Haunted Hollywoodland, Part II: Sunset Ranch

November 22, 2009 § 10 Comments

Sunset Ranch and the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Sunset Ranch occupies a hilly space at the north end of Beachwood Drive, where the Canyon meets Griffith Park. Although many people know it as a riding spot, few realize the ranch predates Hollywoodland, the 1923 housing development that abuts it. Before the property was developed by a real estate consortium headed by Harry Chandler, all of Hollywoodland was ranchland.

Unsurprisingly, horses were a big part of early Hollywoodland’s appeal. Residents of the new neighborhood were to have the best of both worlds: a peaceful country life and easy access to urban jobs and amusements. A radio ad outlined a typical day for Hollywoodland homeowners:

Listen–the horses are stamping in their stalls-the sea breeze kisses the hilltops-while the birds weave melodies of happiness on the open trail. Your day in Hollywoodland-in-California begins with a song, and for a brief hour you canter on the wings of the morning–a shower-breakfast-and away for a day at the office, to return at eventide to the calmness of the hills, and there below you, watch a myriad of millions of lights twinkling in the distance.

Residents also enjoyed a clubhouse and tennis courts near the north end of Beachwood Drive, where some sixties-era houses now stand. A jitney running from Beachwood Drive to the trolley stop at Franklin and Argyle ferried residents back and forth, a necessity in the days of one-car families. Though the clubhouse faded away during the Depression, limited car service from the Village bus stop to houses up the hill continued into the 1950’s.

Subsequent decades brought new construction, more residents and through traffic as Canyon Lake Drive connected Beachwood Canyon to Toluca Lake. Through it all, only Sunset Ranch remained unchanged, offering trail rides, boarding, horses for movies and itself as a shooting location.

Its most famous recent appearance was in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” The scene in which the Cowboy delivers an ultimatum to the young movie director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is both surreal and frightening, as Adam drives his Porsche up a darkened Beachwood Drive, parks and enters a paddock lit by a single flickering bulb.

In 2006, I spent part of an afternoon shooting interviews and B-roll at the Ranch for my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign.” While the Ranch is not as scary in daylight as it was in “Mulholland Dr.,” it is believed to be haunted. I had already heard stories of a “weird, dark energy” from someone who spent a lot of time there as a child, but I didn’t have time to investigate because we were on a tight schedule. (I’d paid a $500 fee to shoot for two hours.)

My first inkling that it wasn’t going to be an easy afternoon was when my previously booked interviewee, a Ranch employee, got a serious case of cold feet and tried to back out. Somehow I persuaded her to go through with the interview and eventually coaxed an amusing story from her, about some clients on the dinner ride who, after too many margaritas, had a hard time staying on their horses. An employee overheard this and reported back to the manager, who sent an emissary to inform me that I couldn’t use the story and moreover that he would have to see a rough cut to “approve” the interview. 

The manager soon appeared to give me the bum’s rush, claiming we would have to leave because another production company was coming to scout. I didn’t understand why that would be a conflict– location scouting and shooting occur there constantly–yet I sensed there was no point in arguing. We did another quick interview and left early, but not before I sent word that I would not be using the first interview. (The only interesting thing in it was the offending story and besides, I don’t let outsiders see rough cuts.)

Much later, I interviewed a former Sunset Ranch riding instructor who told me of spending the night in one of the rooms over the barn and hearing a man being hanged, along with choking sounds and the vibration of the rope. This was consistent with the Romeo-and-Juliet story I’d heard about a 16-year-old Mexican boy who worked at the ranch in the 1920’s. He fell in love with a Hollywoodland homeowner’s daughter and she with him, but it was an impossible situation given their class and ethnic differences, as well as the mores of the day. Despondent that he could never be with his true love, the boy hanged himself in the breezeway between the stalls.

Then there’s the strange, wafting scent of gardenias each autumn. Riders and ranch employees report smelling gardenias on the trails in mid-September, near the anniversary of Peg Entwistle’s suicide off the Hollywoodland Sign. No gardenias grow in the area, but Peg wore gardenia perfume.

On December 26th, 2007– a night when 90 mile-an-hour winds uprooted a stand of 70-year-old Torrey pines on Woodhaven Dr., just above the village–the Ranch was involved in a freak riding accident. The circumstances were  these: an engaged couple had booked a private dinner ride for that night. It was a birthday gift from the man to his fiancee,  a romantic night ride for the two of them, led by a guide.  Though the woman an inexperienced rider, the guide inexplicably put her on a new, skittish horse; despite high winds, they set out for Toluca Lake. When the guide moved to the front along the narrow passage between Mt. Lee and Mt. Hollywood, the horse bolted, set off by the winds. The woman fell off ; despite her headgear (all riders at Sunset Ranch are required to wear helmets) she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness.

Her grief-stricken fiance returned every night for two weeks to mourn at the place where she died. Although her parents filed a huge lawsuit against the ranch, accounts of the accident and the eventual settlement were somehow kept out of the news.

Sunset Ranch is understandably sensitive about its image, but the management’s efforts to censor bad news–and even a little story about dinner riders and margaritas–makes one wonder whether transparency might a better tactic. After all, secrecy can only underscore the impression that the Ranch is  mysterious, haunted and possessed of a “weird, dark energy.”

Haunted Hollywoodland

November 7, 2009 § 1 Comment

hollywoodland, c. 1926

Hollywoodland, circa 1926. The house featured in the article, with crenelated tower, is seen at center. Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection.

Several years ago I met a woman who had unwittingly rented a haunted apartment in an old building on Hollywood Boulevard. After a month of torment by voices and things flying around the room, she moved out. Her theory was this: “A lot of people came to Hollywood to be in the movies and when things didn’t work out, they killed themselves.”

Hollywoodland has its fair share of paranormal activity too, but it seems to have to do less with tormented souls than people who liked living here and don’t see the need to move out simply because they’re dead. (See my previous piece on Felix Adler.) 

My closest encounter with Hollywoodland’s spirit community came in 2006, soon after I moved in, when neighbors invited me to see their castle-like home. A monument to storybook architecture, the four-story house features crenelated towers and numerous balconies. Like most of Hollywoodland’s original houses, it has enormous walls of granite quarried in Bronson Canyon and a fairy tale atmosphere. 

It was a very hot 4th of July; as the house was not air-conditioned, the many rooms I toured were uncomfortably warm. The notable exception was the library, which was at least 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the downstairs and probably 25 degrees cooler than the upstairs. Cool air flowed from an unseen vent, prompting me to comment on the room’s air conditioning.

“It’s not air-conditioning,” said one of my hosts.

I had already heard about the female ghost flying down a hallway toward one of them when they moved in. A mysterious figure in 1920’s clothing, she  made periodic appearances until they renovated the library, which originally was so frigid that the carpenter wore a down jacket to do the work, until he quit out of fear. The owners finished the job themselves, after which the place warmed up considerably.

The ghost didn’t entirely disappear, however, because she took a liking to one of the owner’s visiting sons. The teenager would wake up in the morning to find small gifts–previously unseen silver spoons, napkin rings and lamp finials–on his bedside table, a pattern that continued after he started bolting the door from the inside. The spoons and napkin rings were engraved in a feminine font with three initials. My hosts had made a collection of the objects and showed it to me.

By then the ghost had stopped her visits. Perhaps because the boy had grown up, there were no more unexpected trinkets left in the night. The owners speculated the ghost was the original owner, perhaps a murder victim (they’d found a stain in the garage), but old newspapers turned up no accounts of a crime.

Because the house looks like an English castle rather than a Mogul palace, I walked by it hundreds of times before realizing it had been built for Theosophists. The cut-outs of crosses on the garage doors seemed merely decorative before I noticed, high on one of the towers, red lotuses on the stained glass windows and Moorish arches outside them. As far as I know, the castle is one of two Theosophist houses in Hollywoodland; all the others are below the gates, the bulk of them in the southwest corner of the Canyon, where the Krotona Colony was located.

The occult fads of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appealed to Theosophists and early Hollywood film stars alike, as both groups searched for existential answers. More than one Beachwood resident has told me stories of seances held during the teens and twenties in certain houses that have unexplained events to this day. And a psychic who lives in the Canyon has had vivid dreams about Peg Entwistle, who said in one, “There’s more life after death than you can imagine.”

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