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 23, 2010 § Leave a comment
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.
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.
July 6, 2009 § 7 Comments
Moorcrest stands on a hill overlooking Beachwood Drive. Its hybrid Moorish-Mission architecture, imposing size and prominent location lead many people, even Beachwooders, to assume it is a public building rather than a home. When I was working on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” people kept asking if I had filmed the “temple” on Temple Hill Drive. They were surprised when I told them it was called Moorcrest and always had been a private home. (The Theosophical Society’s actual temple–the Temple of the Rosy Cross–is now part of the Krotona Apartments on Alta Vista Street, just to the south.)
Those who know Moorcrest is a home tend to call it “The Charlie Chaplin House.” While Chaplin did briefly live in Moorcrest, he was a renter and soon moved on, to a house he had his set builders construct for him (the infamously nicknamed “Breakaway House”) in Beverly Hills.
Retiring from the stage, Marie Russak began a new life as a rich Upper East Side matron but soon turned her sights to the wider world, moving to Paris with her husband in 1901. She had become a Theosophist in 1898 and deepened her commitment by relocating to the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India in 1906. (No word on what happened to her marriage, as Frank Russak seems to have stayed in Paris.) Her four years in India, where she studied under Annie Besant, not only schooled her in Theosophy but sowed the seeds of a new avocation: architecture.
In India, Marie Russak no doubt saw magnificent examples of the Mogul style that would inspire the Theosophist buildings of Beachwood. The arches, keyhole windows and domes of the Krotona Colony are directly inspired by India’s Islamic architecture of the 16th-18th centuries, the best-known example of which is the Taj Mahal. The Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai), a hybrid of Indian and British Colonial styles, probably inspired the ecclecticism of the Beachwood’s Krotona Colony, whose buildings were as much Italianate and Spanish as Islamic in their derivation.
In his otherwise excellent study of Krotona architecture, “The Surviving Buildings of Krotona in Hollywood,” (Architronic vol. 8, 1998), Alfred Willis bemoans Marie Russak Hotchener’s lack of architectural training, dismissing her proportions as “awkward” and her interiors as “rather garish.” Further noting that all her houses were “somewhat vulgar,” he concedes that they reflect “their designer’s own middle-class taste but also the vulgarity increasingly evidenced in the commercial and domestic buildings of boomtime Los Angeles in the 1920’s.” That the hardly middle-class Marie Russak Hotchener was reaching for an architectural style as unique and hybridized as Theosophy itself apparently never occurred to him.
June 2, 2009 § 1 Comment
Visitors to Hollywood are struck by the presence of the Church of Scientology, which cannily established itself along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards in the 1970s and ’80s, when the average tourist visit to Hollywood Boulevard lasted less than half an hour and decrepit old buildings could be bought for a song. Scientology’s success in gaining followers from the entertainment industry seems to have been both a cause and effect of its physical location, but no one can deny its philosophical appeal to actors and other creative artists.
The entertainment industry is well-populated by all kinds of seekers, most of whom are not particularly attracted to mainstream religions. Instead, they tend to gravitate toward new, unconventional avenues of spirituality. And while Scientology is the most obvious of Hollywood’s new religions today, it is hardly the first to appeal to a comely, spiritually underserved population.
A look back at the Hollywood’s beginnings proves that alternative schools of religion have attracted creative artists in the film industry since the Silent Era. Once famous–and in the teens, it really did happen overnight–young Hollywood stars found themselves adrift, tempted by alcohol and drugs and overwhelmed by sudden, enormous wealth. All of this was made worse by their social isolation in a city whose elites would have sooner dined alone than with “movies,” whose working class origins and questionable morals made them objects of derision. In the face of ostracism, many film stars preferred partying to spirituality while others kept up the religious practices of their youth. But some branched out into previously unknown schools of thought, including Theosophy.
- The Theosophical Society made its headquarters in Beachwood Canyon in 1911, establishing a utopian community, called Krotona, on ten acres. By Webster’s definition, the Theosophical Society was a cult–“a usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure”–though unlike most modern cults, it wasn’t organized around a single charismatic leader. Instead, the Theosophists had a hierarchical leadership and distinct branches of thought. The Beachwood group looked to the English social reformer and suffragist Annie Besant as its spiritual leader, while other branches regarded the Russian philosopher Madame (Elena Petrovna) Blavatsky as theirs.
Theosophy was based on Indian Buddhism but incorporated elements of all the major religions in its teachings. Its texts were challenging to read and comprehend. But the practice of Theosophy at Krotona–which included outdoor exercise, vegetarianism, agriculture, music, art and philosophy, as well as occult dabblings like seances–was easier to follow and appealed to a variety of Hollywood residents, including such actors as Charlie Chaplin.
The actress Mary Astor was connected to the Krotona Colony by virtue of her parents’ purchase–with her money–of Moorcrest, a mansion on Temple Hill Drive that was designed by the prominent Theosophist and amateur architect Marie Russak Hotchener. Astor’s career ascended quickly after she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926; roles in silent films and early talkies followed. Her love affair with John Barrymore brought a greater connection between Hollywood and Theosophy because Barrymore retained Marie Hotchener as his astrologer and her husband Harry as his business manager. Though Astor and Barrymore never married, he seems to have maintained his association to the Hotcheners.
But it wasn’t just actors who were attracted to Theosophy. Other local luminaries who cultivated ties to Krotona included the writer L. Frank Baum and the architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.
During the teens, The Theosophical Society became an important cultural force in Hollywood during its transition from small town to city by sponsoring regular musical and theatrical programs. The most ambitious of these, an outdoor pageant based on Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem about the Buddha, “The Light of Asia,” was a smash hit in 1918. Its success led two Theosophists to the purchase some nearby land for the construction of a permanent civic amphitheater: the Hollywood Bowl.
Nearly a century later, the words “alternative religion” and “cult” conjure negative images of servitude, dogmatism and coercion, but none of these applied to the Theosophical Society. High-minded and intellectual, the Theosophists of Beachwood Canyon not only eschewed such hardball tactics but soon retreated to more sylvan surroundings, relocating to Ojai in 1926 because Hollywood had grown too urban. Their influence waned both because they failed to attract new members and because they tended to reproduce sparingly. But the Theosophical Society’s declining influence can’t detract from the its success in building a vibrant artistic community in what was a tiny backwater only a century ago. Reminders of that accomplishment persist not only in the Beachwood’s remaining Theosophist buildings but in the Hollywood Bowl’s Easter Sunrise Service, as well as every concert held there.
Although both the Theosophical Society and the Church of Scientology began their Hollywood tenures as cults, the differences between them couldn’t be more dramatic. Those who regard alternative religions as a strange new phenomenon can take heart in the fact that Hollywood, in addition to hosting many mainstream churches, has been home to cults since its rural beginnings. In light of its founding by members of the Christian Temperance Movement, Hollywood’s tradition of religious tolerance is nothing short of miraculous.