Who was Anita King? Local native, silent film actress and 1st female cross-country driver. And that’s not all.

 

Kayla Vasilko holds a photo of Anita King. (Photo provided)

Anita King, a Michigan City native, pictured as she sits in the Kissel car she drove across the United States, becoming the first woman to drive across the country alone. (Photo provided)

Story by WNLP’s Bob Wellinski

The name Anita King isn’t likely to ring a bell to most people. Kayla Vasilko, a senior at the Westville campus of Purdue University Northwest (PNW), is making it her mission to bring King “back to life” by sharing King’s story — from humble beginnings in Michigan City to a career as an actress in the early years of film.

A little over a year ago, Vasilko had no idea who King was. But she would soon learn the woman was much more than a Hollywood actress.

The Crown Point resident feels divine intervention may have come into play as she listened to Jerry Holt, a PNW English professor, speak at a function in the fall of 2019. During his talk, Holt spoke of the local history icon and silent movie actress.

“When he shared the little bit he knew at that time, I was completely in awe … for what she accomplished as a woman at that time, and I had no idea she existed. So I knew there was a story to tell,” said Vasilko.

Beginning May 1, King’s story will be shared via Vasilko’s exhibit at the La Porte County Historical Society Museum. 

“Bringing her back to life through the exhibit means everything to me,” said the PNW English major.

Anita King. (Photo provided)

Born Aug. 14, 1884, as Anna Keppen to German immigrants, Anita would later change her name to King. When she was 14, she and her eight siblings became orphans following the death of their mother. Vasilko discovered that family meant everything to King as she would care for her siblings even after moving to Hollywood.

“Anita was a huge advocate for family. She worked hard to support her family,” Vasilko said.

King began modeling in her late teens, and that led to stage acting in Chicago and eventually connecting with actress Lillian Russell. Russell persuaded the young woman then named Keppen to move out west and change her name to King.

After moving to California, King worked as an auto shows model and became fascinated with race cars. She soon learned to drive and eventually became the first woman to compete in auto races. An accident during a Phoenix race put the brakes on racing and detoured her back into acting.

“As one of the earliest female race car drivers at a time, she was paving the way,” said Vasilko.

A conversation between legendary film producer/director Cecil B. DeMille and famed producer Jesse Lasky overheard by King led to another one of her accomplishments. The men seemed to think it would be years before a woman could travel alone across the country on the Lincoln Highway. King was determined to prove them wrong. In 1915, driving a Kissel car, King did just that as she became the first woman to drive solo from coast to coast. The feat earned her the starring role in the movie, “The Race” (The Race (1916 film) – Wikipedia)

The majority of King’s film credits are from the silent movie era. Vasilko noted that King did her own stunts in her films.

King made her last movie in 1919 at about the time the silent movie industry started to transition to “talkies” pictures with sound. Vasilko said King did not have an eloquent speaking voice. However, King’s family heard from King herself, before she passed away in 1963, that she faced a lot of negativity, as many women did, in the film industry. “She was an advocate and spoke up whenever she could. She was becoming more and more outspoken and they (film executives) didn’t like that and saw it as a time to cut her out,” said Vasilko.

As a result, King started writing her own screenplays.

King used her success to help other actresses who faced harassment from Hollywood’s male directors and actors by “funding a safehouse for young women chasing their dreams in Hollywood.”

Vasilko sees a little bit of herself in King. “She had a strong personality, was determined and had really big dreams. So, as a young woman myself, facing a lot of the same things and a lot of the same goals, I really do see a lot of myself in her. She inspires me.”

Determination and dreams motivated Vasilko to dig deep and put together King’s exhibit. “It’s definitely been a learning experience. Adjustments along the way, some positives and some setbacks.” 

She said things started off well, including several grants for the project. Then the pandemic hit at about the time she was to fly to Hollywood to research and bring back artifacts. “I was deeply discouraged. I looked at the story I was trying to tell about Miss King, who faced a lot of trials and how she rose against that so gracefully. That really inspired me to keep going and to think creatively about how to continue the project, even during these difficult times.”

Creative thinking led to her using grant money saved due to the pandemic travel restrictions to be used to borrow more artifacts for the exhibit.

She said combing the web turned up few resources. But a big find was locating King’s great-great-niece, Lucianne Boardman of Wisconsin. Vasilko spent hours interviewing Boardman, gaining valuable stories and information, including “more credible sources in terms of newspapers and older articles written about King in her time.” 

Boardman recalled childhood visits with her great-great-aunt. “She was very glamorous with her beautiful jewelry and fur coats and stoles. Anita was focused on all of her family and wasn’t one to share her adventures or accomplishments,” she said. 

It wasn’t until Boardman was in college that she learned just how accomplished King truly was. “I continued to learn more and more about her contributions to the film industry, the women’s movement, the war effort during World War I and to young women who were wishing to have careers in film.”

Boardman said she shared her knowledge of Anita with her children, nieces and nephews and grandchildren. “I’m excited to think that she will have an impact and influence in their lives. My grandkids and I performed a readers’ theater about Anita at our local museum during Women’s History Month and they were so proud to share her story.” 

In 2015, Boardman and her sisters re-enacted Anita’s 1915 cross-country journey on the Lincoln Transcontinental Highway. “Many followed our journey and enjoyed hearing about our aunt and all that she had accomplished,” she said.

Boardman revealed one of King’s accomplishments that demonstrated the care and compassion King had for others. “I’m especially proud that she became ‘City Mother of Los Angeles’ upon her return from her cross country trip. In that role, Anita became a protector of young girls who came to Hollywood in hopes of becoming the next (famed silent-movie actress) Mary Pickford, only to find that they would become victims of the industry,” she said. Boardman explained how King established a home for such young women to find shelter and would either provide support to them in finding production companies that might sign them on for films, or would help them to find resources to return to their families.

Vasilko said that at some point during her exhibit on King at the La Porte County Historical Society Museum from May 1 through July 30, Boardman and her family will come to view it. The display will include original photos from the family, costumes, wigs, posters and more. 

Also for the display, Mr. Lynne Kissel and his wife, Jeannie, agreed to lend their 1914 Kissel Touring Car similar to the one King drove cross country. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” exclaimed Vasilko. 

La Porte County Historian Bruce Johnson is equally excited about the exhibit, praising Vasilko for her work. “She has done an amazing amount of work for this project. We are fortunate to be able to display it here in La Porte County, where Anita King was born,” said Johnson. 

One of King’s original films, “Snobs” (1915), is filed in the Library of Congress. Grant funds were used to preserve the movie and it will be shown during the exhibit. Vasilko explained, “At the time it was filmed, movies were put on a material that is highly flammable. We’ve lost a lot of our silent movies because they haven’t been restored yet.”

Beside PNW’s Jerry Holt, Vasilko credits Paul Hecht and Mary Beth Connolly with their help on the project.

Although Vasilko has no idea how many hours she has put into the project, she calls it a “labor of love.”

“I hope to do a book eventually and continue with this project after graduation – working to tell her story in as many ways as possible. I feel her story will inspire a lot of people. She was determined against terrible odds, against discrimination, setbacks and trials. She didn’t waver. I think that is an important message for everyone.” 

Boardman echoed Vasilko’s thoughts. “I’m excited to know that citizens from Indiana, La Porte County and Michigan City will hear of Anita’s story – a story of one of their own who contributed so much to the country in so many ways. It’s a timely story about a woman who was definitely a trailblazer and lived well before her time. That a girl like Anna Keppen, a girl of very humble beginnings, could accomplish so much in a lifetime.”

WNLP editor’s note: Check back with WNLP for updates on special museum events regarding the Anita King display.

3 Responses to “Who was Anita King? Local native, silent film actress and 1st female cross-country driver. And that’s not all.”

  1. Carla Tobar

    Apr 29. 2021

    This was a great story. Thank you for this & I look forward to another visit to our great Museum.

    Reply to this comment
  2. G.Gottio

    Apr 29. 2021

    Thanks for great story. I learn something new everyday

    Reply to this comment
  3. Denyse Hughes

    May 02. 2021

    Thanks, that was interesting!

    Reply to this comment

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