Beachwood Canyon in the 1940 Census, Part II: Discovering Bernard B. Brown, the Academy Award-Winning Original Owner of My House

May 20, 2012 § 19 Comments

When I first saw my 1937 Cape Cod in Hollywoodland, I laughed at its description: it’s not a Cape house that anyone in Massachusetts would recognize. In fact, it’s a typical pre-WWII California country house, heavy on the clapboard and decidedly simple in design. For me, it has been ideal: a box for living and working that is equally suited to both. My home has changed hands many times during its history, and I’ve enjoyed hearing neighbors’ stories about its previous owners: an old lady who owned standard poodles, circa 1960; the family of 6 who in the 70s crammed three children in two small bedrooms upstairs and one daughter in the dining room; the 80s TV actor whose drug habit ended his ownership of the house, along with his career; the couple who in the 90s set up a home art gallery that attracted a steady stream of customers. But until I searched the 1940 Census, I never knew anything about the original owner, the one for whom the house probably was built.

His name was Bernard B. Brown, and the Census lists his occupation as sound supervisor at a motion picture studio. On IMDB, I found evidence of prolific three-decade career at Universal: sound credits on 528 films between 1930 and 1958, composing credits on another 30, and directing credits on 2 shorts. He was well paid for the time, listing his income in excess of $5000 a year. The height of Brown’s career came in 1945, when he won two Academy Awards, a competitive award for sound (for “Lady on a Train,” starring Deanna Durbin and Ralph Bellamy) and a technical achievement award for the “design and engineering of separate soloist and chorus recording room.”

Brown was part of the second wave of film industry immigrants to Los Angeles. The first wave consisted of the actors, directors and crew members who worked on Silent films. The second wave, which began in the latter half of the 1920s, brought those who created Talkies: sound men. In 1940, Bernard Brown lived in my then-new house with his wife Mildred. The Browns listed no children on the Census, which–because they were 41 and 37, respectively–means they probably didn’t have any. This was a surprise to me because the garage floor boasts, along with the 1937 date of the house’s completion, two small children’s hand prints. (Children putting their names and handprints in wet cement, Grauman’s Chinese Theater-style, seems to have been common practice in Hollywoodland.) The other surprise was Brown’s birthplace: Lafarge, Wisconsin, a stone’s throw from my maternal grandparents’ hometown of LaCrosse, and the closest thing my peripatetic family has to a hometown.

The probable reason no one in the neighborhood remembers Bernard Brown is that he and Mildred moved out of the house long ago, at the end of his career in 1958, if not before. But they didn’t go far: when Brown died in 1981 at the age of 83, he was living in Glendale. It’s possible that someone reading this might remember working with him during the late 1950s, in which case I would welcome any information. In the meantime, I’m trying to find a photo of Bernard Brown so that I can hang it in the house. It’s the least I can do for a man who epitomized the original Hollywoodlander–someone whose life was spent behind the camera, making movies.

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.

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