By Dann Norton
Except when speaking of Red Skelton, the Wabash Valley, and in particular Vincennes, is not usually thought of as a nursery bed for Hollywood. Yet, the International Movie Database, at www.imdb.com, lists nearly 30 individuals who acted, produced, directed, or worked somewhere behind the scenes of the silver screen that have ties to Indiana’s first city. Many of these people were part of Hollywood’s emergence as a multi-million dollar entertainment industry.
When Samuel Rockett married Alice R. “Allie” Ragle on June 26, 1888, in Vincennes, no one could have known that Hollywood history was in the making. Samuel and Allie were the parents of three children: Jessie Rockett (a daughter), Raymond Ragle Rockett, and Albert Louis Rockett. When Samuel passed away, Alice married Milton C. Berry on Sept. 2, 1894, in Knox County. Milton was a railroad worker, which probably prompted the family’s move to Sedalia, Missouri located in Pettis County. Milton died on Aug. 4, 1905, and is buried in the Crown Hill Cemetery near Sedalia.
The local Sedalia newspaper often listed members of the Berry-Rockett family as entertainers. A 1901 church program for East Broadway Christian listed Mrs. M.C. Berry as a speaker, and for the junior church, Jessie Berry, Ragle Rockett, and Albert Rockett were also listed. Piano recitals and surprise parties for the boys, including Edgar, were often listed in the social columns.
The daughter, Jessie Rockett, died prior to 1910. In that year, Alice R. Berry, 40, a widow, mother of five children with three living, was enumerated in the federal census for Sedalia with her sons, Ragle R. 20, Albert L. 18, and Edgar L., 14. The family lived at 1306 Seventh Street. Only Albert was listed with an occupation, that of musician for the “City Show.” This small notation on the census report shows the beginning of a rather large career for the three brothers in entertainment.
A lot happened within the next 10 years. After working at the local theatre, Albert attended the University of Missouri, studying to be a concert pianist. He dropped out. An interview in the The Indianapolis News, showcasing Hollywood talent from the Hoosier state, reported he started one-man vaudeville acts in 1909, then worked at a smelting and refining company. Finding the smelting company unpleasant, he took a vacation to California; he soon relocated to the Golden State. In 1914, he began working for the Balboa Amusements Producing Company, Long Beach. Brother Ray worked there too. Long Beach was the center of movie making until oil strikes made the land too valuable. Balboa shut down around 1921, and Ray and Al moved to Hollywood. Albert worked for Universal Studios for five years.
In 1920, the mother, Alice R. Berry, is living on Leland Way, Los Angeles, California. Two sons are listed in her home: Albert L. Rockett, 27, single, an assistant chief engineer for a motion picture company, and Edgar L. Berry, 24, an assistant production manager for a motion picture company. Over on Sunset Boulevard, Ragle R. Rockett is listed with his wife Marie and two children, Robert R., 4, and Barbara J., 8 months. Ragle was a producer for a motion picture company.
The brothers combined their efforts and created the First National Studios company, producing several films. A 1922 comedy, Handle with Care, was their first release. Their masterpiece was a critically acclaimed biopic called The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln in 1924. The film starred a newcomer, George A. Billings, as Lincoln, and won the Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honor, the highest award for a film at that time. The 1928 San Fernando City Directory listed both brothers as associate producers, and Al as production manager, of First National Production Company.
Life was good for the Rocketts. The 1930 census of Los Angeles County, California, shows Albert L. Rockett, age 39, with his wife, Laura, and son, Norman. (Laura was previously married to William Byers; Norman apparently was adopted by Rockett.) At this time, Al owned a home worth $35,000 in Beverly Hills. Ray R. Rockett is also listed in Beverly Hills with his wife, Marie, and now three children, Robert, Barbara, and Betty. Ray is listed as renting a home for $150 a month.
Edgar Berry died in September 1934, the result of an auto accident on a California highway. He was the production manager at Fox Studios. A friend and coworker, Allan Wright, was injured. Berry left a widow and a daughter, June.
The Internet Movie Database lists seven film credits for Ray Rockett as producer from 1921 to 1929: See You in Jail (1927), Framed (1927), Lonesome Ladies (1927), The Squall (1929), and Hard to Get (1929). Ray worked with directors Phil Rosen, Joseph Henabery, Charles Brabin, Alexander Korda, and William Beaudine. Ray divorced Marie in 1942. He died on Jan. 11, 1959 in Los Angeles.
Al Rockett has a longer list of 26 credits spanning 1918 to 1944. His first was as an actor in 1918 on the film Miss Mischief Maker, playing the role of Frederick Mason. He produced 19 movies, including Soup to Nuts (1930) with the Three Stooges, and Follow the Boys (1944) which was a motion picture variety show starring some of the greats of that time—Marlene Deitrich, Dinah Shore, W.C. Fields, the Andrews Sisters, and Spooks the Dog. Albert Louis Rockett died Aug. 30, 1960 in Hollywood. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale). An online memorial to his life can be found at www.findagrave.com. His wife, Laura survived him, passing away on Aug. 17, 1980; son, Norman died April 5, 1996.
The names of the stars of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, are lost to most of us today. Sometimes the names of the studios spark memories of forgotten movies or actors. But during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the names of Al and Ray Rockett were part of Hollywood glory. Everyone in the country, in the world, knew them—these brothers, raised in central Missouri, and born in Vincennes, Indiana.
Dann M. Norton is a language arts teacher at Parkview Junior High in Lawrenceville, Illinois, where he resides with his wife and son.