Reviving Bananas in Beachwood Canyon

September 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Banana Tree/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

Last October I wrote about Beachwood Canyon’s early 20th century fame as a producer of bananas, avocados and pineapples. (https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/bananas-of-beachwood-canyon-and-los-feliz/) J.B. Rapp’s Farm, located near Franklin Avenue and Gower Street, was the first place in the continental United States to produce such exotic crops commercially, and there is no reason to it wouldn’t have continued to do so if land values had stayed low. But Hollywood’s rapid transformation–first into a garden suburb of Los Angeles, then the center of the movie industry–caused land values to rise dramatically after 1900. By 1920, Hollywood was a city, its recent agrarian history remembered mainly in old photographs of farms and orchards, and by its street names–Orange Grove, Lemon Grove, Cherimoya and Tamarind.

For the Theosophical Society, Beachwood Canyon’s mild, frost-free climate was the deciding factor in its relocation here in 1911. The Theosophists wanted nothing less than to create a new Garden of Eden, and their colony, Krotona, was dotted with gardens. After the Theosophists moved to Ojai in 1926, their gardens became houses, forgotten except for a map and a few photographs.

Recently I decided that my living room needed a better view, so I planted four banana trees with red-green fronds outside. They instantly provided shade, color and movement, transforming the house as well as the hillside on which they were planted. Watching the fronds wave gracefully in the breeze has been a respite for me in an otherwise vacationless summer.

Because I was focused on appearance, I chose trees that produce a flower but no edible fruit. But my next purchase will be a fruiting banana–if possible the Lacatan, which produces small, creamy-textured bananas with red skins. (I don’t like the Cavendish, the yellow banana that has been the world’s commercial crop since the 1930s, but know it will grow in Southern California.) In time, I hope to have a small grove of banana trees–a living reminder of what the Canyon once was.

The Pineapple Tract of Beachwood Canyon

September 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Clausen's Ranch, which includes the future Krotona Hill, c. 1895/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

While doing research for my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I found my way to the Los Angeles City Archives, which keeps bound volumes of the many laws enacted by Hollywood during its brief period (1903-1910) as an incorporated, self-governing city. While I was there, I also studied early 20th-century Hollywood maps, and was fascinated to see the area north of Franklin between Beachwood and Gower labeled “The Pineapple Tract.” 

The name refers to the tract’s former incarnation as the farm of J.B. Rapp. (See photo below.) He began as a lemon grower but expanded into more exotic fruits–dates, avocados and pineapples, among others. Although it is likely that these fruits had their origins on local ranchos, Rapp was among the first to grow them commercially. At a time when oranges and lemons were rare delicacies for most Americans, pineapples and avocados must have caused a sensation.

Hollywood’s frost-free climate made the cultivation of these crops possible, but it took vision to grow things for which there was little apparent demand. Rapp succeeded on several levels: he grew and created a market for exotic fruits, while in the process enhancing Hollywood’s reputation–and property values–as an American Garden of Eden. Among those drawn by the promise of year-round fresh produce was the Theosophical Society, which established itself  just north of the Pineapple Tract in 1911. In a letter to Annie Besant, A.P. Warrington, head of the American Branch, rhapsodized about the Canyon’s farming potential:

We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything….

Unbeknownst to Warrington, Beachwood also boasted thin soil and an abundance of produce-devouring wildlife. This may explain the fact that the Krotona Colony’s map shows several ornamental gardens and a decided lack of farm plots. As a resident whose efforts to grow vegetables have been thwarted by squirrels and tree rats, I sympathize.

Next time: bananas!

Pineapples on J. B. Rapp's Farm/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil, Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards

 

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/the-agrarian-origins-of-beachwood-canyon/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/beachwoods-earthly-paradise-the-lost-gardens-of-the-krotona-colony/

The Krotona Colony’s First Session: A Photographic Discovery

April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

First Session/Courtesy Krishnamurti Foundation

The photograph above depicts the opening assembly of the Krotona Colony in 1912.  It appears in Joseph Ross’s  Krotona of Old Hollywood, Vol. I  (Montecito: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989) as well as in my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and seems to represent the ideals and aspirations of Beachwood’s new utopia. A heavily female, racially integrated group sits politely in the Colony’s amphitheater, facing the stage–but who was on it?

First Session/Courtesy Augustus Knudsen Archive, Kauai Museum

The answer was a mystery until I came across this photo in the Augustus Knudsen Archive of the Kauai Museum and recognized it as a photo from the same event. According to the notation on back, Knudsen (at the tree stump podium) was the first speaker.

Thanks to Eric James for the cleanup on the first photo.

Here’s a link to a new book on Krotona by Joseph Ross:  http://www.amazon.com/Krotona-Theosophy-Krishnamurti-Theosophical-California/dp/0925943150/
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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

A New Home in the Hills: Augustus Knudsen in Beachwood Canyon, 1916

February 18, 2011 § 5 Comments

The Knudsen House on Vista del Mar Avenue, Hollywood

Augustus Knudsen outside his house, 1916/All photos courtesy Kauai Museum, Augustus Knudsen Archive

In 1916, the Krotona Colony was in its fifth year–and an established institution by the standards of Hollywood, then in its infancy. Augustus Knudsen’s position as a leading member of the Theosophical Society was underscored by the impressive house he commissioned in 1914 from the San Francisco firm of Mead and Requa. Interestingly, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, Augustus’s widowed mother, was the client of record, a clear indication that she funded the construction of her son’s new home. Located at 2117-2121 Vista del Mar Avenue, the house is now an apartment building, and very different in appearance.

Knudsen by the Arcade at the South End of the House

The photo below was taken not at the house but the Lotus Pond, a Krotona landmark that was located just west of Temple Hill Drive.

Augustus Knudsen at the Lotus Pond, 1916

Additional Source:

“A Survey of Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” by Alfred Willis. Architronic, 1998.
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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Connection, Part IV: Augustus Knudsen’s Passage to India

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Theosophical Society Headquarters in Adyar, Madras/www.blavatskyarchive.com

In 1896, Augustus Knudsen left Kaua’i for San Francisco. From there, he intended to travel to India and study Hinduism. But in San Francisco, fate intervened when he met the president and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott.

Henry Steel Olcott, seated at center, and Helena Blavatsky, standing behind him, with spiritual leaders in India/www.ookaboo.com

Olcott (1832-1907) was famous not only as Madame Blavatsky’s partner in the Theosophical Society (which he served as lawyer as well as spiritual leader) but as the best-known, and probably first, person of European descent to convert to Buddhism. Before he embarked upon this unorthodox path, Olcott was a Civil War veteran who fought graft and investigated Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In 1874, he was hired by the New York Sun and New York Graphic to investigate “spiritual manifestations” at Eddy Farm. There he encountered Madame Blavatsky, a meeting of minds which led to the founding of the Theosophical Society the following year, and to the establishment of its worldwide headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai) in 1883.

The late 19th century was a boom time for new religions, many of which were concerned with signs of life after death. Olcott’s social stature was shared by many fellow seekers: among his contemporaries who studied Theosophy were William James and Thomas Edison. Olcott’s background as a soldier, lawyer and patriot no doubt boosted the image of Theosophy for those who otherwise would have been skeptical of some of its tenets. 

What attracted Augustus Knudsen to Theosophy was the same thing that drew Olcott’s attentions away from Buddhism: psychic phenomena and occult rituals like seances. In 1896, the newly converted Knudsen traveled to Adyar, where he studied with Madame Blavatsky. By 1898 he was back in San Francisco, where he married Margaret Russell, a Californian with Southern roots.

After their daughter Ruth was born in 1901, Augustus and Margaret returned to Kaua’i. Valdemar had died in 1898, and with only his brother Eric left to run the family businesses, Augustus had a role there. (The youngest Knudsen brother, Arthur, suffered a mental breakdown in his 20’s and remained institutionalized in Boston.) But the marriage foundered when Margaret, a late-in-life mother, became physically and emotionally incapacitated by menopause. According to Ruth,   

[Augustus] kicked her out of the house. And told me later that her illness had interfered with his spiritual development.

The calamity of divorce allowed Augustus Knudsen to make a final break with his life on Kaua’i. Placing Ruth in the care of her grandmother, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, he left Hawai’i, remarried and settled in Hollywood. The house he commissioned on Vista del Mar Avenue would be the gateway to the Krotona Colony, a utopia made real by his devotion to Theosophy–and the family fortune made on Kaua’i.

Additional Sources:

Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, Courtesy Kauai Museum.

Theosophical Society Headquarters, Adyar.  http://www.ts-adyar.org/
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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

Beachwood’s Earthly Paradise: The Lost Gardens of the Krotona Colony

December 10, 2010 § 9 Comments

The Italian Gardens/All Photos Copyright Krishnamurti Foundation of America, except where noted

The Theosophical Society’s Beachwood Canyon sojourn lasted less than 15 years, from late 1911 until 1926, but it produced a planned community of distinctive public buildings and houses, roughly two dozen of which survive. The Krotona Colony’s buildings can be identified by their eccentric architecture, which includes domed roofs, keyhole windows, arched doorways and art glass panels. 

Hope Anderson Productions

Upon closer examination, one can make out details such as the star of David, cross, swastika (an ancient Hindu symbol used also by Buddhists) and lotus, which connote the melange of religions contained in the Theosophical doctrine.

Hope Anderson Productions

Gone forever are the lovely grounds of the Krotona Colony. As I wrote in my previous post, “The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon,” the Theosophists wanted to grow as much of their own food as possible, a desire reflected in the Colony’s fields and vegetable gardens. But–as the map shows–considerable attention and land were devoted to gardens whose purpose was recreational and contemplative. Chief among these was the Italian Gardens, located at the top of Temple Hill. Its formal layout was crowned by a magnificent Mogul-style pergola that provided members a place for reflection, as well as an impressive view of Hollywood to the south.

Map of the Krotona Colony

Hollywood’s burgeoning urbanism would drive the Theosophical Society to relocate to the Ojai Valley in 1926. The Krotona Colony’s public buildings were turned into apartments and private homes; its houses were sold to new, non-Theosophist owners. But the grounds, including the Italian Gardens, were subdivided into residential lots. Houses soon rose up, leaving no trace.
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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

Peter the Hermit, Sage of the Hollywood Dell

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Peter the Hermit in Life Magazine/Courtesy Peter Green

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.

 

 

 

Krotona Flight: Beachwood’s Original Staircase

August 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

Krotona Flight from Visa del Mar Avenue

Krotona Flight from Visa del Mar Avenue/Hope Anderson Productions

Krotona Flight is a monumental staircase located on Vista del Mar Avenue, at the southwestern edge of  Beachwood Canyon. Though less famous than the granite staircases of Hollywoodland to the north, it is arguably more fascinating. Like the Hollywoodland stairs, Krotona Flight had its practical and decorative uses but also an equally important symbolic function.

Designed by the architectural firm of Mead and Requa, Krotona Flight was built in 1914-1915. The stairs not only provided access to the Knudsen residence to the east but served as the south entrance to the hillside Krotona Colony, the utopian community founded by the Theosophical Society in 1912.

Krotona colonists used the stairs to get to and from the trolley hub at Argyle and Franklin Avenues. Returning from their jobs in Hollywood and Los Angeles, they only had to walk uphill for a couple of blocks–passing land that was then mostly fields–before reaching the stairs. Although the original plans called for a large gateway at the bottom of Krotona Flight, it was never built. Instead, the stairs fulfilled the function of delineating the Colony from the ordinary world.

The fountain on the first landing, though no longer working, makes it plain the stairs were more than functional. Writes the architectural historian Alfred Willis of Krotona Flight: “Simple yet grand, this staircase once symbolized for those who climbed it the ascent into those spiritual realms of which Krotona in Hollywood was a kind of earthly correspondent.” (Architronic v. 8, 1998)
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For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

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

July 6, 2009 § 6 Comments

IMG_0761

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.

theosophist buildings 009

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.  

IMG_0757

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.

Alternative Religions, from Theosophy to Scientology: A Hollywood Tradition

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 former Theosophist Temple and Meeting Hall, now Krotona Apts.

The former Theosophist Temple and Meeting Hall, now the Krotona Apts. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

 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.  

Mary Astor outside her family's home, Moorcrest. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Mary Astor outside her family's home, Moorcrest. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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.

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