HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
New Port Richey and Hollywood
This page was last revised on April 21, 2013.
In 1926 it seemed possible that New Port Richey, Florida, might become another Hollywood, or at least a winter residence for Hollywood stars. Thomas Meighan, one of the top stars of the silent screen, had purchased property and was about to build a mansion on the Pithlachascotee River. He hoped to convince other figures from Hollywood to move to New Port Richey. A new theater under construction was to be named for Meighan.
On Jan. 1, 1926, the New Port Richey Press reported:
Thomas Meighan and Paul Whiteman, Irving Berlin, Sam H. Harris
Among Celebrities Who Have Purchased Here
Celebrities famous the world over, owners of names as familiar to Paris theatre-goers and Australian music-lovers as they are to the inhabitants of old Manhattan Isle, have bought land in New Port Richey, and plan to build winter homes in this famous resort-town, the New Port Richey Press has learned. Recent purchases of building lots in this city, when generally known, will thrust New Port Richey in the public eye as no other community of like size in the limits of Florida can possibly be subjected to the calcium glare of publicity.
Several researchers who have examined recorded deeds have been unable to confirm the facts of this news story and doubt its veracity, except that Thomas Meighan, a leading movie star of the silent era, did build a home in New Port Richey, as did golfer Gene Sarazen. It may be that Berlin and Whiteman made deposits in property but did not purchase. The Press article shows a check for $825 signed by Irving Berlin which the newspaper says is “first payment for a homesite.” A biography, Pops: Paul Whiteman, King of Jazz, seems to imply that Whiteman helped to match buyers and sellers in the 1926 Florida land boom but did not buy property himself.
Thomas Meighan and his brother James bought property from Earl Benham, an actor and costumer, who had purchased land in this area as early as 1913, the year George Sims purchased the Port Richey Company. Benham's wife was a sister of the wife of Raymond Hitchcock, a comedian. The Hitchcocks visited the area but records seem to indicate that they purchased property in eastern Pasco County only.
On Jan. 20, 1926, Mrs. Raymond Hitchcock and her sister, Mrs. Earl Benham, entertained at bridge at the Hitchcock home on Dixie Boulevard. Among those present were Mr. and Mrs. Geo. R. Sims, Mrs. and Mrs. Ernest Truex, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery, Mr. and Mrs. Ed. Wynn, Mrs. Earl Benham, and Raymond Hitchcock. (Information from a 1958 newspaper column by John W. Parkes.)
On Jan. 14, 1927, the New Port Richey Press reported that Donald Brian, the Broadway actor, dancer, and singer, arrived in town with his new bride.
On Oct. 14, 1927, the New Port Richey Press reported, "Ground was broken Monday for the foundation of Thomas Meighan's beautiful residence to be erected on his waterfront property at Jasmin Point Estates and material is being shipped in at a rapid rate."
On Jan. 27, 1928, the Dade City Banner reproted that golfer Johnny Farrell was a guest of the Hacienda Hotel, and that he and Gene Sarazen had a match game at Clearwater.
An article about New Port Richey in the Portsmouth Daily Times of Feb. 28, 1929, has:
Gene Sarazen isn't the only notable who lives here. Thomas Meighan, the celebrated screen star, has a beautiful mansion and when he is not working to bring enjoyment to theater-goers he is here getting enjoyment for himself. Gloria Swanson and Blanche Ring also own valuable property here. In fact the little city is made up largely of people of more or less prominence in various arts and professions including men of wealth who have come here to make their homes, and the Florida sun has mellowed and moulded them into one large family where taking time to greet your neighbor—and everybody is your neighbor—seems to be the main purpose in life.
On June 7, 1929, the New Port Richey Press published a "partial list" of "noted people who have visited New Port Richey since 1925." The list, compiled by Charles F. Herms, was as follows:
On Jan. 11, 1930, the Evening Independent reported, “New Port Richey, Jan. 11—(AP)—Gloria Swanson, motion picture star, was expected to arrive here within the next few days to be the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Meighan, at their Jasmine Point home. Leon Errol and wife have been here since their return from England recently, and Madaline Cameron, Broadway musical comedy star, arrived yesterday.”
No contemporary newspaper account stating that Gloria Swanson was in New Port Richey has been found.
A photo of the Hacienda in the New Port Richey Press of May 2, 1930, carried this caption:
The foyer of the Hacienda Hotel, which was the scene of many brilliant social affairs during the season just closed. Here were assembled at various times some of the most famous living celebrities of stage and screen, including Thomas Meighan, Leon Errol, Madeline Cameron, Frances Ring, Flora Zabelle, and numerous others as well as such noted writers as Bob Davis, George Ade, Ring Lardner, Hal W. Lanigan and others. Gay parties from St. Petersburg, Tampa, Clearwater and other cities motored here to enjoy the delightful atmosphere of this “Bit of Old Spain Amid the Palms.”
On Feb. 6, 1931, the St. Petersburg Times reported:
NEW PORT RICHEY, Feb. 5.—Lester Rice, golf editor of the New York American, is now registered at the Hotel Hacienda and is the latest of the constantly increasing array of golf talent destined to compete for the mythical and rather elusive crown of golf stardom on the Jasmin Point golf course of this city. He received a hearty welcome from numerous friends and professionals, including Tom Meighan, famous star of the silver screen talkies; Gene Sarazen, world famous golfer; Al Ciuci, professional; George Ade, noted writer, and many others.
On Mar. 6, 1932, a newspaper reported, “Thomas Meighan, having finished Cheaters at Play, is taking a vacation with his wife at Port Richey, Fla.”
On March 16, 1933, Meighan and his wife and golfer Gene Sarazen and his wife arrived in New Port Richey for a month’s vacation. The Sarazens were guests of the Meighans at their home while Sarazen rested and conditioned himself for the British Open.
A July 1936 newspaper article reported that “Meighan last resided in New Port Richey three years ago.”
In a 1961 newspaper column, John W. Parkes wrote that Ralph Bellwood had in his possession a letter from Mary Pickford Rogers saying: “I regret to inform you that I have never had the pleasure of visiting New Port Richey, and neither do I own any real estate in your fine state of Florida.”
An article in the St. Petersburg Times on Jan. 13, 1993, quoted Gene Sarazen as saying that Gloria Swanson did not live in New Port Richey. “She didn't spent any time there,” he said. “She may have spent some time in West Palm Beach, but not in New Port Richey. I lived there.” Pauline Stevenson Ash, who graduated from Gulf High School in 1929, recalled that as a high school student she and her friends had heard that Gloria Swanson was visiting in town one day and went to the Hacienda and saw her outside the building.
In an undated newspaper article, Reginald Sims recalled that the famous comedian and actor Ed Wynn “came down for several weeks visit with my parents each winter.” Sims also recalled that Wynn wrote the play The Perfect Fool while fishing on the Pithlachascotee River. On Nov. 12, 1926, Wynn arrived in New Port Richey “to write an original story for his comedy to be made next month by Famous Players,” according to the Tampa Morning Tribune. He was the guest of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Sims. On Saturday, Nov. 13, 1926, the new hotel under construction was formally christened “The Hacienda.” The speaker of the afternoon was Ed Wynn, who expressed his great pleasure at being in “the most beautiful city imaginable.”
In a 1970 newspaper article, Reginald Sims recalled that Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Gloria Zabelle Hitchcock, Ed Wynn, Frank Case of the Algonquin Hotel, Oscar Shaw, Ernest Truex, Jack Hazzard, and Gloria Swanson visited New Port Richey.
On Feb. 4, 1927, the New Port Richey Press reported that Thomas Meighan stated that his next picture, We're All Gamblers, would be filmed in New Port Richey. The film was released in 1927, but was shot in California. The movie The New Klondike, which was shown on opening night at the Meighan Theatre, was filmed partly on location in Miami. According to a 1967 newspaper article, “parts of the film” were shot here.
On Mar. 2, 1928, the New Port Richey Press reported that Charlotte Greenwood (1893-1978), a star of vaudeville and movies, had secured a riverfront lot along Dixie Boulevard and that a mansion similar to that of Thomas Meighan would be built.
In December 1928, Jesse L. Lasky, an important Hollywood film producer, and his wife spent the holidays here, staying at the Hacienda. He expressed a desire to "one day join [Thomas] Meighan and others in a colossal motion picture studio enterprise in this vicinity."
An article of show business items which appeared in the Lincoln Star on June 4, 1933, reported, “Ed Wynn owns a theater at New Port Richey, Fla.” A 1937 St. Petersburg Evening Independent article mentioned that Ed Wynn owns the former Leeston-Smith building.
In November and December 1933, Harry Miller and William Zimmer of Paramount Pictures visited here seeking a possible location for making motion pictures.
It appears that no significant motion picture was shot here, although apparently a film travelogue included scenes of the area, and a newsreel showing blasting to widen the channel of the Pithlachascotee River was made.
Meighan died on July 8, 1936, at Great Neck, Long Island. On Oct. 30, 1936, the Dade City Banner reported that Meighan's home was sold to Irving R. Allen of Chicago. The deed, signed by Frances Ring Meighan and Arthur M. Munn, as executors of the estate, denoted a cash price of $30,000. According to the article, Meighan's home was built at a cost of approximately $150,000, with a $60,000 swimming pool.
In 1978, a scene for the movie The Norseman, starring Lee Majors, was shot at Green Key Beach.
Days of Wine, Roses Recalled
This article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 3, 1968.
By RUBY CARLEY
NEW PORT RICHEY — Historical and charming spots often are erased by progress.
But, at the new homesite of the William F. Greys, the historic is being combined with the new to provide a special charm.
A reminder of the romantic era in New Port Richey history is being restored — the large swimming pool and solarium built by Thomas Meighan, a movie idol of silent screen days soon will be the scene of fun and activity again.
During the 1920s, New Port Richey was a gathering place tor film stars and other celebrities.
The guest list at the then new fashionable Hacienda Hotel included Mary Pickford [not correct -jm], Gloria Swanson, Oscar Shaw, Jack Hazzard, Ernie Truax, Raymond Hitchcock and Thomas and Frances Meighan.
Reginald Sims, prominent New Port Richey businessman and the son of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Sims, related some of the events of this era for The Times recently.
The name of George R. Sims and the history of New Port Richey are intertwined. One of the first settlers here, Sims was a founder and developer of the community and it was largely through his vision and efforts that the sparsely settled area emerged as a planned thriving municipality. The Sims family gave the property for Sims Park to the city for recreation use.
Mrs. George R. Sims was the first queen of New Port Richey’s traditional Chasco Fiesta, which was produced for the first time in 1922.
“My father said that while Tom and Frances Meighan were here on a visit, they became enchanted with the tropical beauty of the area and purchased a large tract of land along the banks of the Cotee River,” Reginald Sims said.
“The Meighans became so absorbed in the construction of their new home that Tom was weeks overdue in Hollywood where he was under contract to make a series of western movies.
“The producer of MGM telephoned Meighan daily and flooded him with telegrams urging him to report to Hollywood but to no avail. “Then, one day he appeared in New Port Richey — he had traveled by train from California and taxied here from Tarpon Springs.
“But, Meighan said he wouldn’t leave until his home was finished. Finally, in desperation, the producer asked Meighan how much the home was costing him. Meighan replied the cost was $125,000.” (“A lot of money in that day,” Sims interjected.)
Anyway, the producer told Meighan that if he would return to Hollywood with him, MGM would pick up the tab for the home. “Meighan got the home as a bonus and it didn't cost him a cent — I happen to know that this really happened,” Sims said. [jm note: The New Port Richey Press reported in 1927 that Meighan would be building a $40,000 home]
Later, a friend of the Meighans, a young golf pro named Gene Sarazen, built a home nearby. This home is one of the attractive places along Jasmine Drive and now belongs to the E. S. Richards.
Sarazen came here between tournaments and spent many hours practicing on the Jasmine Point Golf Course which he designed. The 18-hole course was located in the Jasmine Court, Avery Road, Astor Drive area which is now covered with modern homes.
Local businessmen who caddied for Meighan and Sarazen include James R. Grey, Henry Falany and Al Safranek. “New Port Richey was in its hey-dey,” Jimmie Grey said. (Grey, by the way, is proud of his distinction of being the first baby boy born in New Port Richey.)
“Something was always going on,” Grey remembered. “Glittering, fashionable balls at the Hacienda or dances at the big boat house at the river’s edge, parties at homes, three golf courses and then there was the new Meighan Theatre on South Boulevard,” he said.
“I was a paper boy and I seldom got less than $1 for a paper,” he remembered.
Reg Sims remembered a story about Ed Wynn who was a friend of his father’s. “He arrived to visit with my parents for three weeks and to rest up between schedules,” he said. “My father suggested he take his boat and go fishing but Ed said he couldn’t bait or take a fish off a hook. So Dad sent a guide, Frank Baschard, out fishing with Wynn. The first day Ed caught several trout — from then on he and Frank went out fishing every day.”
“Then one day, right out of the clear blue, Ed told Dad he had to leave for New York to produce his play.” “My father asked him how in the world he could start production when he hadn’t even written the play.” “But, I have written it,” Ed replied. It turned out that Wynn had written the entire script sitting in the boat, while waiting for the fish to bite. The play, “A Perfect Fool,” was a smash hit on Broadway.
After the collapse of the Florida boom, things changed. Guests at the Hacienda dwindled until at one time the only persons in the entire hotel were Al Safranek and his mother. “I often rode my bicycle down those empty halls and those vacant rooms were great places for playing hide and seek,” he remembered.
One of the golf courses was a municipal course which circled Orange Lake. Those who played it report that it was a good course and fun to play. Al said it was a boon to him during those depressed years. “I made big money there — $1 per day for digging out sand spurs.”
“No one could ever have starved though,” he said. “I have seen from 20 to 30 snook swimming around underneath the old wooden bridge at Main Street and there was a time when fresh water brim were there and amberjack and sunfish too.” “And, there was plenty of wild game in the neighboring woods, too,” he added.
Sims said after Thomas Meighan died, his wife sold the home and it changed hands several times. Then, about eight years ago, it was demolished and the lavish furnishings sold at auction.
New, modern homes have sprung up on the site of the old mansion and except for large magnolias and palms and a concrete fence, all that’s left of the Meighan estate are the old swimming pool and solarium.
Bill is having the 30 by 60 pool shortened to 40 feet in length. “It took 65,000 gallons of water to fill the Meighan pool,” Bill said.