January 21, 2021 § Leave a comment
Twelve years have passed since I began writing Under the Hollywood Sign. Conceived to promote my documentary of the same name and to further explore Hollywood history, UTHS soon grew to include my previous documentaries, magazine work and interviews. It also spawned two collections of essays. As time went on, my focus shifted to other people’s films, books and TV shows. I also wrote visual art, architecture and Japan, where I grew up, and its rich popular culture. All of this has been a labor of love, and hundreds of posts and pages later it’s time for me to try something new.
Beginning today, I’ll be writing on Substack. In addition to regular posts, subscribers will have access to my other writing–longer non-fiction and fiction–as well new projects, literary and cinematic. Subscriptions are $5 per month, and the link is below. I look forward to seeing you there.
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December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price, and to give them as holiday gifts. From now until January 1, 2021, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”
This offer does not apply to digital downloads. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
April 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price. Beginning today, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”
This offer does not apply to digital downloads and will end as soon as the lockdown ends in Los Angeles. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
I first met Kate Johnson in 1999, shortly after I returned from Thailand with the raw footage for my first two documentaries–a suitcase full of BetaSP tapes that logged in at more than seventy hours. Documentaries are made in the editing room, and the time spent editing far exceeds the time spent shooting, writing and researching. Thus over the next sixteen years we spent countless days working side by side, and the resulting films were a collaborative effort. Weaving together interviews, footage, archival film and stills, music, sound effects and graphics is like making a giant tapestry, and Kate always kept track of the thousands of strands.
Kate edited both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and its companion piece, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” Then came “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and its short feature, “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” which I later spun off into a separate film. Our last project was the reissue of of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” which by 2014 had to be remastered because the original software was obsolete. For the new version, I filled the gaps in the score with new music that Kate composed and performed; it complemented the Thai classical music seamlessly. I also made two new shorts as DVD extras: one on Jim Thompson’s pre-Thailand architectural career and the other on developments on his disappearance since the release of the original documentary in 2002.
Throughout our time together, Kate was an invaluable source of ideas and guidance, providing the critical eye I needed. The fact that she was the only editor I’ve worked with says a great deal about her immense talent and range. Since she did it all, I never needed a sound editor, graphic artist or visual effects person, and only once did I use an outside composer.
In addition to editing my work and that of others, Kate was a filmmaker in her own right, and in 2015 won an Emmy for “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey.” Somehow she also found time to be a professor of Digital Media at Otis College of Art and Design, passing on her skills to a new generation of visual artists.
Because most of what I do is solitary, I found in Kate Johnson the longest and most significant working relationship of my career. My struggle to accept her passing includes the stark realization that I will never have a comparable collaboration, either in importance or duration. Brilliant and unique, she was also, for me, irreplaceable.
April 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
The documentary that inspired this blog is now available as a download, either for purchase ($18) or rent ($5). Under the Hollywood Sign explores the history and present-day life of Beachwood Canyon in historical pictures, new footage and interviews. Here’s the link:
To purchase a DVD, please go to: http://www.underthehollywoodsign.com
August 13, 2012 § 5 Comments
Last Saturday I had another such experience in meeting Peter Green, a St. Louis-based writer and architect whose great-uncle was Peter Howard, a.k.a. Peter the Hermit. (More on PTH can be found by searching under his name on this blog.) Although Peter Green met Peter the Hermit only once–an experience he recounts in a response to one of my pieces–he remembered the location of his great-uncle’s last home. The rented rooms where the Hermit lived his impoverished final years were in a house that still stands at 2151 Ivar Avenue, in the Hollywood Dell.
One thing I had missed about Peter the Hermit–until Peter Green began imitating his accent–was that, though a Chicago native, he was born in County Limerick, Ireland. His decision to imitate a Biblical character no doubt owed much to an Irish Catholic religiosity which, according to Peter the Hermit’s obituary, dominated his later years. As his landlady, a Mrs. Pippins, recalled, “All he did, all day long, was talk religion, pray and read the Bible aloud to himself.”
Peter the Hermit died a few months before his 91st birthday, having outlived the Silents and Talkies that provided much of his income during his early decades in Hollywood, as well as his 50-year impersonator’s gig. If there was an upside to his no longer being able to ply the Hollywood tourist trade, it was that Peter’s last years took place in the late 1960’s, a particularly seedy time on Hollywood Boulevard. The summer after his death brought the Tate-LaBianca murders, the murders of two UCLA students in a Black Panther power struggle, and a growing atmosphere of fear and distrust across Los Angeles. By then, one imagines, Peter the Hermit was wandering the boulevards of a far better place.
December 31, 2010 § Leave a comment
This aerial photograph shows Beachwood and the original Hollywood Sign, along with its searchlight–the dot below it. Taken around 1925, it shows a canyon in transition. While houses are plentiful in lower Beachwood, the Hollywoodland tract is still being built, with only a few houses visible. The roads have been cut and are the same roads we use today. Though not obvious, the network of retaining walls and steps are moving towards completion. Within four years, Southern California’s first hillside tract community will boast scores of new houses, its own country club and a distinct identity.
The biggest surprise in the photo is Burbank, stretching beyond Mt. Lee. Still largely farmland, it shows little sign of its future as a studio town and densely populated suburb.
The H to the left of the Hollywood Sign is not, as an English visitor assumed, a spare for the H in the Sign. It was placed on the hillside by Hollywood High School, and vanished long ago.
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.
July 28, 2010 § Leave a comment
The documentary that inspired this blog is finally available on DVD off my website www.underthehollywoodsign.com To those who’ve asked about it, thanks for your patience.
September 14, 2009 § 5 Comments
Few houses in the movies are better known than Barbara Stanwyck’s Spanish Colonial in “Double Indemnity.” The director Billy Wilder first shows it in an establishing shot that highlights not only its architectural features but its distinctive site–a hilly corner lot on a sparsely-built suburban street.
Though the script states the house is in Los Feliz, it is actually located in the Hollywood Dell. I’ve always thought the house beautiful and well-suited to its penninsula-shaped lot, but Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the screenplay, could not have agreed less. Here’s how they introduce it in a voiceover by insurance salesman Walter Neff ( Fred MacMurray):
It was one of those California Spanish houses
everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This
one must have cost someone about 30,000 bucks–
that is, if he ever finished paying for it.
Their opinion of the house plummets when Neff goes inside. Wilder and Chandler describe the interior as:
Spanish craperoo in style…. A wrought-iron staircase
curves down from the second floor….All of this,
architecture, furniture, decorations, etc., is
genuine early Leo Carrillo period.
James M. Cain, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, no doubt concurred because his own description is even more withering:
It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest
of them in California, with white walls, red
tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was
built cock-eyed. The garage was under the
house, the first floor was over that, and the
rest of it was spilled up the hill any way
they could get it in.
Interestingly, Double Indemnity locates the house not in Los Feliz but in Hollywoodland, where Cain himself lived.
Whether Cain’s contempt for the house was based on some hatred of Spanish architecture or the fact that Hollywoodland began as a tract development– albeit an expensive one–is unclear. But it does seem ironic that he should have disparaged the place for spilling up a hillside when his own Norman-style house–five stories’ worth–spilled down another hillside a mile away.
In any case, the Double Indemnity House looks much better today than it did in “Double Indemnity.” Mature landscaping and the presence of other houses have softened its exterior, eliminating the sun-baked starkness that made it a believable setting for adultery and the hatching of a murder plot. And, as shown in a recent spread in the LA Times, the vibrant interiors have come a long way from the white walls and heavy Mission-style furniture featured in the film. In fact, the house radiates prosperity and warmth. At Christmastime, decked in wreaths, garlands and lights, it is among the most beautiful in the neighborhood.