About two months ago, I heard from Jon Hanna Beasley of Dallas that his aunt, Cathrine Crooks, was a silent movie actress and he had inherited a steamer trunk of her prized possessions.
The interesting thing about his story was that she acted under the name of Cathrine Countiss and was known to Jon and his siblings as Aunt Birdie. She was born in Sherman on July 16, 1873, when Denison was just a year old.
Actually she was born Birdie Sherman Crooks and was the third of five children born to Thomas Jefferson “T.J” and Winnie Crooks. T.J. was editor of the Sherman Courier at that time and subsequently operated several other newspapers in Grayson, Fannin and Cooke counties. He had been an officer in the Confederate Army and as a boy of 17 or 18 years old, was a Pony Express rider when Texas was a Republic. Jon said that Aunt Birdie made a big deal about being a Daughter of the Confederacy.
Jon offered to come to Denison and bring some of his aunt’s memorabilia to show me and I jumped at the chance. His sister, Cathy Beasley and his partner, Mark, all from Dallas, came up to with the items that he had inherited after her death. Birdie’s sister, Dixie Mae Crooks Potter was Jon and Cathy’s great-grandmother.
The steamer trunk contained an elaborate lace dress, three hats of the early 1900s, an alligator purse, many pictures that were mostly publicity shots, a contract her third husband sent her to sign, and two scrapbooks. She hauled the trunk from stage to stage throughout her career, Jon said.
Described as a self promoter, Jon said that Birdie would do anything to get her name or pictures in the newspaper and it looks like she did a good job of it, even after her death. Her prized possessions were kept in the steamer truck that was chocked full and among the estate of George Clark Hanna, Birdie’s third husband when he died in 1958.
Before coming to Sherman, T.J. represented Red River County in the Texas Legislature in 1859-1860. After giving up the newspaper business, he served a two-year term as commissioner of Indian Affairs in Vinita, Indian Territory, in the second administration of Grover Cleveland. At one time, he was a justice of the peace and Denison City Council member. His name showed up many times in the Portal to Texas History.
Birdie lived in or around Grayson County for the first 20 years of her life, mostly in Sherman for the first half and Denison during the second half. When she was 12, she wrote a play that was produced at a Denison theater with all the parts acted by children. As a teen, she was sponsor of the Denison Rifles and later the Stanley Rifles. She attended dances at the Exposition Hall and gave recitations at church and other functions. From 1889 to 1891, she attended the Hagerstown Female Seminary in Maryland, then enrolled in Nashville in the fall of 1891, but returned to Denison in the spring of 1891.
She married William Peter Countiss of Chicago, the first of three marriages. The story of their wedding said they would make their home in Denison, but they didn’t stay long. The two of them traveled a lot for the next several years.
Jon said that no one knows if she acted in amateur theatrical productions during those years, but in 1900 she graduated from a dramatic school in New York and broke into the theater professionally there. She found a place in one of the lesser stock companies, performing in small roles for $5 a week. Within a year, she had risen to leading lady in the Murray Hill Stock Company, dropped the name Birdie and adopted Cathrine instead. She advanced to leading lady in such plays as “The Village Postmaster,” “Arizona” and “Prince Otto.” For two seasons, she was leading lady with the Colombia Stock Company in Portland and one season with Keith’s Bijou Stock Company in Philadelphia. The season of 1907-1908 she appeared in vaudeville.
In 1906, she divorced Countiss and married Edward Price, a theatrical manager, in New York. An article in the Sunday Gazetteer said “Mrs. Birdie Crooks Countiss, leading lady in the Arizona Troop, closed her engagement at Jersey City, N.J. Monday night. She toured the US and is now recognized as a theatrical star in the first magnitude.”
She returned home to play a date at the Denison Opera House in 1903 and packed the house in the evening after giving a slightly less well-attended performance in the afternoon.
In 1904, she made the first of her four silent moving pictures within a six month period. The last that was seen by the public was “A Modern Magdalene,” which costarred Lionel Barrymore, though she received top billing.
She also performed onstage with Will Rodgers and Fannie Brice. In 1916 she played in six silent films.
In 1915, she divorced Price and married George Clark Hanna, a longtime acquaintance from Denison who had moved to California after retiring from the lumber business in Fort Worth in 1911. Cathrine underwent a serious operation in 1917, recovered and took several cruises with George in the 1930s and 40s. She died in Pasadena at age 82 in 1955. George died in 1958.
In June of 1908, the Denver Post ran a contest of how many words could be made out of Cathrine Countiss’ name. First place winner was Fannie Sherman, who made 4,393 words.
Cathrine was known to “chew the scenery,” meaning to “ham it up, melodramatize or overreact.” According to Jon, she was great at performing in an excessively emotional or exaggerated manner as was done with silent movies. Not bad for a young woman born and raised in this area almost 150 years ago. She certainly made her mark on the silent screen.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com.