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Rev. Hart gained fame as movie preacher

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By Linda Hanabarger

The Dec. 21, 1916, issue of The Vandalia Union proudly announced that former area preacher, the Rev. William S. Hart, was attaining some distinction as a moving picture star.

Hart, a native of Newburgh, N. Y., had a younger brother who came north when a young man and settled on a farm near Farina. He became quite a ventriloquist, and for several years followed the county fairs with a Punch and Judy show, but later became an evangelist, a Baptist, up to the time of his death.

When he died, his brother, the Rev. William S. Hart, came up from Waco, Texas, to look after his estate, and he liked this area so well that he remained for a number of years. But finally, about 1912, he left the Farina area and returned to Waco.

Hart was the perfect picture of a country preacher, and he dressed the part to perfection. He was tall and lanky, with a long, hungry face. He always wore a black hat with a long coat and the trimmings, which anyone can easily imagine.

“One day about two years ago, he was called to one of his country churches to marry a couple. While on the way to the church with the couple, he came upon a troupe from a moving picture producing company with headquarters in Waco. The movie company had come out there in search of a suitable location and setting for their movie 'Married in Haste.'

“The movie artists had finished all of the principal acts in the film, except for the marriage, and were just preparing to run off that reel up close to the country church when up bobbed the real thing, the Rev. Hart, and the country bride and groom to be, all ready for the ceremony.

“The movie director could tell a good thing as far as he could see it, and it wasn’t very long until he had made a dicker with Hart to perform the ceremony right out there in the open. Hart got his ‘divvy’ from the country couple all right for tying the knot,  and also received $3 from the movie man for consenting to perform the ceremony in front of the camera.”

But that wasn’t all. Hart acted his part so well that the moving picture company engaged him at once to take the preacher part in all of their rural and western dramas. He got $30 a week cash as his salary for a starter.

For a year or more, he served the Waco moving picture producing company as their film preacher. He got better right along, and first thing he knew he had a better offer in the same capacity from the Triangle Company, getting a modest $325 per week. 

In 1917, Hart accepted an offer from Adolph Zukor to join Famous Players-Lasky, which merged into Paramount Pictures. He now was making feature films exclusively,  and his name was well established as a movie star with a star on Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame.”

Hart went on to become one of the first great stars of the motion picture western.  Fascinated by the Old West, he acquired Billy the Kid’s “six-shooters,” and was a friend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.

He married briefly to Hollywood starlet Winifred Westover, and they were parents of a son, William Jr.

By the early 1920s, the public became attracted to a new type of movie cowboy, with flashier costumes and fast action.  Actors such as Tom Mix supplanted the moralistic themes of the earlier movies and Hart was dropped by Paramount.

Hart then produced his own movie, “Tumbleweeds,” in 1925, with his own money and arranged to release it independently through United Artists.  It turned out well, with an epic land-rush sequence, although Hart later sued United Artists for failing to promote the film properly.

Hart lived out his life in Newhall, Calif., and his former home is now a museum.  He died on June 23, 1946, in Newhall, with burial in his hometown of Newburgh, N. Y.