Fatty’s big, tragic career

Fatty Artbuckle and Mabel Normand in the 1916 film "Fatty Adrift."

Fatty Artbuckle and Mabel Normand in the 1916 film “Fatty Adrift.”

By Jim Tortolano

Orange County has produced its share of movie stars and celebrities, ranging from Diane Keaton to Kevin Costner, but none have had the impact and tragic life of our first big star, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.”

Largely (pun intended) forgotten today, Arbuckle was once the most successful performer in Hollywood. He was the first actor to make over $1 million a year. He worked with Charlie Chaplin and “discovered” Bob Hope, urging him to come to Los Angeles and pursue a career in show business.

Even more forgotten are Arbuckle’s Orange County roots and his role in making some local locations popular for film shoots. About all that people remember about him now is that he was quite large (about 300 lbs.) and that he was accused of raping and killing a young actress at a wild party.

One of nine children, he was born in Smith Center, Kansas in 1887. His family moved to California when he was one year old, and to Santa Ana when he was two. School children apparently gave him his nickname, which he hated.

“I have a name, you know,” he would respond when his nickname/stage name was used to address him.

Despite his size, Arbuckle was an agile performer, and also had a fine singing voice. He began his professional career at the age of eight, performing with Frank Bacon’s traveling company when it stopped in Santa Ana for a performance.

Movie poster of Arbuckle with Charlie Chaplin.

Movie poster of Arbuckle with Charlie Chaplin.

He began his singing career in 1904 and started performing in silent films in 1909. By 1913 was an established star. Although his size was part of his appeal, he didn’t use his girth as a comedic tool; his audiences marveled at how such a big man could be so light on his feet and capable of acrobatic tricks.

As Arbuckle’s career soared, he kept to his Orange County connections. He was a frequent visitor to Seal Beach’s famous/notorious “Joy Zone,” which was the site of several Mack Sennett films, such as “Fickle Fatty’s Fall” in 1915.

Arbuckle was at the peak of his fame and career when tragedy struck in 1921 at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. A starlet named Virginia Rappe fell ill and died during a party, and Arbuckle was accused of raping her.

He was tried three times, with hung juries being the result first two times, and an acquittal the third time. In fact, the jury of his last trial went to the extraordinary length of apologizing to Arbuckle for the flimsy basis of his prosecution.

Publicity surrounding the trials crippled his career and is believed to have led to the establishment of the Hays Office to regulate Hollywood.

His acting career trashed despite his acquittal, he turned to directing under the name of “William Goodrich.” A brief acting comeback in the early Thirties was cut short by Arbuckle’s death (likely by heart attack) in his sleep in June 1933 at the age of 46.

Sources: Orange County Archives, OChistoricalblogspot.com, Wikipedia, Internet Movie Data Base.

2 replies »

  1. I loved this story and learned a lot !! Never heard of the Joy Zone in Seal Beach. I’d also like to learn more about the Hays office. Such a different time. Or maybe not …

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