Memories In Silver Nitrate

Kage Baker loved the silent movies. Talkies were well established, of course, by the time she was born; but the old films showed up late at night pretty regularly. Kage – who was often insomniac when she was little – sometimes watched telly when almost everyone else in the house was asleep – many’s the time I remember watching the station sign offs: the waving American flag and the National Anthem; fading into the ever-familiar test pattern. We both loved that; I rather miss it now.

For some reason – which I guess had a lot to do with cheapness and lapsed copyrights – old silents showed up on afternoon kiddie cartoon shows, too. Kage was a firm fan of those, and since she could read by age 4, she watched them avidly. She’d read out the caption cards for the smaller kids, but I think she rather improved them as she went along … I remember some really weird plots that I never saw again in adulthood.

Much, much later, Kage wrote her column on silent science fiction films, Ancient Rockets, for And it was eventually published in book form, by the inestimable Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications, of whom and which I have spoken here. Well, Cat Eldridge, editor of Green Man Review ( and Sleeping Hedgehog ( is reviewing that book soon. Being an old friend of Kage’s and mine, he wrote to ask me how Kage came by her love of the old movies, the silent silver screen … and that got me to thinking, Dear Readers, of our long ago and weird as hell childhood.

Man, there was no way she could have avoided it! We were industry brats. When Auntie was a movie star – and Anne Jeffreys was, you bet your ass – Momma was her stand-in. Our playmates’ daddies were painters, grips, camera men, directors; half the houses in the hills were illegal compilations of bits of old sets, put up by prop men and carpenters between movies as hooches. The house next door was Momma’s rental property when we were kids; later  it became the maison d’homme where all our brothers laired. But it had begun as a bootleg movie processing lab – the porch that ran all around the second story was for lookouts, watching out for Edison’s Pinkerton men coming up the Cahuenga Pass with axes and kerosene to burn them out … Kage grew up on those stories, fascinated and silent herself, filing all those mad tales away.

Movie stars were pointed out to us in the local markets, and Momma taught us not to see them: because they needed some privacy. She showed us where they lived, too; where they really lived, not out of date addresses hawked on a street corner. And there were parties at the house sometimes, and quite famous people would be up there amid Momma’s rose bushes and irises, lounging about eating barbecue, drinking crazy cocktails – and feeding the fruit spears from their drinks to the little redhead in the sun suit, wandering around at knee level like a big-eyed bubble.

Kage never forgot anything. The things she saw, the conversations she overheard, the stories she absorbed from 3 feet over her head – she remembered them all. Some made it into her stories. They all informed her view of the cinema, and gave her a unique opinion of it all. It did that to all of us – well, I’m sure about us girls; not so sure our semi-feral brothers absorbed much. But Kage most certainly was aware that she grew up on the edges of Faerieland, and so was I.

I remember how impressed we were to be allowed on to the set of the television show Topper, where Auntie played a ghost. What most thrilled me about it was meeting Neil, the alcoholic ghost Saint Bernard: biggest dog I ever met, and very sweet. I remember playing between the paws of the Sphinx on a summer evening; a spare Sphinx sat outside Paramount’s Lemon Grove Gate for years, and we used to clamber around under its Pharaonic beard. There were old props all over the house and garden: cavalry sabres (real), flintlocks (fake), Grecian temples (real but plywood, not marble).

So it’s impossible to tell exactly where and when Kage developed her devotion to early cinema. Just as an analysis of her teeth would have shown the mineral signature of the Lake Hollywood water she drank as a child; just as her DNA  carried echoes of Welsh hill forts and Algonquin long houses – impossible to pin down when the marks were put there, except that she had carried them all her life. So you might as well say she was conceived that way. She was bred in the land of fantasy. She was born a story-teller.

It just couldn’t have been any other way.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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9 Responses to Memories In Silver Nitrate

  1. What a wonderful story!


    • Kate says:

      Thanks, Maggie. Kids in company towns always have good stories – it’s just that in Hollywood, the company is not a mill or a mine, but the studios!



  2. Mary lynn says:

    I so loved Neil that I begged and begged for a St. Bernard, to no avail. As an adult I did acquire one of the big, lovable, drooly and not-quite-bright lummoxes.


    • Kate says:

      ML – yes indeed, St. Bernards are wonderful. Not so bright, but ever so affectionate. I remember Neil was so big and beautifully groomed, I could put my hands into his ruff up to the wrists – just a tidal wave of soft, soft doggie. The drooling didn’t bother me so much, since my family kept several boxers. You get used to jowels after a while …


  3. Shirley O'Neall says:

    I love it when you write about your childhood. In Terre Haute there were 2 or 3 old opera houses with elaborate decorations or the several small neighborhood theaters where we went “to the show” frequently. I was born in 1935 so my old movie memories go back many years. TCM is one of my favorite TV channels. I read Kage’s columns online and was happy to buy the book.
    One thing I remember about going to see a movie way back when was the timing. I suppose people did go at the opening credits but generally you went on your schedule and if it was the middle of the movie you watched till the end, thru the newsreel, cartoon and short and then the main feature again until you got to where you came in.
    Thank you, Kathleen, for your enjoyable and interesting comments and for carrying on for Kage Baker.


    • Kate says:

      Thanks, Shirley. Our childhood was weird and wonderful, and we sisters made vows never to forget what it was like. Too many adults do forget, and end up losing that part of life when one is living in a glorious alternate universe!


  4. Lynn says:

    Wow, Anne Jeffreys! I thought she was the most beautiful woman on tv. You’ve said that your mother was beautiful; if she was a stand-in for Auntie Anne she really must be. (We all thing our mothers are beautiful.) This was a great story. You grew up in Faere the way my girls grew up in Faire. And it made you all so extra wonderful.


    • Kate says:

      Lynn – Aunt Anne was (and is!) exquisitely beautiful, and so elegant. She has, of course, “miraculously” kept her hair its original ash-blonde. Momma’s hair went a soft silver in her 70’s, but right up to a week or two before she died, it was almost waist long. Like Kage’s … except she wore it in a chignon. Auntie still does. As someone whose hair scoffs at bobby pins and eats combs, I can only sigh in envy.


  5. John says:

    In my early St Louis childhood, Topper was one of my favorite TV shows. We were tv “early adopters”, my dad having built a 1951 kit tv tuner which he then built into the cabinet of his GE Musiphonic hi-fi. That was when local tv spent a lot of time showing test patterns and adjusting the tv and antenna were important skills to be mastered. With no tampering by young children!


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