June 24, 2009 § 8 Comments
When the Theosophical Society relocated from Chicago to Hollywood in 1912, its choice of Beachwood Canyon was no accident. A.P. Warrington, the head of the American Branch, had dreamed of founding a utopian community where Theosophists of all socio-economic backgrounds could live and practice their religion. While the Society’s International President, Annie Besant, advocated Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico or Mexico, Warrington favored Southern California and considered properties in Alhambra, Pasadena, and West Los Angeles before discovering the ten-acre tract at the southwest corner of Beachwood Canyon. (The tract ran approximately between Argyle and Beachwood [W-E] and Primrose and Graciosa [S-N])
Beachwood Canyon was the Theosophists’ ideal. Not only did it boast a mild climate and spectacular views in every direction, but its location–at the northern edge of Hollywood–would allow members to live an essentially rural life while holding a variety of non-agrarian jobs. Excellent public transportation, via the trolley that stopped at Argyle and Franklin, was a stone’s throw away.
Just as important was the fact that Theosophists would have a year-round growing season for their vegetarian diet. Beachwood’s microclimate supported not only typical fare like tomatoes and beans but exotic tropicals like avocados, bananas and pineapples. The latter two were already being grown on a farm at the corner of Gower and Franklin. (The fact that Beachwood soil was thin and sandy seems not to have troubled the Theosophists.)
Warrington was ecstatic with his find, writing to Annie Besant:
“…I have just bought, though the generous donation of one or two earnest members, ten acres of land in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Los Angeles, the valley and the sea in the distance….We can make [it] a veritable Garden of Eden, because the….region we have chosen happens to be one of thse rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything, from the most delicate fruits up to the hardy ones.”
Plans were quickly drawn up for the new community, which Warrington named Krotona, after the 5th Century, B.C., school founded by Pythagoras. The highly regarded architectural firm of Mead and Requa was commissioned to design Krotona’s two most significant buildings: the Krotona Inn (now Krotona Apartments), a combination lecture hall-worship space and living quarters for students; and the Knudsen Residence, home to Augustus Knudsen. Knudsen was a prominent Theosophist and the most important of the “earnest members” whose money bought the land for the Krotona Colony.
Augustus Knudsen was a son of one of Hawai’i’s most prominent haole families. His father Valdemar emigrated from Norway to Kaua’i in 1856, where he managed a plantation, Grove Farm, and (apparently) owned brothels during his rise as a sugar baron. By the 1870s, Valdemar was not only one of the largest landholders on Kaua’i, but a noted botanist and ornithologist. His importance is reflected in not only in his classic study of Hawai’ian birds but various place names on Kaua’i–Knudsen Road, Anne Knudsen Park, and Knudsen’s Gap.
Valdemar and his Ni’ihau-born wife, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, had five children. The most prominent, Eric Alfred, was a writer, folklorist, lawyer and politician who served as Speaker of the Hawai’i House of Representatives.
Eric’s brother Augustus Knudsen was also a writer, authoring two engineering books and one on astronomy. After studying civil engineering at MIT, he returned to Kaua’i to manage the family ranch and hold various positions in local government. Drawn to Theosophy because of his experiences with Hawai’ian kahunas and their rituals, he traveled to India and joined the Theosophical Society in 1897. After another decade of ranching and farming on Kaua’i, Augustus Knudsen moved to Los Angeles with his wife and widowed mother. His vocation in Hollywood was publishing an agricultural magazine called Little Farms–and, of course, establishing the Krotona Colony.
Knudsen’s fortune came from Valdemar’s Kekaha Sugar Company. Thus Hawai’ian sugar not only bought the Krotona tract but the magnificent Mead and Requa hillside house that Knudsen commissioned for his family at 2117-2121 Vista Del Mar Avenue. Though the building no longer stands–its address is now occupied by the Krotona Apartments’ parking lot and a couple of small apartment buildings–Knudsen’s Hawai’ian roots are obvious in the original plans. Every room opens onto a terrace and the entire third floor is a lanai. In a Spanish Colonial flourish, Mead and Requa included a central courtyard with a garden.
When the Krotona Colony began, Augustus Knudsen called it “an answer to the demand for a more definite exposition of the work called for in the Third Object of the Theosophical Society–the investigation of powers latent in man.” Whether or not Krotona achieved this purpose, Knudsen played a crucial economic and philosophical role in its development.
On a personal note, I knew none of this when I moved to Beachwood less than four years ago, though I remember inexplicably comparing the Canyon’s atmosphere to that of Kaua’i, where my family has a 50-year history. It happens that the park named for Anne Knudsen is in Koloa, our home base on the island. A weirder coincidence is that I did all the field research for my undergraduate thesis at Grove Farm Plantation, where Valdemar got his start. Thus when I first encountered Augustus Knudsen’s name while researching Krotona, I experienced opposing emotions: the shock of recognition and relief that my instincts about Beachwood and Kaua’i had a historical basis.
I am indebted to the following resources and authors:
“A Survey of Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” by Alfred Willis. Architronic, 1998.
Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths
June 17, 2009 § 1 Comment
It’s hard to think of anyone alive today with Hughes’s range of talents and achievements, let alone his effect on the public imagination. The last was driven home on Sunday, as I walked through the Hollywood Farmers’ Market and overheard a homeless man muttering to an unseen companion. He said–to my surprise, given my preparations to write the previous entry–“That’s why Lee Iacocca calls me the Howard Hughes of the automotive industry.”
June 16, 2009 § 5 Comments
Soon after I started production on my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2006, news broke of a spectacular property by the Hollywood Sign that was going on the market. That a piece of Cahuenga Peak was for sale came as shock to almost everyone; even LA City Councilmembers assumed the entire Peak was part of Griffith Park. As it turned out, a 138-acre parcel to the west of the Sign–five lots–was private. The land had been part of Howard Hughes’s estate and was sold to Fox River Financial, a Chicago property developer, in 2002. Fox River, which paid $1,675,000 for it, put the parcel on the market for $22 million.
The City of Los Angeles, caught unawares, managed to raise less than $6 million of the purchase price. Horrified residents, freed to imagine a clutch of McMansions–or one enormous pimp palace–to the left of the letter H, wondered how this had come to pass.
What I wondered was this: who would want to buy property in the middle of a city park, with no access or utilities? Here’s what I found out from my research of the property’s history:
Howard Hughes bought the parcel in 1940, when he was engaged to Ginger Rogers. His intention, after their marriage, was to build a castle with sweeping views of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. In order to do so, he would need a road as well as utilities–electricity, gas and water–where none existed. When the City tried to prevent him from building a road, Hughes sued–and won.
Meanwhile, Ginger Rogers was having second thoughts about the marriage. She no doubt had encountered Hughes’s “eccentricities”–his paranoia, which was exacerbated by his use of painkillers and by his deafness, which he refused to acknowledge or treat, and a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which manifested itself in germ phobia and the compulsion to do things like sort and count the peas on his plate. She confided to friends that she feared he would hold her prisoner on their Cahuenga Peak estate.
The catalyst of their breakup, however, was Hughes’s usual pattern of wildly indiscreet infidelity. Rogers dropped the bomb on Hughes as he lay concussed in the hospital after crashing his car head-on into another car, returning all his gifts of jewelry in a basket before hurling her emerald engagement ring at his bandaged form.
After Rogers’s departure, Hughes abandoned the Cahuenga Peak project but not the property, probably because he had more pressing concerns. The 1940s were arguably his busiest decade: in addition to running Hughes Aircraft and developing new civil and military planes, he continued a parallel Hollywood career, producing movies with Preston Sturges (see below) and buying a studio, RKO, in 1948. He was awarded a Congressional Medal for his aviation work in 1941 and received a contract to produce his giant military transport plane, the Spruce Goose, in 1942.
He also had two nervous breakdowns, the first in 1944 and the second, in which he locked himself in a screening room for 4 months while subsisting on chocolate bars, milk and movies, in 1947. In addition to his emotional injuries, there were devastating physical ones. In 1946, Hughes suffered major trauma when the XF-11 reconnaisance plane he was test-piloting developed engine failure. His attempt to crash-land on the Los Angeles Country Club golf course failed, setting fire to and destroying two houses. It was his second near-fatal plane crash (the first occurred during the filming of “Hell’s Angels” in 1929) and would leave him in severe, permanent pain. Addicted to codeine and increasingly crippled by OCD, Hughes withdrew from public life in 1950, though he continued to run his businesses by telephone.
When he died of renal failure in 1976, Hughes’s 6’4″ frame was so wasted by malnutrition that he weighed 90 lbs. Coroners found pieces of hypodermic needles in his arms. He left a mismanaged estate whose value, once estimated at $2 billion, was pegged at $360 million. The parcel on Cahuenga Peak was a tiny part of a fortune that included Hughes Aerospace, the Howard Hughes Medical Center, four hotels and six casinos.
At this writing, Cahuenga Peak property is still on the market at $22 million. Interested buyers should contact Teles Properties in Beverly Hills.
June 10, 2009 § 3 Comments
Preston Sturges is revered in Hollywood as the writer and director of some of the wittiest comedies ever written; in an unparalleled winning streak between 1940 and 1943, he wrote and directed eight classics, including “The Great McGinty,” “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” Sturges was also Hollywood’s first writer-director (and later, writer-director-producer), commanding such princely sums that at his career peak he was the third-highest earner in the film industry. (More on this period, as well as his madcap European upbringing, in future installments.)
But by the late 1940s, Sturges was in a career slump. In 1944, he had left Paramount, the studio where he had all his hits, to team up with producer Howard Hughes in order to gain Chaplin-like filmmaking autonomy. The partnership–called Cal-Pix–instead deprived Sturges of both his stock company and the studio’s vertical integration. Instead of having access to Paramount’s expert crews, Sturges now how to hire every grip and makeup person–as well as favorite actors like William Demarest, who was under contract at Paramount and would have to be “borrowed” at huge cost.
Sturges’s volatile personality met its match–and not in a good way–with that of Howard Hughes. (More on him later, too.) Hughes, who had suffered repeated concussions in car and plane crashes, was already displaying the paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder that would characterize his tragic end as a Las Vegas recluse, while Sturges had a talent for alienating everyone around him–bosses, co-workers, friends, wives and lovers. By 1945, he needed a slump-buster. Enter Harold Lloyd.
Harold Lloyd didn’t need an acting job (see below), but the idea intrigued him. He was 52 and hadn’t been in front of the camera since “Professor Beware,” in 1938, though he stayed in the public eye via radio shows and the movies he produced for RKO. A man of considerable energies, Lloyd’s hobbies ranged from 3-D photography to chess to breeding Great Danes, but they couldn’t compare to his feat of making an average of 11 films a year between 1913 and 1929.
Preston Sturges was a huge admirer of Harold Lloyd, and Lloyd’s influence can be seen in the slapstick in his films. Sturges came up with an amusing story incorporating footage from Lloyd’s film “The Freshman,” that would trace the accidental football star’s life through thirty years of non-events, until forced unemployment leads him to take his first drink. Success and adventure, including the purchase of a circus, follow.
“The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” was plagued with cost overruns, hiring problems and creative differences between Lloyd and Sturges. Lloyd’s comedy style was physical and Sturges’s cerebral, with slapstick used mainly as a respite from copious dialogue. When the film finally wrapped, it was $600,000 over budget and 52 days late.
After releasing “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” to mixed reviews in only a couple of theaters, Hughes pulled the film, cut it substantially and–after buying RKO–re-released it in 1950 as “Mad Wednesday.” That version didn’t work either; moreover, it provoked Lloyd into filing a $750,000 breach of contract lawsuit against RKO for removing his above-the-title credit. Lloyd settled the suit for $30,000 and never acted again.
Sturges directed three more films, including the underrated “Unfaithfully Yours,” but all were box office bombs. He spent what was left of his career writing scripts and died broke, at 62, in 1959. His passing was sudden and occurred in New York, where he was writing a new play and an autobiography called The Events Leading Up to My Death.
June 5, 2009 § 6 Comments
Harold Lloyd was a Silent Era superstar whose 200+ films outearned those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his competitors in comedy. He invented a quintessential American character, an Everyman in round glasses whose encounters with cars, pretty girls and technology were endlessly compelling. People who draw a blank at his name have seen his most famous stunt, in which he hangs off a skyscraper from the hands of a huge clock in “Safety Last.” (In Hollywood, the scene is memorialized on the side of the Best Western on Franklin Avenue, alongside the warning, “Last Cappuccino before the 101.”)
A handsome young actor from Nebraska who came to Hollywood in the teens, Lloyd teamed up with the director Hal Roach to make such Silent classics as “The Kid,” “Grandma’s Boy,” and “Safety Last.” He entered the Talkies with a huge hit, “Welcome Danger,” (written by Felix Adler, profiled below) in 1929.
Unlike many movie stars of his generation, he was financially shrewd, owning the rights to most of his movies and investing in real estate in a new made-for-actors tract development called Beverly Hills. By the close of the Jazz Age, Lloyd owned his own movie studio (the site of which he later sold to the Mormons for their Los Angeles Temple) and was an extremely wealthy man. He weathered the Crash of ’29 and continued to act in, as well as direct and produce, films and radio shows.
Early in his career, when he was star but not a tycoon, Harold Lloyd lived in this Italianate house in the exclusive Windsor Square neighborhood of Hancock Park.
The house still stands, an eyesore in a neighborhood transformed by 20 years of incessant renovation. I lived around the corner for 16 years and walked my dog (and after he died, another) by the house every day, longing for the time when it would be restored. In another city, there would be a plaque on it that read, “Harold Lloyd lived here.” But not in Los Angeles.
Throughout the ’90s, the house continued its decline. Outside there were dead trees and a dead lawn. Dead cars were parked in the driveway. The only things that thrived were weeds. Passersby showed their displeasure by turning the grounds into a public toilet for their dogs and, apparently, themselves.
When her dog turned up a mouthful of human feces, one of my neighbors reached out the people who have owned and lived in the house for two generations. They agreed to employ a gardener. He cut the weeds and hedges to a manageable level, sprinkled some grass seed and turned on the feeble old sprinklers to irrigate them. That was the sum of the improvements, such as they were. After the husband died, his rusting van was left for years the driveway as a kind of memorial.
These pictures were taken yesterday:
As for Harold Lloyd, his story could hardly have had a better outcome. In 1926, he began building a magnificent new home on 16 acres in Beverly Hills. Called Greenacres, the 44-room mansion was based on the Florentine Villa Gamberaia. Here’s a link to pictures: http://www.haroldlloyd.com/news/featurette.asp
Inside the house were 16 bathrooms, a pipe organ and a theater with a 35mm projection booth. Outside there was an Olympic-size swimming pool, a clock tower, a child-sized cottage with electricity and running water, and extensive gardens. There were greenhouses, stables, a 9-hole golf course, a reservoir and a farm. Lloyd and his wife, his co-star Mildred Davis, raised three children as well as a grandchild at Greenacres, which was staffed by 15 servants and 16 gardeners. They lived in a manner that defined the word swell.
In addition to acting and producing, Lloyd became an accomplished still photographer, taking beautiful portraits of a nude Bettie Page and a clothed Marilyn Monroe. He celebrated Christmas in spectacular fashion, lashing several huge evergreens together to make a single monster Christmas tree, which he strung with thousands of ornaments. One year he purchased the entire Christmas display at Saks, tree included, to augment Greenacres’. Meanwhile, his compound tree became more and more opulent. When the project became too vast to disassemble, Lloyd fireproofed the thing and celebrated Christmas all year long.
He died of cancer at 78, in 1971. Greenacres was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, after its grounds were subdivided and the estate reduced to six acres. The mansion, however, is intact and renovated. Its current owner is supermarket tycoon/ex-Bill Clinton bachelor buddy Ron Burkle, who apparently enjoys Greenacres just as much, if in rather different style, than Lloyd did.
I’m sure Harold Lloyd is watching over his beloved Greenacres from an even greater paradise. As for his starter house in Hancock Park, I’m praying for a gut renovation before the place falls down, followed by a lavish landscaping job. And after that, a plaque with his name on it.
June 2, 2009 § 1 Comment
Visitors to Hollywood are struck by the presence of the Church of Scientology, which cannily established itself along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards in the 1970s and ’80s, when the average tourist visit to Hollywood Boulevard lasted less than half an hour and decrepit old buildings could be bought for a song. Scientology’s success in gaining followers from the entertainment industry seems to have been both a cause and effect of its physical location, but no one can deny its philosophical appeal to actors and other creative artists.
The entertainment industry is well-populated by all kinds of seekers, most of whom are not particularly attracted to mainstream religions. Instead, they tend to gravitate toward new, unconventional avenues of spirituality. And while Scientology is the most obvious of Hollywood’s new religions today, it is hardly the first to appeal to a comely, spiritually underserved population.
A look back at the Hollywood’s beginnings proves that alternative schools of religion have attracted creative artists in the film industry since the Silent Era. Once famous–and in the teens, it really did happen overnight–young Hollywood stars found themselves adrift, tempted by alcohol and drugs and overwhelmed by sudden, enormous wealth. All of this was made worse by their social isolation in a city whose elites would have sooner dined alone than with “movies,” whose working class origins and questionable morals made them objects of derision. In the face of ostracism, many film stars preferred partying to spirituality while others kept up the religious practices of their youth. But some branched out into previously unknown schools of thought, including Theosophy.
- The Theosophical Society made its headquarters in Beachwood Canyon in 1911, establishing a utopian community, called Krotona, on ten acres. By Webster’s definition, the Theosophical Society was a cult–“a usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure”–though unlike most modern cults, it wasn’t organized around a single charismatic leader. Instead, the Theosophists had a hierarchical leadership and distinct branches of thought. The Beachwood group looked to the English social reformer and suffragist Annie Besant as its spiritual leader, while other branches regarded the Russian philosopher Madame (Elena Petrovna) Blavatsky as theirs.
Theosophy was based on Indian Buddhism but incorporated elements of all the major religions in its teachings. Its texts were challenging to read and comprehend. But the practice of Theosophy at Krotona–which included outdoor exercise, vegetarianism, agriculture, music, art and philosophy, as well as occult dabblings like seances–was easier to follow and appealed to a variety of Hollywood residents, including such actors as Charlie Chaplin.
The actress Mary Astor was connected to the Krotona Colony by virtue of her parents’ purchase–with her money–of Moorcrest, a mansion on Temple Hill Drive that was designed by the prominent Theosophist and amateur architect Marie Russak Hotchener. Astor’s career ascended quickly after she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926; roles in silent films and early talkies followed. Her love affair with John Barrymore brought a greater connection between Hollywood and Theosophy because Barrymore retained Marie Hotchener as his astrologer and her husband Harry as his business manager. Though Astor and Barrymore never married, he seems to have maintained his association to the Hotcheners.
But it wasn’t just actors who were attracted to Theosophy. Other local luminaries who cultivated ties to Krotona included the writer L. Frank Baum and the architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.
During the teens, The Theosophical Society became an important cultural force in Hollywood during its transition from small town to city by sponsoring regular musical and theatrical programs. The most ambitious of these, an outdoor pageant based on Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem about the Buddha, “The Light of Asia,” was a smash hit in 1918. Its success led two Theosophists to the purchase some nearby land for the construction of a permanent civic amphitheater: the Hollywood Bowl.
Nearly a century later, the words “alternative religion” and “cult” conjure negative images of servitude, dogmatism and coercion, but none of these applied to the Theosophical Society. High-minded and intellectual, the Theosophists of Beachwood Canyon not only eschewed such hardball tactics but soon retreated to more sylvan surroundings, relocating to Ojai in 1926 because Hollywood had grown too urban. Their influence waned both because they failed to attract new members and because they tended to reproduce sparingly. But the Theosophical Society’s declining influence can’t detract from the its success in building a vibrant artistic community in what was a tiny backwater only a century ago. Reminders of that accomplishment persist not only in the Beachwood’s remaining Theosophist buildings but in the Hollywood Bowl’s Easter Sunrise Service, as well as every concert held there.
Although both the Theosophical Society and the Church of Scientology began their Hollywood tenures as cults, the differences between them couldn’t be more dramatic. Those who regard alternative religions as a strange new phenomenon can take heart in the fact that Hollywood, in addition to hosting many mainstream churches, has been home to cults since its rural beginnings. In light of its founding by members of the Christian Temperance Movement, Hollywood’s tradition of religious tolerance is nothing short of miraculous.