Poinsettias of Old Hollywood, Part II

December 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Hollywood Poinsettias/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil

Hollywood Poinsettias/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil

After I posted my last piece, I discovered an article in the current issue of Discover Hollywood * that completes the poinsettia’s history in Hollywood. It seems that it was none other than Paul Ecke’s father, Albert, who started growing the plants in here in 1900. Like many Angelenos of the era, Ecke was headed somewhere else–in his case, Fiji–when he discovered Hollywood’s ideal year-round growing conditions and decided to stay. He settled his family on Hayworth Avenue and soon established an orchard and a dairy.

Noticing that poinsettias grew wild in Hollywood and bloomed at Christmastime, Albert Ecke cultivated them in the field on Sunset Boulevard shown in the postcard above. Father and son sold them in pots from roadside stands in Hollywood and later Beverly Hills, where winter visitors as well as locals bought them. The painter Paul DeLongpre painted them (one of his watercolors is featured in the article) adding to their popularity beyond Southern California.

As many have noted, the poinsettia is memorialized as a street name in Hollywood. Now we know why.

*The issue is available free of charge now, but isn’t up yet on the magazine’s website http://www.discoverhollywood.com
Presumably it will be soon.

Poinsettias of Old Hollywood, Part I

December 26, 2013 § 3 Comments

Hollywood Poinsettias/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil

Hollywood Poinsettias/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil

I was surprised to find this vintage postcard in the collection of Tommy Dangcil because I had not previously heard of poinsettias being grown in Hollywood. Judging from the single building in the hills, the image dates back more than a century, to when Hollywood still had large agricultural tracts. Most were planted with lemons and oranges, crops that would soon give way to movie studios and other commercial properties.

What makes the postcard even more striking is the fact that the poinsettia was not well-known at the time, and less a commercial crop than a curiosity. Native to Mexico, the plant–despite its red color–was not even particularly identified with Christmas. Its popularization was largely the work of Paul Ecke, a San Diego County grower who not only tirelessly promoted the poinsettia as the Christmas “flower” (in fact, the red parts are leaf-like bracts, while the yellow centers are the flowers) but who, with his son Paul Jr., created the white, pink, yellow and variegated types that are available today. Because of Ecke, Encinitas has long been the undisputed capital of poinsettia cultivation, producing 80% of the world’s plants. In light of its long history in Encinitas, discovering the poinsettia’s early connection to Hollywood was an unexpected pleasure.

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King Vidor’s “The Crowd” (1928): Revelatory and Still Modern

October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

"The Crowd" by King Vidor/Courtesy AMPAS

“The Crowd” by King Vidor/Courtesy AMPAS

I had never heard of “The Crowd,” King Vidor’s amazing 1928 film about a feckless young man’s progress in work, love and life in New York City, until a few days ago. It was shown at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last night as the opening film of the Mary Pickford Celebration of Silent Film in a handsomely restored 35mm print from Warner Bros. To put it mildly, it was stunning. Starring James Murray in the lead and Eleanor Boardman (Mrs. King Vidor) as his beautiful, long-suffering wife, the film contained more complex character development than any feature film in recent memory–and without dialogue.

As film historian Kevin Brownlow pointed out, “The Crowd” influenced many subsequent films and their directors. Billy Wilder owes the biggest debt to Vidor, as “The Apartment” contains not only its office scenario–the huge room full of clerks especially–but exterior shots of New York skyscrapers and thronged streets. (Not to mention that the Jack Lemmon character in “The Apartment” could arguably be seen as a more responsible version of “The Crowd’s” John.) In “The Hudsucker Proxy” The Coen Brothers used many of the same visual elements, along with a John-like wide-eyed clerk played by Tim Robbins. No less a genius that Vittorio DeSica told Vidor that he based “Bicycle Thief” on “The Crowd,” and clearly he took the street and theater scenes from it. Yet despite its influence, “The Crowd” was forgotten for decades and only recently reconstructed. I hope Warner Bros. will release it on DVD soon for the larger audience it deserves.

Those who missed “The Crowd” can still catch tomorrow night’s film, Ernst Lubisch’s “The Student Prince in Old Heidleberg,” starring Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer and Jean Hersholt. Released in 1927 from MGM, “The Student Prince” was the brainchild of Irving G.Thalberg, who hired Lubisch to adapt a 1924 operetta based on the 1989 novel of the same name. Those unacquainted with “The Lubisch Touch” will see it in action here. For tickets, go to http://www.oscars.org/events-exhibitions/events/index.html

“True Hollywood Noir” Indeed

October 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

True Hollywood Noir034
Those interested in old Hollywood and/or true crime will find Dina Di Mambro’s True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders (Classichollywoodbios.com Publications) a worthy addition to their library. Although the topics–mysterious deaths, from Silent Era director William Desmond Taylor’s to Natalie Wood’s–have been explored many times before, Di Mambro’s exhaustive research and attention to detail set her book apart from the rest.

William Desmond Taylor’s murder–notoriously unsolved since 1922–provides a good example of her technique. After describing the crime scene–“once he was turned over, it was evident that he was lying in a pool of blood…shot once in the back”–Di Mambro painstakingly describes the possible suspects, as well as those who obstructed justice. The list is mind-boggling: Paramount Studios, the LAPD, the actress Mary Miles Minter and her mother Charlotte Shelby, his “sociopath” houseman Edward Sands, the actress/prostitute Margaret Gibson, his younger brother Denis Deane-Turner, a professional hit man. (No wonder the crime remains unsolved.) In sifting through the various theories, Di Mambro makes a good case for Margaret Gibson, who after changing her name to Pat Lewis twice confessed to the murder, the second time on her deathbed.

Other chapters shed new light on old crimes as well. I had always thought Thelma Todd’s death–her body was found in her car, in the garage of her Pacific Coast Highway house/restaurant–was a murder, possibly mob-related. Di Mambro makes a good case for accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly abetted or covered up by Todd’s on-again, off-again lover, the director Roland West. As with Taylor’s murder, the case was muddied by a studio cover-up–in this case Hal Roach’s decision “that letting the matter go was in the best interest of his studio and the film industry as a whole.”

More recent cases–Natalie Wood’s, Bob Crane’s and Robert Blake”s–are not only thoroughly reviewed but updated. After a new inquest into Wood’s 1981 drowning, Di Mambro notes the actress’s death certificate was amended from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” She adds a welcome familial angle to Bob Crane’s sordid 1978 murder by noting that the 2001 biographical film “Auto Focus” sparked a fight between his two sons (from different marriages) over Crane’s portrayal. The murder of Robert Blake’s wife Bonny Lee Bakley–in which Blake was found not guilty, though he subsequently lost a civil case–contains a poignant transcript. Blake and Bakley’s teenaged daughter, adopted and raised by Blake’s older daughter Delinah, no longer has contact with her father “because Delinah thought it was better that way.”

Not being a true crime fan, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by this litany of untimely deaths, whether accidental or homicidal. Yet I enjoyed the book’s unexpected theme: that fame, however big or resilient, is no match for the Grim Reaper, whose Hollywood work is some of his grimmest. Those who relish such tales will love True Hollywood Noir.

True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders is available at http://www.amazon.com/True-Hollywood-Noir-Filmland-Mysteries/dp/0615572693

Peg Entwistle’s Childhood Home in London

October 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Peg Entwistle's House 10/11/13/Hope Anderson Productions

Peg Entwistle’s House 10/12/13/Hope Anderson Productions

Yesterday I visited the house in Barons Court where the actress Peg Entwistle lived from soon after her birth in 1908 until she immigrated to the United States with her father at the age of six. The house, # 53, is at right. Many thanks to Heath Woodward, whose forthcoming play “Goodnight September” tells Peg’s story, for taking me there.

Variety on the Hollywood Sign’s 90th Birthday

September 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

I’m featured in this article, if somewhat misquoted.


As Hollywoodland Turns 90, Its Gates Get New Plaques

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Before (with a photo of Hollywoodland under construction)/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

Before (with a photo of Hollywoodland under construction)/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

And after. Among the attendees were (from left): State Assemblyman Mike Gatto, LAFD Battalion Chief Joe Castro, Councilman Tom LaBonge, HHA President Alex Chavez.

And after. Among the attendees were (from left): State Assemblyman Mike Gatto, LAFD Battalion Chief Joe Castro, Councilman Tom LaBonge, HHA President Alex Chavez.

As readers of this blog might remember, a couple of years ago vandals stole the pair of bronze plaques marking the Hollywoodland gates. Yesterday, their replacements–generously donated by Time Warner–were unveiled in a festive ceremony that brought together various officials and neighbors. Our ubiquitous City Councilman, Tom LaBonge, quipped, Hollywoodland is a special neighborhood–so special that you don’t even like your City Councilman. Titters ensued.

Now, onward to our centennial!

The west gate

The west gate

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David Cronenberg on Lighting the Hollywood Sign

September 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Hollywood Sign on August 20/Photo by Tyler Shields

The Hollywood Sign on August 20/Photo by Tyler Shields

The Eiffel Tower 10/10/11/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

Not the Hollywood Sign 10/10/11/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

Yes, he did it–and with permits. Here’s a link.


The most interesting thing about the article is not that Cronenberg was able to shine big bright lights on the Hollywood Sign, but that he comments, “I was frankly just surprised to learn the sign wasn’t lit in the first place. If it were Paris, it would be lit at night!”

If it WERE Paris, Hollywoodland would be an enormous, flat public park with no houses in it. And the Hollywood Sign would be called the Eiffel Tower. But it’s not, and it’s not. I would have thought this was obvious.

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“The Jet Set” House: Frank Sinatra’s Glass Hideaway in Chatsworth

July 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

"Who lives here?" Don and Joy at the Fox Residence/Courtesty AMC.

“Who lives here?” Don and Joy at the Fox Residence.

Watchers of “Mad Men” will recall Don Draper’s lost weekend in California (Season 2, Episode 11), in which he abandons Pete Campbell and an aeronautics convention to run off with Joy, a mystery woman he has met at the hotel. She takes him to this fabulous mid-century glass and steel house in Palm Springs:

Known as the Fox Residence, the actual house sits on a hilltop in Chatsworth, in the northern San Fernando Valley. Designed by Pereira and Luckman-also the architects of the former Union Oil headquarters where most of “Mad Men” is shot–the estate was previously leased by Frank Sinatra, who used it as a weekend retreat for a decade. Adding to its pedigree is the rumor that Sinatra introduced Marilyn Monroe to JFK here. Frequently filmed, the Fox Residence is on the market for around $12 million and appears to be in pristine condition:


Movie fans will know that Chatsworth’s role in the film industry goes back to the Silent Era, when westerns and other sprawling outdoor epics were shot on ranches established by studios and individuals for filming purposes. Chatsworth’s famous Iverson Movie Ranch dates from 1912; among the movies shot there are Buster Keaton’s “Three Ages” and “The Robe.” In the early years of television, Iverson was the location of almost every western series, including “Gunsmoke,” “The Virginian,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Bonanza.” While Chatsworth is better known today as the epicenter of the adult film industry, its western heritage links it to every era of film and television. Thanks to the Fox Residence, Chatsworth also boasts an important mid-century location, as “The Jet Set” illustrates so well.

The “Mad Men” Season Finale, Part II: It’s the Light

June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

What's Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

What’s Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

While it’s true that the variety of architectural styles found in Los Angeles allows “Mad Men,” set in and around New York, to be filmed here, there’s one thing that always gives it away: the light. Simply put, the light in Los Angeles is so different from the light found anywhere else in the world (with one exception; more on that later) that, like a brilliant supporting actor, it steals every scene.

The last scene of the season finale provides an excellent example. As Don Draper and his children approach his decrepit childhood home in Pennsylvania they throw long, sharply defined shadows on the street. Though it’s possible to throw shadows in the eastern United States in late fall or around the winter solstice, the 40 degree latitude in Pennsylvania would produce shorter shadows, while the weaker light would make them less defined.

Light is perhaps the greatest asset of the Southland, something that is constantly marveled at, studied, painted and written about. When people in LA talk about the climate, they are really talking about the quality of light, which at its fullest produces not only dramatic shadows but, depending on the time of year, no shadows at all. The best exploration of the light here, in my opinion, is contained in the 1998 New Yorker article, “L.A. Glows,” by Lawrence Weschler. In talking to visual artists, poets and scientists about LA’s light, Weschler discovers why the city looks the way it does. The astronomer Hal Zirin says it best:

…what happens here is that ocean-cooled air drifts in over the coastal plain and gets trapped beneath the warm desert air floating in over the mountains to the east. That’s the famous thermal inversion, and the opposite of the usual arrangement, where the warm surface air progressively cools as it rises. And the atmosphere below the inversion layer is incredibly stable….go out to the Santa Monica palisade and gaze out over the cool water. It’s completely clear and distinct, clean out to the horizon. The heat rising from the ground in most places…is in turn what makes stars shimmer and twinkle in the night sky….if you’re an astronomer you want your star–or for that matter, your sun–to be distortion-free: solid as a rock. And that’s what you get here. The stars don’t twinkle in L.A.

I had a dramatic experience of this phenomenon a few days ago, while looking down Fairfax Avenue. It was an exceptionally clear day that allowed me to see all the way to the ocean, some thirty miles south. But even more amazing than seeing blue in the distance was the fact that the furthest hills and houses were as sharply defined as those in the near distance. As I stared, the total clarity of the light threw me into what one of Weschler’s interviewees called “egoless bliss.”

But the true significance of the light in Los Angeles isn’t the mood it generates, or the peculiar suspension of time that makes Rip Van Winkles of us all. (To quote Orson Welles, “you sit down, you’re twenty-five, and when you get up, you’re sixty-two.”) It’s the reason the movie industry relocated to Los Angeles from the East Coast during the Silent Era: movies could be shot year-round with little or no artificial lighting. Roofless sets allowed interior scenes to be shot by natural light as well. By 1911, Los Angeles was the center of the movie industry, and has been ever since.

So when Don and the kids threw sharp shadows that were taller than they were, I laughed in recognition: they could only be in LA. But those who think there’s no place else on earth with LA’s light haven’t seen Morocco, the world’s only other coastal desert. Morocco’s identical thermal inversion creates the same light: strong, clear and unforgettable.

Additional Source:

“L.A. Glows,” by Lawrence Weschler. The New Yorker, February 23, 1998.

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