The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon
November 27, 2010 § 1 Comment
Although many people think Hollywood sprang into existence at the start of the movie industry, its history as a settlement pre-dates not only the 20th century but the Spanish Colonial period. The area was settled ten thousand or more years ago by Tongva Native Americans, some of whom were still living in Beachwood Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. (It was the Tongva who paddled out to meet Cabrillo’s ship in 1542; they truly were the first Angelenos.)
During the Colonial period, the future Hollywood was part of the San Fernando Mission–its outlying pastures, on which sheep grazed. In 1887, Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their Christian utopia as an agrarian village–one that had more orchards than houses. 19th- century Hollywood produced excellent lemons, poor oranges (used for orange soda, not fresh juice), flowers immortalized by the painter Paul deLongpre, and some rather exotic fruits and vegetables. Among the crops that were grown in Hollywood’s orchards were bananas, figs, apricots, avocados, dates, pineapples and chermoyas.
It was this bounty, made possible by a frostless climate and more than 300 sunny days each year, that attracted the Theosophical Society to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. The Theosophists were vegetarian, and thus naturally drawn to agricultural self-sufficiency; the perfect climate of Southern California was a major reason for their relocation from Chicago. In a letter to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, A.P. Warrington, the head of the American branch, wrote:
We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything…
The Krotona Colony included fields and gardens– presumably worked by its members, though I’ve seen no photographs proving it.
The mystery in all of this is how these farmers managed to coax crops out of Beachwood’s soil. Thin and nutrient-poor, it sits atop solid granite, the result of which is geological stability–we barely feel earthquakes–and the constant appearance of rocks and stones. Since moving to Beachwood 5 years ago, I’ve struggled to make something of my garden, despite assiduous efforts at soil enrichment. Although roses do well with regular applications of compost and fertilizer, vegetables grow with limited success, and only in boxes. Interestingly, the ten fruit trees I’ve planted have stayed true to historical precedent, producing terrible oranges (if any), but wonderful lemons, peaches and apricots. This year, I planted a green gage plum whose first crop I’m eagerly anticipating; more on it, and the “Pineapple Tract,” in a future post.
Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.
The Story of Hollywood, by Gregory Paul Williams. Los Angeles, CA: BL Press, LLC, 2005.
Los Angeles City Archives.
Back to the Roaring Twenties, Briefly, on Beachwood Drive
November 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Beachwood Canyon is rarely used for filming, but this morning there was a car shoot in Hollywoodland. According to crew members, the production is a French silent (!) film about the advent of Talkies.
It was exciting to see the cars–among them, a Model A and and a Model T with wood-spoked wheels.
Most interesting was the bus, a later version of the old Hollywoodland jitney, complete with passengers in period dress. Tres nostalgique!
Castillo del Lago and Wolf’s Lair: Works in Progress
November 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Two months into the massive repainting job at Castillo del Lago, all traces of Madonna have been removed from its exterior. Gone are the jaunty red ocher stripes; the new look is stark white with grassy green trim. The paint accomplishes the task of making a vast house look even bigger while illustrating the sobriquet white elephant. (But I’m sure Crosby Doe, the real estate agent and neighbor who has complained at length about Castillo del Lago’s previous incarnation, is delighted.)
The retaining wall is also white, a risky move in an area known for tagging. Fortunately, vines have been planted along its base; eventually, they will turn the wall into a giant topairy.
Over at Wolf’s Lair, the extensive repair work continues. The new owner, Moby, has undertaken the kind of crucial and costly structural work–reframing exterior walls, replacing windows–that most homeowners would skip altogether. While remaining faithful to the original design, he is essentially rebuilding an old estate. It must have needed it.
The John Lautner-designed guest house, now largely reframed, is being turned into a recording studio. This development probably would have pleased Lautner, a modernist who didn’t place form over function. You can see the before pictures here: http://la.curbed.com/archives/2010/04/tour_of_wolfs_lairs_lautner_guest_house_and_future_studio.php
Onward, toward the end of renovations–and two festive housewarming parties!
The Hills Are Alive with California Holly
November 13, 2010 § 1 Comment
My search for native holly (toyon) has brought mixed results over the past five years. The year I moved to Beachwood was an exceedingly dry one, and the next fall saw very few berries. Without them, the toyon is unimpressive–just another tree along the trail. Then there’s the question of when the berries, if any, will turn red, an event of brief duration that is easily missed. Disappointingly, the berries seem to turn red well before Christmas–but again, it depends on rainfall.
So while hiking the trail between Castillo del Lago and Wolf’s Lair yesterday, I was surprised to come upon a riot of red berries on the trees there. The fact that it we’ve had four rainstorms since the beginning of October must be the cause: the trail is as lush as it normally is in January.
The tree pictured at top is enormous, a wall of green leaves and red berries.
Peter the Hermit, Sage of the Hollywood Dell
November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment
Peter Green has written a fascinating account of his 1963 encounter with his great-uncle Peter Howard, aka Peter the Hermit, that answers many questions about this famous local character. (http://peterhgreen.com/blog) Then 85 years old, Peter the Hermit was living in a bungalow near the 101 freeway, in the Hollywood Dell. When not appearing in biblical movies or posing for pictures, he worked as a spiritualist, dispensing advice to a famous clientele. He explained:
The actors and actresses all come to me for advice: Jane Russell, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe. They come to me to learn of the higher spiritual world and to be healed.
His sideline was in keeping with the local tradition of alternative religions. Hollywood’s embrace of unconventional spiritual practices began with the Theosophical Society’s relocation to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. (For background, see my post from June 2, 2009, “Alternative Religions, from Theosophy to Scientology: A Hollywood Tradition.”) Actors such as John Barrymore and Charlie Chaplin soon took notice of the Krotona Colony, whose artistic, bookish members welcomed rather than shunned them as “movie people.” For denizens of the nascent film industry, the appeal of Theosophy probably stemmed both from its relative lack of dogma and its occult aspects. Seances, a happy combination of mysticism and theatrics, quickly became a Silent Era fad, attracting practitioners who had no interest in Theosophy, or any other system of belief.
In counseling movie stars, reading auras and offering mystical platitudes, Peter continued a Hollywood tradition, but his canny entrepreneurialism was a break from the past. Unlike the Theosophists, who relied on wealthy benefactors, Peter the Hermit knew how to make a living from his spiritual talents. Though he resembled a Biblical prophet, his business model was distinctly modern, pointing to the present day. In contemporary Hollywood, agrarian utopias like the Krotona Colony are unknown, after all, but self-made spiritual advisors abound.
The Nighttime Magnetism of the Hollywood Sign
November 6, 2010 § 1 Comment
Even unlit, the Hollywood Sign can be seen at night from Hollywoodland, the neighborhood that is its home. The Sign’s whiteness reflects light, whether natural (from the moon) or electric (from the ranger station and communications tower above it). At times it glows, an alabaster sculpture against the dark chaparral. For those who live near it, the Sign is visible day and night, except on those rare rainy days when it’s shrouded in fog.
When I moved to Beachwood five years ago, the Sign was being repainted, and its renewed whiteness struck me as an omen for my new life. On one of my first nights in my house, I was amused to hear a child yelling, “Hello, Hollywood Sign!” outside.
As I soon learned, the Sign affects adults in much the same way: they want to know it, and knowledge demands proximity. Hollywoodlanders who live high in the Canyon report a steady stream of nighttime visitors, particularly in summer. The Sign’s inaccessiblity–it is fenced from the back and heavily alarmed–dissuades few from getting as close as possible, even if it means going on foot, either legally, up the steep fire road, or illegally, to its front.
I like to hike up the fire road with my dog in the late afternoon. It takes us about an hour to make the round trip, and in winter we sometimes have to hurry against nightfall. The road cuts through parkland and gets dark very quickly after sunset; there are coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions in the area. Yet I’ve never not passed someone going up as I was making my way down.
Early in 2007, Tjardus Greidanus, the DP on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” was shooting b-roll before dawn when he saw a man heading up toward the Sign, a bottle of wine in hand. There was no doubt of the man’s intent: a libational greeting of the new day, at the epicenter of new beginnings.
Why the Hollywood Sign Isn’t Lit (and Never Will Be)
November 3, 2010 § 64 Comments
One of the perennial questions about the Hollywood Sign is why it isn’t lit at night. The answer is that the Sign overlooks a residential neighborhood whose access narrows from a two-lane road to a steep, winding single lane as one nears the Sign. If the Hollywood Sign became a nighttime beacon, traffic in the Canyon would quickly reach gridlock.
That’s precisely what happened on New Year’s Eve of 1999, when the Hollywood Sign was rigged for a Millennial light and fireworks show. People came up Beachwood Drive by the thousands, effectively trapping everyone in the Canyon and preventing emergency vehicles from entering. It had a lasting effect on residents, some of whom still shudder at the memory.
In the Sign’s original incarnation as a billboard, it was lit, the better to impress prospective property owners. It flashed in segments, first Holly, then wood, then land, before lighting up completely. A searchlight below it lit up for emphasis, like an exclamation point. Hollywoodland! It must have been wonderful–and to Albert Kothe, the man whose job it was to change the lightbulbs, a grim reminder of his day job. More on Kothe, a true Hollywoodland character, in a future post.
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