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

February 9, 2010 § 10 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.

Marie Russak Hotchener and Moorcrest: The Theosophist Opera Singer and Her Architectural Fantasia

July 6, 2009 § 6 Comments

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Moorcrest/Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

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. 

If Moorcrest must be nicknamed for one of its owners, it should be called the Mary Astor house. Though it was her parents’ home, it was  Astor’s money that paid for it. (More on that, and the lawsuit her parents brought against her for Moorcrest’s upkeep, in a future post.) But no one ever calls it that. Perhaps Moorcrest should be nicknamed for its designer, who–along with Julia Morgan–was one of the few women of her generation to practice architecture. Unlike Morgan, who was trained in engineering at Berkeley before she went on to be the first woman accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Marie Barnard Smith Russak Hotchener, a Krotona Colony founder, had no formal architectural training. Like that of many Theosophists, Hotchener’s path to Beachwood was circuitous and colorful, but none surpassed hers in originality. The daughter of a Northern California judge, Marie Barnard studied music at Mills College and–as Marie Barna–became a Wagnerian opera singer whose career led her to Boston, New York and Europe.
marie barnard
Her 1899  marriage to a New York investment banker and society figure called Frank Russak apparently was the wedding of the season in Newport, R.I. A lengthy New York Times write-up describes the lavish ceremony and bride’s ensemble (“a gown of white satin faille covered with mousseline de soie and pointe d’aiguille lace, richly embroidered in pearls”) but makes no mention of her previous marriage, to a Justin H. Smith.

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.

After leaving India, Marie Russak helped found the Krotona Colony, which broke ground in 1912. Her role in building Krotona was substantial; in addition to co-founding the Temple of the Rosy Cross, Marie designed a number of houses for Theosophists, including this one at 6106 Temple Hill Drive.

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Marie Russak’s architectural career was aided by a fellow Theosophist, Henry Hotchener, a real estate developer whose purchase of a tract from the Albert Beach Company made it possible for the Society’s wealthier members to build new homes by the Krotona Colony.  In 1914, Hotchener built a house for Marie Russak at 6101 Scenic (below) and, after Frank Russak died that later that year in Paris, married her.  

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Moorcrest was completed in 1921. Apparently the Hotcheners did not intend it to be their home and soon rented it to Chaplin. After he moved out, they sold it to Mr. and Mrs. Otto H. Langhanke, who relocated from Chicago and New York in pursuit of their daughter Lucile’s acting career. Lucile, soon renamed Mary Astor by Jesse Lasky, would have an illustrious career in the movies and a rather tragic personal life. The latter was abetted–in court, no less–by her parents’ insistence on living on Astor’s dime in Moorcrest which, Astor testified, was a “white elephant.” 
Later  Moorcrest sank into decripitude, hitting bottom during the 90’s. A woman I know recounts wandering the vacant property, enchanted by Moorcrest’s architecture but alarmed by the extent of its neglect. The grounds had gone unwatered for so long that many of the mature trees in the garden had died. Finally the house was bought; the new owner undertook a major renovation in the early 2000’s and put it on the market in late 2006 for $9 million. That’s when I got inside and took these pictures:
One of the small sitting areas, with red lotus windows

One of the small sitting areas, with red lotus windows

Porte Cochere

Porte Cochere

Living Room

Living Room

Moorcrest's Atrium

Moorcrest's Atrium

Keyhole doorway

Keyhole doorway

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.

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