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 § 4 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.
September 1, 2009 § 4 Comments
I discovered Preston Sturges in the early 90’s, when I first saw “The Lady Eve” on video and became a huge fan of his movies. In 1998 I found myself celebrating his centennial at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which put on retrospective of his films. The crowds that showed up for opening night included such comedy luminaries as Paul Rubens and Steve Martin, as well as his widow, Sandy, and their sons. Even Eddie Bracken, star of “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” was there.
It was around that time that I read Preston Sturges’s biography by James Curtis, Between Flops, (Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1982) and learned that he had lived in the Hollywood Dell at 1917 N. Ivar, just north of Franklin. Though Sturges didn’t build the house, he certainly made it grand. In his posthumous memoir, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (Touchstone, 1990), he writes:
“Minutes after Bianca and I and a couple of servants moved in, I had construction started on a swimming pool, a barbeque house and a badminton court for the backyard. The place was in an uproar all the time with the racket of steam shovels, trip hammers, and concrete mixers, not to mention the carpenters and the dogs racing around between their legs, barking at the lot of them. The neighbors didn’t enjoy it and neither did we.”
That was in 1937, when Sturges was among the highest paid screenwriters in town. He was also under contract as a director at Paramount, where he pulled down $2,500 a week and would soon earn much more. Nevertheless he was always strapped for cash, not least because he owned two money-losing businesses, a restaurant on Sunset called Snyder’s and the Sturges Engineering Company, which made a “vibrationless” diesel boat engine for which there was no apparent demand. (Sturges, a keen yachtsman, inherited his avid entrepreneurialism from his mother, a madcap expatriate whose cosmetics business, Maison Desti, was an intermittent success in Paris, Deauville and New York. Mary Desti Dempsey was also famous as Isadora Duncan’s best friend; she not only gave Duncan the silk shawl that, caught in a moving car wheel, would break her neck but designed and manufactured it, too. But that’s another story.)
Although as a money pit the Ivar house would be far surpassed by The Players, Sturges’s future theater/nightclub/restaurant, it was an expensive place for a relentless spender to own. Sturges writes:
“When I hired some tree surgeons to shuffle around the trees in the backyard of my house to make room for the pool, I discovered an even faster way to get rid of money.”
When I learned the address in 2000, I went up Ivar to investigate. What I found was not only no house but a non-existent property: where 1917 should have been, there was a tunnel running under the 101 freeway.
As Curtis’s book doesn’t discuss the fate of the house, I assumed it was torn down when the 101 was built. Then yesterday I read in Sturges’s memoir about the property’s seizure under eminent domain:
“…one day in 1950, the state did indeed condemn the property for the public weal and gave me six months to remove from it my house, the barbeque house, the small garage, the three-car garage with apartment, and some trees, and paid me $130,000.” The following year, “the house, cut into three sections…inched through the streets of Hollywood on the backs of huge flatbed trucks to the new lot Sandy and I had found at Franklin and Vista.”
Although Sturges didn’t give the address of the relocated house, I had read a description of it in Curtis’s book and knew what to look for: a rambling wood frame affair. I assumed it resembled the two shingle houses south of the tunnel on Ivar, one of which is pictured below:
Today I took a camera over to Vista Street. Driving north of Franklin to the edge of Runyon Canyon Park, I saw one shingle house, but it was single-story and newer than the ones on Ivar. Then, heading south, I saw this house on the southeast corner of Franklin and Vista:
Although its shingles are now white and its condition somewhat dilapidated, it matches the Ivar houses in vintage and spirit and is the only one of its kind on the block. I’m certain this is the Sturges house and had never noticed it before, as I always go north off Franklin, rather than south. Preston Sturges, who died 50 years ago last month, seems all the more vivid to me now.
As for the tunnel, a friend who lives on Ivar recently told me a story about it. Without knowing anything about the Sturges connection (or possibly about Sturges), he said the tunnel was so haunted that a few years ago, a certain religious group conducted two exorcisms on behalf of the neighbors. Though first exorcism didn’t work, the second, extra-strength version apparently did the trick.