In Theda Bara's Tent

Hollywood East by Diana AltmanIN THEDA BARA'S TENT

In a world where jugglers entertain on the street, a boy loses his parents in a factory fire. Taken from the Lower East Side to New England, Harry is abandoned at The Elizabeth Home for Destitute Children.

In Theda Bara’s Tent follows the spirited boy’s quest for love and prosperity. He finds comfort at the movies and is befriended by the young theater owner, Louie, who will one day become a Hollywood legend.

The orphanage closing is the beginning of Harry’s adventures in a wider world. He encounters screen stars, Tin Pan Alley song pluggers, bootleggers, dare-devil cameramen, movie moguls, and a young gossip columnist who steals his heart.

Rich in historical context, with a cast of characters real and imagined from the movies’ early days, this page-turner follows Harry Sirkus as he makes a mark in the flourishing film industry and goes on to become a famous news broadcaster. Harry’s personality is so captivating and vivid readers will be hard-pressed to remember that the author made him up.

Award-Winning Finalist in the Historical Fiction category of the 2011 International Book Awards.


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Diana Altman

Publishers WeeklyPublishers Weekly - Fiction Review
In Theda Bara's Tent

Diana Altman. Tapley Cove Press, $15 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-615-34327-3.   Harry Sirkus, the protagonist of Altman's atmospheric historical, is a boy orphaned at a young age and sent to live in a home for destitute children. Once Harry becomes a teenager and realizes the home can no longer support him, he strikes out to find his fortune. Along the way he meets young would-be mogul Louis B. Mayer and begins to learn the film business. He next works for William Fox, founder of Fox Film Corporation, and then--from the 1910s to the 1930s--proceeds to meet a host of influential performers and famous film industry figures, all the while casting a critical eye on issues like immigration, anti-Semitism, and opportunity in early 20th-century America. Through Harry, Altman frames a vibrant story about early Hollywood and a tumultuous time in American history. Harry, meanwhile, lovable if a little bland, mainly serves to bring readers closer to larger-than-life figures like Fox and Mayer. Readers with an even passing interest in the history of Hollywood will be enthralled.

Diana Altman


To Hollywood – via Haverhill

Novel captures spirit of movie pioneers
By Daniel M. Kimmel
Book Review

Historical fiction is a tricky business, in that it mixes real people and situations with characters that exist only in the author’s imagination. Diana Altman has neatly placed a fictional Jewish orphan among the folks starting the film industry in the early 20th century – and gets nearly all the details right. It is an entertaining read, even for those who think they already know about the birth of Hollywood.  Read the full review in Adobe Reader pdf.

Diana Altman

Feathered Quill Book ReviewFeathered Quill Book Reviews
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In Theda Bara's Tent

By: Diana Altman Publisher:
Tapley Cove Press Publication
Date: September 2010 ISBN: 978
0615343273 Reviewed by: Eloise
Michael Review Date: October 25, 2010

In Theda Bara's Tent begins on a sidewalk in New York City where the main character, Harry Sirkus, witnesses a fire that kills both of his parents. In a scene that will remind readers of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, workers, mostly young women, jump from the burning building.

I was immediately wrapped up in Harry's story. The book is written in the first person, and author, Diana Altman assumes Harry's perspective flawlessly. The first part of the story is told, convincingly, by a child. We are not allowed any more information than a child would have about the deaths of Harry's parents or about the characters, places, and events that follow. Altman's ability to get inside Harry's head allows us to do the same. Harry is honest, kind, and intelligent. Readers will want to identify with him.

In Theda Bara's Tent was hard to put down. It was also one of those books that stayed with me throughout the day. Scenes from Harry's life would come into my head like remembered dreams, and I found myself telling people, “I'm reading this book...” Absorbed as I was in Harry's life, this was one of those times when I was sad to reach the end of the novel. I am still looking around for the next book that will allow me to disappear into another world.

Altman brings to life a snapshot of New York City shortly before World War I. As the book progresses readers will become immersed in the culture of the period, seeing it through the eyes of Harry Sirkus, the child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. Race and class issues, the politics of World War I, the Spanish Influenza epidemic, the struggle for women's suffrage, and prohibition are pieces of the vivid historical backdrop to Harry's coming of age.

Harry discovers early that he is interested in film, and this passion drives him throughout the book. He finds ways to work in the industry, beginning by sweeping the floors of a theater and then working his way up. Harry's intelligence, courage, and good luck keep him safe, clothed, and fed, affording him the opportunity not only to work, but to work in

film, while he is still too young even to fight in the war. The men who recognize Harry's abilities, and their wives, help him find places to live while giving him respect and the experience of family, as well. Harry, the orphan, has complex relationships with the men who become his mentors.

Harry combines the strengths he admires in these men with his own native intelligence and sense of ethics while rejecting what he sees as immoral behavior. Harry's difficult life has given him perspective and an ability to identify with the underdog. Readers will admire Harry and feel connected with him throughout the story.

Readers will find In Theda Bara's Tent absorbing as a novel even if they come to it with no prior interest in the history of film. As I became caught up in Harry's story, however, I could not help sharing some of his enthusiasm. Readers will look at the producers, the film stars, and the theaters through Harry's eyes, experiencing the sounds, colors, and personalities behind the old silent movies.

Some of the players-- the big stars and film companies-- will be familiar to any reader. It was fascinating to me to see how they all fit together, and the extent to which the history of film at this time is the history of the United States. The story of film is the story of immigrants becoming rich-- the story of the American dream. In Theda Bara's Tent is also the story of the many working immigrants who did not become rich. It is set in a context of class struggle and of racial discrimination.

Harry discovers that what he sees on the screen is not always true. The personalities of the screen actors, as portrayed in his fan magazines are mostly fictional, and even the newsreels are often staged. In Theda Bara's Tent is also the story of how the film industry influenced the politics of the time, the power of the media to direct the attention of the public, and the power of money in government. Altman's subtle message about the influence of the media is still very relevant today. Understanding the history of the media's influence on public opinion will give readers new perspective on current questions of media ethics.

Diana Altman weaves history and politics into a compelling story about human relationships. In Theda Bara's Tent is a novel that is memorable and enjoyable on many levels.

Quill says: Vivid, memorable, and absorbing in a rich historical context.

Diana Altman


Book Reviews by Bob Cashill
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In Theda Bara’s Tent Diana Altman, author of the non-fiction Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and the Origins of the Studio System, saw my coverage of Turner Classic Movies’ Moguls & Movie Stars series on the Cineaste website and sent me a copy of her new historical novel, in which Mayer, here a struggling 22-year-old theater owner, and a plucky nine-year-old orphan, Harry Sirkus, begin an odyssey that will take them to dizzying heights in Hollywood. What happens in Theda Bara’s tent? I’m not tellng, except that it may help to know who Theda Bara is before reading. Or maybe not–Altman, the daughter of the MGM talent scout who discovered a galaxy of stars including Joan Crawford and James Stewart, knows this milieu inside and out, and brings it to vivid life for TCM addicts and newcomers alike in engaging and entertaining fashion. Sample observation: “It was a myth that the cigarette-smoking, short-skirt-wearing, free-love-talking girls of the Jazz Age were promiscuous. They were as prudish as their mothers.”

Diana Altman

Haverhill GazetteDecember 16, 2010

Novel features movie mogul's time in Haverhill

By Tim McCarthy The Haverhill Gazette Thu Dec 16, 2010, 09:47 AM EST

Imagine if you could meet famous Haverhill historical figures, such as theater mogul Louis B. Mayer, or tour historical buildings long since demolished, like the Elizabeth Home for Destitute Children, without leaving the comfort of your Barcalounger.

Now you can, thanks to the imagination of New York writer Diana Altman.

Altman's latest novel, "In Theda Bara's Tent", examines the rise of fictional newscaster Harry Sirkus during the Golden Age of cinema from his origins as a street urchin in Haverhill to a national powerhouse within the Fox Broadcasting company.

The Queen Slipper City, for better and for worse, factors heavily into the growth of Sirkus as a teen in Altman's new book. Following the death of his parents, Sirkus finds himself transferred to the Elizabeth Home, a Haverhill orphanage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where he suffers under the torment of his peers until he discovers an escape in the local theater, The Gem. More importantly, he finds a kind soul in the building's owner, Louie. Sirkus also finds an enchanting allure through the fiction of the cinema in the curves of silent film starlet, and titular character, Theda Bara.

Altman said the majority of her inspiration for the novel came during her many hours spent researching Mayer at the Haverhill Public Library in the early '90s.

While pouring over countless historical documents, the name of the orphanage caught her attention and, in her opinion, demanded a story to somehow incorporate the location.

"It was the pride of Haverhill," she said. "They took good care of the children there."

Several key Haverhill streets, including Merrimack and Washington streets, as well the Merrimack River are referenced in the book.

Though she attempted to start the novel in the nineties, she said that her own inexperience as a writer made her retreat from exploring her characters further. It wasn't until a few years ago, while thumbing through a her old manuscripts, that she felt confident enough to invent the world of Sirkus once more through a combination of hard facts and fantasy.

"I could deal with certain things in the novel that I couldn't in 'Hollywood East,'" she said.

No stranger to the cinema's budding era, along with Haverhill's impact upon it, Altman's previous work includes the 1992 nonfiction book "Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and The Origins of the Studio System", which examined the people, places and innovations of movie-making along the East Coast.

Her personal history deeply intertwines with her work. Altman's father, Al Altman, was one of MGM Studio's talent scouts and assisted in the creation of the ad lib screen test.

"That meant anyone could be a movie star," she said.

In addition, Al frequently worked hand in hand with Mayer. Diane said that Mayer's theater's helped bring the culture and arts of larger cities like Boston into working-class mill cities like Haverhill through showings of opera and other traditional theater performances.

"I look at (Mayer) as a little bit of an American hero," she said. "I never heard (my father) say a bad word about Mayer."

Though Mayer plays a role model to the young Sirkus, Altman noted that Mayer's backing of the state-of-the-art, yet morally devoid film "Birth of a Nation" leads to Sirkus' disillusionment by creating a humanizing gaff in Mayer's judgment.

Currently residing in New York while pursuing her career as a full-time writer, Altman said she vividly remembers some of her time spent in Haverhill during her research. Especially, she notes, the food of the A1 Deli.

"It had this great corn chowder they only served one day a week," she said.

For more information, and to pick up your own copies of "In Theda Bara's Tent" just in time for the holidays, visit


Diana Altman

Author: Altman, Diana
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 339
Price (Paperback): $15.00
ISBN (Paperback): 978-0615343273

Fiction collides with historical realism in Altman’s (Hollywood East, 1992) novel about a young man whose boldness finds him on a quest for success in early 20th-century New York City.

A child of New York’s Lower East Side, Harry Sirkus is thrown out of his element when he’s suddenly orphaned and relocated to a small New England town. While still too young to understand his parents are gone, he is abandoned by his uncle, who places him in an orphanage, promising to return with great fortune. Harry finds himself on the receiving end of charity and sympathy, getting Thanksgiving dinner and pitying looks from his classmates. This humbling experience serves Harry well—he becomes determined to make something of himself and to do it on his own. When the orphanage closes, he dodges a would-be assignment to be a farmhand in Kansas and buys a one-way ticket to Boston. Through amazing resourcefulness and a lot of good luck, Harry works his way into the growing film industry, finally making his way back to a very different New York City than the one he left as a child. Harry’s fearlessness finds him befriending stars and working for Fox News, unwilling to be shut out of any opportunity… Harry is an endearing character readers can root for…History enthusiasts will enjoy Altman’s characters, fictional and real.

Kirkus ReviewFounded in 1933, Kirkus reviews more than 500 pre-publication books each month, including fiction, nonfiction, children's and young-adult books.  Our reviews are a trusted and authoritative decision-making tools, crafted by specialists selected for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field. 


This effort is an absolute delight and a most wonderful read. It vividly re- creates the beginnings of the movie industry, of newsreels, of the movers & shakers found therein and takes the reader on an exciting roller-coaster ride through the formative years of these industries.

There is much to be admired in Ms. Altman's writing and her "camera-eyed view" is both moving and never-failing. Her scholarship/research level is truly outstanding and in the end I, without reservation, recommend this book highly!

– Lawrence Cohn, Author
   "Movietone Presents The Twentieth-Century."

Diana Altman

I enjoyed your book. The language, descriptions & the story line were well done. I truly enjoyed it and will look for another of your books. I live in Haverhill, not for all my life, but we remember the Colonial & my farther-in-law (now passed) remembered the Nicklodians. It was a fun story.
Thank You,

– Paul Woodlock



Diana Altman

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