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Sunday Reading

Dream City : Life Through the Years Under the Hollywood H

November 10, 1985|CAROLYN SEE | Carolyn See's new novel, "Golden Days," will be published in the spring

Such sweet domestic life was possible because, in 1923, Keystone Cop Mack Sennett, publisher Harry Chandler and real estate agents E. P. Clark, Moses H. Sherman, Tracy Shults and S. H. Woodruff had lifted their eyes to the hills, seen "Hollywoodland" and put up a wobbly sign to mark the spot. In the subsequent years, the village of Hollywood stretched out along the boulevard, bright sun shining, and up in the hills, only a mile from "town," you could live in the country. Irving Shulman--whose novel, "The Amboy Dukes," brought unclothed ladies' breasts into popular American literature--lived there; Aldous Huxley lived there; Christopher Isherwood lectured on Vedanta, a branch of Indian mystical thought, up there above Franklin Avenue. Dreams! Writing in the '40s, Isherwood would note that nowhere except in Hollywood could you find both fresh air and a life style as corrupt as prewar Berlin. He described the palm trees along the hills in East Hollywood as an edging of lace.

If you followed that dream, tried to find it on the map, you might find yourself, in the '50s, living near the corner of Lexington and Vine, in an old Spanish-style hotel, the Brevoort--three stories, maybe 36 rooms, a two-story lobby with a Spanish "tapestry" painted right onto a wall. The Brevoort had seen better days in the '20s, when Gary Cooper (it was said) had taken lady friends to several of the tiny bungalows out back, and swum in the Brevoort's walled plunge. In the '50s, living in a dream, you peered down into the dried, cracked pool, covered at the bottom with eucalyptus leaves and withered oleander blossoms, and ventured out, a block away, to the Hollywood Ranch Market, open 24 hours a day and already scary late at night. Walking up Vine, you hit Music City, with a row of rooms at the back where you could take some of the new vinyl records and listen away a morning to Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.

Because, besides writers and actors--whom you never saw on the street anyway, except, once, Hal Peary, "The Great Gildersleeve"--Hollywood gave shelter to musicians, offering them easy living and the honeyed teat of movie money. And so at night, you might wander two or three blocks west on Sunset from Vine and fall by a bar called Whistlin's Hawaii, where, in some fairly typical Hollywood misunderstanding, a colony of chubby Tahitians congregated, playing island music on the jukebox for hours at a time, thinking that it was their club. Except at about 10 at night, 30 or so sullen beatniks took their place around a tiny bandstand to hear--straight from the East, except that his mom lived in the Valley--Warne Marsh playing exquisite dreams on his tenor sax, while the Tahitians glumly got drunk.

Hollywood in the '50s. You could still walk down the boulevard, shop at the increasingly dispirited Broadway. Frederick's moved into its bright-purple headquarters. You walked down to Pickwick Books and bought used stuff on the third floor, and went farther up Hollywood to C. C. Brown's for a hot fudge sundae. And a few blocks down in the Hollywood Roosevelt's coffee shop, where stars used to flock, the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous had taken over, ecstatic on coffee and the unexpected benefits of waking up every morning without a hangover. So new then!

By the '50s, the legends of movie history were fading away. Rudolf Valentino was commemorated in an obscure public park by one of the saddest monuments in the world. Up on Cahuenga, the "legendary Joe Albany," sometime piano player for Charlie Parker, got married to a very pregnant wife in an old burlesque house, while a still-unknown comic named Lenny Bruce made cryptic remarks about the bride and groom. An abortionist plied his illegal trade in one of the business buildings on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. And the Chamber of Commerce, trying to stop change, began putting "stars" into the sidewalk, since they couldn't keep the real ones in town.

Now it's all gone, or changed, or--at first glance--too weird for words. Do tourists even come to "Hollywood" anymore? The rank and file go out over the Cahuenga Pass to take the Universal Tour. The smart ones drive over to the City Restaurant on La Brea to see stars hunched over hors d'oeuvres. You'll search for Schwab's, or The Garden of Allah, or the Stanley Rose Book Shop in vain.

But in 70 years, Hollywood has built a complex and luminous civilization. Whistlin's Hawaii has "soul'd out." The Brevoort Hotel has plywood in some of its windows, but in the courtyard, the pool has been filled in and the current tenants have planted masses of begonias. Both north and south of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, ordinary domestic life still thrives; children bicycle on side streets, housewives gossip in front yards and--no matter its tarnished reputation--Hollywood's Saturdays are still very much date nights for a whole new crop of teen-agers.

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