First House North of the Gates: Busby Berkeley’s Home in Hollywoodland
August 21, 2009 § 1 Comment
You see it as you drive through the Hollywoodland gates, a large Spanish Colonial house directly ahead, though the road goes to the left. The property wraps around the curve, and the house is so blindingly white and prominently sited that it’s impossible to ignore. Unlike many old houses, it looks the same as when it was built in 1923, as pictures taken during Hollywoodland’s early years attest. (A gate now hides the front steps and the current garage doors lack the originals’ honeycomb details, but that’s about it for exterior changes.)
The first house (and second building, after the Hollywoodland Realty Company) to be built in the Hollywoodland tract, it was owned by Busby Berkeley, whose name still evokes the glamour and inventiveness of the lavish musicals he choreographed and directed at Warner Brothers, Fox and MGM.
A native Angeleno and the son of actors, William Berkeley Enos (1895-1976) gave us such dance classics as “Lullaby on Broadway,” and “I Got Rhythm.” From 1933-1937 he directed and/or choreographed 14 Warner Brothers musicals, including “Gold Diggers of 1935,” “42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade.”
His success afforded him the house on Beachwood Drive where he lived with his widowed mother, to whom he was devoted, and whomever he happened to be married to at the moment. (He had between four and seven marriages, depending on the biographical source.) His matrimonial success no doubt was hindered by his work, which required auditioning thousands of young female dancers for the 150 he would ultimately choreograph in each film. His drinking probably didn’t help matters, either. In 1935, while driving drunk, Berkeley caused a crash that involved two other cars and killed three people. He was acquitted of homicide charges after three trials, largely because he was his mother’s sole source of support.
While Berkeley was one of the biggest stars in Hollywoodland, his house was–and still is–arguably the least private because of its location in Village’s commercial district. Besides the Realty Office next door, the house boasts a bus stop directly outside, and has since 1925. The top photograph shows passengers transferring from the public bus to the Hollywoodland jitney, which took them further up the Canyon to their homes.
Berkeley was long gone by the time the actor Ned Beatty bought the house in the 70’s, after “Deliverance” had made him a star. During Beatty’s years in residence, large buses ran up and down Beachwood Drive, rather than the Dash buses that make the run today. The old buses were too big to make the U-turn in front of Beatty’s house and would grind and rev their engines in the attempt. On one occasion the bus actually became stuck, creating such a racket that an infuriated Beatty came out and hurled empty liquor bottles at it.
Like Busby Berkeley, Ned Beatty eventually moved to greener and less congested pastures. Still, many people still call the place the Ned Beatty House, though others prefer the original Busby Berkeley title.
While Busby Berkeley’s name would seem to evoke a more genteel era, his life was anything but. In addition to the vehicular homicide trials and many divorces, Berkeley struggled with suicidal depression after the auto accident. A serious suicide attempt after his mother’s death in 1946 made the newpapers and landed him in a mental hospital. Nevertheless, he survived to the age of 80, long enough to experience a career revival in the 1960’s. New generations discovered his films of the 1930’s and 40’s, which began to be shown on television and later found new life on video and DVD. By the time Berkeley died in 1976 in Palm Springs, his place in Hollywood history was assured.