The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part II: Augustus Knudsen’s Enchanted Childhood

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Anne Sinclair married Valdemar Knudsen in 1867, she moved from her family’s “forbidden” island of Ni’ihau, whose population numbered in the low hundreds, to the comparatively populous but still rural Kaua’i, 17 miles to the east. Though Kaua’i had some towns–Hanalei to the north, Kapa’a and Lihue to the east, and Koloa to the south, the Knudsens lived on a ranch at the western end of the Island, not far from where the road ends and the Napali Coast begins.

The remoteness of their home, Waiawa, was underscored by its proximity to Polihale, an enormous white sand beach considered by Kaua’i’s natives to be “the place from where the souls of the dead descended to Po in the ocean depths,” according to Ida Knudsen Von Holt, Anne and Valdemar’s eldest daughter.

The Knudsens’ five children–Ida, Augustus, Maud, Eric and Arthur–were born between 1868 and 1875. Boys and girls alike galloped horses, surfed, swam, camped and hunted. From infancy they were taken to visit their maternal grandmother in Ni’ihau, a trip that started on horseback at 2am and ended after a 5-hour crossing in a whale boat rowed by Hawai’ians over rough seas. All the children spoke fluent Hawai’ian, as did their father, and had the peerless survival skills of both parents. Their mother, whose own childhood was spent in the wilds of New Zealand, seems to have been unfazed by danger. Wrote Ida:

I remember once when some one asked Mama how she could  bear to have her children running along the cliffs of the Waimea Canyon, hunting wild cattle, exploring the Alakai Swamp, etc., she replied, ‘If they are so fool-hardy as to fall over [the side of Waimea Canyon], or become lost, I tell them it will be good riddance to bad rubbish.’

But  Anne and Valdemar, both products of prosperous, educated families, were equally dedicated to their children’s formal education. At the ranch, Anne began the day by teaching them reading, writing and music. Then Valdemar would take over, teaching math and German before turning the children loose to collect plant samples for their botany class. An amateur ornithologist who was the first to catalog the Island’s birds, Valdemar also taught his children astronomy and Norse folklore.

The Knudsen children’s home-schooling culminated in a nearly three-year family stay in Berlin and Vienna, where they were enrolled at various academies and conservatories. They completed their educations in Boston, the girls at finishing school and the boys at Harvard and MIT. 

Valdemar Knudsen and His Children in Vienna, 1885

Kaua’i was home, but the Knudsen children’s splendid educations were a springboard for their varied destinies. Ida, a conservatory-trained musician, became a patron of the arts in Honolulu while raising a large family in the adventuresome style of her own childhood. Maud became a talented painter as well as a wife and mother. Eric, in addition to running his father’s businesses, had a distinguished political career in Hawai’i and became a noted folklorist. But it was Augustus who broke with the family, and with Kaua’i. Though he became an engineer as Valdemar had wished, and returned to Kaua’i for a time to run the family ranch, he was far more passionate about astronomy and religion. It was the latter interest, which he attributed to encounters with kahuna (Hawai’ian priests), that drew him to India and Hollywood, places far removed from his childhood paradise.

Additional Source for quotes and photos: Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughters of Hawaii, 1985.
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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part I: Anne Sinclair Knudsen and the Ahupua’a of Koloa

January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Anne Sinclair Knudsen

Anne Sinclair Knudsen (1839-1922) was not only the matriarch of one of Hawaii’s most distinguished kama’aina (non-native resident) families but a major landholder in her own right. When she married the much older Valdemar Knudsen in 1867, Anne Sinclair was already an heiress who lived on her family’s private island–Ni’ihau–off the western coast of Kaua’i.

Anne’s widowed mother, Eliza McHutchinson Sinclair, had purchased Ni’ihau from King Kamehameha IV in 1863. For this substantial but arid property, she paid $10,000. (The Sinclairs, a prosperous and highly adventuresome Scottish family, had come to Hawaii after two decades in New Zealand, where they raised cattle and played a significant role in the colony’s development.) Four years later, Mrs. Sinclair gave Anne $10,000 as a wedding present, which Anne used to buy the Ahupua’a of Koloa, a magnificent parcel on Kaua’i’s South Shore. The 6,500 acres stretched from what is now Highway 50 to the Pacific, and included Knudsen’s Gap, the town of Koloa, and Poipu Beach. Because her husband Valdemar also owned considerable acreage on Kaua’i, including the Kekaha Sugar Company, their combined holdings made the Knudsen family one of Hawaii’s largest landowners.

The Tree Tunnel in Knudsen's Gap, Kauai/Hope Anderson Productions

Upon Anne’s death, the Ahupua’a of Koloa passed to her two sons, Augustus and Eric. (A third son, Arthur, had developed major mental illness in his twenties, and died before his mother.) Anne had spent some of her long widowhood in Beachwood Canyon, where Augustus had moved in 1912. The Knudsen house on Vista del Mar Avenue, though Spanish Colonial in style, was Hawaiian in spirit, with terraces off all its room and a lanai that took up the entire third floor. One imagines the elderly Anne Sinclair Knudsen there, staring out over Hollywood while remembering a very different view: the blue waters off Kaua’i, and the whale-shaped island of Ni’ihau in the distance. 

Additional Sources:
Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughters of Hawaii, 1985.
The Knudsen Trust, www.knudsentrust.org
Alfred Willis, “The Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” Architronic, vol. 8 n. 1, 1998.

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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

Under the Hollywood Sign Takes a Vacation (Sort of)

January 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

My trip to Kaua’i has included research at the Kaua’i Museum, whose curator, Chris Faye, kindly allowed me to see the Augustus Knudsen Archive.

Readers of this blog will remember him as one of the financial backers of the Krotona Colony in 1911. A dedicated Theosophist, Knudsen abandoned his family in Kauai to begin a new life in Beachwood Canyon. The Archive,  which includes photos from that era, is distinguished by an oral history by his daughter, Ruth Knudsen Hanner.

More on the Archive, and the Knudsens’ legacy on Kaua’i, in future posts.

Beachwood’s Earthly Paradise: The Lost Gardens of the Krotona Colony

December 10, 2010 § 9 Comments

The Italian Gardens/All Photos Copyright Krishnamurti Foundation of America, except where noted

The Theosophical Society’s Beachwood Canyon sojourn lasted less than 15 years, from late 1911 until 1926, but it produced a planned community of distinctive public buildings and houses, roughly two dozen of which survive. The Krotona Colony’s buildings can be identified by their eccentric architecture, which includes domed roofs, keyhole windows, arched doorways and art glass panels. 

Hope Anderson Productions

Upon closer examination, one can make out details such as the star of David, cross, swastika (an ancient Hindu symbol used also by Buddhists) and lotus, which connote the melange of religions contained in the Theosophical doctrine.

Hope Anderson Productions

Gone forever are the lovely grounds of the Krotona Colony. As I wrote in my previous post, “The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon,” the Theosophists wanted to grow as much of their own food as possible, a desire reflected in the Colony’s fields and vegetable gardens. But–as the map shows–considerable attention and land were devoted to gardens whose purpose was recreational and contemplative. Chief among these was the Italian Gardens, located at the top of Temple Hill. Its formal layout was crowned by a magnificent Mogul-style pergola that provided members a place for reflection, as well as an impressive view of Hollywood to the south.

Map of the Krotona Colony

Hollywood’s burgeoning urbanism would drive the Theosophical Society to relocate to the Ojai Valley in 1926. The Krotona Colony’s public buildings were turned into apartments and private homes; its houses were sold to new, non-Theosophist owners. But the grounds, including the Italian Gardens, were subdivided into residential lots. Houses soon rose up, leaving no trace.
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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon

November 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

The O.E. Roberts Orchard, left, and Clausen's Ranch, right, at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1890/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Although many people think Hollywood sprang into existence at the start of the movie industry, its history as a settlement pre-dates not only the 20th century but the Spanish Colonial period. The area was settled ten thousand or more years ago by Tongva Native Americans, some of whom were still living in Beachwood Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. (It was the Tongva who paddled out to meet Cabrillo’s ship in 1542; they truly were the first Angelenos.)

During the Colonial period, the future Hollywood was part of the San Fernando Mission–its outlying pastures, on which sheep grazed. In 1887, Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their Christian utopia as an agrarian village–one that had more orchards than houses. 19th- century Hollywood produced excellent lemons, poor oranges (used for orange soda, not fresh juice), flowers immortalized by the painter Paul deLongpre, and some rather exotic fruits and vegetables. Among the crops that were grown in Hollywood’s orchards were bananas, figs, apricots, avocados, dates, pineapples and chermoyas.

It was this  bounty, made possible by a frostless climate and more than 300 sunny days each year, that attracted the Theosophical Society to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. The Theosophists were vegetarian, and thus naturally drawn to agricultural self-sufficiency; the perfect climate of Southern California was a major reason for their relocation from Chicago. In a letter to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, A.P. Warrington, the head of the American branch, wrote: 

We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything…

The Krotona Colony included fields and gardens– presumably worked by its members, though I’ve seen no photographs proving it.

The mystery in all of this is how these farmers managed to coax crops out of  Beachwood’s soil. Thin and nutrient-poor, it sits atop solid granite, the result of which is geological stability–we barely feel earthquakes–and the constant appearance of rocks and stones. Since moving to Beachwood 5 years ago, I’ve struggled to make something of my garden, despite assiduous efforts at soil enrichment. Although roses do well with regular applications of compost and fertilizer, vegetables grow with limited success, and only in boxes. Interestingly, the ten fruit trees I’ve planted have stayed true to historical precedent, producing terrible oranges (if any), but wonderful lemons, peaches and apricots. This year, I planted a green gage plum whose first crop I’m eagerly anticipating; more on it, and the “Pineapple Tract,” in a future post. 

Banana trees in Beachwood Canyon, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Additional Sources:

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.

The Story of Hollywood, by Gregory Paul Williams. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005.

Los Angeles City Archives.

Peter the Hermit, Sage of the Hollywood Dell

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Peter the Hermit in Life Magazine/Courtesy Peter Green

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.

 

 

 

“Under the Hollywood Sign” DVDs For Sale Online

July 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

Poster by Nathan Church/Hope Anderson Productions

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.

Clara Bow in Beachwood Canyon: The “‘It’ Girl” on Glen Green

July 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Clara Bow in an undated photograph/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

At some point in her incendiary silent film career, Clara Bow lived at the top of Glen Green, in a house not visible from the street. Old timers in Beachwood still refer to it as the Clara Bow House, even though it has long been the home of a well-known person who would prefer not to be named. From his description, it seems likely the house was built for a member of the Theosophical Society, or one at least acquainted with its iconography. Seances and wild parties are rumored to have taken place in the house during its early years; later, later, during the 1960’s, the house was rented to the Monkees.  There used to be a salt lick for the deer who wandered through the property, and a woman who lived next door remembers petting them from her window. 

But back to Clara Bow, possibly the most gifted actress in early film. Physically graceful and effortlessly comedic, she had no need for the mannerisms of silent film–exaggerated hand gestures, vamping and moony gazing. Her technique was  naturalistic and modern, so much so that she could give today’s actresses reason to worry. This clip not only proves it but shows why she was called the “It” Girl: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dxo_99eaEEA&feature=related 

Bow arrived in Hollywood in 1923 after beginning her movie career with rave reviews in “Down to the Sea in Ships” (1922).  Named a WAMPAS Baby Star, she an overnight sensation in silent comedies. Then in 1927 came the twin releases that would seal her reputation as an actress:  “Wings,” and “It.” 

By the age of 22, Bow had the world at her feet–yet she was feared and rejected by her peers in Hollywood. Her impoverished, abusive upbringing proved impossible overcome; even by the louche standards of the movie industry, she was disreputable. Bow’s acting career was over by 1933, not so much because of the advent of talkies as her reputation for instability. Fortunately, her retirement had a reasonable excuse:  she was newly married to Rex Bell, the cowboy actor who would later become Lt. Governor of Nevada, and starting a family. 

Like most actors of the time, Bow moved house a lot. During the 20’s, she lived in Whitley Heights and Laurel Canyon; later accounts place her in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles. Oddly, I’ve found no written confirmation of her time in Beachwood Canyon, though it seems unlikely that anyone would refer to the Clara Bow House without reason. It makes sense that she would have wanted to live in a neighborhood favored by fellow actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Pola Negri, Douglas Fairbanks and Norma Talmage. But their evident disdain also might have prompted Bow to move on.

Hollywood Before the Movies, Part II: City of Churches

June 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

Hollywood Congregational Church/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

In December of 2007, a bus carrying audience members to a taping of “The Dr. Phil Show” at Paramount went out of control on Gower Street and crashed onto the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Reading about the accident online, I was annoyed to come across this comment: “Who knew there were churches in Hollywood?” 

As anyone who has visited can attest, Hollywood is full of Protestant and Catholic churches; it boasts three major synagogues and temples of various Buddhist and Hindu sects as well.  In addition, Hollywood has long been a hub for nontraditional religions, from the Theosophical Society in the early 20th century to the Church of Scientology today.  But all these houses of worship merely hint at the town’s religious history: from its beginnings in the 1880’s to its absorption into Los Angeles in 1910, churches were Hollywood’s raison d’etre.  

Hollywood Christian Church/Courtesy University of Southern California Archives

Hollywood’s powerful religiosity sprang directly from its founder,  Harvey Wilcox, a devout Protestant and vehement teetotaler. In order to draw like-minded residents to Hollywood, he granted free land for church-building. Although Wilcox didn’t live to see the ultimate result, large houses of worship dominated Hollywood Boulevard by the beginning of the 20th century. 

Hollywood’s original churches have all been rebuilt since, though many of the names–Hollywood Presbyterian, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, Church of the Blessed Sacrament and Hollywood Methodist Church–remain the same. Interestingly, St. Stephen’s traces its lineage directly to Daeida Wilcox,  mother of Hollywood. Tired of commuting to Colegrove (now West Hollywood) to worship at St. James’ Mission, she donated land at Prospect (now Hollywood Blvd.) and Ivar for a new church. At that point, most of the congregation and even its rector relocated to Hollywood, sharing quarters with the Catholics at Blessed Sacrament until St. Stephen’s was completed in 1903.

Additional Source: www.ststephenshollywood.org

When Shakespeare Came to Beachwood Canyon: “Julius Caesar,” 1916

February 9, 2010 § 10 Comments

The Set of "Julius Caesar" in the Future Beachwood Village, 1916/Courtesy Library of Congress

Conceived as a tercentennial commemoration of Shakespeare’s death, Beachwood Canyon’s 1916 production of “Julius Caesar” was an event of epic proportions. A one-night-only performance, it involved 5,000 players–actors, dancers, gladiators and the student bodies of Hollywood and Fairfax High Schools–and starred Tyrone Power as Marcus Brutus and Douglas Fairbanks as Young Cato. Other notables in the cast were William Farnum (Cassius), DeWolf Hopper (Casca) and Mae Murray (Barbaric Dancer). The Battle of Philippi was re-created by sword-wielding actors who fought their way up Beachwood Drive onto a vast stage constructed on the future site of  Beachwood Village. The play was performed before an audience of 40,000–at a time when the population of Los Angeles was only 852,000. According to a newspaper account, there was a single fatality–an elderly woman who fell on the walk up to the amphitheater and did not regain consciousness. 

The only known photograph of the momentous night is the panoramic photo of the set reproduced above. For those familiar with the area, the bleachers in the first four panels occupy the west side of Beachwood Drive from Belden to (approximately) Woodhaven. Panel 5 shows Cahuenga Peak, future home of the Hollywoodland Sign. The temple in panels 6 and 7 stands at the top of Westshire, while the main stage occupies the east side of Beachwood Drive from Hollywoodland Realty to (approximately) Woodhaven. 

The lavish sets came courtesy of D.W. Griffith, Jesse Lasky, Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett and Universal Film Corporation. Although there is no account of the animals involved in the play, there must have been horses, probably supplied by what is now Sunset Ranch. The production apparently was a huge success, with  profits from ticket sales–$2,500–donated to Actor’s Equity. An encore performance, produced by Griffith and Sennett, was held a few weeks later at the Majestic Theater downtown. 

Why was Beachwood Canyon chosen for this extravaganza? Primarily, it was because the location was (and, as Hollywoodland residents can attest, still is) a natural amphitheater where every sound would be amplified exponentially. The bowl shape of the future Beachwood Village provided the perfect contours of a theater. Moreover, the area was both unbuilt and easily accessible via the Franklin Avenue streetcar. 

The success of the 1916 “Julius Caesar” led directly to the Theosophical Society’s 1918 production of “The Light of Asia,” a pageant based on Edwin Arnold’s epic poem on the life of the Buddha. That hit led  its Theosophist organizers to search for a permanent amphitheater for large-scale and (they hoped) inspirational pageants. One of the pageant’s stars, H. Ellis Reed, soon discovered in nearby Daisy Dell not just a larger version of Beachwood Canyon but the largest natural amphitheater in the United States. Once the land was purchased by “Light of Asia” organizer Christine Weatherill Stevenson and another wealthy arts patron, Mrs. Chauncey D. Clarke, construction began on what would become the Hollywood Bowl. Although Stevenson ended her involvement (and was reimbursed for her share of the purchase) when other organizers decided the Bowl would fulfill a civic rather than religious function, she must have been pleased by the Bowl’s first large-scale event: the Easter Sunrise Service of 1921.  

Among the Hollywood Bowl’s other early spectacles was a 1922 production of “Julius Caesar,” also starring Tyrone Power and a cast of thousands. This time, photos survived; they will appear in a future post. 

I am indebted to the following authors and sources: 

 Luke McKernan, “Shakespeare in the Canyon,” June 26, 2007, The Bioscope. 

Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920’s. Oxford University Press, 1990.

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