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Medford and ‘The Stolen Pie’

History Snoopin’ columnist Bill Miller

“If you hear any curious noises or see anyone climbing your back fence,” warned the Mail Tribune, “or jumping off the woodshed or garage, or even someone asking for a handout at your back door, do not be alarmed.”

Medford residents were making a movie, a movie where an actor might suddenly appear anywhere and anytime without a moment’s notice.

Filming for the 30-minute “Home Talent Comedy” would be completed in one day and, along with whomever cared to show up as an extra, leading roles would feature local celebrities from business and the social realm.

On Friday afternoon, June 2, 1916, the local company of volunteer actors were asked to appear in Library Park (today’s Alba Park), where the first scene, a large picnic near the Carnegie Library, would begin the production.

Titled “The Stolen Pie,” the movie was the idea of Daniel Leroy Sharits, manager of the Star movie theater at 222 E. Main St.

Sharits, 30, had come to Medford just eight months earlier. Born in Georgia, he grew up in Alabama, and it was there, working as a teenage movie usher, that show business took over his life. Eventually he managed a theater in Tennessee, and then set off on the vaudeville circuit as a comic opera singer. Then he turned to managing a film distribution exchange and worked on the road as a film salesman and freelance cameraman.

“During all this time,” he said, “I was studying the whole picture business.”

Part of that film distribution career must have included filming local talent movies. Although the Mail Tribune reported that this was the first movie of this type filmed in Oregon, “The Stolen Pie” production had been completed in Eugene the previous summer, and it is possible Sharits had filmed it.

He had filmed “The Stolen Pie” with local talent in Louisiana as early as 1914, and is sometimes credited with productions in Kansas, Texas, Idaho, New Mexico and other states. However, it seems likely his film distribution company had him and others arrange the productions and complete the filming. Once completed the raw film was sent to Hollywood for editing, returned to the town, and then shown in the local theater.

Each production began with a large picnic near a local landmark. The plot revolved around a Charlie Chaplin-styled hungry hobo (played by C.E. “Pop” Gates, local Ford dealer) who arrives in town in a railroad boxcar. He finds the festive picnic, sneaks under a table, and just when he thinks no one is looking, steals an entire cherry pie. Unfortunately for him, the cook (businessman Loew Zundel, playing as the woman cook, in drag and lipstick) sees the theft and sounds the alarm. The vagabond runs away and the picnic extras follow him in hot pursuit.

In Medford, the race passed through the rail yard, over fences and through backyards; then past hotels, local businesses and schools. Even the Perl Funeral Home’s ambulance was part of the chase. When they came to the front of Sharits’ Star Theater, police Chief Jessie Hittson pulled his gun and fired six shots at the fleeing vagabond, who still clutched the pie. The last scene shows the vagabond behind bars with his sticky fingers eating the pie he has claimed for nearly the entire movie.

When shown daily for a week in the Sharit’s Star Theater it was a sellout and touted as a great promotion for the city of Medford. Unfortunately, the film has been lost.

A month later, Sharits said he was returning to Alabama, but before he did, he convinced Klamath Falls to produce their own version of “The Stolen Pie.” It too, was a great success.

Sharits eventually made it to Hollywood and worked as a film editor. He died there in 1963.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.