Hollywood Before the Movies, Part II: City of Churches

June 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

Hollywood Congregational Church/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

In December of 2007, a bus carrying audience members to a taping of “The Dr. Phil Show” at Paramount went out of control on Gower Street and crashed onto the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Reading about the accident online, I was annoyed to come across this comment: “Who knew there were churches in Hollywood?” 

As anyone who has visited can attest, Hollywood is full of Protestant and Catholic churches; it boasts three major synagogues and temples of various Buddhist and Hindu sects as well.  In addition, Hollywood has long been a hub for nontraditional religions, from the Theosophical Society in the early 20th century to the Church of Scientology today.  But all these houses of worship merely hint at the town’s religious history: from its beginnings in the 1880’s to its absorption into Los Angeles in 1910, churches were Hollywood’s raison d’etre.  

Hollywood Christian Church/Courtesy University of Southern California Archives

Hollywood’s powerful religiosity sprang directly from its founder,  Harvey Wilcox, a devout Protestant and vehement teetotaler. In order to draw like-minded residents to Hollywood, he granted free land for church-building. Although Wilcox didn’t live to see the ultimate result, large houses of worship dominated Hollywood Boulevard by the beginning of the 20th century. 

Hollywood’s original churches have all been rebuilt since, though many of the names–Hollywood Presbyterian, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, Church of the Blessed Sacrament and Hollywood Methodist Church–remain the same. Interestingly, St. Stephen’s traces its lineage directly to Daeida Wilcox,  mother of Hollywood. Tired of commuting to Colegrove (now West Hollywood) to worship at St. James’ Mission, she donated land at Prospect (now Hollywood Blvd.) and Ivar for a new church. At that point, most of the congregation and even its rector relocated to Hollywood, sharing quarters with the Catholics at Blessed Sacrament until St. Stephen’s was completed in 1903.

Additional Source: www.ststephenshollywood.org

Hollywood Before the Movies, Part I: Ranches, Orchards and Laws

June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Claussen's Ranch on Krotona Hill, Beachwood Canyon, 1902/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Hollywood first appears on maps not as a studio town or even a farming village but as ranchland, part of the San Fernando Mission located some twenty miles northeast. Of course, its true history goes back much further, to the Indian settlements of the pre-colonial era. A few Indians remained after the territory was settled by Californios in the late 18th century, probably working the ranchos granted by the Spanish Crown.  

By 1890, Hollywood not only had its present name but a distinct identity from that of Los Angeles, five miles to the east. It was founded by Daeida and Harvey Wilcox, a prosperous Kansas couple who had suffered the loss of their infant son. In the aftermath of their tragedy, the Wilcoxes took long Sunday carriage rides in the Cahuenga Valley. Their fondness for the area’s rolling farmland and fresh breezes led them to the discovery of a 160-acre tract that they were able to buy in 1887. Development soon followed, and by 1900 the area had a population of 500. 

Early Hollywood was a village of Victorian cottages, farms, orchards and considerable charm. Daeida Wilcox apparently chose its name at random, after the country house of a woman she’d met on a cross-country train after a visit to her native Ohio. (The popular idea that Hollywood was named for California holly, or toyon, is unlikely, as the bushes grew too sparsely and remotely to have qualified as a civic symbol.)  

Unlike most rural hamlets, Hollywood was from the start a tourist haven, popular among daytrippers who could easily bicycle or ride on horseback or in traps from Los Angeles. Once in town, visitors enjoyed the hospitality of the Glen-Holly Hotel, which served a 75 cent chicken dinner. Afterwards, they could walk lovely residential streets shaded by pepper trees and bordered by citrus groves. (Although Hollywood lemons were well-regarded, Hollywood oranges were inferior and used mainly for soft drinks.) What they couldn’t do was have a drink, because alcohol was illegal in Hollywood. (When I screened “Under the Hollywood Sign” at Paramount last year, the mostly local audience erupted in hysterical laughter at this fact. But it’s all true.)  

Temperance was non-negotiable for Harvey Wilcox, a strict teetotaler whose religious beliefs set the civic tone.  Enforced morality obviously inspired Hollywood’s incorporation: the city’s first by-laws in 1903 not only prohibited drinking and the possession of spirits but the prescription of alcohol for medical reasons and the transporting of alcohol across town lines. Not only could residents not drink publicly: they couldn’t drink in their homes or own alcohol for any reason. Moreover, west-bound liquor from Los Angeles had to travel a southerly route, beyond pious Hollywood’s borders. 

Close on the heels of alcohol-related legislation came laws against gambling, prostitution, noise, speeding, oil wells, tanneries and the driving of large herds on city streets. Although Hollywood’s civic independence lasted only seven years–the town became part of Los Angeles in 1910 because of its desperate need for water–its many laws are preserved in bound volumes in the Los Angeles City Archives, providing a fascinating glimpse into a mostly forgotten history. 

Not surprisingly, Hollywood was unable to remain a dry, Protestant town. Three years after Wilcox’s death in 1891, his widow Daeida married Philo Beveridge, a very dissimilar husband with whom she had four children. The freewheeling son of a former Illinois governor, Beveridge publicly flouted the liquor laws by serving wine to his guests at the Hollywood Hotel.

Once Hollywood annexed itself to Los Angeles, of course, the matter was moot. 

Additional sources: 

Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: Southern California Through the Progressive Era. Oxford University Press, 1985. 

Gregory Paul Williams, The Story of Hollywood. BL Press, 2005.

The Big Parade Hits the Belden Stairs

June 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Hope Anderson and Dan Koeppel at the Belden Stairs/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

The Big Paraders stopped at the Belden Stairs on their way to the Hollywood Sign this evening; I was there to greet them. It was fun to talk about the origins of the neighborhood as well as recent developments concerning the Hollywood Sign.

Taking Pictures of the Stairs

Organizer Dan Koeppel did a great job of planning the route; that and the cool weather resulted in a much fresher Parade than last July’s, which took place during a heat wave. Congratulations to Dan and all who participated!

The Big Parade: Year Two

June 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Belden Stairs/Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Dan Koeppel’s amazing LA walkabout enters its second year this weekend. Saturday’s tour begins at downtown at Angels Flight and goes through Echo Park and Silverlake. Sunday’s walk begins at the Music Box Stairs in Silverlake and continues west through Los Feliz and Beachwood Canyon, ending at the Hollywood Sign.

As I did last year, I’ll be giving a brief talk at the Belden Stairs (Beachwood Drive at Woodshire.) This should take place around 6:30pm Sunday. For more information, go to www.bigparadela.com

See you there!

A Treasure Trove of Silent Film Resurfaces in New Zealand

June 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

Lois Weber/Courtesy http://www.davidbordwell.net

Today’s news–that 75 films from the Silent Era are being returned from the national film archive of New Zealand to the United States, their country of origin–is a bright spot in a depressing time. Not only were these films presumed lost, along with 80% of the fragile nitrate films of the period, but none have been viewed publicly in 80 years. Among the highlights of the collection are John Ford’s “Upstream” (1927), which is said to have been influenced by F. W. Murnau’s techniques. (Murnau was the German director of “Sunrise,” [1927] which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929.) Also eagerly anticipated is “Won in a Cupboard,” (1914) the earliest surviving film directed by Mabel Normand, the great Mack Sennett comedy star.  In “Maytime” (1923), another huge star of the era, Clara Bow, plays an atypical costume role.

Among the less familiar names in the collection are Al Christie and Lois Weber, who in their day were famous both as directors and producers. Christie was one of the most prolific directors of the Silent Era, while Weber, who directed over 40 films, had her own studio and was the highest-paid woman director of her time. (For more on Weber, see my post “Before Kathryn Bigelow: Women Directors in 20th Century Hollywood [March 8, 2010].)

Why New Zealand? Apparently it was the end of the distribution line, so films stayed there after their commercial run. The studios apparently didn’t want their prints back; at any rate, they wouldn’t pay the shipping costs. So projectionists and other film buffs kept the reels; eventually, through heirs, the films made their way to the New Zealand Film Archive.

It wasn’t until last year that an American film preservationist, Brian Meacham of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), visited colleagues at the New Zealand Film Archive while on vacation and saw a list of American films in the collection. One thing led to another, and arrangements were made for the return of 75 titles.

Amazingly, given the fragility of nitrate stock, three-quarters of the films have good image quality, though all are in need of restoration. Twentieth Century Fox, whose predecessor made John Ford’s “Upstream,” is restoring that film. It will have its first showing in eight decades at the Academy this fall and is certain to be a sensation.

Mack Sennett’s Unbuilt Dream House on Cahuenga Peak

June 1, 2010 § 3 Comments

Mack Sennett/All Photos Courtesy UCLA Special Collections

It would be hard to overstate Mack Sennett’s role in early filmmaking. Besides inventing the Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties, Sennett originated cinematic car chases and pie-in-the-face antics. He was singlehandedly responsible for the replacement of tall English-style helmets in police forces across the United States. And he was a star maker of the first order. Among the luminaries whose film careers Sennett started were Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Carol Lombard and W.C. Fields. 

Born Mikall Sinnott in Quebec in 1880, Sennett was the son of Irish Catholic immigrant farmers who moved to Connecticut when he was a teenager, giving him access to New York. By 1902, the young Sennett was a chorus boy in burlesque and on Broadway. In 1908, he parlayed his stage work into acting roles for Biograph, where he became D.W. Griffith’s protege. By 1910 he was directing shorts for Biograph; when Griffith relocated to Los Angeles, Sennett went west, too. 

In forming Keystone Films in 1912, Sennett constructed the first fully enclosed studio in Los Angeles. (Located on Bates Avenue in Edendale [now Echo Park], the building not only still stands but remains a working soundstage.) Until then, movies were shot on open-air stages using natural light, a method that left actors and crews at the mercy of the elements. Sennett’s studio represented not only a technological leap but a geographical one: in relocating to Edendale, he left behind crowded, makeshift conditions in downtown Los Angeles and foreshadowed the development of a new studio town–Hollywood. 

In 1915, Keystone Films became a division of Triangle Pictures, the filmmaking juggernaut that included Griffiths and Thomas Ince. In 1917, Sennett formed a new company, Mack Sennett Comedies, that would continue making movies into the era of Talkies. Over twenty-five years, Sennett directed more than a thousand movies. 

At the height of his career, Mack Sennett decided to build himself an appropriately grand house in the new Beachwood Canyon community of Hollywoodland. Although Busby Berkeley, Gloria Swanson, Felix Adler (who began his Hollywood career as a Sennett writer), Clara Bow, Theda Bara and Douglas Fairbanks all had houses in the Canyon, Sennett’s lot occupied another realm altogether. Located at the very top of Cahuenga Peak, the property was the only one in the tract that stood above the Hollywoodland Sign.  

The plans show a magnificent Mission-style palace befitting the King of Comedy. Its vast pool no doubt was conceived with the Bathing Beauties in mind, while its courtyard could hold multitudes. Sadly, Sennett never began construction on it: having lost much of his fortune in the Crash of ’29, he went bankrupt in 1933. His directorial career was mostly over by 1935, though Bing Crosby repaid his debt to Sennett by incorporating his shorts into a couple of “The Road” movies. (See “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”  from “The Road to Hollywood,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Btn9RhpneNg ) Sennett died in 1960 at 80, by which point the Keystone Kops had experienced something of a revival. 

In light of the recent scare over development on Cahuenga Peak, it is instructive to note that the present day communications tower and ranger station occupy Mack Sennett’s former lot. But his estate, a true dream house, exists only on paper–and in our imaginations.

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