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
June 1, 2010 § 5 Comments
It would be hard to overstate Mack Sennett’s role in early filmmaking. Besides inventing the Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties, Sennett originated cinematic car chases and pie-in-the-face antics. He was singlehandedly responsible for the replacement of tall English-style helmets in police forces across the United States. And he was a star maker of the first order. Among the luminaries whose film careers Sennett started were Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Carol Lombard and W.C. Fields.
Born Mikall Sinnott in Quebec in 1880, Sennett was the son of Irish Catholic immigrant farmers who moved to Connecticut when he was a teenager, giving him access to New York. By 1902, the young Sennett was a chorus boy in burlesque and on Broadway. In 1908, he parlayed his stage work into acting roles for Biograph, where he became D.W. Griffith’s protege. By 1910 he was directing shorts for Biograph; when Griffith relocated to Los Angeles, Sennett went west, too.
In forming Keystone Films in 1912, Sennett constructed the first fully enclosed studio in Los Angeles. (Located on Bates Avenue in Edendale [now Echo Park], the building not only still stands but remains a working soundstage.) Until then, movies were shot on open-air stages using natural light, a method that left actors and crews at the mercy of the elements. Sennett’s studio represented not only a technological leap but a geographical one: in relocating to Edendale, he left behind crowded, makeshift conditions in downtown Los Angeles and foreshadowed the development of a new studio town–Hollywood.
In 1915, Keystone Films became a division of Triangle Pictures, the filmmaking juggernaut that included Griffiths and Thomas Ince. In 1917, Sennett formed a new company, Mack Sennett Comedies, that would continue making movies into the era of Talkies. Over twenty-five years, Sennett directed more than a thousand movies.
At the height of his career, Mack Sennett decided to build himself an appropriately grand house in the new Beachwood Canyon community of Hollywoodland. Although Busby Berkeley, Gloria Swanson, Felix Adler (who began his Hollywood career as a Sennett writer), Clara Bow, Theda Bara and Douglas Fairbanks all had houses in the Canyon, Sennett’s lot occupied another realm altogether. Located at the very top of Cahuenga Peak, the property was the only one in the tract that stood above the Hollywoodland Sign.
The plans show a magnificent Mission-style palace befitting the King of Comedy. Its vast pool no doubt was conceived with the Bathing Beauties in mind, while its courtyard could hold multitudes. Sadly, Sennett never began construction on it: having lost much of his fortune in the Crash of ’29, he went bankrupt in 1933. His directorial career was mostly over by 1935, though Bing Crosby repaid his debt to Sennett by incorporating his shorts into a couple of “The Road” movies. (See “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” from “The Road to Hollywood,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Btn9RhpneNg ) Sennett died in 1960 at 80, by which point the Keystone Kops had experienced something of a revival.
In light of the recent scare over development on Cahuenga Peak, it is instructive to note that the present day communications tower and ranger station occupy Mack Sennett’s former lot. But his estate, a true dream house, exists only on paper–and in our imaginations.
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.”
June 5, 2009 § 4 Comments
Harold Lloyd was a Silent Era superstar whose 200+ films outearned those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his competitors in comedy. He invented a quintessential American character, an Everyman in round glasses whose encounters with cars, pretty girls and technology were endlessly compelling. People who draw a blank at his name have seen his most famous stunt, in which he hangs off a skyscraper from the hands of a huge clock in “Safety Last.” (In Hollywood, the scene is memorialized on the side of the Best Western on Franklin Avenue, alongside the warning, “Last Cappuccino before the 101.”)
A handsome young actor from Nebraska who came to Hollywood in the teens, Lloyd teamed up with the director Hal Roach to make such Silent classics as “The Kid,” “Grandma’s Boy,” and “Safety Last.” He entered the Talkies with a huge hit, “Welcome Danger,” (written by Felix Adler, profiled below) in 1929.
Unlike many movie stars of his generation, he was financially shrewd, owning the rights to most of his movies and investing in real estate in a new made-for-actors tract development called Beverly Hills. By the close of the Jazz Age, Lloyd owned his own movie studio (the site of which he later sold to the Mormons for their Los Angeles Temple) and was an extremely wealthy man. He weathered the Crash of ’29 and continued to act in, as well as direct and produce, films and radio shows.
Early in his career, when he was star but not a tycoon, Harold Lloyd lived in this Italianate house in the exclusive Windsor Square neighborhood of Hancock Park.
The house still stands, an eyesore in a neighborhood transformed by 20 years of incessant renovation. I lived around the corner for 16 years and walked my dog (and after he died, another) by the house every day, longing for the time when it would be restored. In another city, there would be a plaque on it that read, “Harold Lloyd lived here.” But not in Los Angeles.
Throughout the ’90s, the house continued its decline. Outside there were dead trees and a dead lawn. Dead cars were parked in the driveway. The only things that thrived were weeds. Passersby showed their displeasure by turning the grounds into a public toilet for their dogs and, apparently, themselves.
When her dog turned up a mouthful of human feces, one of my neighbors reached out the people who have owned and lived in the house for two generations. They agreed to employ a gardener. He cut the weeds and hedges to a manageable level, sprinkled some grass seed and turned on the feeble old sprinklers to irrigate them. That was the sum of the improvements, such as they were. After the husband died, his rusting van was left for years the driveway as a kind of memorial.
These pictures were taken yesterday:
As for Harold Lloyd, his story could hardly have had a better outcome. In 1926, he began building a magnificent new home on 16 acres in Beverly Hills. Called Greenacres, the 44-room mansion was based on the Florentine Villa Gamberaia. Here’s a link to pictures: http://www.haroldlloyd.com/news/featurette.asp
Inside the house were 16 bathrooms, a pipe organ and a theater with a 35mm projection booth. Outside there was an Olympic-size swimming pool, a clock tower, a child-sized cottage with electricity and running water, and extensive gardens. There were greenhouses, stables, a 9-hole golf course, a reservoir and a farm. Lloyd and his wife, his co-star Mildred Davis, raised three children as well as a grandchild at Greenacres, which was staffed by 15 servants and 16 gardeners. They lived in a manner that defined the word swell.
In addition to acting and producing, Lloyd became an accomplished still photographer, taking beautiful portraits of a nude Bettie Page and a clothed Marilyn Monroe. He celebrated Christmas in spectacular fashion, lashing several huge evergreens together to make a single monster Christmas tree, which he strung with thousands of ornaments. One year he purchased the entire Christmas display at Saks, tree included, to augment Greenacres’. Meanwhile, his compound tree became more and more opulent. When the project became too vast to disassemble, Lloyd fireproofed the thing and celebrated Christmas all year long.
He died of cancer at 78, in 1971. Greenacres was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, after its grounds were subdivided and the estate reduced to six acres. The mansion, however, is intact and renovated. Its current owner is supermarket tycoon/ex-Bill Clinton bachelor buddy Ron Burkle, who apparently enjoys Greenacres just as much, if in rather different style, than Lloyd did.
I’m sure Harold Lloyd is watching over his beloved Greenacres from an even greater paradise. As for his starter house in Hancock Park, I’m praying for a gut renovation before the place falls down, followed by a lavish landscaping job. And after that, a plaque with his name on it.
May 26, 2009 § 8 Comments
Felix Adler was a prodigious comedy writer whose career aligned brilliantly with the rise of the film industry. Coming out of vaudeville in the teens, Adler began as a title writer for Mack Sennett and wrote scripts for silent films throughout the 20’s. His first big hit as a screenwriter came in 1929, with Harold Lloyd’s “Welcome Danger.”
Working steadily through the 1950’s, Adler wrote for Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and–most famously–The Three Stooges. “Scrambled Brains,” Adler’s 1951 Stooges vehicle, was said to be Larry’s favorite. Adler worked at Columbia Pictures’ Short Subject Department from 1935 to1957, first as a staff writer and then as its head until the division was closed in ’57.
By his death in 1963, Adler’s career had spanned the film industry’s first 40 years as well as the first decade of television. Yet until I started doing interviews for my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I had never heard of him.
I began looking into Adler’s life when two of my interviewees spoke at length about him. The first was Marcella Meharg, who lives in his former house on Beachwood Drive. Apparently Adler’s retirement from Columbia, though brief, was far from golden. Marcella’s mother, who bought Adler’s house from probate, found a sheaf of sad job-hunting letters he had written to studios and apparently never mailed. The hillside behind the house was littered with the empty whiskey bottles that Adler had tossed there. Another interviewee, Harry Williams, told me about Adler’s remarkable memory for old songs, his role in founding the Friars Club and his consumption of a fifth of Scotch each night, which Harry delivered to his door.
Despite his unhappiness at leisure, Adler was a beloved Beachwood character. A jovial neighbor, he gave money to children and invited passing residents to stop in for a drink on their way to and from the market. Too gregarious to sit at home, he passed his days at the Village laundry, amusing the clientele as they washed their clothes. His poignant retirement ended when he died, of stomach cancer, in the Motion Picture Home in 1963.
The irony of sharing a name with two vastly more famous Felix Adlers–the Jewish intellectual who founded of the Society for Ethical Culture and “The King of Clowns”–probably wasn’t lost on the Felix Adler who wrote films called “Block-Heads” and “A Chump at Oxford,” and was a charter member of the Friars Club. But it did consign him to a curious posthumous obscurity. When I started searching for photos of him, I found nothing–not a single image of a man who had spent four decades in Hollywood, the mecca of headshots. It was incredible.
Finally a search of the photo archives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences turned up two, both from the 20’s:
- Having no idea what Adler looked like, I was glad to be able to attach a face to the stories. Although I would have liked a photo of him as an older man, it’s fitting that the only two images I found are from the same era but so different. Like the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy, Adler shows his serious and comic sides. He also looks like someone you might like to know.