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Watch: The Surreal Silent Film the Oakland Tribune Made in 1925 … About a Reader’s Dream

“Have you ever received a warning or intimation of approaching good or ill while wrapt in dreamy slumber? Have you ever been the victim of baffling situations, mysterious penalties, grotesque associations, or weird inconsistencies, because all the while you were enchanted in the stable fetters of sleep?”

This is how, on Nov. 16, 1925, the Oakland Tribune launched the most surreal competition in its history: The Tribune-American Theater Dream Contest. Readers were asked to send in detailed descriptions of strange dreams they’d had, for the chance to win $25 and a movie role. “The winning dream,” the Tribune explained, “will be made with local backgrounds and with the dreamers themselves re-enacting their slumber visions.” The film would then be shown at the American Theatre—then located on San Pablo Avenue near the corner of 17th Street.

The dream contest form, as seen in ‘The Oakland Tribune’ throughout November and December 1925. (The Oakland Tribune)

Within days, the newspaper was bombarded with entries from all over the Bay Area. “The chance to ‘see yourself in the movies’ has appealed to many aspirants who have long desired a screen test of themselves,” the Tribune reported, “and numerous replies have been received from kiddies ambitious to make their screen debut.” In addition to entries from Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley, one story proudly stated, the paper also received dream summaries from “Stege, Avon, Glen Ellen, Hayward, Niles, Pinole, Watsonville and San Jose.”

Readers told of dreams in which they died, became British royalty, received “nocturnal warnings,” and rode whales to France. The Nov. 19 Tribune listed highlights from the “Dream Editor’s mail.” These included tales about “the Prince of Wales in a 1913 aeroplane, golden winged birds in fairy castles, a pedestrian jaunt across San Francisco Bay, a wicked hermit having a bodyguard of fierce lions, a midnight sky full of waving American flags,” and many more.

Some lucky entries were even given the dream analysis treatment in the Tribune—a practice that had grown increasingly fashionable since Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. (“To see one’s self beheaded is a sign that loyal friends are near you,” a Tribune interpreter advised one reader.)

Then on Nov. 23, the Tribune finally announced its winner: a Mrs. L. L. Nicholson of 3812 San Juan St., Oakland, who dreamed her baby stole the family car and got a speeding ticket. Nicholson, her husband, and their baby boy, Bobby, made a special appearance in the newspaper, photographed while receiving their $25 check.

The Nicholson family, as seen in the ‘Oakland Tribune’ on Nov. 28, 1925. (The Oakland Tribune)

Five days before they appeared, the Tribune had excitedly announced, “OAKLAND BOY, 11 MONTHS, TO STAR IN DREAM MOVIE.” The resulting seven-and-a-half-minute silent film starts at the family’s home in Oakland, travels to the ferry building in San Francisco, then back to the East Bay in a row boat. There are peculiar subplots involving two fish, and an “auto” acting “queerly.”

The Nicholson family’s dream movie can be seen in all its glory below:

The Tribune ran the dream competition two more times before the end of 1925. The second winner—Miss Carolyn Flowers of 5437 Thomas St.—won for a dream in which a KLX radio orchestra struggled to survive “repeated sinister interruptions.” A third winner was supposed to be named in mid-December, but that announcement can’t be found in the available Tribune archives.

The curious competition ultimately leaves us with a fascinating snapshot of the pop culture trends of 1925. Dreams, this contest leads us to believe, were celebrated as a wonderful form of escapism. As the Tribune reported on Dec. 7: “In dreamland you abolish the limitations of time and space. You explore the weedy depths of the seven seas and are present at the birth of the morning.”

Copyright 2021 KQED