January 20, 2019

The "Shirley Temple of Silent Films" Was a Prescott Girl

Virginia Lee (born LaVerne) Corbin
On March 2nd, 1910, the Weekly Journal-Miner reported that Mrs. LE Corbin, wife of a wealthy business owner in Prescott, left for Long Beach, CA to visit relatives there for several weeks. The couple’s parting must have been both cordial and celebrated, for nine months later, on December 5th, a future star was born.

The couple named her Virginia LaVerne Corbin, but outside Prescott, she would become known as Baby Virginia Lee Corbin; “The Dresden Doll,” comparing her fair complexion to the celebrated porcelain-headed playthings. 

First, a word about her family. In several biographies of Virginia, her father is described as a simple druggist. However, this is the least that could be said to describe him. In addition to being the co-owner of the Corbin - Bork Drugstore in Prescott, Leon had a number of other successful entrepreneurial interests with his business partner Bork. Together they held mining interests in the Copper Glance, and the still functioning Henrietta mines. In 1910, the year of Virginia’s birth, Corbin also incorporated the Hanover Securities Company which, with other investors, boasted an initial capital of a million dollars (around $26 million today.)

As Virginia became a star, Corbin family interests were split. Virginia and her mother would spend long periods of time on the west coast while Mr. Corbin stayed in Prescott to attend to business. An August, 1914 article reported that Mr. Corbin would spend his annual vacation in Long Beach, CA, joining his wife, who had been there with Virginia “since the first of the year.”

The day the Corbins left Prescott is murky due to his spending much time wrapping up his business affairs there. As far as the drugstore goes, his partner Bork still needed a business partner to continue running it. To remedy this, the two allowed Ed Shumate to buy in and the name was changed to Owl Drugs. Corbin stayed on to make the transition smooth and ended up selling his share to Shumate and Bork for the equivalent of $1.3 million today.

As early as age 2, Virginia began modeling work. Soon, people were not only impressed with Virginia’s beauty, but also her sophistication. “According to Mrs. Corbin, little Virginia never said a baby word.”

“A slender little figure…supports her flower-like face,” one columnist observed. “It must be wonderful to be ALL beautiful—not only in the face, but in exquisitely molded hands and feet.”

The Prescott paper also described Virginia as “a singer and dancer of merit” who was “in demand for club and society entertainments.”

The true story of William F "Buffalo Bill" Cody's visit to Prescott, AZ late in 1911. Includes his visit to the Arizona Pioneers' Home and his investment in area mining.

Exactly how the movies discovered Virginia is fraught in myth. There are at least three different stories in circulation. It seems that anyone who could take credit did. “Her debut was made with Marie Empress in 'The Chorus Girl and the Kid,'” the Journal-Miner reported, “and she has played with Universal, Lasky, Metro and others, (with) her present connection being Fox.”

Her work at Fox produced several classic stories where all the actors were children aged 5-7 and were known as the Fox Kiddies. These included “Jack and the Beanstalk,” The Gilbert and Sullivan satire, “Mikado,” “Aladdin,” and others. She also appeared with the famous western movie star, Tom Mix. 

During this time it was revealed that Virginia was earning from $100 to $175 a week at Fox (upwards of $4000 today.)

After her work at Fox, she performed vaudeville and worked for producer Jesse D Hampton where she made at least two films. One was “The White Dove” and she gave a prologue to the movie “The Double Standard.” Unfortunately, these films have both been lost.

One reason for Virginia's departure from Fox was a desire for more money. She was not alone in this. Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and others left their studios to form “Allied Artists.” Unfortunately for the actors, the studios also owned, or required exclusive contracts from, the theaters. There weren’t enough independent theaters to show these films and they ended up losing money. Eventually, this snug, controlling relationship was busted by anti-trust litigation, but much too late for Virginia.

In April, 1921, it was announced that Virginia had “recently closed a 14-week tour of the western states with the Pantages circuit, and has signed a contract with a New York corporation” where she would “appear in a series of pictures under her own management.” If any films came of this, they seem to have been lost.

From 1913-1915 over 100 silent westerns were filmed around Prescott, Arizona.

Then in September, 1922, she signed a contract with “a new San Francisco motion picture producing concern,” called Fisher Productions. “Virginia has signed a 5 year contract with the Fisher Company, which calls for a number of productions in which she is to be starred.” Additionally, she did product endorsements during this period including the following for the Jordan closed car:

14 yr old Virginia & Mom
However, things did not go well at Fisher. Virginia contracted tuberculosis and filming of “Youth Triumphant” was delayed until mid-1923. 

What’s more, Virginia was Fisher’s first big star. In order to sign her, they promised her a whopping $300 a week. With the delays in filming and the lack of theaters that would or could show the film, the fledgling production company soon ran out of money.

In August, 1923, the Corbins sued Fisher Productions for $11,500 in back pay.

For the next two years she played on “the Orpheum vaudeville circuit where she did a ‘single’ act as a headliner. She also played in London and Paris.” 

By 1924, she was growing up fast. She signed with Paramount at age 13 and soon was playing a flapper girl in “The Cafe of Fallen Angels.”

Although her days as "Baby Virginia" were over, she would continue entertaining and starring in movies, easily making the transition into "talkies." According to IMDB.com, she married Chicago stock broker Theodore Krol in October, 1929. They had 2 sons (Phillip Herald and Robert Lee) before divorcing in 1937. She also married another Chicago stock broker, Charles Jacobson, before she lost her battle to tuberculosis June 5th, 1942 at the young age of 31.

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Santa Cruz Evening News, 4/4/1917; Pg. 8, Cols. 2-3.
Los Angeles Times, 10/14/1917; Pg. 27, Col. 3.
Los Angeles Times, 11/3/1917; Pg. 9, Col. 6. 
Los Angeles Times, 5/23/1920; Pg. 39, Col. 2.
San Francisco Examiner, 11/28/1920; Pg. 77, Col. 1.
Santa Cruz Evening News, 4/8/1921; Pg. 5, Col. 3.
San Francisco Examiner, 10/21/1922; Pg. 17, Col. 5
Los Angles Times, 5/4/1923; Pg. 27, Col. 5.
Los Angeles Times, 8/28/1923; Pg. 8, Cols. 3-4.
Oakland Tribune, 4/6/1924; Pg. 45, Col. 8
Los Angeles Times, 6/12/1924; Pg. 27, Col. 2.
San Francisco Examiner, 10/26/1917; Pg. 10, Col. 7.

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