A Star is Born in Rhinelander

Nov 28, 2018

Helen Vlahakis, later known as Joan Valerie
Credit IMDb

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about the Rhinelander actress who captured the hearts of movie-goers in the 1930's.

In May 1937 a Western called “The Cherokee Strip” opened at the State Theater in Rhinelander.  The movie is largely forgotten today; but at the time it was a huge hit with Northwoods residents.  The Rhinelander High School Booster Club sponsored ticket sales for the film, and State Theater advertisements for the movie gave top billing to one of the supporting actresses rather than to Dick Foran, the star of the film.

The actress who captured the hearts of Northwoods movie-goers in 1937 was billed as Helen Vlakis, better known in Rhinelander as Helen Vlahakis.  Helen, whose father ran the Rhinelander Café, was a former waitress at the café and a 1931 graduate of Rhinelander High School.  Helen was discovered in 1928 when Rex Snelgrove of the Rex Pictures Company came to Rhinelander to make a film called “Yukon Trails.”  With the exception of the lead actor, local residents were cast to play the parts.  Tryouts were held on the stage of the State Theater in late November, and Helen Vlahakis won the leading female role in the movie.  Filming started immediately.  Brown Street was used for city scenes while the Northwoods stood as the backdrop for frontier Alaska.  The picture was completed in less than a month and had its premier showing at the State Theater on December 27, 1928.  Most of the acting was amateurish, and with one exception critics panned the film.  That exception was the performance of Helen Vlahakis, who caught the attention of filmmakers and received requests for her portfolio.

Helen remained in Rhinelander and graduated high school with her class in 1931.  In that summer, however, the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce selected Helen Vlahakis as Miss Rhinelander and sent her on to compete for the Miss Wisconsin beauty pageant.  The pageant was held in Bermuda, and Helen finished a close second.  She lost by 3 votes to Miss Racine.

After the contest, Helen moved on to Morningside College at Sioux City, Iowa, where she majored in theater.  It was at Morningside that actor Lyle Talbot noticed her in a contest and selected her as Morningside’s most beautiful coed.  After that she was hooked.  She moved to California and began working with the Pasadena Play House to train as a professional actress.  Warner Brothers Studios signed her and she made her first appearance in the 1935 film “Fighting Youth.”  She changed her name to the less ethnic-sounding Helen Vlakis, and later to Joan Valerie, which is how she appears in the Internet Movie Database.  Although never an A-list actress, Helen Vlahakis was a real life Northwoods version of A Star is Born.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.