Darien yard transformed into Keystone lot for short film

Mabel Normand was one of the most powerful forces to propel director Mack Sennett and actors Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin to stardom in the early 1900s, and Rudy Cecera wants more people to know her name.

With a cast of nine people in Darien resident Rick Heinbaugh's backyard, Cecera's short screwball comedic film, "Mabel's Dressing Room," came alive as Cecera transformed Darien in 2013 into California in 1914.

In September 2013, Cecera reconnected with Heinbaugh, with whom Cecera had previously worked. Heinbaugh collects antique cars that Cecera knew would be perfect for his film.

"Without Darien, there would be no film," Cecera said.

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Darien didn't just play host to Cecera's film in Heinbaugh's backyard; several extras in the movie are town residents. An email blast from Amy Allen, the executive director of the Darien Arts Center, caught the eye of some residents, who showed up early on the filming days ready to don 1900s garb.

Autumn Howard and her two children, Max and Sophie, are seen on the set of the Keystone lot as Normand, played by Kristina Thompson, walks to her dressing room. She also passes Jim Cooper, another Darien resident, who pretends to be working a camera on set.

"It was a lot of fun, and it was a beautiful day," Cecera said.

The timing of Cecera's film could not be more on point, as 2014 is the 100-year anniversary of Normand's first film as the first female Hollywood director.

A conversation between Cecera and a woman involved with the Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place in New York every April, was a key moment in the creation of "Mabel's Dressing Room." Cecera has been developing a full-length film about Normand's life, and chose one scene from the screenplay to develop into a short film.

The plot of the 18-minute movie, according to Cecera, is as follows: While on break from directing her newest film at Keystone Studios, circa 1914, silent film actress, comedienne and director Mabel Norman escapes to her dressing room, where she plays host to an interesting assortment of crazy clowns and beautiful babes.

The scene opens in color on the Keystone lot at the start of a break for the cast and crew. The viewer follows Normand through the lot as she stops to talk to various actors and crew members before finally making her way to her dressing room. As she enters the room, the film is suddenly in black and white.

"The real movie is what's behind the scenes," Cecera said. The scenes in Normand's dressing room were filmed from Cecera's Westchester home in just minutes.

Normand's influence on Chaplin was astronomical after she insisted that Sennett hire Chaplin to work on the Keystone lot, where she was also an actress and director. An early 1914 film, "Mabel's Married Life," shows Normand walking in the same fashion as Chaplin's "The Tramp."

"This on-camera evidence, together with all the other facts assembled, point to one thing," Cecera wrote in article for Screen Comment. "Normand was the personality behind The Tramp and therefore, by association, Chaplin. What he would later become, he owes to Normand, and likewise everyone he later influenced."

Normand's name is tarnished by an early death from tuberculosis at the age of 37 and her connection to two murders.

A nurse named Julia Brew tended to Normand in the last years of her life. After Normand's death, Brew was in search of a new job, and met Marilyn Slater's father, who needed someone to look after his daughter.

Slater, a Normand archivist, was Cecera's technical adviser in his film.

"I called Marilyn first," Cecera said about making his film. "She's as close as we're going to get" to Mabel.

Slater owns some of Normand's possessions, passed down to her from Brew. Several of those items were lent to Cecera and used as props in the film, such as Normand's cigarette case and gloves.

Cecera has worked as a writer for shows such as Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno before realizing he wanted to pen his own full-length feature film.

He is in the process of submitting "Mabel's Dressing Room" to festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival. Cecera hopes that he will be able to work with the Darien Arts Center to have a screening of his film once it is finished, along with an actual Normand film and a potential question and answer session.

He and the Darien Arts Center worked together in the past when he put on a production of Broadway's "Mack and Mabel."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews