of getting a book autographed by Ruth St. Dennis, amodern dancer. There are other stories:   .............


Being of the "old, old school;" and having worked with what he termed "the forgotten processes," Hixon

Being of the "old, old school;" and having worked with what he termed "the forgotten processes," Hixon sympathizes with those in the business today.


He sat down in a chair directly in front of the old portrait camera and mused a bit.


"Photographers are having a hell of a time now with these color pictures and all," he said. "Color work is killing black and white.


"And people don't think about pictures the way they used to. They don't want to wait a week for pictures to be developed when they can get a camera that gives them pictures right away.


"I have retired," he said later with a sigh. Then he brightened: "I still take pictures here. I still do because the people still keep coming for them."