Friday, September 17, 2010

HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, Part 2: "You Are the Star"

Just west of Vine, Hollywood Boulevard becomes a bit more… democratic. On the northwest corner of this famous intersection sits an empty parking lot. Until recently, it was the site of the Laemmle Building, built in the International Style for Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle in 1932. The building was destroyed by a fire in 2008, but this blogger has gathered some historic photos. The building next door, another International Style design which originally housed Sardi’s Diner, has suffered an equally depressing fate… it’s now a Russian strip club.

Further west, at the intersection of Hollywood and Cahuenga, sits the Streamline Moderne-style Julian Medical Building, built in 1934 as the Owl Drug Store. According to our tour guide, this was also the site of the original Los Angeles City Hall. (The current City Hall, featured prominently in the TV series DRAGNET, was built in 1928.)

It seems only appropriate that City Hall should have been across the street from the Security Bank Building, which novelist Raymond Chandler used as the model for hardboiled detective Phillip Marlowe’s office building. The building, erected in 1921, is currently vacant.

Another slice of fictional Hollywood history is right around the corner: Visible to the north of the intersection is the Alto Nido apartment building, where struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis lived before he fell into the clutches of aging actress Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD.

A little further down the street is the Warner-Pacific Theater. This is where THE JAZZ SINGER, Hollywood’s first feature-length talkie, was supposed to premiere in 1927… Sam Warner convinced his brothers to sink practically all of their money into the place. Construction delays prevented the big premiere, and Sam Warner died from a cerebral hemorrhage the night before THE JAZZ SINGER opened in New York. Local lore says that his ghost still haunts the place (!). Until the Northridge Earthquake in 1994, the night watchman says, he used the ride the elevator in the middle of the night. Today, the Warner-Pacific is only open on Sundays… for church services.

A few blocks away, you can find another Halloween-themed stop. According to our guide, Bela Lugosi’s house is just north of the corner of Hollywood & Hudson. In the later years of his life, he used to walk down the street to the Smoke Shop on Hollywood Boulevard. He smoked one cigar a day, in spite of his doctor’s orders. I’m a little baffled by this particular anecdote, as I know that Lugosi was living in an apartment building on Carlton Way in the 1950s when he “starred” in Ed Wood’s opus PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. By then, of course, he had bigger problems than a daily cigar.

Also in the neighborhood are the Hillview Apartments, built in 1917 by movie moguls Jesse Lasky and Sam Goldwyn, as a home exclusively for actors. (At the time, many boarding houses in Hollywood advertised: “No Actors, No Dogs.”) During the silent era, it was the most sought-after residence in Hollywood, and was briefly home to Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Clara Bow, among others. In more recent decades, Hillview has been home mostly to squatters. It was badly damaged in the Northridge earthquake and scheduled for demolition until private investors intervened and renovated the building in 2006. Unfortunately, recent economic developments have not been kind to the renovators. Hillview is now in foreclosure, and a quick Internet search indicates that some of the current residents aren't very happy with their historic home.

Next door to Hillview is a mini strip mall that leads right to the front door of Jane’s House, a 1903 Victorian cottage that once sat on the Boulevard. One of the most interesting things about the Hollywood Heritage tour was our guide’s insight into a lost era of Hollywood history. He even brought a book of photos so we could see proof that Victorian homes literally lined the boulevard (then known as Prospect Avenue). Jane’s House is the only remaining relic of that time. During the silent movie era, it housed a family-run school for the children of celebrities including Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. The school closed in 1926, but the same family lived in the house until 1982. Since then, it has been a visitor’s information center, an upscale restaurant and (briefly, from the summer of 2009 until June 2010) a night club. There has been some talk of eventually turning Jane’s House into a museum… Imagine: A real Hollywood History Museum right in the heart of Hollywood Boulevard! Unfortunately, this seems unlikely in a city that casually discards its past. Currently, the house is sitting empty.

Tourists who want a glimpse of real history have to pay close attention. For example: Between Hudson and Whitley, you can spot prime examples of early Hollywood’s eclectic architecture – from the Spanish Colonial influence to Art Deco, and even a hint of Victorian.

If you want to hear about authentic Hollywood history, you can pop down the street to Musso & Frank’s, Hollywood Boulevard’s oldest watering hole. Opened in 1919, this old fashioned bar and grill was especially popular with the literary crowd: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. At one point, a corner booth was perpetually reserved for Charlie Chaplin. According to the film ED WOOD, it was also a popular destination for Orson Welles.

Other eateries from the time period included the Montmarte CafĂ© (a nightclub built in 1922, now a convenience store) and the Pig n Whistle (a burger and beer joint opened in 1927, restored and reopened in 2001). The latter sits right next to Sid Graumann’s Egyptian Theater. In fact, there is a side entrance in the Egyptian’s expansive courtyard, where Hollywood’s earliest movie premieres were held. The Egyptian was built in 1922, the same year that King Tut’s tomb was discovered in Egypt, and the theater’s first gala premiere was for Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

I hasten to add that this is also where I attended the premiere of George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD in 2007. The American Cinematheque organization, which also runs the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, is constantly out-doing itself in terms of programming. Just this week, for instance, they scheduled a Roy Rogers / Gene Autrey double feature (in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Republic Studios) and three John Carpenter double features over the weekend! Now that’s the Hollywood I know and love!

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