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 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

The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon

November 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

The O.E. Roberts Orchard, left, and Clausen's Ranch, right, at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1890/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Although many people think Hollywood sprang into existence at the start of the movie industry, its history as a settlement pre-dates not only the 20th century but the Spanish Colonial period. The area was settled ten thousand or more years ago by Tongva Native Americans, some of whom were still living in Beachwood Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. (It was the Tongva who paddled out to meet Cabrillo’s ship in 1542; they truly were the first Angelenos.)

During the Colonial period, the future Hollywood was part of the San Fernando Mission–its outlying pastures, on which sheep grazed. In 1887, Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their Christian utopia as an agrarian village–one that had more orchards than houses. 19th- century Hollywood produced excellent lemons, poor oranges (used for orange soda, not fresh juice), flowers immortalized by the painter Paul deLongpre, and some rather exotic fruits and vegetables. Among the crops that were grown in Hollywood’s orchards were bananas, figs, apricots, avocados, dates, pineapples and chermoyas.

It was this  bounty, made possible by a frostless climate and more than 300 sunny days each year, that attracted the Theosophical Society to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. The Theosophists were vegetarian, and thus naturally drawn to agricultural self-sufficiency; the perfect climate of Southern California was a major reason for their relocation from Chicago. In a letter to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, A.P. Warrington, the head of the American branch, wrote: 

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…

The Krotona Colony included fields and gardens– presumably worked by its members, though I’ve seen no photographs proving it.

The mystery in all of this is how these farmers managed to coax crops out of  Beachwood’s soil. Thin and nutrient-poor, it sits atop solid granite, the result of which is geological stability–we barely feel earthquakes–and the constant appearance of rocks and stones. Since moving to Beachwood 5 years ago, I’ve struggled to make something of my garden, despite assiduous efforts at soil enrichment. Although roses do well with regular applications of compost and fertilizer, vegetables grow with limited success, and only in boxes. Interestingly, the ten fruit trees I’ve planted have stayed true to historical precedent, producing terrible oranges (if any), but wonderful lemons, peaches and apricots. This year, I planted a green gage plum whose first crop I’m eagerly anticipating; more on it, and the “Pineapple Tract,” in a future post. 

Banana trees in Beachwood Canyon, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Additional Sources:

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.

The Story of Hollywood, by Gregory Paul Williams. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005.

Los Angeles City Archives.

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.

 

 

 

Haunted Hollywoodland

November 7, 2009 § 1 Comment

hollywoodland, c. 1926

Hollywoodland, circa 1926. The house featured in the article, with crenelated tower, is seen at center. Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection.

Several years ago I met a woman who had unwittingly rented a haunted apartment in an old building on Hollywood Boulevard. After a month of torment by voices and things flying around the room, she moved out. Her theory was this: “A lot of people came to Hollywood to be in the movies and when things didn’t work out, they killed themselves.”

Hollywoodland has its fair share of paranormal activity too, but it seems to have to do less with tormented souls than people who liked living here and don’t see the need to move out simply because they’re dead. (See my previous piece on Felix Adler.) 

My closest encounter with Hollywoodland’s spirit community came in 2006, soon after I moved in, when neighbors invited me to see their castle-like home. A monument to storybook architecture, the four-story house features crenelated towers and numerous balconies. Like most of Hollywoodland’s original houses, it has enormous walls of granite quarried in Bronson Canyon and a fairy tale atmosphere. 

It was a very hot 4th of July; as the house was not air-conditioned, the many rooms I toured were uncomfortably warm. The notable exception was the library, which was at least 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the downstairs and probably 25 degrees cooler than the upstairs. Cool air flowed from an unseen vent, prompting me to comment on the room’s air conditioning.

“It’s not air-conditioning,” said one of my hosts.

I had already heard about the female ghost flying down a hallway toward one of them when they moved in. A mysterious figure in 1920’s clothing, she  made periodic appearances until they renovated the library, which originally was so frigid that the carpenter wore a down jacket to do the work, until he quit out of fear. The owners finished the job themselves, after which the place warmed up considerably.

The ghost didn’t entirely disappear, however, because she took a liking to one of the owner’s visiting sons. The teenager would wake up in the morning to find small gifts–previously unseen silver spoons, napkin rings and lamp finials–on his bedside table, a pattern that continued after he started bolting the door from the inside. The spoons and napkin rings were engraved in a feminine font with three initials. My hosts had made a collection of the objects and showed it to me.

By then the ghost had stopped her visits. Perhaps because the boy had grown up, there were no more unexpected trinkets left in the night. The owners speculated the ghost was the original owner, perhaps a murder victim (they’d found a stain in the garage), but old newspapers turned up no accounts of a crime.

Because the house looks like an English castle rather than a Mogul palace, I walked by it hundreds of times before realizing it had been built for Theosophists. The cut-outs of crosses on the garage doors seemed merely decorative before I noticed, high on one of the towers, red lotuses on the stained glass windows and Moorish arches outside them. As far as I know, the castle is one of two Theosophist houses in Hollywoodland; all the others are below the gates, the bulk of them in the southwest corner of the Canyon, where the Krotona Colony was located.

The occult fads of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appealed to Theosophists and early Hollywood film stars alike, as both groups searched for existential answers. More than one Beachwood resident has told me stories of seances held during the teens and twenties in certain houses that have unexplained events to this day. And a psychic who lives in the Canyon has had vivid dreams about Peg Entwistle, who said in one, “There’s more life after death than you can imagine.”

Mary Astor at Moorcrest: the 1925 Publicity Photos

August 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

From Mary Astor’s second memoir,  A Life on Film (Delacourt Press, 1967), come two previously unseen (at least by me) photos of her at Moorcrest.

Mary Astor & Helen 1925014

In the first, she poses with her dreadful mother, Helen Langhanke. Helen, who made no secret of hating her daughter during her lifetime, underscored the sentiment by leaving Astor her diaries, which were a litany of viciousness and abuse. (Helen Langhanke’s diaries not only compounded Astor’s pain but, oddly, instilled the diary-keeping habit that would trigger the 1936 custody suit brought by her second husband, Franklyn Thorpe.) 

Astor hated Moorcrest’s decor, which she called “unfortunate.” The red lotus keyhole windows and central arched window are clearly seen in the background of the photo, which appears to be the north side of the house. Here’s how the north facade of the master bedroom looks today:

Looking North to the Hollywood Sign from Moorcrest/Hope Anderson Productions

Looking North to the Hollywood Sign from Moorcrest/Hope Anderson Productions

Far more glamorous and fun is the second photo. Astor poses in Moorcrest’s porte cochere with the family chauffeur and their Pierce Arrow limousine, both afforded by her earnings.

She was 19 years old, the family’s sole supporter and a virtual prisoner of her parents and Moorcrest. And though Mary Astor would attain freedom in three years, she wouldn’t reach the height of her stardom for another fourteen.

Mary Astor & Car 1925015

For more about Mary Astor, 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

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

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