Friday, September 17, 2010

HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, Part 1: Hollywood & Vine

I’ve been living in Los Angeles for four years now but I have mostly stayed away from the unofficial city center, because I’m leery of tourists and tourist-hunters. Add to that the fact that I wasn’t really sure where to look for the history on Hollywood Boulevard… Local businesses have worked so hard over the years to hide the glamor of the old with the glitz of the new, and it takes a fair amount of research and patience to find and appreciate the historical aspects of this near-mythic stretch of road. Recently I learned that if you’ve got the patience, the Hollywood Heritage Foundation has got the research. On Saturday, I went on their weekly Walking Tour, which began just south of the intersection of Hollywood & Vine and ended near the intersection of Hollywood & Highland.

Hollywood Heritage has been around for almost thirty years, and one of their first projects was the preservation of the Lasky-DeMille Barn. In 1927, the barn was moved from the corner of Selma & Vine onto the back lot of Paramount. Director Tom McLoughlin remembers that it was still there in the late 1970s, housing all of the studio’s exercise equipment. In 1980, the Hollywood Heritage Foundation moved the building to Highland Avenue, across the street from the Hollywood Bowl and adjacent to the historic Whitley Heights neighborhood (the Beverly Hills of early Hollywood). The building is now their official headquarters and houses a collection of silent-era movie memorabilia.

The barn was built in the early 20th century on the southeast corner of Selma & Vine, in the days when Hollywood was nothing but a citrus ranch. Today... it's a parking lot.

Horace Wilcox, the owner of the property that eventually became Hollywood, originally wanted to call his ranch “Figwood” because fig trees grew so abundantly on the property… but his wife didn’t like the name. She opted instead for “Hollywood,” even though holly wouldn’t grow anywhere near the ranch. (Her original name for Hollywood Boulevard was Prospect Avenue.) The Wilcoxes were staunch Methodists who migrated to the west coast from Topeka, Kansas, and envisioned their new home as a religious retreat.

That plan was dashed in 1913, when three filmmakers made the first feature-length movie on the corner of Selma & Vine – which was, by then, city property. The movie was a western called THE SQUAW MAN, and the filmmakers were Cecil B. DeMille (one of the silent era’s best known directors), Jesse Lasky (future head of Paramount), and Samuel Goldfish (later Samuel Goldwyn, head of MGM). Because lighting techniques were so primitive, all of the interior sequences had to be shot outdoors.

Our guide said that THE SQUAW MAN had already been a hugely successful play… so, from the very beginning, Hollywood was opting for remakes over original stories. The plan worked. THE SQUAW MAN was a huge financial success, and it essentially started a second “gold rush” to California. Actors and producers inundated Hollywood with their get-rich-quick dreams.

Within a few years, silent films gave way to radio shows and “talkies”… and the corner of Hollywood & Vine became the main nerve of the entertainment industry. A few blocks away from the filming location of THE SQUAW MAN, Cecil B. DeMille built the first Hollywood nightclub The Brown Derby, hot spot of the stars and birthplace of the Cobb Salad. Opened on Valentine’s Day 1929, the Hollywood Brown Derby burned down in 1987. Only a small section of the mall-front remains, but the interior was immortalized in an early I LOVE LUCY episode featuring William Holden.

Across the street was the Hollywood Plaza Hotel, built in 1924, where silent star Clara Bow opened her “It” Club in 1937. The Plaza is now a Best Western and (like Clara Bow in 1937) it has seen better days.

Likewise, the corner of Hollywood & Vine can’t quite live up to its reputation. That said, the intersection has undergone a major revival in the past three or four years. After more than four decades of relative squalor, there’s now plenty of action in the neighborhood – thanks in large part to the addition of a metro stop and a brand new luxury hotel called The W.

Just up the hill is the long-standing Capitol Records, still regarded as one of the best recording studios in the world. Some of the artists who record there now have penthouse suites in the historic B.H. Dyas Building, which became a hotel in 2007.

At the same intersection sits the Taft Building, built in 1923 in the Renaissance Revival style and home to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences from 1935 to 1945 (as well as the office of Charlie Chaplin). Directly opposite is the Equitable Building, built in 1929 in the Art Deco style that defines much of historic Hollywood Boulevard.

The neighboring Pantages Theater was supposed to be equally tall, but the developer ran out of money during construction. The theater was finished in 1930, and this is where the Academy Awards were held from 1949 to 1959. The Pantages also hosted one of the most lavish Hollywood premieres of all time: for A STAR IS BORN in 1954. From here, most of the action moved west...

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