Saturday, 8 May 2010

CITY OF ANGELS: Hollywood, part 1 - Introduction

Hollywood Boulevard in the 1930s

Due to the fact that American culture, notably film, have permeated even the remotest corners of our planet, Hollywood has become a household name, now synonymous with anything from celebrity to plastic surgery.

Yet, the Hollywood I came to know - and love - couldn't be more different!

Everything in life is subject to one's own perception. And so all I tend to see when cruising through Hollywood on my bicycle are a gathering of Spanish Colonial houses, many of which have miraculously escaped the march of progress, embedded in lush, subtropical greenery, through which the pivotally located Hollywood Boulevard cuts like a lifeline, providing its surrounding areas with its own iconoclastic blend of culture, subculture, clubs, watering holes and eateries, some of which dating back to Hollywood's golden age. Besides being Hollywood's heartbeat, Hollywood Boulevard is most of all a treasure trove for anyone interested in classic Hollywood as it is lined with historic buildings, many of which are connected to the history of Hollywood itself and, of course, to the history of American cinema. Quite aptly, Hollywood Boulevard is also home to what is, perhaps, the best book store in the world, Larry Edmunds, whose expert staff put every film historian to shame.

Who could have foreseen, given Hollywood's humble beginnings, that it would one day turn into the most illustrious community in the world?

Bearing in mind that when Harvey and Daeida Wilcox from Topeka/ Kansas founded Hollywood roughly 125 years ago, meaning to create a genteel, bible-quoting suburb of Los Angeles, looking at all the - although not always obvious - beauty that surrounds you in Hollywood, one could almost be led to believe that the Wilcoxes succeeded in their intention.

The pious couple was bound for Los Angeles, where they arrived in 1883, settling north of downtown for a few years. They did quite well for themselves, making a considerable amount of money in real estate, much of it due to the opening of the Santa Fe Railway line in 1885, which led to a massive land boom. That same year Daeida and Harvey decided to buy a patch of land in the Cahuenga Valley, Cahuenga being the native name for what became Hollywood. They built a farm there which they called Hollywood, a name Daeida overheard a fellow-traveller using while riding on a train. The Wilcoxes intended to create a Christian community, however, it gradually turned into an artists colony. To counteract the fast and loose attitude of Los Angeles, alcohol and any kind of gambling were anathema in Hollywood, an approach that was very much in keeping with the Wilcoxes idea of the Christian utopia they founded Hollywood for in the first place. Churches sprang up, houses and streets were built, a library, and gradually a modest town began to take shape with Prospect Avenue - now called Hollywood Boulevard - at its centre.

Hollywood's subtropical vegetation and Mediterranean feel struck a chord with French artist Paul de Longpre, who settled there in the 1890s, erecting a spectacular mansion encircled by a luxuriant garden which soon became a tourist attraction. In 1891, Harvey Wilcox died. Two years later, Daeida remarried, becoming the wife of Philo Beveridge, the son of Illinois governor John Beveridge.

The introduction of the electric streetcars made access to Hollywood's neighbouring communities easier, conveniently connecting the thriving hillside village with downtown Los Angeles as well as Santa Monica. To accomdate the increasing number of tourists, the Hollywood Hotel was built in 1903, the year Daeida pushed for Hollywood's incorporation as a city, only to be annexed to the City of Los Angeles a mere 7 years later. Water shortage having become s serious problem for the swiftly expanding colony, and the annexation enabled Hollywood to be entitled to its share of LA's water supply.

In 1903, Hollywood was a thriving Los Angeles suburb, boasting 700 inhabitants. Its reputation as a tranquil garden community grew steadily and began to attract wealthy business men and investors from all pockets of the country. One of them was C.E. Toberman, who arrived in 1907 and turned into one of Hollywood's most influential developers, instrumental in transforming Hollywood into the bustling, glamorous, town it eventually became.

It was also in 1907 that the first film folk set up shop in nearby Edendale, now Glendale, and when the New-Jersey based Nestor Company arrived in 1907, Hollywood' quiet, halcyon were numbered. Other film companies followed suit, all of them escaping Edison's waning Trust, or they were simply tired of being harnessed by the East Coast's poor weather conditions. Then, in 1913, Cecil B. DeMille and Jesse Lasky arrived in town to make what would become the first feature length film shot in Hollywood, The Squaw Man. Lasky and DeMille rented a barn on the corner of Selma and Vine Streets and subsequently turned it into a modest film studio.

It was clear that films were here to stay.

Yet, there still was scant evidence that the still relatively peaceful hamlet was going to become the universal film capital.An air of untamed provincialism still prevailed, as wrote DeMille's niece, Agnes, who came west with her father, William, who worked as his brother's scenarist: "The scenery was unrefreshing for an easterner. Geraniums hung unnaturally out of palm branches. Magenta bougainvillea matted the shingles and waved shoots and tendrils over the rooftops, struggling in suffocating embrace with the Cherokee roses ... the main thoroughfare, now Hollywood Boulevard, was a shambling, drowsy street of box stores and shingled houses under the dusty crackling palm and pepper trees. The stores had been thrown together in a week, but the houses were substantial, built by citizens of the Middle West who had come to the coast to die at ease in the sun".

However, with the arrival of film, Hollywood's landscape changed rapidly. Having had 7500 inhabitants in 1914, the number had swollen to 36000 by 1920. A building boom ensued which lasted until the early 1930s when the Great Depression put and end to it, and the better part of Hollywood's landmark buildings were erected during that time. To accommodate the growing number of hopefuls and film makers apartment buildings and hotels shot up; film theatres were built; Hollywood exploded, boomed, and with it its surrounding neighbourhoods. Actors become a common sight on Hollywood's streets, but they were nevertheless regarded with distrust in the still pious community. A sign outside the Hollywood Hotel read, "No Dogs, No Actors".

In 1918, Canadian born H.J. Whitley purchased a parcel of land north of Franklin Avenue, with the intention to convert it into an elegant, lavish enclave modelled on an Italian hillside village. As such, it was apt to attract its share of Hollywood's ever increasing share of film's most conspicuous by-product - movie stars. Whitley's dream became reality and Whitley Heights was born. Soon everybody who was anybody flocked to what quickly was dubbed "the first Beverly Hills", the birth of the latter was marked by the opening of the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1912. However, it would take another decade until Beverly Hills would turn into the ritzy community that it is today. The exodus westwards to its arguably more elegant neighbour didn't start until 1922, when Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford erected a regal mansion on Summit Drive, high up in Beverly Hills overlooking all of Los Angeles, calling it Pickfair.

During the 1930s, the steady influx of people continued, all hoping to rise to fame and follow the footsteps of Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish or Gloria Swanson. Thus Hollywood expanded and flourished unabatedly, the storms of the Great Depression notwithstanding. Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s was boom town, with Hollywood Boulevard its bustling centre where stars wined and dined in luxurious restaurants, and the klieg lights, brushing the nightly sky above Grauman's Theatre announcing a premiere starring the latest face in town, and where recent arrivals and new-comers descended in swanky hotels and apartments buildings sporting fancy names like Villa Carlotta, The Chateau Elysee, The Plaza, or The Roosevelt. Hollywood became synonymous with the proverbial American dream, attainable by anyone who longed for it.

Or so it seemed.

The chase of this American dream has been memorably put to paper by Nathaniel West, who until his untimely death in 1940 worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, his grim, sardonic, The Day of the Locust telling the tale of a dime-a-dance girl whose high hopes of stardom are shattered by the brutal, harsh realities of tinseltown. West's dark, apocalyptic view of Hollywood is a reflection of his own experiences in a place where talent only gets you so far, and where connections and a burning ambition, not to mention luck, usually make the balance tip.

1939, the year Douglas Fairbanks died, is considered to be Hollywood's apogee. The quality of films reached unknown heights and more films of distinction were produced that year than in any other before or since: Gone With the Wind, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Only Angels have Wings, Goodbye Mr. Chips and, of course, The Wizard of Oz, were all released in 1939.

In addition to the seemingly endless stream of Americans who arrived in Southern California with the, more often than not, vain hope to make it in pictures there also was a growing number of immigrants arriving in Hollywood who had escaped fascist Europe. Film historian Jan-Christopher Horak wrote that between 1933 and 1952 approximately 1.500 emigres, most of them of German, Austrian or Hungarian origin, arrived in Hollywood, many of them barely eking out a living.

Cinema attendance was high during the war years, but after having reached a peak in 1946, with the onset of television the year after it started dropping alarmingly, spelling the end of Hollywood's golden age. The demise of the studio system was accelerated by the HUAC hearings, casting an additional shadow over Hollywood's manicured lawns. Finally, the government Consent Decree of 1950, which forced the studios to divest themselves of their theatre chains was the death knell of the studio era, the definitive end of which was symbolised by Louis B. Mayer's departure from MGM in 1951.

However, that Hollywood was beginning to lose its lustre didn't deter hopefuls from all over from flocking to Southern California. For instance, thousands of service men had passed through Hollywood during the war, got stuck, and made Hollywood - or its surrounds - their new home. As a result of the swelling population, Hollywood including its neighbouring communities, continued to explode, new neighbourhoods emerged, and subsequently new ways - literally - and solutions had to be found to accommodate the many people who came here to make Southern California their new home.
And so it was almost inevitable that Hollywood shouldn't escape the march of progress with one of the most flagrant downsides being the increasing number of cars. With Hollywood constantly extending and stretching out into the valley and beyond, cars had become the primary means of transportation, gradually replacing streetcars, as they made access to Hollywood newly established neighbourhoods easier and quicker. Hence it is fair to say that the car industry is the main culprit why parts of historic Hollywood got destroyed to make way for either freeways or, worse yet, parking lots. For instance, by the late 1940s whole sections of Whitley Heights were razed to make way for the Hollywood Freeway, connecting Hollywood and Los Angeles with the San Fernando Valley. Opened in 1954, it snakes through the Cahuenga Pass, where once stood the homes of Rudolph Valentino and Bette Davis.

Sadly, some other buildings linked to Hollywood's past have also been demolished, such as, for instance, the Garden Court Apartments on Hollywood Boulevard, once home to Louis B, Mayer, or the Brown Derby on Vine Street, which was turned into a parking lot, while other buildings have been mutilated beyond recognition. Clearly, the ravages of time have left their mark on Hollywood, yet a great deal of its great past is still in evidence today. Thus, in spite of all the changes Hollywood has undergone, a stroll along Hollywood Boulevard and its surrounds is indispensable for every self-respecting lover of American film and culture as it not only allows you catch a glimpse of what Hollywood was like some 70 years ago, but its architectural mix is like nowhere else in the world: after all, where else does one get to see buildings as outlandish and indeed theatrical as Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Graunman's Egyptian or the El Capitan next to a gothic-style edifice like the First National Bank which in turn is just across the street from the Spanish Colonial Revival Toberman Building which stands next to an art-deco gem like the Max-Factor Building?

Hollywood Boulevard today

Perhaps not surprisingly given the political circumstances, during the 1960s and 70s it seemed as if America was almost ashamed of Hollywood or else didn't take it seriously. It sat there, neglected, a victim of its own, prosperous and glamorous, past. However, a lot has happened over the past 10 years, and it appears that Hollywood has finally awakened to its own precious and unique history, a history which deserves to be preserved and made accessible to the world at large. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, the organisation in charge of the Walk of Fame - which itself was invented in an effort to re-invoke Hollywood's lost past - came up with the long overdue idea of putting sign posts all throughout Hollywood that explain the history of each site or building in detail. It is therefore a relief to notice that Hollywood has, what one could call a second coming and that instead of denying its past, Hollywood is at long last taking pride in it, evidently making an effort to protect and preserve it. In addition to the extensive restoration work going on all along Hollywood Boulevard, all buildings and venues of historic interest are now listed in the City's Register of Historical Cultural Monuments. The preservation also extends to neighbourhoods, and little gems like Whitley Heights are now preserved from further development.

>>> Note: This post will be followed up tomorrow with a guided tour through historic Hollywood, including pictures and explanations of all buildings and venues of note related to Hollywood history.