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CECIL B. DEMILLE—AVIATOR

THE NAME Cecil B. DeMille conjures up thoughts of Hollywood epics, not to say the classic film set comment,  “Any time you’re ready, C.B.”  Or, if you’re into old time radio, you know DeMille from the Lux Radio Theatre and his floridly delivered signoff, “… from Holly-wood.”

Making movies wasn’t Cecil B. DeMille’s only passion.

As well as being an epic-thinking film director, DeMille was also an aviation pioneer. He was fully prepared to swap his fledgling film activities for aerial combat, but World War I hostilities ended just about when he earned his wings.

DeMille learned his flying skills from Al Wilson, right, at B.H. DeLay’s air field in Venice, California. And don’t you suppose that kid became hooked on aviation forever.

DeMille founded the Mercury Aviation Company in 1918, his flying stock composed of war surplus Curtiss JN biplanes affectionately known as “Jennys.” Within a year there were three Mercury Air Fields in the Los Angeles area, all managed by Al Wilson, C.B.’s flying instructor. Air Field No. 1 was at the southwest corner of Melrose and what is now Fairfax; No. 2 was at Wiltshire and Fairfax (not far from today’s Petersen Automotive Museum); No. 3 was in Altadena, north of Pasadena.

Mercury Aviation was among the first offering regularly scheduled air service, with destinations as far as Bakersfield and beyond that to Fresno. It also carried airmail for the U.S. Post Office. One of Mercury’s oddest achievements was flying a Shetland pony to a Santa Barbara horse show. “Pegasus Pony” made the trip from Los Angeles with full ASPCA approval.

Film star Charlie Chaplin had a competing airline, he and his brother Syd running the Chaplin Aerodrome on property adjacent to Mercury Air Field No. 2. “All records broken,” promised one of their ads, “Los Angeles to San Francisco and return in one day.”

C.B. gives Paramount film producer Jesse L. Lasky, in the forward cockpit, his first flight.

Of course, both companies were active in the business of making movies featuring aeroplanes. A fascinating book on this is Aviators in Early Hollywood, by Shawna Kelly, Arcadia Publishing, 2008.

An excellent source on the subject (and my source of the photos here) is Shawna Kelly’s book, Aviators in Early Hollywood. The fellow in the flying helmet is Ms. Kelly’s great-grandfather, B.H. “Daredevil” DeLay.

Author Kelly is a great-granddaughter of B.H. DeLay, pioneer aviator who devised many of the techniques putting aerial adventures onto film.

Another book featuring DeMille aviation lore is D.D. Hatfield’s Los Angeles Aeronautics 1920-1929, Northrop University Press, 1973.  My usual sources, Amazon.com and AbeBooks.com, list both. ds

2 comments on “CECIL B. DEMILLE—AVIATOR

  1. Richard
    August 28, 2012

    Neat tidbit Dennis. I did not know that. Thanks! RB

  2. Bill Urban
    August 31, 2012

    Dennis, good work as usual. I was reminded of another, more sedate, wings related DeMille story: It was around 40 years ago, I happened to hear the rebroadcast of an interview with C.B.s’ niece, and famous choreographer, Agnes DeMille – she was promoting her new book. I didn’t know Agnes from Abigail, but was so taken with her grandma persona that I bought the book for my wife (but I read it too). In the interview she explained the title of her book – it involved her habit of telling her dance students to stand straight and hold their shoulders back, for that was . . . “Where The Wings Grow”.

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This entry was posted on August 28, 2012 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , , , .
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