How 'Peter Pan's Original Actor Changed How Movies Are Made

Maude Adams, the famous actress/obscure inventor who made color film possible.
How 'Peter Pan's Original Actor Changed How Movies Are Made

Maude Adams was an actress who never made a single movie, but still ended up changing the way movie are made. More specifically, the way movies are lit, which also helped make that newfangled "color cinema" invention possible -- and yet she never got proper credit for her technical contributions. That doesn't mean she wasn't famous: she was one of the best paid American theater actresses of the 1900s and 1910s, and her portrayal of Peter Pan in 1905 was so popular that most versions of the character are still pretty much just playing her. 

Wikimedia Commons

We said "most" because this doesn't look a lot like 40-year-old Robin Williams. 

Adams appeared in her first play when she was two months old and grew up to become a successful star, but she also had a less-known side gig organizing the technical side of her plays. As a production designer, she pulled off some of the most impressive and flat out biggest stage shows of her era. One show, The Maid of Orleans (1909), involved over a thousand actors, actual horses, "flocks of living sheep," and an elaborate stage almost as big as a football stadium, because her crew literally built it inside one. She oversaw that massive production while also learning to ride a horse with "all sorts of noisy apparatus" hanging around her to get the animal used to the noise of her armor. 

Wikimedia Commons

She also decapitated a dude to get the horse used to sword violence. 

The play was performed at night and in order to enhance the mood (and ensure people could see WTF was going on), Adams designed a dynamic lighting system made out of hundreds of electric lights -- a technology that fascinated her, and which she had been experimenting with since the 1890s. By the 1920s, that interest had evolved into Adams working directly with General Electric's technicians to create bigger, better, and easier to move lights that could make theater and film production less of a pain in the ass. 

Speaking of films, Adams had several opportunities to act in a Peter Pan movie, but always refused because she felt that black and white cinema looked "rather cheap." So, she took matters into her own hands and spent part of the 1920s testing various color film techniques while continuing her experiments with incandescent lights, tweaking them for better use with these methods. She was never fully satisfied with the results, but evidently other people felt different, since her lights became the standard in Hollywood, especially when color movies took over. She never sued anyone for using her creations but she's been quoted as saying "Those are my lamps" whenever she saw one (which was probably a lot). 

In the end, Adams' only film appearance was a brief screen test when she was in her 60s, but she didn't seem terribly interested in being in the movie (probably because the test was shot in filthy black and white): 

The closest thing Adams has gotten to a biopic is the Christopher Reeve movie Somewhere in Time, which was inspired by the time writer Richard Matheson saw an old portrait of Maude Adams and fantasized about going back in time to romance her. Of course, the movie would have been way shorter if they'd used the real Adams since she was in the middle of a nearly 50-year relationship with another woman in the period Reeve time-traveled to. Incidentally, another long-lasting invention of hers? The part of Peter Pan where he asks the audience to clap if they "believe in fairies." You may now clap. 

Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment on every '90s Superman comic at 

Top image: Disney, Wikimedia Commons 

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?