This Morning Near the Hollyridge Trailhead, A Truckload of Spilled Manure

May 17, 2014 § 4 Comments

Overturned Rig Carrying Manure from Sunset Ranch, 5/17/14/Courtesy T.J.Escott

Overturned Rig Carrying Manure from Sunset Ranch, 5/17/14/Courtesy T.J.Escott

Photo Courtesy T.J. Escott

Photo Courtesy T.J. Escott

This morning a rig carrying a load of manure from Sunset Ranch overturned on North Beachwood Drive; fortunately, no one was buried by it. But on a normal Saturday, this might have been the outcome, as the street is always crowded with pedestrians headed toward the Hollyridge Trail.

The only reason pedestrians weren’t out in force today is that the Trail is closed due to the construction of a fence and gate. When completed, the gate will keep out cars (except for those going to the Ranch), but not pedestrians, despite the fact that they walk up in large groups, several abreast, on a street that lacks sidewalks, blocking cars and emergency vehicles.

In the interest of public safety, Hollywoodland residents have united in petitioning the City to close the Hollyridge Trailhead permanently, and the LAPD, LADOT and LAFD have concurred. Nevertheless, Rec and Parks Interim General Manager Mike Schull has ignored all recommendations and plans to reopen pedestrian access the Hollyridge Trail via Beachwood Drive as soon as the gate is completed. Councilman Tom LaBonge, after promising a 180-day closure of the trailhead for further study, has reneged on his promise and now agrees with Schull.

For those who believe the Hollyridge Trail has always open to hikers and their vehicles, a bit of history. The land where the Hollyridge Trail is located was originally part of the Hollywoodland Tract–private land. In 1944, Hollywoodland’s developers deeded the parcel, which includes the Hollywood Sign, to the City of Los Angeles, which annexed it to Griffith Park. Access to the parcel was supposed to be via Canyon Drive, not Beachwood Drive. The Hollyridge Trailhead and unpaved parking lot are a much more recent development, having been put in illegally by the City a dozen years ago.

Although Hollywood residents like to hike the Trail as much as visitors do, we are willing to forgo our own access in the interest of safety–not only our own but that of visitors, whose treatment for injuries and heat stroke has been needlessly delayed by the gridlock on Beachwood Drive. Another pressing concern is the increased fire risk brought into the Canyon by thousands of visitors a day, many of whom smoke with impunity. As we face the driest summer in Los Angeles’ history, the chances of Hollywoodland going up in flames increase with each new day. On a gridlocked street with no alternate access, all it would take is a single spark.

Update, April 13, 2017: The Beachwood Drive gate is now closed to pedestrian access

Hollyridge Trailhead To Be Closed for 180 Days

January 10, 2014 § 7 Comments

The Sign from the Hollyridge Trail/Hope Anderson Productions

The Sign from the Hollyridge Trail/Hope Anderson Productions

After much petitioning from neighborhood groups, the trailhead at the dead end of Beachwood Drive will be closed temporarily, according to the office of Councilman Tom LaBonge.

Because of the challenges surrounding access to the Hollyridge Trail, Sunset Ranch, the Mt. Lee communications center and the Hollywood Sign, I feel it is important to close the trailhead for a 180 day period. Ultimately, a determination will require the guidance and cooperation of many other City departments. The neighborhood is being overwhelmed by the influx of vehicle [sic], substandard streets, no sidewalks, and we want to insure that in the event of an emergency, that [sic] there can be access.”

Update, April 13, 2017: The Beachwood Drive gate is now closed to pedestrian access

Discovering a Piece of Hollywoodland’s Equestrian Past

February 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

The Front and Back Covers of a Hollywoodland Riding Club pamphlet, circa 1923/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

The Front and Back Covers of a Hollywoodland Riding Club pamphlet, circa 1923/HopeAnderson Productions

Last Sunday I stopped by the Antiquarian Book Fair at the Santa Monica Civic. I was there to meet John Howell, a rare book dealer who had emailed to tell me about one of his offerings, a pristine pamphlet advertising the long-defunct Hollywoodland Riding Club.

Because all of Hollywoodland was once a ranch, there have been horses at the end of Beachwood Drive for as long as anyone can remember. In recent decades, horses have lived at Sunset Ranch, which offers boarding, lessons and trail rides to the public. But when Hollywoodland began in 1923, there was a riding club where homeowners could board their horses and learn to ride English-style, if they didn’t already know how. The allure of riding in the Hollywood Hills was a selling point for house lots, and figured prominently in radio ads for Hollywoodland:

Listen–the horses are stamping in their stalls-the sea breeze kisses the hilltops-while the birds weave melodies of happiness on the open trail. Your day in Hollywoodland-in-California begins with a song, and for a brief hour you canter on the wings of the morning–a shower-breakfast-and away for a day at the office, to return at eventide to the calmness of the hills, and there below you, watch a myriad of millions of lights twinkling in the distance.

Inside the Pamphlet, a Map of Hollywoodland/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside the Pamphlet, a Map of Hollywoodland

Although I had seen the pamphlet in a larger format, I wasn’t aware it was produced in this compact size. I wasn’t planning to buy it, but in the end I did, impressed by its excellent condition and historical significance. Anyone with an interest in California history should check out John Howell’s website, which offers a variety of books and images:

John Howell

John Howell

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

February 9, 2010 § 11 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.

Haunted Hollywoodland, Part II: Sunset Ranch

November 22, 2009 § 10 Comments

Sunset Ranch and the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Sunset Ranch occupies a hilly space at the north end of Beachwood Drive, where the Canyon meets Griffith Park. Although many people know it as a riding spot, few realize the ranch predates Hollywoodland, the 1923 housing development that abuts it. Before the property was developed by a real estate consortium headed by Harry Chandler, all of Hollywoodland was ranchland.

Unsurprisingly, horses were a big part of early Hollywoodland’s appeal. Residents of the new neighborhood were to have the best of both worlds: a peaceful country life and easy access to urban jobs and amusements. A radio ad outlined a typical day for Hollywoodland homeowners:

Listen–the horses are stamping in their stalls-the sea breeze kisses the hilltops-while the birds weave melodies of happiness on the open trail. Your day in Hollywoodland-in-California begins with a song, and for a brief hour you canter on the wings of the morning–a shower-breakfast-and away for a day at the office, to return at eventide to the calmness of the hills, and there below you, watch a myriad of millions of lights twinkling in the distance.

Residents also enjoyed a clubhouse and tennis courts near the north end of Beachwood Drive, where some sixties-era houses now stand. A jitney running from Beachwood Drive to the trolley stop at Franklin and Argyle ferried residents back and forth, a necessity in the days of one-car families. Though the clubhouse faded away during the Depression, limited car service from the Village bus stop to houses up the hill continued into the 1950’s.

Subsequent decades brought new construction, more residents and through traffic as Canyon Lake Drive connected Beachwood Canyon to Toluca Lake. Through it all, only Sunset Ranch remained unchanged, offering trail rides, boarding, horses for movies and itself as a shooting location.

Its most famous recent appearance was in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” The scene in which the Cowboy delivers an ultimatum to the young movie director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is both surreal and frightening, as Adam drives his Porsche up a darkened Beachwood Drive, parks and enters a paddock lit by a single flickering bulb.

In 2006, I spent part of an afternoon shooting interviews and B-roll at the Ranch for my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign.” While the Ranch is not as scary in daylight as it was in “Mulholland Dr.,” it is believed to be haunted. I had already heard stories of a “weird, dark energy” from someone who spent a lot of time there as a child, but I didn’t have time to investigate because we were on a tight schedule. (I’d paid a $500 fee to shoot for two hours.)

My first inkling that it wasn’t going to be an easy afternoon was when my previously booked interviewee, a Ranch employee, got a serious case of cold feet and tried to back out. Somehow I persuaded her to go through with the interview and eventually coaxed an amusing story from her, about some clients on the dinner ride who, after too many margaritas, had a hard time staying on their horses. An employee overheard this and reported back to the manager, who sent an emissary to inform me that I couldn’t use the story and moreover that he would have to see a rough cut to “approve” the interview. 

The manager soon appeared to give me the bum’s rush, claiming we would have to leave because another production company was coming to scout. I didn’t understand why that would be a conflict– location scouting and shooting occur there constantly–yet I sensed there was no point in arguing. We did another quick interview and left early, but not before I sent word that I would not be using the first interview. (The only interesting thing in it was the offending story and besides, I don’t let outsiders see rough cuts.)

Much later, I interviewed a former Sunset Ranch riding instructor who told me of spending the night in one of the rooms over the barn and hearing a man being hanged, along with choking sounds and the vibration of the rope. This was consistent with the Romeo-and-Juliet story I’d heard about a 16-year-old Mexican boy who worked at the ranch in the 1920’s. He fell in love with a Hollywoodland homeowner’s daughter and she with him, but it was an impossible situation given their class and ethnic differences, as well as the mores of the day. Despondent that he could never be with his true love, the boy hanged himself in the breezeway between the stalls.

Then there’s the strange, wafting scent of gardenias each autumn. Riders and ranch employees report smelling gardenias on the trails in mid-September, near the anniversary of Peg Entwistle’s suicide off the Hollywoodland Sign. No gardenias grow in the area, but Peg wore gardenia perfume.

On December 26th, 2007– a night when 90 mile-an-hour winds uprooted a stand of 70-year-old Torrey pines on Woodhaven Dr., just above the village–the Ranch was involved in a freak riding accident. The circumstances were  these: an engaged couple had booked a private dinner ride for that night. It was a birthday gift from the man to his fiancee,  a romantic night ride for the two of them, led by a guide.  Though the woman an inexperienced rider, the guide inexplicably put her on a new, skittish horse; despite high winds, they set out for Toluca Lake. When the guide moved to the front along the narrow passage between Mt. Lee and Mt. Hollywood, the horse bolted, set off by the winds. The woman fell off ; despite her headgear (all riders at Sunset Ranch are required to wear helmets) she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness.

Her grief-stricken fiance returned every night for two weeks to mourn at the place where she died. Although her parents filed a huge lawsuit against the ranch, accounts of the accident and the eventual settlement were somehow kept out of the news.

Sunset Ranch is understandably sensitive about its image, but the management’s efforts to censor bad news–and even a little story about dinner riders and margaritas–makes one wonder whether transparency might a better tactic. After all, secrecy can only underscore the impression that the Ranch is  mysterious, haunted and possessed of a “weird, dark energy.”

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