“500 Days of Summer,” and Its Real Star–Downtown Los Angeles

July 27, 2009 § 4 Comments

The Eastern Columbia and United Artists Buildings by Night/Courtesy Ian McFarren Anderson

The Eastern Columbia and United Artists Buildings by Night/Courtesy Ian McFarren Anderson

Over the weekend I went to this summer’s best-reviewed romantic comedy, “500 Days of Summer,” expecting to be amused and charmed.  But I didn’t expect to be electrified, which I was, by the film’s use of downtown Los Angeles as a romantic setting. It’s probably the first time since the Silent Era (e.g., Buster Keaton’s “The Navigator”) that downtown has looked desirable on film.

Although downtown Los Angeles figures prominently in many period films–“Chinatown” and its sequel, “The Two Jakes,” and “LA Confidential”  instantly come to mind–it’s usually a place of mystery and danger.  Whatever beauty shows through in its grand avenues and architectural masterpieces  is usually negated by sinister goings-on. And films about contemporary Los Angeles–“Heat,” and “Collateral,” for example–merely use downtown as a glittering backdrop for car chases and shoot-outs.

“500 Days of Summer” is a complete departure from these films, yet the district’s importance isn’t immediately apparent. When Zooey Deschanel, as Summer, says, “We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” it’s not yet clear what city she’s talking about.

Summer’s love interest Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)  is a true urbanite, living and working in dark old buildings and going almost everywhere on foot. It’s not until the two start spending time together–in Angels Flight Park and on First Street, Pershing Square and Broadway–that we appreciate their location. It’s not LA but downtown, a planet away from the bland Westside millieu of countless films set in Los Angeles, movies so suburban they could take place anywhere.

Tom and Summer see a movie not at a multiplex but at a Broadway movie palace. Their world has no suburban houses with big lawns, no time spent on freeways. In fact, the movie’s only driving shot shows Tom’s car entering the Second Street Tunnel, a quintessential downtown experience. The one time they go out of town–to a wedding at the beach–they actually take the train.

Tom is an architect with a keen appreciation for the City’s surviving 19th and 20th century buildings. He points out the Eastern Columbia Building and the Continental to Summer and –at her insistence–draws a temporary tattoo of historic buildings on her forearm. And at the film’s end, he goes for a job interview at LA’s greatest architectural landmark: George Herbert Wyman’s iconic 1893 Bradbury Building, whose previous appearances in “Blade Runner” and “Wolf” placed it in some other time (the future) or city (New York). Here, fittingly, it appears in its actual downtown location in the present day.

This is important: Los Angeles is the only city where an obscure draftsman from Dayton, Ohio could have seen his plans for a utopian skylighted building come to life. The very fact that Tom has lucked into an interview with a firm headquartered there–amid the open staircases, corridors and cage elevators–foreshadows his own bright future as an architect. Joseph Gordin-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel make an appealing pair of lovers in “500 Days of Summer.” But the Bradbury Building and downtown Los Angeles are the movie’s true stars.

I am indebted to Gloria Koenig’s Iconic LA (Glendale, CA: Balcony Press, 2000) for information on George Herbert Wyman.

The Trials of Mary Astor

July 23, 2009 § 2 Comments

Mary Astor/Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Mary Astor/Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Mary Astor is probably best remembered today for her roles in films like “Midnight,” “The Palm Beach Story” and “The Maltese Falcon,” but in her lifetime she was as famous for two notorious legal actions. In both cases, she suffered public embarassment but ultimately triumphed.

The first was a suit brought by her own parents for financial support, which Astor had recently ended. That Helen and Otto Langhanke should have felt entitled to any of their 29-year-old daughter’s earnings was illustrative of her role as a cash cow: she had been the family’s sole wage earner since her mid-teens. Otto Langhanke, a failure in all his jobs, had set his sights on a Hollywood career for his young daughter–then called Lucile–and seen his investment pay handsomely. At 19 Astor was earning so much money that her father was able to buy Moorcrest, an estate located at Temple Hill Drive and Helios Street in Beachwood Canyon. Her money not only paid for the enormous house but a staff–maid,  gardener, chauffeur–and a Pierce-Arrow limousine.

As a teenaged Silent Era star

As a teenaged Silent Era star/Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Yet Astor herself had no control over her money–and except for a $5 a week “allowance” granted when she was 19, no money of her own. Otto, who was both physically and emotionally abusive, allowed her out of the house only to go to the studio–and even there she was accompanied and watched by her mother. Astor’s first love affair–or as much of one as she could manage under the circumstances–was with the charming 40-year-old John Barrymore, who eventually left because of the terms of her house arrest. (He married Astor’s fellow WAMPAS Baby Star Dolores Costello, whose mother kept her on a longer leash.)  

Finally in 1926, when Astor was 20, she daringly escaped Moorcrest by climbing down a tree off her balcony and hoofing it to a hotel in Hollywood.

Moorcest Bedroom--possibly Astor's

Moorcrest Bedroom--probably Astor's/Hope Anderson Productions

Her return was brokered by Moorcrest’s architect, Marie Russak Hotchener (see below), who had befriended the Langhankes and recently negotiated Astor’s allowance and right to work unchaperoned.  “Helios” Hotchener (after whom the street outside Moorcrest is named) persuaded Otto Langhanke to let Astor go out in public on her own and have a personal checking account with a $500 balance–at a time when she was earning $2,500 a week.

Mary Astor left Moorcrest for good for good by marrying Kenneth Hawks, the director-producer brother of Howard, in 1928. Hawks, whose total lack of sexual interest in his bride was accompanied by kindness and financial generosity, insisted that Astor spend only his money for both household and personal expenses. That meant every penny of her whopping salary–up to $3,750 a week–went to her high-living parents.

The gravy train stopped running when Hawks was killed during an aerial shoot in 1930. The following year,  Astor married her doctor, Franklyn Thorpe, and the couple lived frugally while her parents lived grandly in Moorcrest. It was only after giving birth to her daughter Marylyn in 1932 that Astor signed over her share of Moorcrest–Otto had made her sign a document giving her 1/3 ownership of her own house–and cut off the flow of money.  Unwilling to downsize, Otto Langhanke sued. The judge dismissed the suit after Astor offered to pay her parents a $100 monthly stipend. In her 1959 memoir, My Story, she wrote: “The reporters had rather a cruel laugh at Daddy’s expense; they got him to pose on the little bridge over the pool, gazing sadly into the water, and they ran the picture with the caption: “Down to their last swimming pool.” In end, Otto put Moorcrest up for auction after refusing an $80,000 offer–and got $25,000 for it.

Astor and Thorpe divorced in 1935. Though the divorce was uncontested, Thorpe sued for custody of Marylyn the following year. Complicating matters was Astor’s diary, which included references to her extramarital affair with the playwright George S. Kaufman. After forged pages of the diary were leaked to the press, the trial became a sensation. According to Astor, “it became a standard joke at parties for some man to come in looking furtive…and say, “I’m leaving town–I’m in the diary.” Despite pressure from a consortium of studio executives to settle the case,  Astor persisted and won primary custody of Marylyn.  Though she expected to lose her acting career over it, her popularity among audiences actually increased after the trial. Astor entered her best professional years in 1939 with “The Maltese Falcon” and a radio show, “Hollywood Showcase,” a kind of “American Idol” for undiscovered actors.

In later decades, Astor suffered a cascade of personal trials–loser husbands, loser boyfriends, a devastating non-sexual love affair (she seems to have had absolutely no gaydar), alcoholism, financial ruin and an Everest-sized avalanch of health problems. Each time she bounced back, going back to work and learning new techniques that allowed her to transition from movies to the stage, radio and, finally, television. After finally getting sober in the 1950s, she turned to writing, publishing two best-selling memoirs and five novels.   

Overcoming her horrible upbringing, Astor had good relationships with her daughter, son and grandchildren.  She retired from acting in 1964 after 123 films; her last was “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” In 1971, she chose to live out her life at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills rather than burdening her children with her care. She died there of heart failure in 1987, at 81.
For more about Mary Astor, 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

The Big Parade’s Final Leg in Hollywoodland

July 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

Though running 1 1/2 hours late, thirty to forty intrepid walkers finally reached the Belden Steps sometime after 7:30pm, where I was waiting with water and an overview of Beachwood’s landmarks and history. Then they took off for the Hollywood Sign, which they reached in darkness.

The Belden Stairs

The Belden Stairs/Hope Anderson Productions

Big Paraders

Big Paraders/Hope Anderson Productions

The Granite Stairs of Hollywoodland…and This Weekend’s Big Parade

July 16, 2009 § 2 Comments


The Beachwood-Westshire Stairs/Courtesy Hope Anderson Productions

There are six of them, staircases that connect the lower and upper streets of Beachwood Canyon north of the Gates. They were part of the original design of Hollywoodland, a housing development conceived by Harry Chandler, whose main occupation was business manager (and later publisher) of the LA Times.

Hollywoodland was the first housing tract in the Los Angeles hills, which had yet to attain desirability among homebuyers. Perhaps in an effort to make hillside living safer and more appealing, Chandler and his developers, Tracey E. Shoults and S. H. Woodward, imported a crew of stone masons from Italy to construct not only the impressive Hollywoodland gates and staircases but a network of massive retaining walls.

The masons lived in a tented camp at the end of Beachwood Drive, just before the end of the paved road and the stables. (Houses were built there in the early 1960s.) From 1923 to 1925, they built miles of walls and stairs using granite from the Union Rock Quarry in Bronson Canyon, just over the hill to the east of Beachwood.  All the granite for the chimneys, hearths, steps, terraces and walkways of the original Hollywoodland houses came from the Bronson quarry. (It is now commonly known as the Bat Caves because its main tunnel–through which trolley cars transported the stone to Beachwood–was used in the “Batman” TV series and 1960s movie.)

The Sign from the Bronson Quarry/Courtesy Ken Pries

The Sign from the Bronson Quarry/Courtesy Ken Pries

This weekend, a 2-day walking tour of the historic steps of Los Angeles begins on Saturday morning at Angel’s Flight and ends on Sunday evening at the Hollywood Sign. Called The Big Parade, the event has as its midpoint the historic Music Box Stairs in  Silver Lake, where Laurel and Hardy pushed, pulled and lost a crated piano in the 1932 film, “The Music Box.” On Sunday, just before the final leg to the Sign, I’ll be giving a brief talk on history of the Hollywoodland granite stairs. For more information and a schedule, please go to www.bigparadela.com

Marie Russak Hotchener and Moorcrest: The Theosophist Opera Singer and Her Architectural Fantasia

July 6, 2009 § 7 Comments


Moorcrest/Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Moorcrest stands on a hill overlooking Beachwood Drive. Its hybrid Moorish-Mission architecture, imposing size and prominent location lead many people, even Beachwooders, to assume it is a public building rather than a home. When I was working on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” people kept asking if I had filmed the “temple”  on Temple Hill Drive. They were surprised when I told them it was called Moorcrest and always had been a private home. (The Theosophical Society’s actual temple–the Temple of the Rosy Cross–is now part of the Krotona Apartments on Alta Vista Street, just to the south.)

Those who know Moorcrest is a home tend to call it  “The Charlie Chaplin House.” While Chaplin did briefly live in Moorcrest, he was a renter and soon moved on, to a house he had his set builders construct for him (the infamously nicknamed “Breakaway House”) in Beverly Hills. 

If Moorcrest must be nicknamed for one of its owners, it should be called the Mary Astor house. Though it was her parents’ home, it was  Astor’s money that paid for it. (More on that, and the lawsuit her parents brought against her for Moorcrest’s upkeep, in a future post.) But no one ever calls it that. Perhaps Moorcrest should be nicknamed for its designer, who–along with Julia Morgan–was one of the few women of her generation to practice architecture. Unlike Morgan, who was trained in engineering at Berkeley before she went on to be the first woman accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Marie Barnard Smith Russak Hotchener, a Krotona Colony founder, had no formal architectural training. Like that of many Theosophists, Hotchener’s path to Beachwood was circuitous and colorful, but none surpassed hers in originality. The daughter of a Northern California judge, Marie Barnard studied music at Mills College and–as Marie Barna–became a Wagnerian opera singer whose career led her to Boston, New York and Europe.
marie barnard
Her 1899  marriage to a New York investment banker and society figure called Frank Russak apparently was the wedding of the season in Newport, R.I. A lengthy New York Times write-up describes the lavish ceremony and bride’s ensemble (“a gown of white satin faille covered with mousseline de soie and pointe d’aiguille lace, richly embroidered in pearls”) but makes no mention of her previous marriage, to a Justin H. Smith.

Retiring from the stage, Marie Russak began a new life as a rich Upper East Side matron but soon turned her sights to the wider world, moving to Paris with her husband in 1901. She had become a Theosophist in 1898 and deepened her commitment by relocating to the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India in 1906. (No word on what happened to her marriage, as Frank Russak seems to have stayed in Paris.) Her four years in India, where she studied under Annie Besant, not only schooled her in Theosophy but sowed the seeds of a new avocation: architecture.  

In India, Marie Russak no doubt saw magnificent examples of the Mogul style that would inspire the Theosophist buildings of Beachwood. The arches, keyhole windows and domes of the Krotona Colony are directly inspired by India’s Islamic architecture of the 16th-18th centuries, the best-known example of which is the Taj Mahal. The Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai), a hybrid of Indian and British Colonial styles, probably inspired the ecclecticism of the Beachwood’s Krotona Colony, whose buildings were as much Italianate and Spanish as Islamic in their derivation.

After leaving India, Marie Russak helped found the Krotona Colony, which broke ground in 1912. Her role in building Krotona was substantial; in addition to co-founding the Temple of the Rosy Cross, Marie designed a number of houses for Theosophists, including this one at 6106 Temple Hill Drive.

theosophist buildings 009

Marie Russak’s architectural career was aided by a fellow Theosophist, Henry Hotchener, a real estate developer whose purchase of a tract from the Albert Beach Company made it possible for the Society’s wealthier members to build new homes by the Krotona Colony.  In 1914, Hotchener built a house for Marie Russak at 6101 Scenic (below) and, after Frank Russak died that later that year in Paris, married her.  


Moorcrest was completed in 1921. Apparently the Hotcheners did not intend it to be their home and soon rented it to Chaplin. After he moved out, they sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Otto H. Langhanke, who relocated from Chicago and New York in pursuit of their daughter Lucile’s acting career. Lucile, soon renamed Mary Astor by Jesse Lasky, would have an illustrious career in the movies and a rather tragic personal life. The latter was abetted–in court, no less–by her parents’ insistence on living on Astor’s dime in Moorcrest which, Astor testified, was a “white elephant.” 
Later  Moorcrest sank into decripitude, hitting bottom during the 90’s. A woman I know recounts wandering the vacant property, enchanted by Moorcrest’s architecture but alarmed by the extent of its neglect. The grounds had gone unwatered for so long that many of the mature trees in the garden had died. Finally the house was bought; the new owner undertook a major renovation in the early 2000’s and put it on the market in late 2006 for $9 million. That’s when I got inside and took these pictures:
One of the small sitting areas, with red lotus windows

One of the small sitting areas, with red lotus windows

Porte Cochere

Porte Cochere

Living Room

Living Room

Moorcrest's Atrium

Moorcrest's Atrium

Keyhole doorway

Keyhole doorway

In his otherwise excellent study of Krotona architecture, “The Surviving Buildings of Krotona in Hollywood,” (Architronic vol. 8, 1998), Alfred Willis bemoans Marie Russak Hotchener’s lack of architectural training, dismissing her proportions as “awkward” and her interiors as “rather garish.” Further noting that all her houses were “somewhat vulgar,” he concedes that they reflect “their designer’s own middle-class taste but also the vulgarity increasingly evidenced in the commercial and domestic buildings of boomtime Los Angeles in the 1920’s.” That the hardly middle-class Marie Russak Hotchener was reaching for an architectural style as unique and hybridized as Theosophy itself apparently never occurred to him.

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