James and Elizabeth Lloyd moved to the village of Burchard in Pawnee County in the early 1880s. Although Burchard only had a few more than 200 residents, the Lloyd family was well represented, owning several retail establishments. James’ father operated a general store.
On April 20, 1893, a son, Harold Clayton Lloyd, was born at their small home on the northwest corner of Fourth and Pawnee streets. James, who was widely known as Foxy, was said to be constantly in search of a quick, easy buck, while his wife was interested in the theater.
On a much later visit, Harold was said to have pointed to a vacant lot across from their house and said that was the site of the Wonderland Theatre. He added that when his older brother was helping change scenery there, the owner asked for a child to come on stage, scream and leave. Lloyd got the part, which perhaps was his baptism as an actor, albeit in an extremely minor role.
In search of a job and in debt, the Lloyd family left Burchard in 1897, moving to Humboldt, Pawnee City, Beatrice and Omaha. It was in Omaha, at the age of 12, that Harold actually played the part of Little Abe in John Lane Connor’s Burwood Stock Company’s production of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”
In Omaha, Harold’s parents separated, then in 1910 divorced, leaving him with his father. In Omaha, father and son moved about once a year, living at 614 N. 21st St., 1722 Dodge St., 2836 Burt St., 2469 Harney St. and in the Chatham at 110 S. 13th St.
In 1912, James won a $6,000 judgment as a result of being hit by a beer wagon, leaving him with a $3,000 windfall after splitting with his attorney. Legend has it, his father then flipped a coin to see whether he would move to California or New York, again in search of the perfect opportunity. California won. But on the way west, Harold managed to attend East High School in Denver.
In San Diego, James “invested” a major portion of his funds in buying a pool hall, and Harold began his senior year in San Diego High School. The following year, as the pool hall venture failed, Harold moved to Los Angeles and attended the School of Dramatic Arts.
In 1913, Harold signed on as an extra at Universal Studios for $5 a day. His first part portrayed him as an Indian in the Edison film “The Old Monk’s Tale,” which was being filmed on the Pan American Exposition grounds.
Accounts vary, but it was about then that he met Hal Roach, who shortly thereafter inherited a considerable sum of money. The two then formed Rolin Studios using Roach’s funds and Lloyd’s talent. The first films featured Lloyd as Willie Work, a mustachioed, Charlie Chaplin-like character who morphed into Lonesome Luke.
In 1917, Roach suggested that Lloyd needed a more unique persona and by simply removing the lenses from a pair of sunglasses, the character Harold was born. It was later pointed out that the “sunglasses character” became the inspiration for Superman’s identity as Clark Kent.
When a script in 1919 called for Lloyd to light a cigarette from a fake bomb, which inadvertently turned out to be a real explosive, he lost not only his right thumb and forefinger but was told he would be blind for life. Fortunately, the blindness subsided. But a prosthetic hand covered with a glove caused him always to keep that hand in his pocket and out of the camera’s view.
By the 1920s, Harold Lloyd’s motion pictures had become more popular than Chaplin’s, and with nearly 200 completed movies, he split with Roach to form the Harold Lloyd Corporation. He hired his father to answer his fan mail. In 1923, he filmed his most recognizable movie, “Safety Last,” which featured him hanging from the hands of a giant clock supposedly a dozen stories above a city street. Although the actual building was, in fact, only six floors high, Lloyd became famous for doing virtually all of his own stunts and never using a safety net. The year 1923 also saw Lloyd marrying movie star Mildred Davis.
By the 1940s, Lloyd had turned from acting to producing movies, with his last film “The Sin of Harold Diddleback,” which was, perhaps wisely, retitled “Mad Wednesday” and released in 1947.
While many silent film stars failed to make the transition to talkies, Harold Lloyd prospered, making a total of about 200 films while earning an estimated $15.7 million during his lifetime, making him “one of the ten richest entertainers in the world.” Though many of his films survive, many were lost in a 1943 fire at Greenacres, his 44-room Hollywood mansion.
Harold Lloyd, who has two stars on Hollywood Boulevard, died March 8, 1971 at age 77, leaving an astronomical-for-the-day estate of $12 million. Today, his home in Burchard, Neb., and Greenacres in Hollywood both are on the National Register of Historic Places.