Remembering Beachwood Canyon’s Spectacular Production of “Julius Caesar,” One Hundred Years Later

May 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Photos of the "Julius Caesar" Stage, Clippings and Beachwood Canyon, Pre-Development/Hope Anderson Productions

Photos of the “Julius Caesar” Stage, Clippings and Beachwood Canyon, Pre-Development/Hope Anderson Productions

May 19th, 2016 marked the centennial of what is surely the biggest production of “Julius Caesar” in history. It was performed just once by a cast of five thousand for an audience of up to forty thousand. (Because of ticket scalping, no one knows for sure how many people saw it.) The location was the natural amphitheater where Beachwood Village and Hollywoodland now stand.

The production was both a celebration of Shakespeare’s birth and a benefit for the Actors’ Fund, and starred such luminaries as Tyrone Power, Sr., Douglas Fairbanks, William Farnum and the young Mae Murray. A fuller account can be found in these posts:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/when-shakespeare-came-to-beachwood-canyon-julius-caesar-1916/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/julius-caesar-at-the-hollywood-bowl-stills-from-the-1922-production/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/death-at-the-1916-julius-caesar-a-news-account/

Last night’s commemoration in Beachwood Village featured the local historian Greg Williams and the actor Stephen Fry, who read the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from Act III.

Greg Williams/Hope Anderson Productions

Greg Williams/Hope Anderson Productions

Because a fully built neighborhood now stands where the sets and stands were located, it’s a challenge to visualize the 1916 production, which featured chariot races, gladiator fights and dancing girls, as well as hundreds of extras recruited from Hollywood High School and Fairfax High School. But “Julius Caesar” was performed here to critical success, and the fact that it drew such a crowd should dispel the notion of early 20th century Los Angeles as a cultural backwater.

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.

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.

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

February 9, 2010 § 7 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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