Pearl Sindelar: the Silent Star Who Became a Cult Leader

Pearl Sindelar

“Why, the name ‘Sindelar’ is that of my husband….He’s a commercial artist and we have the nicest studio apartment; it’s on 42nd Street. And Charles does the loveliest work. “Pearl Sindelar

Source: Mabel Condon (1913)

Pearl Sindelar

“I’m striving to reach that ‘something else’ because I like the work so well. I’ve been with the Pathé company for six months and before that, was at the Biograph Studio. But acting is nothing new to me; I’ve done it since I was 10 years old and lived in a trunk, really, from then until I married. That is why I appreciate my home so much, I know what it is to be without one. It’s great to plan meals and see that there’s no dust on the piano and that the woman who ‘comes in’ twice a week sweeps the corners clean. I don’t think, though, that I could be quite satisfied without my work; in fact, I know I couldn’t, so when I married I continued on the stage, but only accepted engagements in town. Previous to then, I had played two seasons with Al Woods’ ‘Girl in the Taxi,’ was with W.A. Brady six years, in stock several years and vaudeville, three years. So you see the stage quite ‘had me.’ My husband was on stage for a time; his best role was Antony in ‘Cleopatra,’ but he liked his special branch of art better and returned to his studio, where he says he intends to remain. But for me – well, pictures give me the variety work. I like best and they let me have a home and my evenings to do with as I please.”Pearl Sindelar 

Source: Mabel Condon (1913)




Pearl Sindelar was born Pearl Tinker in Virginia City, Nevada, on February 5, 1881 (some accounts incorrectly state that her birth year was 1887). Her father was a ’49er named William Wallace Tinker and her mother was Mollie McCarty Tinker, a stage performer who worked under the name May Evelynne. William and Mollie divorced in 1885, and Pearl was raised by her mother.  She attended school at the prestigious Snell Seminary in Oakland, CA, but dropped out of when she was only eight-years-old. She never went back to school, and by the age of ten, she began playing child parts in the Leonard Grover stock company in San Francisco under the stage name, Pearl Evelynne.


Her mother, Mollie, apparently suffered from depression and was not the ideal parent, nor role model, for raising a child. According to the Evening World Newspaper (published on February 28, 1902), the two women had an embarrassing altercation that led to her daughter’s estrangement from her. According to the Evening World, as Pearl attempted to leave their apartment for the theatre one night, Mollie hysterically “made a rush for the front window, threw up the sash and threw herself out.”  Pearl, “following close behind” kept her mother from killing herself by  clutching onto her mother’s skirts while screaming for help. A man by the name of Dr. Cramer came to the rescue and managed to calm Mollie down. After a couple of Pearl’s friends agreed to look after her mother, Pearl left the apartment to fill her engagement.” However, a little more than an hour after Pearl’s departure, Mollieeluded her watchers” by entering the bedroom and turning on the gas. 

After Mollie was brought back from unconsciousness, she was temporarily sent to Bellevue Hospital.  The newspaper opined that because Mollie was 40-years-old and unemployed, she had tried to kill herself out of shame. However, there may have been another reason for Mollie’s desperation. Pearl had just married Charles Sindelar, an aspiring artist born in Prague, and may have been trying to move out of the apartment to live with him.

Pearl continued her acting career while Charles moonlighted as an artist and occasional actor, who used the stage name Charles H. Pierson. Then in 1910, Pearl found stardom in the play, “The Girl in A Taxi,” a farce that allowed her to wear very expensive dresses and hats. Charles also acted in the same show, playing a smaller role for less money.


Pearl Sandelar


“It is our plan to save up all the money we can, and then my husband is going to Paris to complete his art education,” Pearl told the San Francisco Call in 1911.  “He is an artist and he has genius. Some day he will prove it. We propose to keep on the stage until I have a role in which I feel myself fitted. Then I’ll quit and it will be his turn to shine. But first he must go to Paris and continue his studies. The stage is a stepping stone for us, you see.”

Critics lauded Pearl Sindelar for her beauty, charm, and vivacious energy. In fact, the Los Angeles Times told the sad sack story of a wealthy El Paso man named H.F. Ryan, who had become so smitten with her that he had traveled 2000 miles only to be introduced to Charles backstage at a Los Angeles theater. That same year, Pearl announced that she, too, dabbled in art and that she had created a clay bust of herself that had won first prize at a “woman’s sculptor show” at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. However, it is more likely, that her husband Charles created it for her.


Pearl Sindelar in “Cleopatra” (1912)

In 1912, the Sindelars ended their stage tour and returned to New York City, where Charles and Pearl both starred in Helen Gardner’s film version of Cleopatra. Pearl then worked for Biograph before signing with Pathé.  Around this time, Charles had joined the elite, all-male Lotos Club, where he created programs and menus for the club’s star-studded private dinners.


Pearl Sindelar Motography


Over the next two years, Pearl appeared alongside many established silent film stars. However, despite her onscreen popularity, it appears as though  Pathé had soured on her. In 1914, a newspaper (perhaps at Pearl‘s behest) dubbed her “The Lavender Lady,” saying that although Miss Sandelar has been appearing in films just eighteen months…she is already regarded as little short of a divinity by thousands of people who have never heard of German Kaiser, Theodore Roosevelt or other prominent self-advertisers of many years standing.” This article was followed by another odd interview whereby Pearl gleefully told a newspaper reporter about a unhappy film player who found her temperament by throwing a shoe at a Pathé stage manager.


Pearl Sandelar

In April 1914, less than a month after the two interviews were published, Pearl announced that she would replace Louise Dresser in the stage production of Potash and Perlmutter on Broadway, despite her ongoing film contract with Pathé.  The studio remained quiet about the announcement and let her go. During the run of the play, she received strong reviews. She also endorsed Sempre Giovine Pink Complexion Cakes and a dentist named Dr. J. Nelson Myers. When asked about her film work, she told reporters that motion picture acting was great training for the stage, which was an odd comment for her to make, given that in 1914, most stage stars were permanently leaving the theatre for film.

Pearl Sindelar Smile

In January 1915, Pearl announced that she wanted to leave the stage and return to motion picture work “for good.” The problem was that Pathé (nor any other studio) wanted her back. So she spent most of that year, making personal appearances and endorsing London Feather Hats. In late 1915, a Washington D.C. newspaper announced that she had signed with the Congress Film Company, however, nothing came of it.

Pearl Sindalar 1915

Two years later, Pearl Sindelar returned to the stage in a large, splashy sequel called Potash and Perlmutter in Society. Although she received favorable notices, she began to show contempt for audiences by saying, “I try very, very hard to please my public, but one cannot sacrifice one’s conviction of the way in which a certain scene shall be acted simply because, for example, some slow-witted person in the audience thinks a lover’s embrace should be held a second shorter than the actors are playing it.” She also continued to promote herself as “The Lavender Lady,” saying that it was her favorite color.

Pearl Sindelar Patriot

In November 1917, she again sounded self-righteous and preachy. After boasting to the Oregon Daily Journal that she had just completed Red Cross Nurse training with a perfect score, she told the paper, “I expect to see the young men of the stage and their full proportion of soldiers to the front, and the women of the stage will work as hard as any other women in the world to help win the nation’s battles. The first thing to do is to abolish extravagance in living.” She then sited alcohol consumption as a vice that actors should cut back on.

Potash and Perlmutter in Society turned out to be Pearl’s last star vehicle. After the show closed, she found herself out of work. She was a persuasive speaker, however, and in 1919, she became an activist for Actor’s Equity. That year, she organized and led an actors’ strike outside of the Cohan and Harris Theatre (the theatre that had originally hired her for Potash and Perlmutter) during the run of “The Royal Vagabond.”  She told the press, “The big people in the profession have been able to get anything they wanted while the small fry have not been able to get anything at all.”

Pearl remained an out-of-work performer until 1922, when she appeared in a supporting role in the Equity Players production of Hospitality, which ran for a month. The following year, Hollywood director Allan Dwan cast her in a small role in his film The Glimpses of the Moon (1923). However, Pearl was now 42-years-old and no longer considered a leading lady type.

After briefly working as a stock player for Busby Berkeley’s Comedians in Boston, Massachusetts, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles in 1925, so that she could find more screen work. However, her return to films was not a success and in 1925, newspaperman Russel J Birdwell listed her among Hollywood’s “forgotten forget-me-nots.” Pearl‘s last movie appearance was in the The Four Footed Ranger (1928), starring Dynamite the Dog.

In Los Angeles, the Sindelars moved around a lot, suggesting that they were struggling to make ends meet. In 1932, Charles arranged for his Lotos Club menus to be exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum in Exposition Park, hoping that his portraits of famous banquet guests would attract Hollywood clients. Pearl, meanwhile, continued to list herself as an actress.


Adams Blvd
1008 W. Adams Blvd.

In 1934, they rented a small home at 1008 W. Adams Blvd. It was there that Pearl read and became inspired by the book, “Unveiled Mysteries” written by Guy W. Ballard, a Chicago paper hanger who wrote under the pseudonym, Godfré Ray King.

Ballard’s book (believed to be plagiarized in part from the 1894 book,  A Dweller on Two Planets by Frederick S. Oliver) was a spiritual manifesto that claimed that he had encountered the supernatural entity of St. Germain, while climbing Mt. Shasta in Northern California. He described the Saint as a “majestic figure, God-like in appearance, clad in jeweled robes, eyes sparkling with light and love,” who offered him a gauntlet filled with “pure electronic essence” followed by a wafer of “concentrated energy.” Before long, they were both surrounded by a “white flame which formed a circle about 50 feet in diameter.” Ballard then said that they both time traveled to mythical cities in Atlantis and Central Mexico as well as other areas containing large quantities of gold and jewels. They even visited past lives and encountered aliens from the planet Venus. According to Ballard, he and St. Germain, after discussing the mysteries of life, agreed to exchange personalities, thus giving Ballard the mystical powers to “conquer disease, death, old age, poverty and misery.”

Guy Ballard
Guy W. Ballard

“Unveiled Mysteries” paved the way for Ballard to start an “I Am” cult, a new religion that fused New Age spirituality, Christianity, and American patriotism (that leaned Republican). He called himself a prophet, and promised to transfer his “ascending master” super-powers to all followers who made generous donations, called “love gifts,” to his Foundation. He even called himself St. Germain while also claiming that he was a reincarnation of George Washington.


Hoover Street
2600 Hoover Street

When Guy Ballard and his psychic medium wife Edna arrived in Los Angeles in 1935 to establish a new branch of their cult, Pearl attended their seminar at the Shrine Auditorium. She and Charles then joined the “I Am” movement. The Sindelars converted their art studio/apartment at 2600 Hoover Street into an “I Am” social center. Pearl used the building’s domed auditorium to teach the healing power of colors, harnessing rays of light to create abundance, and reincarnation. Her specialty, however, was in teaching the art of divine ascension, which encouraged members to abstain from sex until the individual had achieved physical and spiritual perfection. Pearl also discouraged smoking, drinking, eating onions, and any other activities that might cause bad breath because unwelcome odors were viewed as an impurity of the body.

Saint Germaine


In 1936, Charles became the editor of the cult’s magazine, “The Voice of the I AM,” which showcased his artistic talents. While there, he created popular likenesses of Jesus Christ and St. Germain, which the Ballard Foundation sold. As his stature in the “I Am” community grew, Charles and Ballard began to claim that Charles was the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci.

Although Pearl was far removed from her silent film and Broadway glory days, she wasn’t entirely forgotten by her peers. When silent film director Lois Weber, who also professed to be a spiritual person, passed away in 1939, Pearl gave the eulogy at her funeral. However, Pearl no longer labeled herself as an actress. She now considered herself a spiritual teacher and an employee of her husband.

Guy and Edna Ballard

When Ballard  died on an operating table December 29, 1939, his widow Edna kept his death a secret from the outside world until his remains were cremated. She then told followers, outside of their divine circle, that her late husband “had ascended from royal Mt. Tejon [in California]” to heaven where he is on equal footing to Jesus and St. Germain. Edna then took over the “I Am” movement by calling herself Joan of Arc, Jesus, and Lotus Ray King. She even had her own weekly radio show. During this time, her 22-year-old playboy son, Donald Ballard, began calling himself Lafayette (after the Marquis de Lafayette).


I Am Cult headquarter

In 1940, the cult had approximately 10,000 followers in Los Angeles alone. It had also opened its main “sanctuary” at 123 N. Lake Street (now the site of the Lake Street Primary School). However, the “I Am” movement was in trouble. Once the federal government discovered that the Foundation had earned over $3 million in “love gifts,” federal prosecutors charged the Foundation and its key members with over 16 counts of mail fraud. One of the culprits charged with a felony crime was Guy Ballard, despite the fact that prosecutors already knew that he was dead.

Cult Members

Charles and Pearl Sindelar were also indicted on charges of mail fraud, and on July 25, they turned themselves into federal authorities and were quickly released on $5000 bonds.

The “I Am” mail fraud trial dragged on for months, with each courtroom session offering tons of bizarre anecdotes. For instance, Edna Ballard insisted that her religion was patriotic and that her late husband had used his supernatural powers, called k-17, to sink a fleet of Nazi submarines before they could attack the Panama Canal. Other members of the cult insisted that “I Am” never asked for money and that all profits were spent on charitable causes designed to bolster humanity. The prosecution, on the other hand, brought in countless victims and witnesses who spoke of the Ballards’ love of diamonds and how the organization swindled many of its followers with its promises of immortality.


Charles Swindler Christ etching

As the trial progressed, Charles was asked to discuss his popular (and controversial) Jesus Christ portrait sold through the Ballard Foundation. While on the stand, he told the jury that Jesus had appeared during one of his many life crises.

“I was in bed when the vision appeared,” he said. “I awakened Mrs. Sindelar and asked her if she also saw Him at the foot of the bed but she said ‘No’….I thought my time had come. I was worried about the vision and thought I was going to pass out.”

He then told the court that after he had tried unsuccessfully for a week to recreate the vision on paper, Jesus came to his aid by manifesting a second time so that he could finish the portrait.

Newspapers mocked Charles’ story, pointing out the absurdity of Jesus returning to Earth to pose for a studio portrait. Prosecutors noted that Guy Ballard had also claimed that the portrait possessed mystical powers and that Jesus had visited Charles at his Hoover Street studio for 21 consecutive nights so that the artist could faithfully capture His likeness.

Charles and Pearl Sindelar Edna Ballard

Despite the ridiculousness of Charles Sindelar’s story, the Constitution protected the “I Am” cult’s right to worship as it pleases. After prosecutors failed to prove that the Sindelars knowingly engaged in mail fraud (or that Jesus really appeared for a portrait sitting), the jury acquitted the couple on all charges on January 21, 1941.

The court, however, struggled to rule as to whether or not the Ballards deliberately engaged in mail fraud or not. After jurors eventually found them guilty, the Ballards appealed the decision until it was overturned by the U.S.  Supreme Court on a technicality. Although Edna and Donald Ballard narrowly escaped prison, their cult had lost its momentum. In 1942, they decided to move their headquarters to Santa Fe, New Mexico. However, the Sindelars refused to go and had resigned their positions.

Charles and Pearl moved to a home on Wilshire Blvd., close to where Pearl‘s mother Mollie lived. After Mollie passed away in 1943, the couple moved to a house at 701 N. Belmont Street in Glendale.  Charles continued to paint and do etchings until his death on . His funeral (before cremation) was held in their home, and it appears as though Pearl remained at that address until her own death on July 9, 1958. There was no death notice of her passing, which suggests that she died alone and was cremated.

Today, the “I Am” cult is still around, although its numbers are small. The Ballards, who passed away decades ago, had invested their fortune in real estate, which has kept their legacy alive.  Charles Sindelar is still held in high regard among its members. In fact, his religious renderings are still on display at hard-to-find shrine in Shasta Springs, CA, and many believers now regard him as an “Ascended Master.” His silent movie star wife, Pearl, however, still remains a forgotten figure, despite the power she once held within the cult.










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