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Friday, November 27, 2009

HOT SPOTS in CA: The Hollywood Heritage Museum

It only makes sense, being out of town for the Thanksgiving Holiday, that I grow homesick and devote this week's post to my beloved L.A. La Land and another of its great historical landmarks. The Hollywood Heritage Museum sits across the street from the Hollywood Bowl Theater on Highland Avenue, but most people know it as little more than a place to park when a concert is going on. It is a modest building, tucked just under the 101 Freeway, and easily overshadowed by the busy, electric intersection of Hollywood and Highland. Not much to look at from the outside, inside it possesses many interesting artifacts from cinematic history, including a camera used to shoot Gone with the Wind. But the history of the building makes it far more significant than it may at first appear. It is not just some random building, now used for preservational purposes, but is an actual piece of cinematic history, dating all the way back to the very beginning of California's birth as the Kingdom of Movies. At this time, Prospect was the main street running West to East down Harvey Wilcox's new city. It would be years later that it be renamed Hollywood Blvd.

In October of 1911, David Horsley of the Centaur Film Company, which he had formed with Biograph Director Charles Gorman, came to Hollywood with his brother William. (As a side note, Horsley and Gorman got the name for their company by combining their two names: Horse- + -Man = Centaur). The Horsley brothers' mission was to come to the slowly growing movie town, and set up a camp for their new studio. They met up with Murray Steele who took them to "The Blondeau Tavern" at Sunset and Gower, which was closing due to a ban on alcohol. The property, which included the tavern, a corral, several small buildings, a bungalow, and a barn-- was rented by the brothers from Mr. Blondeau for $35/mo. They used it as a center for their production.

Two years later, in 1913, the land would fall into the possession of Cecil B. DeMille (aboveJesse LaskySamuel Goldfish aka Goldwyn, and Arthur Friend. They had just formed the "Jesse K. Lasky Feature Play Company" in New York, and had been looking for terrain in Arizona on which to film a cinematic version of the play The Squaw Man. After finding Flagstaff unsuitable for the shoot, they moved over to Los Angeles, and happened upon the barn that the Horsley's had rented out two years prior. The current owner was Jacob Stern, who agreed to rent the barn out again on a month to month basis... as long as he could leave his horses and carriage there. And so, the boys of the Lasky team set up shop, filming The Squaw Man, which many regard as the first official full-length feature to be filmed in Los Angeles.

Working out of the barn, where DeMille set up his office, was no easy feat. DeMille had to raise his boots whenever a wash of water came running through the barn, usually the result of the horses being cleaned by Stern. The offices had literally been made out of horse stalls, as were the dressing rooms and projection rooms. Another interesting fact about their time there, was that Lasky was the first filmmaker to hire writers and scenarists to work "in house," and so this barn harbored the first studio story department! Amidst the mud and the chaos, they somehow made it work. Filming officially began on December 29, 1913. The resulting movie was a smash success and helped to take filmmaking to a whole new level of creativity and artistry. 

Still from The Squaw Man

The barn was moved from its original site (what is now 1521 Vine Street) to Paramount Studios, where it often served as a set piece on productions, including television's "Bonanza." It remained there for 55 years, until it was set to be demolished. It was saved, thank goodness, and moved to its current location on Highland. Then, in 1996, it suffered through a horrible fire that destroyed much of its precious artifacts. Thankfully, the building was restored and as of 1999 was re-opened to the public.

Inside, curious history buffs will find a replication of Cecil B. DeMille's private office, a large photographic collection of early Hollywood, film props, and other assorted memorabilia. The barn is surprisingly large on the inside, which makes its outer proportions quite deceptive. The staff hosts tours there, as well as many other interesting lectures about cinema and its history. (I myself went to a discussion about Errol Flynn that was very enlightening, for a personal friend of his, author Steven Hayes, was there, and many unseen photos of him were shared). 

If ever you adhere to the lesson, "Don't judge a book by its cover," let it be to see this great, historical landmark-- if not even to see the treasures that lie within its walls, then to physically set your own two feet upon an official piece of Hollywood History. The Hollywood Heritage Museum is open five days a week, Wed-Sun, from noon to 4pm. It is located at 2100 North Highland Avenue. Call (323) 874-2276 for more information.

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