Mack Sennett’s Unbuilt Dream House on Cahuenga Peak

June 1, 2010 § 5 Comments

Mack Sennett/All Photos Courtesy UCLA Special Collections

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.

Haunted Hollywoodland, Part III: The Ghost with the Top Hat and Cane

December 5, 2009 § 2 Comments

The Hollywoodland Realty Office in 1923. The events described took place in the front courtyard and on the second floor/Courtesy Bruce Torrence Hollywood Historical Collection

Charisse Landise is a Beachwood Canyon resident and clairvoyant healing artist with a keen sense of the supernatural. We first met three years ago when I interviewed her on the significance of the Hollywood Sign for my documentary; since then we’ve talked periodically about Beachwood Canyon’s history and notable past residents. It was Charisse who had the vivid dream about Peg Entwistle described in Part I of my Haunted Hollywoodland series. 

After I posted a piece on Busby Berkeley (“First House North of the Gates: Busby Berkeley’s Home in Hollywoodland”), Charisse called me to tell me about an incident that happened last November, when she was working out of the day spa above Hollywoodland Realty in Beachwood Village. 

It was late afternoon but already dark when she arrived for a session and saw a male apparition sitting in the courtyard outside the Realty Office. He appeared to be in his late thirties and was dressed in narrow old-fashioned trousers and a top hat. He carried a cane. 

Though Charisse didn’t recognize him, she felt he was waiting for her. Unable to get any answers about his identity or motives, she went upstairs to meet her client. Once inside, she felt his presence in the spa. 

“He was definitely there as a curious witness,” Charisse says. “He was extremely fascinated with my healing procedure. I had the sense he had never seen anything like it.  He was very unthreatening. I was challenged by the unexpected nature of his steady watchful presence.”  The ghost observed her throughout the session and stayed behind after she locked up. 

“I didn’t know that was Busby Berkeley’s house next door until I read your blog, but I’m sure it was him,” she said. Unlike the house, whose entryway is now hidden behind a gate, the Realty Office remains open to the street, as it was in Berkeley’s time. The fact that the ghost appeared to be in his late thirties seems appropriate, as Berkeley was at the height of his success during those years. And a top hat and cane would be obvious props for a choreographer of movie musicals featuring scores of top-hatted, cane-wielding dancers.  

“Ultimately I was so grateful to have met him,” says Charisse. “His movie ’42nd Street’ was why I moved to New York City when I was 18.”

Contact www.charisselandise.com for further information.

First House North of the Gates: Busby Berkeley’s Home in Hollywoodland

August 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

Catching the bus outside Busby Berkeley's house, c. 1930/Courtesy Bruce Torrence

Catching the jitney outside Busby Berkeley's house, late 1920's/Collection of Bruce Torrence

You see it as you drive through the Hollywoodland gates, a large Spanish Colonial house directly ahead, though the road goes to the left. The property wraps around the curve, and the house is so blindingly white and prominently sited that it’s impossible to ignore. Unlike many old houses, it looks the same as when it was built in 1923, as pictures taken during Hollywoodland’s early years attest. (A gate now hides the front steps and the current garage doors lack the originals’ honeycomb details, but that’s about it for exterior changes.)

L-R: The Busby Berkeley House and Hollywoodland Realty Today/Hope Anderson Productions

L-R: The Busby Berkeley House and Hollywoodland Realty Today/Hope Anderson Productions

The first house (and second building, after the Hollywoodland Realty Company) to be built in the Hollywoodland tract, it was owned by Busby Berkeley, whose name still evokes the glamour and inventiveness of the lavish musicals he choreographed and directed at Warner Brothers, Fox and MGM. 

A native Angeleno and the son of actors, William Berkeley Enos (1895-1976) gave us such dance classics as “Lullaby on Broadway,” and “I Got Rhythm.” From 1933-1937 he directed and/or choreographed 14 Warner Brothers musicals, including “Gold Diggers of 1935,” “42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade.”

200px-Busby_Berkeley_photo

His success afforded him the house on Beachwood Drive where he lived with his widowed mother, to whom he was devoted, and whomever he happened to be married to at the moment. (He had between four and seven marriages, depending on the biographical source.) His matrimonial success no doubt was hindered by his work, which required auditioning thousands of young female dancers for the 150 he would ultimately choreograph in each film. His drinking probably didn’t help matters, either. In 1935, while driving drunk, Berkeley caused a crash that involved two other cars and killed three people. He was acquitted of homicide charges after three trials, largely because he was his mother’s sole source of support.

While Berkeley was one of the biggest stars in Hollywoodland, his house was–and still is–arguably the least private because of its location in Village’s commercial district. Besides the Realty Office next door, the house boasts a bus stop directly outside, and has since 1925. The top photograph shows passengers transferring from the public bus to the Hollywoodland jitney, which took them further up the Canyon to their homes.

Berkeley was long gone by the time the actor Ned Beatty bought the house in the 70’s, after “Deliverance” had made him a star. During Beatty’s years in residence, large buses ran up and down Beachwood Drive, rather than the Dash buses that make the run today. The old buses were too big to make the U-turn in front of Beatty’s house and would grind and rev their engines in the attempt. On one occasion the bus actually became stuck, creating such a racket that an infuriated Beatty came out and hurled empty liquor bottles at it.

Like Busby Berkeley, Ned Beatty eventually moved to greener and less congested pastures. Still, many people still call the place the Ned Beatty House, though others prefer the original Busby Berkeley title.

While Busby Berkeley’s name would seem to evoke a more genteel era, his life was anything but. In addition to the vehicular homicide trials and many divorces, Berkeley struggled with suicidal depression after the auto accident. A serious suicide attempt after his mother’s death in 1946 made the newpapers and landed him in a mental hospital. Nevertheless, he survived to the age of 80, long enough to experience a career revival in the 1960’s. New generations discovered his films of the 1930’s and 40’s, which began to be shown on television and later found new life on video and DVD. By the time  Berkeley died in 1976 in Palm Springs, his place in Hollywood history was assured.

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