November 18, 2011 § Leave a comment
On Monday, I took a first-time visitor to Los Angeles from Hollywood to the Pacific, via Sunset Blvd. We wound up at a restaurant overlooking Santa Monica Beach, which was empty of people. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “Well, it’s winter,” I said. “But it feels like summer,” he said. No matter: despite its relatively balmy climate, Los Angeles does have a low season, and this is it.
That’s why November thru February is my favorite time of year. It’s not just that there are fewer tourists; there are fewer Angelenos, as hordes leave for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Some manage to stay away during the weeks between the holidays, while others clear out from mid-December until after Sundance.) For those of us who stay behind, there’s less traffic, more parking and more quiet. And in Hollywoodland, tourism that intermittently reaches manageable levels.
These photos were taken in the western part of Beachwood Canyon around 4pm yesterday. The recently cleared picture-posing area, which in summer held crowds of a hundred or more, was empty.
Across the road, the Lake Hollywood lookout had fewer than a dozen tourists.
On the blind curves of Mulholland Highway, there were no illegally stopped cars, only a couple of walkers and a dog. If not for the ubiquitous trash cans (the same ones that took out my passenger’s side mirror last spring as I dodged an oncoming car), my view of the Hollywood Sign would have been perfect.
April 25, 2011 § 2 Comments
Mulholland Highway curves around the western edge of Beachwood Canyon like a massive snake. A man-made thoroughfare butressed by granite retaining walls, the Highway (not to be confused with Mulholland Drive) was built, like all the roads in Hollywoodland, in the mid-1920s. It contains both a split-level section (under construction in the photo above) and a cliff-side stretch locals call the blind curves.
As Gregory Williams points out in his book, The Story of Hollywood (BL Press, 2005), “old-timers called Mulholland Highway ‘the road to nowhere,'” an accurate title for a street that didn’t connect to anything until Canyon Lake Drive was built in the early 1960s.
What was intended as a glorified driveway to the Canyon’s uppermost houses is now a heavily-traveled route for tourists seeking a view of the Hollywood Sign, commuters to and from Burbank and people who use Lake Hollywood Park. The blind curves are made more hazardous by people who park their cars to take pictures of the Hollywood Sign. As if that weren’t enough, the road has no median line, making it easier for nervous drivers to justifying driving in the middle. That’s what happened yesterday when a truck came barreling towards me around one of the curves as I headed home from the park. In swerving to avoid being hit, I sheared off my passenger’s side window against one of the many trash cans that are perpetually out by the curb.
The amazing thing is that it’s never happened to me before on that stretch of Mulholland Highway, during an estimated 1300 round trips over the past 5 years. In light of that record I should be glad, but the cost of the repair* on my mirror leaves me less than grateful.
March 12, 2011 § 1 Comment
A few Sundays ago, my visiting sister–after countless cars roared by the house on their way towards the Sign–remarked, “I couldn’t care less about seeing the Hollywood Sign.” If only more people felt the same way.
Since the “Hollywood Sign Scenic View” signs came down, GPS-enabled gridlock has returned to a certain Hollywoodland street. For those who haven’t seen the YouTube video from last weekend, here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC6tSAZTh1k
A couple of warm days have given us a taste of the chaos to come in tourist traffic. Yesterday at about 4:30pm, I was driving up Beachwood by the Glens when a woman in pink not only ran into traffic but zig-zagged through moving cars in both lanes, shrieking and laughing as she was photographed. I hit the horn and then the brakes, but she was still running around in the street as I passed. I can only assume this is a Sign-induced variation on Stendahl Syndrome, and I pray it’s not catching.
Later, after finishing a hike, I came upon the following shoots wrapping up on Mulholland Highway: a music video featuring a French male singer and two female back-ups, and one featuring a guy in what appeared to be a bear suit. Except perhaps for the bear suit, none of this was unusual. Earlier in the week, as I dodged tourists at the Lake Hollywood Lookout, I nearly ran over a photographer who was in the street shooting a model in a vintage convertible. The convertible blocked Mulholland Highway at the intersection of Canyon Lake Drive, creating a very dangerous situation for cars moving in both directions. Naturally, there was no one directing traffic. As none of these people pay fees of any kind–film crews of six or fewer people are exempt from permits, and still photography doesn’t require them–shoots like these go on every day.
Last but not least, someone is giving the Hollywood Sign the scholarly treatment–and explaining its magical powers of attraction. As three people, including one in Wisconsin, have emailed me about this lecture by Leo Braudy at the Architecture + Design Museum this afternoon, I feel compelled to attend:
The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon
Hollywood’s famous sign, constructed of massive white block letters set into a steep hillside, is an emblem of the movie capital it looms over and an international symbol of glamour and star power. To so many who see its image, the sign represents the earthly home of that otherwise ethereal world of fame, stardom and celebrity–the goal of American and worldwide aspiration to be in the limelight, to be, like the Hollywood sign itself, instantly recognizable. Leo Braudy is currently University Professor and Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at the University of Southern California and was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Saturday, March 12, 2011 – 5:00pm to 8:00pm
February 26, 2011 § 4 Comments
Just when Hollywoodland residents thought congestion couldn’t get any worse, signs like the one pictured above appeared, as if by magic, to gin up tourist traffic to the Hollywood Sign. This turn of events came as a complete surprise to everyone I know, so it wasn’t until a flier appeared in my mailbox that I learned who was responsible: the Hollywood Homeowners Association. As one of the HHA’s dues-paying members–until now, that is–I would have expected some sort of written notice, and perhaps the opportunity to cast a vote, before the signs were made. But no: the HHA made the decision unilaterally, without notifying anyone who failed to attend a certain meeting, let alone the many Hollywoodland residents who would be affected. The issue went completely unpublicized, even on the HHA’s website.
Apparently the HHA’s aim was to redirect traffic from the dead-end on Durand Drive, where residents were trapped by gridlocked cars on weekends. The result has been a significant increase of illegally parked cars on both Mulholland Highway and Canyon Lake Drive, not only on weekends but every day of the week. While GPS directed a certain amount of traffic to those streets before the signs went up, I never saw more than two cars at a time stopped illegally on the ridge above Lake Hollywood Park, as opposed to the four plus on any given day since. When recently I had to pass five parked cars in a row, I narrowly missed being hit head-on by an oncoming car on a blind curve–surely not the result intended by the HHA.
Then there’s the intersection of Mulholland Highway and Canyon Lake, where cars not only park illegally but double-park, reducing access to a single harrowing lane on a steep hill. What used to be a challenging route has become a death trap, yet the park rangers who patrol the area are interested only in issuing warnings to the owners of off-leash dogs in Lake Hollywood Park. As long as they’re driving cars, scofflaws get a free pass in Hollywoodland.
Today as I walked my dog on Beachwood Drive, I discovered the result of another unilateral decision: the sign pictured above has been covered by a black plastic trash bag. Score: HHA 1, Beleaguered Homeowners 1.
September 20, 2010 § Leave a comment
Exactly nine months have passed since I posted “Lost (Mulholland) Highway: The Trail from the Madonna House to Wolf’s Lair.” https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/12/20/lost-mulholland-highway-the-trail-from-the-madonna-house-to-wolfs-lair/ Hiking the trail today, I was struck by the seasonal difference: some of the green foliage in last year’s pictures is now brown and rust, giving the trail a distinctly autumnal appearance that to my mind is as beautiful.
What isn’t beautiful is the graffiti that mars the trail in places, most disturbingly on “Face Rock.” Apparently someone thought the rock needed a more permanent face than the one that passing hikers fashion daily from leaves, stones, flowers and branches. So he spray-painted one on it.
This happened a while ago, and though it’s not the first incident of tagging on the trail, it certainly followed my previous post. In the intervening months, I’ve wondered if, by writing about the rock, I may have indirectly caused it to be defaced. If so, I’m deeply sorry–but somehow I doubt the tagger in question read this blog. Whoever he is, I wish he hadn’t done it.
January 1, 2010 § 20 Comments
The Mulholland Highway mansion known popularly as the Madonna House is actually called Castillo del Lago, a name that aptly describes its imposing size and spectacular vistas of Lake Hollywood. Its 300-degree view also features Los Angeles, the ocean and–on clear days–Catalina. Designed by John De Lario for the oilman Patrick Longdon, Castillo del Lago has been a landmark since its completion in 1926. And though Los Angeles has grown ten-fold since its construction, the house remains a stately, solitary presence, all but invisible from the trail that runs alongside its massive retaining wall.
The wall, concealing a steep driveway, has itself become a landmark since Madonna, after buying the house for $5 million in 1993, had it painted with cream and crimson stripes, an act that apparently outraged the neighbors. (Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s brother and former interior designer, says it was inspired by a church in Portofino.) Though now somewhat faded, it remains an arresting sight–if an ironic choice for a woman who complained the paparazzi were invading her privacy.
Castillo del Lago’s most visible feature is its tower, a multi-story affair that rises out of the Torrey pines that shroud the rest of the villa. A magnificent spiral staircase and an elevator connect the various levels, which contain 9 bedrooms and 6 baths, as well as a library, game room, wine cellar and a lounge that resembles an Ottoman tent. There are offices, storage areas and servants’ quarters. Outside are formal gardens, fountains and a pool.
At various times in its history, Castillo del Lago has been vacant, a white elephant during the Depression and beyond. Older adults who grew up in Beachwood tell stories of using it as a neighborhood clubhouse, entering through unlocked doors to play in the tower and on the stairs. Milt Entwistle, the younger brother of the actress Peg Entwistle, remembers that during the 1930’s the house had a modern stainless steel kitchen and walnut floors. As a boy he dreamed of buying the house, then priced at a stratospheric $20,000.
In the late 1930’s, a newcomer to Beachwood leased the house: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the gangster best known for spearheading the post-war casino boom in Las Vegas. Though he later took up residence in Beverly Hills, Siegel apparently lived in Castillo del Lago for a time while running it as an illegal casino. (It was not a speakeasy, as many people have claimed, as Prohibition was repealed in 1933.) It’s not hard to imagine, given Siegel’s criminality and the extra-legal goings on within, that Castillo del Lago was the scene of some unsavory acts, including murder.
Siegel moved on in the 1940’s, spending much of his time building the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. As depicted in the movie “Bugsy,” he died in hail of gunfire in his Beverly Hills living room in 1947. (The hit was ordered by Lucky Luciano, whom Siegel fleeced to build the Flamingo.) Meanwhile, Castillo del Lago changed hands several times, going through at least one other period of vacancy in the 1950’s.
In their 1994 book Hollywood Haunted (Angel City Press), Laurie Jacobson and Marc Wanamaker describe Castillo del Lago as a place of considerable paranormal activity whose visitors often” [felt] a deep sense of foreboding.” Tom Murray, a fashion photographer who shot there for three days in 1988, reported equipment malfunctions and a pervasive feeling of dread among his crew. “All the Polaroids I shot in the house came out black,” he said. “I tried different cameras, different film, everything. It was always the same. Everything I tried to photograph inside that house came out black.”
When Madonna bought the place in the 1993, she undertook a renovation that cost $3 million and transformed the house from Spanish Colonial to Italianate. (The renovation still irks her neighbors, who claimed she “ruined” the house by painting the wall and replacing the original tiles with cheaper ones.) Perhaps because of the extensive renovation, the mood of the house lifted somewhat, though strange things still happened. According to Jacobson and Wanamaker, “Madonna confided to a friend that on occasion she felt a force throughout the house, a force that was not safe.” Her caretaker reported that doors closed and locked behind him whenever he stepped outside it. And when he was alone there at night, he could hear a man calling his name.
In 1997, Madonna sold Castillo del Lago at a huge loss to Joe Pytka, the commercial director and restaurant owner (of Bastide, now defunct), who presumably gave any lingering ghosts the boot. (Disclosure: I was socially acquainted with Pytka in the early 1990’s, well before he bought the house.) Pytka, who bought the house for $5.3 million, listed it last year for $14.95 million after an extensive renovation of his own. (In addition to creating a new kitchen and master suite, he upgraded Madonna’s tilework.) Recently the price has been dropped to a relatively reasonable $9.99 million, so now’s the time to contact the agent (Benjamin Bacal/Keller Williams Realty Sunset) and make an offer.
December 20, 2009 § 4 Comments
Near the intersection of Mulholland Highway and Canyon Lake Drive, a mile-long trail runs from Castillo del Lago–a.k.a. the Madonna House, nicknamed for you-know-who, though she no longer lives there–to Wolf’s Lair, a sprawling white castle on Durand Drive. (More on both those landmarks in future posts.) The trail, which features spectacular views of Lake Hollywood, is a favorite of Beachwood Canyon hikers and their dogs.
It’s a magical spot, one of a handful in Los Angeles that makes people forget they’re living in a city. In springtime, wild grasses grow so luxuriantly that the trail seems new and untouched. During the summer the dense foliage turns brown, leaving the trail wildly unkempt and hard to navigate. In autumn the trail comes to life again, growing green after the first rains. And late in the year, there’s a surprise: red berries on the native holly trees (toyon) that grow alongside it.
The trail has landmarks: a huge California pepper tree, abused last year by vandals, flourishes near the striped retaining wall of the Madonna House. Closer to Wolf’s Lair there’s a large flat rock decorated with stones, flowers and branches to resemble a face. Constantly rearranged by passersby, the Face Rock is an almost human presence, marking both the seasons and one’s progress on the trail.
Looking down at Lake Hollywood, one can spot herons and other waterfowl that make their home there. Built at the same time as Hollywoodland (1923 to 1925), the Lake is the crown jewel of the water system built by William Mulholland, the chief engineer of Los Angeles.
After I moved to Hollywoodland in late 2005, I took to hiking the trail with my dog and wondered about its origins until my neighbor Anita Gordon (now sadly deceased) told me it was intended as an extension of Mulholland Highway. The evidence is clear: although for the most part packed dirt, there are paved sections that poke up at odd angles amid the grasses. The paving–concrete studded with pebbles– dates from Hollywoodland’s beginnings in the mid-1920’s. If fully paved, there would have been a drivable road to Toluca Lake.
Why did the paving stop? Perhaps the tract owners, along with developer S.H. Woodruff, decided Hollywoodland’s appeal depended on its isolation both from Hollywood and the Valley. By making the neighborhood accessible only via Beachwood Drive, the tract would maintain its tranquility and rural character–the very qualities promised by radio and print ads across the nation.
It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that Canyon Lake Drive was built, connecting Beachwood Canyon to Toluca Lake. Still, the route to the Valley remained relatively unknown until a 1989 book called LA Shortcuts revealed it; Beachwood Canyon has been plagued by commuter traffic ever since.