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John Riley

A Certain Tradition : At Beverly Hills' Writers & Artists Building, Old Tenants 'Never Die' Mann Rubin has been in the building for 28 years.

October 20, 1985|John Riley

Back in the 1920s, entrepreneur Harry Heegar gave Beverly Hills its first office building, at Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard. Mayor Will Rogers kept an office there. So did United Artists in the days of partners Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks. Out of the building's storefront offices, the Janss Corp. sold lots in a development called Westwood.

Heegar was a Mason so loyal that he gave the top floor of his building to his lodge. In the 1930s, Harold Lloyd and Clark Gable were among those who climbed the secret back stairway to the robing rooms on their way to ceremonies.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the building declined. The Pacific Electric red cars stopped running behind it. Its paint peeled. It changed hands.

One owner, a gambler, won comedian Lou Costello's house in a poker game, didn't report it to the IRS, and, from federal prison, went to the big stud game in the sky.

So, thanks to a friend at a foreclosing bank, Henry Fenenbock, a genial businessman who preferred Santa Anita to the poker table, acquired it. Most of its cubbyhole-size offices stood vacant. An inherited tenant, screenwriter Ted Sherdeman, filled them. He tacked a card to the Writers Guild bulletin board: "Offices--$25."

The Writers & Artists Building has been full of writers and artists ever since. It is unheated and without hot water. Rents, though increased many times over, are still moderate. Tenants provide their own interior decor.

Fenenbock was proud of the building's directory. He loved to add new names to it. And, because he hated to lose those who moved on, particularly famous ones, he refused to subtract from it.

Four years ago he died. His son, Hank, began to manage the building. In memory of his father's pride, half of the directory remains out of date.

Ray Bradbury, the legendary fantasist, once wrote in Suite 204, but a quarter century ago he moved three blocks away to a larger office on Wilshire Boulevard.

I ran into Bradbury at a party one rainy night in downtown Los Angeles' turn-of-the-century Bradbury Building.

"We're in your building," I said to him.

With a wide smile, remembering that I occupy a suite in the building that refuses to give him up for gone, he answered: "And you're in my building in Beverly Hills."

Actor Jack Nicholson briefly occupied an office in the building in the 1960s. The directory listed him until a few months ago, when aggressive fans knocked on doors, violating the building's unwritten rule never to interrupt a writer writing.

The directory lists artist Arnold Mesches as a tenant, but he moved out 13 years ago, after writing an unpublished novel about an artist. (Arthur Secunda, between jaunts to Paris and Barcelona, has painted in Mesches' old office ever since.)

Not all of the former tenants still listed in the directory have moved. Some--such as actor Jack Albertson ("Chico and the Man"), novelist / screenwriter Michael Blankfort ("The Juggler"), screenwriter Ruth Brooks Flippen ("Gidget Goes Hawaiian"), actor / comedian Harvey Lembeck ("Stalag 17") and screenwriter Guy Trosper ("The Spy Who Came In From the Cold")--are dead.

Peter Crowcroft, the late Fleet Street journalist and the building's most infamous former tenant, was never listed in the directory because, as a nonpaying and / or uninvited co-tenant of several offices in the mid-1970s, he suffered a midnight eviction, dressed only in long johns and carpet slippers.

Several present tenants, all denizens of that tortured corner of the literary world kept for humorists, refuse to be listed in the directory or to have their names painted on their office doors. They are Rubin Carson, Delia Ephron, and Billy Wilder.

The directory does list Dan Petrie Jr., who wrote "Beverly Hills Cop" in a suite he inherited from his producer-mother. Success having swept him into a three-year stint in an office at Walt Disney Studios, he sublet Suite 303 to his director-father.

The directory also lists screenwriter Mann Rubin ("The Best of Everything"), whose 28 years make him the building's senior literary tenant. He writes eight hours a day in Suite 306. But never at night. Every time he tries it he says he hears noises:

"A moaning--the ghosts of long dead screenwriters, still waiting for their agents to call."

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