September 19, 2011 § 6 Comments
Leo Braudy is a USC professor and pop culture critic whose latest book, The Hollywood Sign (Yale University Press, 2011) is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink look at Hollywood–the Sign, the place and the industry–as well as the culture at large. In attempting to cram huge swaths of Los Angeles’ history into 192 pages, Braudy turns his hummingbird-like attention to topics ranging from A (the Academy Awards) to Z (the Zoot Suit Riots), touching upon each so briefly that the result is less a book than a dizzying exercise in name-dropping. (The index lists 24 entries under “A” alone, including Fatty Arbuckle, Ansel Adams, Gene Autry and Angelyne.) For the reader, The Hollywood Sign is less exhaustive than exhausting: if you’ve ever wanted a book to unite Marcel Duchamp, “101 Dalmations” and Laura Ingalls Wilder, this one’s for you.
In the midst of this pop-culture stew, Braudy does one thing brilliantly: deconstructing the Hollywood Sign. For all the ink that has been spilled over the Sign’s meaning and appeal, no one has improved upon his analysis:
Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself….It isn’t an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself. Yet people everywhere recognize it as the symbol of whatever “Hollywood” might be–with whatever ambiguity is part of that meaning.
Braudy also emphasizes the Sign’s unique interactive quality, in which its admirers become the admired:
Seeing the sign lets you know you are in Hollywood, that special place. Photographing it enhances your own sense of identity….Instead of looking at the Liberty Bell or the Lincoln Memorial and appreciating their importance and the history they represent, we look at the Hollywood Sign and it looks back at us, enlarging our sense of our prestige by its symbolic aura.
Nevertheless, Braudy makes more than his fair share of factual errors. Despite residing in Los Angeles, he seems not to have spent much time in the Hollywood Sign’s vicinity, confusing Mulholland Highway with Mulholland Drive and asserting that Hollywoodland’s staircases “were less functional than picturesque” as “few of the new inhabitants would be traipsing up and down” because they owned automobiles. (In fact, Hollywoodland residents have always used the stairs to get from their homes to Beachwood Village, which has a market and bus stop. In the early days of one-car households, people had to walk; now they do so for convenience and exercise.)
More serious are the mistakes he makes about Albert Kothe, the Sign’s caretaker, and Peg Entwistle, the Sign’s only suicide. In repeating the fiction that Kothe “lived in a shack behind the first ‘L’,” Braudy concocts a full-fledged conspiracy theory about Peg’s death.
And where, while [her jump from the Sign] was going on, was Albert Kothe…..Could Peg Entwistle have been killed elsewhere and the scene at the sign staged?
This astonishing question comes on the heels of Braudy’s assertion that Peg couldn’t have climbed to the Sign due to its distance from her house (which he puts at “three or four miles,” though the route she took was closer to two) and steepness, her lack of athletic clothing and, most bizarrely, her “trudging her way on foot in an area designed only for cars.”* Yet Braudy apparently thinks it’s possible that someone (who?) killed Peg (why?) and transported her body (how?) up to the Hollywoodland Sign, steep grade and lack of running shoes notwithstanding.
The murder theory is ludicrous; beyond that, it is hurtful to Peg Entwistle’s surviving family. But it probably will be treated as fact, thanks to Braudy’s reputation and the power of the Internet. It’s discouraging that despite my efforts and those of James Zeruk, Jr. (whose biography on Peg is nearing publication), the lies about Peg Entwistle keep coming.
Disclosure: I briefly met Leo Braudy at a reading soon after the publication of his book. When I asked if he had heard of me or my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” he said no. In light of the above, I believe him.
*Beyond the fact that Peg Entwistle was an athletic 24-year-old, it should be remembered that most Americans in 1932 routinely walked long distances in regular shoes.
September 6, 2011 § 3 Comments
For a monument popularly known as “our Eiffel Tower,” the Hollywood Sign is the object of a surprising amount of misinformation, as well as outright lies. The Internet, of course, has been a great transmitter of these untruths. I’m not just talking about random erroneous posts, such as some of those by viewers of my YouTube channel, but official sources. For example, Chris Baumgart, Chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, told me in our 2006 interview that the current Hollywood Sign was a replica of the old one in every aspect but one–the height of the letters, which he said were five feet shorter than the originals. Though it sounded logical, it wasn’t true. My later interview with Raiden Peterson, who supervised the Sign’s reconstruction for Pacific Outdoor Electric, confirmed that the new letters were exact replicas of the old, standing 45 feet. “I measured every piece,” Peterson said.
For the rest of this article, please see my new eBook, “Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign,” which will be available from online booksellers in September 2013.
May 16, 2010 § 1 Comment
Peg Entwistle’s biographer, James Zeruk, Jr., came across this article in the archives of the Santa Monica Outlook. Because the Beachwood “Julius Caesar” attracted a crowd of 40,000, a single accidental death doesn’t seem surprising. What is striking is that the poor woman appears not to have been taken to a hospital. Instead, her family took her home, where she later died of a fractured skull.
January 1, 2010 § 20 Comments
The Mulholland Highway mansion known popularly as the Madonna House is actually called Castillo del Lago, a name that aptly describes its imposing size and spectacular vistas of Lake Hollywood. Its 300-degree view also features Los Angeles, the ocean and–on clear days–Catalina. Designed by John De Lario for the oilman Patrick Longdon, Castillo del Lago has been a landmark since its completion in 1926. And though Los Angeles has grown ten-fold since its construction, the house remains a stately, solitary presence, all but invisible from the trail that runs alongside its massive retaining wall.
The wall, concealing a steep driveway, has itself become a landmark since Madonna, after buying the house for $5 million in 1993, had it painted with cream and crimson stripes, an act that apparently outraged the neighbors. (Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s brother and former interior designer, says it was inspired by a church in Portofino.) Though now somewhat faded, it remains an arresting sight–if an ironic choice for a woman who complained the paparazzi were invading her privacy.
Castillo del Lago’s most visible feature is its tower, a multi-story affair that rises out of the Torrey pines that shroud the rest of the villa. A magnificent spiral staircase and an elevator connect the various levels, which contain 9 bedrooms and 6 baths, as well as a library, game room, wine cellar and a lounge that resembles an Ottoman tent. There are offices, storage areas and servants’ quarters. Outside are formal gardens, fountains and a pool.
At various times in its history, Castillo del Lago has been vacant, a white elephant during the Depression and beyond. Older adults who grew up in Beachwood tell stories of using it as a neighborhood clubhouse, entering through unlocked doors to play in the tower and on the stairs. Milt Entwistle, the younger brother of the actress Peg Entwistle, remembers that during the 1930’s the house had a modern stainless steel kitchen and walnut floors. As a boy he dreamed of buying the house, then priced at a stratospheric $20,000.
In the late 1930’s, a newcomer to Beachwood leased the house: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the gangster best known for spearheading the post-war casino boom in Las Vegas. Though he later took up residence in Beverly Hills, Siegel apparently lived in Castillo del Lago for a time while running it as an illegal casino. (It was not a speakeasy, as many people have claimed, as Prohibition was repealed in 1933.) It’s not hard to imagine, given Siegel’s criminality and the extra-legal goings on within, that Castillo del Lago was the scene of some unsavory acts, including murder.
Siegel moved on in the 1940’s, spending much of his time building the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. As depicted in the movie “Bugsy,” he died in hail of gunfire in his Beverly Hills living room in 1947. (The hit was ordered by Lucky Luciano, whom Siegel fleeced to build the Flamingo.) Meanwhile, Castillo del Lago changed hands several times, going through at least one other period of vacancy in the 1950’s.
In their 1994 book Hollywood Haunted (Angel City Press), Laurie Jacobson and Marc Wanamaker describe Castillo del Lago as a place of considerable paranormal activity whose visitors often” [felt] a deep sense of foreboding.” Tom Murray, a fashion photographer who shot there for three days in 1988, reported equipment malfunctions and a pervasive feeling of dread among his crew. “All the Polaroids I shot in the house came out black,” he said. “I tried different cameras, different film, everything. It was always the same. Everything I tried to photograph inside that house came out black.”
When Madonna bought the place in the 1993, she undertook a renovation that cost $3 million and transformed the house from Spanish Colonial to Italianate. (The renovation still irks her neighbors, who claimed she “ruined” the house by painting the wall and replacing the original tiles with cheaper ones.) Perhaps because of the extensive renovation, the mood of the house lifted somewhat, though strange things still happened. According to Jacobson and Wanamaker, “Madonna confided to a friend that on occasion she felt a force throughout the house, a force that was not safe.” Her caretaker reported that doors closed and locked behind him whenever he stepped outside it. And when he was alone there at night, he could hear a man calling his name.
In 1997, Madonna sold Castillo del Lago at a huge loss to Joe Pytka, the commercial director and restaurant owner (of Bastide, now defunct), who presumably gave any lingering ghosts the boot. (Disclosure: I was socially acquainted with Pytka in the early 1990’s, well before he bought the house.) Pytka, who bought the house for $5.3 million, listed it last year for $14.95 million after an extensive renovation of his own. (In addition to creating a new kitchen and master suite, he upgraded Madonna’s tilework.) Recently the price has been dropped to a relatively reasonable $9.99 million, so now’s the time to contact the agent (Benjamin Bacal/Keller Williams Realty Sunset) and make an offer.
December 5, 2009 § 2 Comments
Charisse Landise is a Beachwood Canyon resident and clairvoyant healing artist with a keen sense of the supernatural. We first met three years ago when I interviewed her on the significance of the Hollywood Sign for my documentary; since then we’ve talked periodically about Beachwood Canyon’s history and notable past residents. It was Charisse who had the vivid dream about Peg Entwistle described in Part I of my Haunted Hollywoodland series.
After I posted a piece on Busby Berkeley (“First House North of the Gates: Busby Berkeley’s Home in Hollywoodland”), Charisse called me to tell me about an incident that happened last November, when she was working out of the day spa above Hollywoodland Realty in Beachwood Village.
It was late afternoon but already dark when she arrived for a session and saw a male apparition sitting in the courtyard outside the Realty Office. He appeared to be in his late thirties and was dressed in narrow old-fashioned trousers and a top hat. He carried a cane.
Though Charisse didn’t recognize him, she felt he was waiting for her. Unable to get any answers about his identity or motives, she went upstairs to meet her client. Once inside, she felt his presence in the spa.
“He was definitely there as a curious witness,” Charisse says. “He was extremely fascinated with my healing procedure. I had the sense he had never seen anything like it. He was very unthreatening. I was challenged by the unexpected nature of his steady watchful presence.” The ghost observed her throughout the session and stayed behind after she locked up.
“I didn’t know that was Busby Berkeley’s house next door until I read your blog, but I’m sure it was him,” she said. Unlike the house, whose entryway is now hidden behind a gate, the Realty Office remains open to the street, as it was in Berkeley’s time. The fact that the ghost appeared to be in his late thirties seems appropriate, as Berkeley was at the height of his success during those years. And a top hat and cane would be obvious props for a choreographer of movie musicals featuring scores of top-hatted, cane-wielding dancers.
“Ultimately I was so grateful to have met him,” says Charisse. “His movie ’42nd Street’ was why I moved to New York City when I was 18.”
Contact www.charisselandise.com for further information.
November 7, 2009 § 1 Comment
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.”
August 8, 2009 § 1 Comment
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, my entry on Peter the Hermit was read by an Englishwoman named Suzanne Summers, who came across a portrait of Peter and his greyhound at a car boot sale. She bought it without knowing anything about Peter or his odd profession because she loves greyhounds and recognized the picture’s artistic merits.
The photo is expertly composed and lit in a way that highlights Peter’s haunting, pale eyes. The photographer was Bruno of Hollywood, a prolific local portrait photographer. Ironically, it was Bruno who shot the infamous half-nude that Kenneth Anger claimed was of Peg Entwistle in his 1959 book, Hollywood Babylon. It wasn’t until I asserted the model wasn’t Peg in my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” that anyone questioned the portrait’s veracity. (Though the model has platinum hair, as Peg did in her final year, her face, especially the nose, is completely different. Yet no one noticed, probably because they were focussed on her bare breasts.)
But the man in the portrait above is definitely Peter, who had no imitators. Though his world probably encompassed three miles–the distance between his tent in Beachwood Canyon and his workplace on Hollywood Boulevard–his portrait, framed and labeled “Peter the Hermit of Hollywood, Calif.,” has traveled across the Atlantic and back again, this time in digital form.
August 6, 2009 § 14 Comments
The reason moviegoers don’t remember Humphrey Bogart as a youthful actor was that his career didn’t really begin until he was 35, when Robert E. Sherwood’s play “The Petrified Forest” made him a star on Broadway. Though Bogart reprised the role of Duke Mantee–after an intervention by Leslie Howard–in the Warner Brothers version of “The Petrified Forest” in 1936, real stardom didn’t arrive until 1941, when his starring roles in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” made him a bona fide leading man.
Although Bogart’s long road to stardom was traveled mainly on the stage–he had made his New York debut at 22–he was under contract to two other studios before Warners signed him in 1935. The first stint, from 1930-1932, was at Fox, where he played minor parts in forgettable movies. A second contract with Columbia in 1932 yielded no better results. Bogart, whom the studios considered not handsome enough to be a romantic lead, spent his time playing gangsters. Worse yet, supporting gangsters in B-movies.
He had better luck on the stage, where he played leading roles and worked steadily for a decade. In 1932, he was cast opposite Peg Entwistle and Billie Burke in the romantic comedy, “The Mad Hopes,” which sold out its run at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles. He also briefly dated the 24-year-old Peg , who played his young love interest in the play. When I interviewed Peg’s brother Milt for “Under the Hollywood Sign,” he remembered meeting Bogart when he came to the Entwistle family’s home at 2428 N. Beachwood Drive. He was “a very nice person and [there was] nothing haughty about him, nothing ‘I am a star’ or anything like that.” [For more about “The Mad Hopes,” and Peg Entwistle, visit www.thehollywoodsigngirl.com]
At the time of his date with Peg, Bogart was still married (at least in name) to his second wife, Mary Phillips, a stage actress with a much bigger career that kept her in New York. (Bogart had four wives, all actresses, and except for brief periods around his three divorces was a married man from 1926 until his death in 1957.) Interestingly, he was also a Beachwood neighbor of Peg’s, living less than a mile north of the Entwistles in this huge Tudor-style house.
The house was one of the first to be built after construction on the Hollywood tract began in 1923. It still stands, barely visible behind dense foliage and all but unrecognizable. Located on Ledgewood Drive, its large sloping lot reportedly has a stream running through it. Because the vantage point of the old picture would be impossible to match today–the house is completely obscured by newer houses in the foreground–here’s how the west facade looks from uphill:
Although I haven’t been able to find his dates of residence, it seems unlikely that Bogart stayed in the house beyond 1937, the year he ended his marriage to Phillips. Pictures of him at home with his third wife, Mayo “Sluggy” Methot, clearly show them living elsewhere. His final marriage, to Lauren Bacall in 1945, took him farther west, to a suburban house in Brentwood.
In spite of the brevity of his stay in Hollywoodland, everyone still calls the place the Bogart House. Though the current owner, Dean Torrance of the 60’s band Jan and Dean, bought it decades ago, his name has never replaced Bogart’s among locals. Torrance lives elsewhere now; the house is a rental and exudes a fairytale charm from behind its garden walls. If only they could talk.
May 22, 2009 § 48 Comments
One of the great pleasures of making documentaries is interviewing someone who not only remembers great swaths of the past but is able to provide some perspective on them. Such a interviewee was Milt Entwistle, Peg’s brother, who at 90 vividly recalled his bucolic childhood in Beachwood Canyon as well as its Depression Era privations.
I had heard of Peter the Hermit, a Beachwood resident who during the 20’s and 30’s made his living impersonating a Biblical character on Hollywood Boulevard, where he posed for photographs with tourists. He was a legend. But Milt actually knew him and was able to report that Peter didn’t like kids. He also described the Hermit’s workday attire: long gray beard, staff and white robes, as well as his omnipresent collie dog. What this getup had to do with Hollywood is unclear, but to my mind proves Peter was the first to ply the tourist trade in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Last fall, while I was waiting at Hollywood and Highland for my son and his girlfriend to meet me at a screening, I struck up a conversation with the Jack Sparrow imitator, who can be seen stalking up and down the Boulevard seven days a week. After watching Jack give balloon animals to several kids whose mothers didn’t bother to tip, I felt compelled to give him some money. I also felt compelled to tell him about Peter the Hermit. “He was the original guy in costume in front of the Chinese,” I said. Not surprisingly, Jack Sparrow hadn’t heard of his patron saint, though he listened politely to the story before asking me for a job.
The main reason Peter the Hermit didn’t make it into the documentary is that I couldn’t find a single photo of him, despite long searches on the Internet and through library collections. Even James Zeruk, Peg’s tireless researcher, couldn’t find one. A lack of photographic evidence is always a dealbreaker in documentaries, but in Peter’s case it was also hugely ironic. How could a man who posed with thousands of tourists leave behind not a single photo of himself? I imagined countless Midwestern attics hiding albums of long-ago trips to Hollywood, complete with photos of Peter, under blankets of dust. But it didn’t help me.
Then today, out of the blue, James sent me this:
This photo of Peter (and two very well-dressed, unidentified men) comes from Jeanne Ringland. She found it in the collection of her grandfather, Fred Allen Edgeworth, who worked as a still photographer for D.W. Griffiths and Mack Sennett and lived in Hollywood during the 20’s and early 30’s.
It’s always a pleasure to find an undiscovered piece of Hollywood history. Thank you, Jeanne and James. And thank you, Milt, for telling me about Peter the Hermit.