Beachwood Canyon in the 1940 Census, Part II: Discovering Bernard B. Brown, the Academy Award-Winning Original Owner of My House

May 20, 2012 § 12 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.


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