May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment
Scattered throughout the pages of the 1940 Census are Beachwood Canyon’s live-in servants, who were few in number except on this short stretch of Hollyridge Drive. The page above lists six: three housemaids and three houseboys. Two of the maids were African-Americans from Texas, while the other was a California-born Japanese-American. Of the houseboys, two were Japanese-Americans born in California, both of whom listed Hiroshima as their residence five years earlier. The third was a Guamanian who listed his 1935 residence as Guam.
The future of the three young Nisei–Shiro Masuda, 18; Shigeyuki Nakao, 20, and Nobuko Kanegai, 20–is sadly obvious. They were among the 20,000 Los Angeles area Japanese-Americans who were forcibly relocated in the spring of 1942, first to the Assembly Center at Santa Anita racetrack and then to internment camps in California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Though my search of the National Archives registry of internees turned up no information on the three, it seems impossible that they would have escaped the fate of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast. It is possible that Masuda and Nakao, given their ages, might have volunteered for military service while interned. In that case they probably would have served in Europe, either in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team or the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion. My research continues in the Army’s archives; I’ll let you know if I find anything.
Beachwood Canyon in the 1940 Census, Part II: Discovering Bernard B. Brown, the Academy Award-Winning Original Owner of My House
May 20, 2012 § 14 Comments
When I first saw my 1937 Cape Cod in Hollywoodland, I laughed at its description: it’s not a Cape house that anyone in Massachusetts would recognize. In fact, it’s a typical pre-WWII California country house, heavy on the clapboard and decidedly simple in design. For me, it has been ideal: a box for living and working that is equally suited to both. My home has changed hands many times during its history, and I’ve enjoyed hearing neighbors’ stories about its previous owners: an old lady who owned standard poodles, circa 1960; the family of 6 who in the 70s crammed three children in two small bedrooms upstairs and one daughter in the dining room; the 80s TV actor whose drug habit ended his ownership of the house, along with his career; the couple who in the 90s set up a home art gallery that attracted a steady stream of customers. But until I searched the 1940 Census, I never knew anything about the original owner, the one for whom the house probably was built.
His name was Bernard B. Brown, and the Census lists his occupation as sound supervisor at a motion picture studio. On IMDB, I found evidence of prolific three-decade career at Universal: sound credits on 528 films between 1930 and 1958, composing credits on another 30, and directing credits on 2 shorts. He was well paid for the time, listing his income in excess of $5000 a year. The height of Brown’s career came in 1945, when he won two Academy Awards, a competitive award for sound (for “Lady on a Train,” starring Deanna Durbin and Ralph Bellamy) and a technical achievement award for the “design and engineering of separate soloist and chorus recording room.”
Brown was part of the second wave of film industry immigrants to Los Angeles. The first wave consisted of the actors, directors and crew members who worked on Silent films. The second wave, which began in the latter half of the 1920s, brought those who created Talkies: sound men. In 1940, Bernard Brown lived in my then-new house with his wife Mildred. The Browns listed no children on the Census, which–because they were 41 and 37, respectively–means they probably didn’t have any. This was a surprise to me because the garage floor boasts, along with the 1937 date of the house’s completion, two small children’s hand prints. (Children putting their names and handprints in wet cement, Grauman’s Chinese Theater-style, seems to have been common practice in Hollywoodland.) The other surprise was Brown’s birthplace: Lafarge, Wisconsin, a stone’s throw from my maternal grandparents’ hometown of LaCrosse, and the closest thing my peripatetic family has to a hometown.
The probable reason no one in the neighborhood remembers Bernard Brown is that he and Mildred moved out of the house long ago, at the end of his career in 1958, if not before. But they didn’t go far: when Brown died in 1981 at the age of 83, he was living in Glendale. It’s possible that someone reading this might remember working with him during the late 1950s, in which case I would welcome any information. In the meantime, I’m trying to find a photo of Bernard Brown so that I can hang it in the house. It’s the least I can do for a man who epitomized the original Hollywoodlander–someone whose life was spent behind the camera, making movies.
May 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
For the past week, I’ve been mesmerized by the 1940 Census records for Beachwood Canyon. A time capsule loaded with demographic information, the Census shows a neighborhood that was largely upper-middle class, yet diverse in national origins and occupations. (Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much racial diversity; apart from a few Lebanese and Egyptians in nearby Bronson Canyon, everyone in the area seems to have been of European extraction, including live-in servants.)
As I expected, movie industry employees were well represented in the Canyon, which crawled not only with actors but directors, producers, sound engineers, cameramen, and executives. But I didn’t think musicians would be as prevalent: conductors, singers, pianists, violinists, teachers and coaches, most not connected to the movies, abounded in the Canyon. It’s a reminder of the fact that Los Angeles, with its burgeoning population of urban sophisticates, was a center for live music long before the existence of the Music Center, let alone Disney Concert Hall.
Another notable element of Beachwood’s 1940 population was the number of residents born outside California. Unsurprisingly, the largest number came from the Eastern Seaboard, with significant numbers from the Midwest, notably Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. Others came from Kansas, Nebraska and other Plains States. More surprising is the number of foreign-born residents, who were so common that every page I reviewed had at least one. The most common foreign birthplaces were England, Germany, Canada and Russia.
In 1940 the United States was still emerging from the Great Depression, an economic reality that was reflected in Beachwood’s households. Multigenerational families were common, not only where adult children lived with their parents, but in households containing three generations. For example, the house next door to mine, notable for having been designed by a famous architect, housed not only the architect’s sister, her husband and two sons but her widowed mother and middle-aged brother, as well as a maid from England. Although they undoubtably were the richest family on the block–the husband was a manufacturing executive with an income in excess of $5000 per year, the highest category on the Census, and his wife worked as an apartment manager–the house is far from palatial. A family of three lives there today, and the house doesn’t seem too big for it.
Another significant difference between Beachwood then and now is the number of households with live-in servants. Maids were common in 1940, as were trained and practical nurses, most in charge of babies and toddlers. Other households listed lodgers–which, ironically, are common again in today’s tough economy. The prevalence of rented rooms in circa 1940 Hollywoodland belies the idea that houses above the Gates were intended as single-family homes: lodgers, it seems, have always lived here.
The Census contains a last surprise, one that puts to rest the idea of Los Angeles as a way station for vagabonds. It asks respondents where they resided five years earlier, on April 1, 1935. Overwhelmingly, Beachwooders responded “same place.”
Next time: Discovering the original owner of my house.
May 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
Last week’s anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots brought a flood of programming, all of which helped to bring the chaos of 1992 into historical perspective. Like others who lived through the events, I found myself remembering things I had suppressed during the intervening years, when moving on seemed more important than dwelling on the violence and terror of those days. One vaguely recalled memory, so frequently overshadowed by the Rodney King verdict, was the Riots’ other inciting incident: the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner, in March of 1991. Although Soon claimed self-defense in shooting the girl, an African-American high school student she had accused of stealing a carton of orange juice, she was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in November of that year. The jury recommended a 16-year prison term, but Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Soon to 5 years probation, with 400 of community service and a $500 fine. Outrage over the absurdly lenient sentence set the stage for violence. The King verdict the following April was like a match tossed on a pool of gasoline, and the city erupted.
Not surprisingly, Korean-owned businesses were heavily targeted by rioters. These included not only convenience stores in South Los Angeles but stores throughout downtown Los Angeles and Koreatown, particularly along Western Avenue from Pico to Beverly. At the time, I lived on the eastern edge of Hancock Park, at 6th and Bronson. Six blocks away, a half-dozen fires raged at strip malls along Western, including the one pictured above. Many stores that escaped the fires were vandalized and looted. Those of us who lived nearby were under curfew for several days, during which National Guard troops arrived in tanks. Heavily armed, they patrolled the streets and used the Masonic Temple on Wilshire as a garrison.
Amid the strangeness of this quasi-war zone, we resumed our daily lives. The kids went back to school and everyone adopted a keep-calm-carry-on attitude. One day several weeks later, my son and I visited a shoe store in the mini-mall at Wilshire and Grammercy, one that carried all the latest sneakers. It was owned by a young Korean couple, and the husband had gone out of his way to be friendly and kind to us. Now we were shocked to see him emerge from the stock room with a bruised face and broken arm, injuries suffered at the hands of looters. He seemed remarkably unembittered, but the business never recovered and closed six months later.
Among the commentary I heard last week, a statement by a Korean-American professor had particular resonance. Before the Riots, she said, Koreans immigrants in Los Angeles always referred to themselves as Koreans. Afterwards they began to refer to themselves as Korean-Americans, seeing themselves as part of the multi-cultural fabric of the city instead of a separate community. Though I hadn’t registered the shift, I remember a series of post-Riots meetings between Korean business owners and members of the African-American community, in which long-simmering cultural differences were discussed for the first time. One source of friction was the Korean store owners’ practice of putting their customers’ change on the counter instead of in their hands. That their customers universally regarded the practice as rude and racist was a revelation to the store owners, who were simply doing what they had done in Korea.
20 years later, it’s hard to describe the mood of distrust that simmered before the Riots, because it no longer exists. This is not to say that the different racial and ethnic communities live in perfect harmony: resentments still abound, but in a much more open and integrated atmosphere. If post-Riots Los Angeles had a civic motto, it would be We’re All In This Together.
For the Korean community, the Riots–still referred to as 4:29–were a shattering experience, but they also served to speed the inevitable and necessary process of assimilation. At the end of my block in Hancock Park, there stood an apartment building that was entirely occupied by Korean immigrant families. As I walked by with my dog each evening, I could hear–amid the sounds of household chores and music practice–kids screaming as their fathers administered stiff corporal punishments. As the ’90s went on, the music lessons continued unabated, but I no longer heard the beatings. Like the bullying my son endured at the hands of his Korean classmates, such punishment was a thing of the past.