Lawrence Semon: Savannah's “Boy Wonder" and Film Star
Recently, it was discovered that one of the most famous actors of the silent film era called Savannah home in the early 1900s. In 1900, Larwence Semon, Larry, moved in with his aunt Emma and uncle Lewis. They resided on Jones Street in Savannah and Lewis owned a popular pharmacy with his brothers.
Larry's parents were itinerant circus performers.
His father was a famous magician named Zera, and both parents decided that Larry, aged 12 and constantly on the move his whole life, needed more stability. Once settled in Savannah, he went on to attend Massie school from 1900 to 1904. Sadly, his mom and dad died in their travels abroad during Larry's stay in Savannah.
Though Larry would later describe his time in Savannah as quite melancholy, he nevertheless created quite the sensation about town with his talents. Larry learned his parents craft of show business. He was quite the talented magician and performed magic shows about town to much amusement. He also acted in many plays at various theatres in town, and was often billed as the “boy wonder," or referred to as “master" Larry. People adored and highly applauded his performances.
Larry went on to become one of Hollywood's most adored actors of the 1920s. His most famous role was as “Scarecrow" in the silent version of Wizard of Oz, starring opposite Oliver Hardy as Tin Man, and Dorothy Dwan as main character Dorothy. Dwan went on to become his wife. He made millions in the industry but spent it all and then plenty more. He lived large and lavishly. Deeply in debt by 1928 and suffering from mental illness consequently, he died from the stress of it all at the young age of 39. Afterward, rumors abounded that he had staged his death to avoid accountability for his enormous debts.
During his time in Savannah, Larry also cultivated his talent for illustration and in the 1910s went on to become a renowned cartoon artist at major newspapers in Philadelphia and New York shortly before his acting career started in 1915. While in New York, he pursued acting and ultimately made his way to Hollywood by 1917 where he became America's leading silent film actor.
Larry's biographer, Claudia Sassen, has written extensively about Larry's tragic life in her book, Larry Semon, Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen. Recently, she reached out to the Curator at Massie in hopes of finding out
more about his life in Savannah as a young boy. It was discovered there is an abundance of information in local newspapers about Larry and his enormous local popularity.
Mrs. Sassen has kindly shared a treasure trove of information, film reels, publicity photos, and artwork, that make up Mr. Semon's life's work. You may see his reels, publicity shots, and more at our website, www.massieschool.com
A future temporary exhibit about Mr. Semon will be developed at Massie and on display in 2023.