First professional American stuntwoman.
Helen Gibson (August 27, 1892 – October 10, 1977) was an American film actress, vaudeville performer, radio performer, film producer, trick rider and rodeo performer; and is considered to be the first American professional stunt woman.
Born Rose August Wenger in Cleveland, Ohio; one of five girls to Swiss-German parents, Fred and Annie Wegner. Her father had wanted a son, and encouraged her to be a tomboy. Helen saw her first Wild West show in Cleveland in the summer of 1909 and answered a Miller Brothers 101 Ranch ad for girl riders in Billboard magazine. They taught her to ride, and she performed in her first 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show in St. Louis in April 1910. Said Helen: “( I ) was already practicing picking up a hand-kerchief from the ground at full gallop. When veteran riders told me I could get kicked in the head, I paid no heed. Such things might happen to others but could never happen to me, I believed. We barnstormed all over the US and the season ended all too soon. I was sorry when I had to go home, and could hardly wait to open in Boston in the spring of 1911.”
When the Miller-Arlington Show suddenly closed in 1911, it left many performers stranded in Venice, CA. Thomas H. Ince, who was producing for the New York Motion Picture Company, hired the entire cast for the winter at $2,500 a week. The performers were paid $8 a week and boarded in Venice, where the horses were stabled. They rode five miles each day to work in Topanga Canyon, where the films were being shot. In 1912 she made $15 a week for her first billed role as Ruth Roland’s sister in Ranch Girls on a Rampage.
Like many of the cowboy extras, Helen continued to perform in rodeos between pictures. At the Second Los Angeles Rodeo in 1913 she was featured in the Standing Woman Race, and so impressed one of the investors that he offered to finance a tour of rodeos for her, paying all expenses and splitting the winnings. At his ranch outside of Pendleton, Oregon, Helen worked his horses every day, and learned new forms of trick riding. It was in Pendleton in June 1913 that she met Hoot (Edmund Richard) Gibson. They began working together, and at a rodeo in Salt Lake City they won everything – the relay race, the standing woman race, trick riding, and Hoot won the pony express race; but the promoter of the rodeo skipped town and they didn’t get a cent of the prize money.
That summer the couple performed in rodeos in Winnipeg, Canada and Boise, Idaho, and arrived back in Pendleton a few days before the Pendleton Round-Up was due to begin. However, because rooms were almost impossible to obtain, they decided to “tie the knot” as married couples were given preference, and as a result the landlady gave them her own room. They won enough money to return to Los Angeles, where Hoot worked as a cowboy extra and double for Tom Mix, at the Selig Polyscope Company in the Edendale district of Los Angeles (now known as Echo Park). Helen also worked for Selig and for the Kalem Studios in Glendale.
In April 1915 while on the Kalem payroll doubling for Helen Holmes in The Hazards of Helen adventure film series, Helen performed what is thought to be her most dangerous stunt: a leap from the roof of a station onto the top of a moving train in the A Girl’s Grit episode. The distance between station roof and train top was accurately measured, and she practiced the jump with the train standing still. The train had to be moving on camera for about a quarter mile and its accelerating velocity was timed to the second. She leapt without hesitation and landed correctly, but the train’s motion made her roll toward the end of the car. She caught hold of an air vent and hung on, dangling over the edge to increase the effect on the screen. She suffered only a few bruises.
“The real difficulty of the stunt lay not in the leap itself; since she had practised this with the train stationary and it clearly presented no difficulties, but in the timing. What such stunts require is an inbuilt awareness of the speed of the moving object. During the course of a leap where a moving object is concerned, the spatial relationship between take-off point and landing point changes. It is quite possible to imagine a leap from a static take-off point on to the roof of a moving train in which the stuntman aims to land halfway along a carriage roof yet in fact-because of the speed of the train-lands in the gap between two carriages. It seems that in such a leap the safest place to aim at is the gap itself At least in that way one can guarantee to miss it. Helen Gibson had this sensitivity to spatial relationships between objects in motion, but it is certainly not a gift shared by all stuntmen.” Arthur Wise from Stunting In the Cinema, 1973.
Helen Gibson, 1916
Hazards of Helen
Considered the longest serial in history, the 119 The Hazards of Helen episodes are stand-alone stories, instead of chapters. The highly successful series had begun with Holmes in the lead role for the first 49 episodes, but Helen was given her chance to replace Helen Holmes for two pictures when she took ill, and starred in A Test of Courage and A Mile a Minute, for $35 a week. The Kalem New York office were so impressed by her work, they instructed Glendale to keep her on when Helen Holmes and her husband, Hazards of Helen director, J. P. McGowan left to form their own company.
Now rechristened ‘Helen’ by the studio, she proved to be a capable actress, and after making several more pictures she wrote a story for a 1-reeler that was built around a risky stunt. In order to catch a runwaway train she would detach a team of horses, ride them “standing woman”, and then catch a rope dangling from a bridge and use it to swing from the horses and onto the train as it came under the bridge. Kalem rewarded her by raising her salary to $50 a week.
Gibson performed in The Hazards of Helen for 69 episodes until the series ended in February 1917, after which Kalem tried producing another serial starring role for her, the Daughter of Daring. One of her best stunts appeared in this serial: traveling at full speed on a motorcycle chasing after a runaway freight train, Gibson rode through a wooden gate, shattering it completely, up a station platform, and through the open doors of a boxcar on a siding, with her machine traveling through the air until it landed on a flatcar in a passing train. The trick was to undercrank the camera and execute it all with flawless timing.
By then Kalem, a producer of single-reel films, was in decline and rather than risking financial failure producing feature films, ceased production in 1917 and was sold to Vitagraph. Universal offered her a three-year contract at $125 a week for 2-reel, and 5-reel pictures until 1919; among these were two 1919 John Ford films, Rustlers and Gun Law. Her Universal contract ended with the winter of 1919 and she signed with Capital Film Company for $300 a week, but Capital was already losing money and went out of business in May 1920.
Hoot Gibson who had joined the Army tank corps, returned during Christmas 1918 and Universal gave him a contract to appear in 2-reel westerns. He found his wife had become a very successful movie star while he was away, but his ego couldn’t handle it and the couple separated in 1920. Census records for 1920 indicate that they were living separately; Hoot Gibson listing himself as married, and Helen listing herself as widowed. In 1922, Hoot married a woman named Helen Johnson, who is often confused with Helen Gibson. In 1923, Hoot and Helen Johnson Gibson had their only child, Lois Charlotte Gibson; and divorced in 1930.
In 1920 Gibson created Helen Gibson Productions to produce her own starring vehicles. The first was to be No Man’s Woman, a Western melodrama about a kind-hearted dance-hall hostess rescuing a rancher’s child. The money gave out before the picture was finished, and it bankrupted Gibson personally. A year later the film was released by another studio with a new title, Nine Points of the Law. In March 1921, the Spencer Production company hired Gibson to star in the Wolverine. They were so pleased with her performance they put her on the payroll at $450 a week. However, before shooting began on her second picture her appendix ruptured, putting her in the hospital battling peritonitis. The studio replaced her.
After her recovery from surgery, Gibson’s popularity as a lead had waned. In September 1921 an independent company hired her for a 5-reeler and folded without paying the cast or crew. Riding in the picture put Gibson back in the hospital, forcing her to sell her furniture, jewelry and car. She made personal appearances in connection with bookings of No Man’s Woman and |The Wolverine in theatres and at rodeos, including visiting her old friends at the 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma.
In the spring of 1924 Gibson got a job trick riding with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ Wild West show along with other cowboy performers such as Ken Maynard, and performed in their ‘after show’ for two-and-a-half years. In September 1926 Gibson joined a Hopi Indian act and worked the Keith vaudeville circuit out of Boston.
Gibson continued to take character parts and extra work until 1954, when the couple moved to Lake Tahoe for health reasons. After trying unsuccessfully to sell real estate they returned and bought a home in Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley. Gibson suffered a slight stroke in 1957, but it did not prevent her working as an extra in film and television.
Her last role was in the autumn of 1961, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for which she was paid $35; she was 69 years old. She retired in January, 1962 on a Motion Picture Industry Pension of $200 a month plus social security. The couple moved to Roseburg, Oregon where she spent her later years fishing and giving the occasional interview. Helen Gibson died of heart failure following a stroke in 1977 aged 85.