The Butterfly Theater was an immediate sensation when its doors opened on Sept. 3, 1911.
So was the guy who opened them.
In his striped doorman’s uniform, Victor McLaglen was almost as jaw-dropping a sight as the 27-foot wide terra cotta sculpture of a woman with butterfly wings, illuminated by a thousand light bulbs, under which he welcomed visitors to the city’s new film palace on 2nd and Wisconsin.
"Pedestrians passing hurriedly along have paused for an instant, sized up the Apollo-like figure, with his six feet and six inches of perpendicularity (actually McLaglen was almost 6’8") and 210 pounds," noted The Milwaukee Free Press, "and wondered if cavemen were unlike him in stature."
Reputedly the tallest man in Milwaukee and the best-paid doorman in the country, McLaglen had already achieved wider notoriety than that when Butterfly manager A.L. Ries saw the 30-year-old Englishman in Chicago and hired him to ornament the entrance to his theater.
A big spread in the Free Press headlined "STORY OF THIS MAN’S LIFE READS LIKE FICTION – BUT IT ISN’T!" reported that the son of an Anglican archbishop was a decorated hero of the Boer War in 1890s South Africa, a former British intelligence agent and member of King Edward’s personal guard, and later a soldier of fortune who’d chased down criminals in Canada.
Plus, on March 10, 1909, McLaglen was the first boxer to take on Jack Johnson since Johnson won the heavyweight championship in 1908. The fight at Victoria, British Columbia, was a six-round no-decision contest.
What the hell was such a storied swashbuckler doing now working as a doorman in Milwaukee?
"I risked my life a hundred times, and I am going to stay on the earth after this," McLaglen told the Free Press.
But such a dauntless buccaneer wasn’t content to (literally) stand in one spot for long, and soon McLaglen gave Milwaukeeans something to really gawp at by demonstrating another of his fabulous skills: sword fighting. Not with the epee used in fencing, but rather a broadsword, a wide, straight, double-edged blade used by mounted troops in the 1800s.
In fact, according to McLaglen he was the "champion broadswordsman of the world."
On Dec. 5, 1911, he and local fencing champion Carl Brosius squared off at The Pabst Theater in what the Milwaukee Sentinel called "a new kind of madness."
Their match drew enough interest that they met again on New Year’s Day, 1912. This time the press was aghast. The Milwaukee Journal denounced the contest as "one of the most brutal and savage exhibitions ever witnessed in this city." One of McLaglen’s swings cut his smaller foe’s hand "to the bone," and at the end of the seven-minute match "it looked as though either of the men would be ready for the undertaker at any moment."
Noting "the wonder of it is that neither of the combatants were not seriously or even fatally injured," the Sentinel pronounced broadsword fighting "far ahead of boxing in downright brutality" and urged that it be banned in Milwaukee.
McLaglen and Brosius toned it down in their third joust on Feb. 16, but it was clear there was no future in broadsword fighting in Milwaukee. So less a week later McLaglen was back in the boxing ring.
"Fireman" Jim Flynn was scheduled to fight Jack Johnson for the title on July 4, and happened to be doing a one-week engagement at the Star Theater, sparring and taking on all comers.
On Feb. 23, McLaglen came out of the other corner – and wished he hadn’t. Three rounds later after the foot shorter Flynn knocked him down several times and "made a plain unadulterated boob out of the English giant" (Free Press).
Two weeks later McLaglen was unmasked as an even bigger boob when the following letter arrived at the Free Press from San Antonio, Texas:
"To my surprise today I take up a paper and in the sporting column I note they are advertising a fighter in Milwaukee who is taking the name of Vic McLaglen and claims to be the first man to have fought Jack Johnson after he won the championship from Tommy Burns.
"Now I wish to say that this man is an imposter and that he is taking my name and I was the party that fought Johnson in Vancouver, March 10, 1909. I am now in vaudeville, playing the Interstate circuit …
"You would do the public and myself a lot of good if you would expose this imposter."
The real Victor McLaglen could’ve done it himself, but probably refrained because the identity thief happened to be his older brother, Leopold McLaglen.
Leopold borrowed his brother’s name and fame in Milwaukee because by then his own had acquired considerable tarnish. Several years earlier he had barnstormed around the Pacific Northwest proclaiming himself the jui jitsu champion of the world. He defended his "title" in a series of matches so dubious that after Leopold set up shop in Philadelphia in 1907 the Portland Oregonian warned that "if he follows precedent someone (there) is likely to get stung."
After his brother’s letter exposed him as a fake Leopold slunk out of Milwaukee.
He resurfaced in Africa a year later as "Leopold the Great," tossing a partner around music hall stages and putting audience volunteers (mostly plants) into a trance by "paralyzing their nerve centers." After that he drifted through China and New Zealand, and sold pamphlets on bayonet fighting and mail order judo courses in Australia.
Meanwhile, brother Victor boxed and did a strongman act in vaudeville, and during World War I was a policeman in Baghdad. He was 33 when he accepted an offer out of the blue to act in a film being made in London. Four years and several movies later Victor went to Hollywood, and within two more years he was a dashing and rich movie star getting more than 10,000 fan letters a month.
In 1930 (the same year The Butterfly was demolished and replaced by the Warner Theater), Leopold turned up in La-La Land with the intention of following in his brother’s footsteps. It was not a joyful reunion. "There’s room for only one McLaglen in Hollywood," Victor told him – "that’s me!"
"What lay behind (the) bitterness, the film colony did not seem to know," noted one newspaper. "Apparently it was an argument of long standing." Eighteen years, to be exact.
Without Victor’s help, Leopold got nowhere in the movie business, and in 1931 he filed a $90,000 lawsuit against his brother charging slander and defamation of character.
At the trial Leopold testified that Victor had spread the word that he was "unreliable and should be watched"; another witness said Victor flat out told him Leopold was "no good."
"Leopold has a kink in his mind and I can prove it," said Victor, adding, "I am kindly disposed toward him. If he were down and out I’d be the first to go to his aid."
The judge tossed the lawsuit. When Victor tried to shake hands, Leopold rebuffed him. Three years later Victor wrote a 350-page autobiography, "Express to Hollywood," in which he mentioned his six other siblings but not Leopold.
In 1935, Victor starred in the John Ford-directed drama "The Informer." His performance won him the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Two years later wealthy Los Angeles writer Phillip Chancellor hired Leopold to provide material for a book about espionage. Leopold provided nothing and was arrested for and convicted of trying to extort $20,000 from Chancellor. The judge offered McLaglen the choice of five years in San Quentin prison or immediate deportation. He may have been dishonest, but Leopold wasn’t dumb. The duplicitous ex-doorman died in England in 1951.
One year later Victor filmed "The Quiet Man" with John Wayne and earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Perhaps fittingly, in his last screen role before he died in 1959, McLaglen played an old punch-drunk ex-boxer in an episode of the TV western "Rawhide," twice flattening Clint "Rowdy Yates" Eastwood.