Hooray for the Hollywood of Their Memory

November 24, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

We came here between Christmas and New Year's in 1904 because we wanted to live in a small town . . . .

--from the "I Remember When" column in the Hollywood Citizen News, 1925.

Velma Block, 93, has lived in Hollywood since 1922. She's not a movie star. She was never even much impressed with the movie stars she waited on in the 15 years she sold ladies hats at Bullock's.

Some people would not think Velma Block is a part of Hollywood history--the Hollywood immortalized in books and museums. But two young and mostly self-taught film makers, Lyn Picallo and Wendy Robbins, believe people like Block are essential to another Hollywood story, "not the glitz and glory, but the neighborhood feeling," Robbins said.

Reminiscing Sessions

In their cable television special, "Old Hollywood as Seen Through the Eyes of Her Senior Residents," Robbins, 26, and Picallo, 32, hope to transport viewers to a time when Hollywood Boulevard was rutted with wagon wheels after a downpour, and locals fetched fresh watercress from a stream near where Universal Studios is today.

"It was their time," Robbins said, referring to the stars of the documentary. "It was the time they felt best about it being a neighborhood."

Robbins and Picallo posted notices at the Hollywood Multipurpose Senior Center, seeking people who had lived in Hollywood in the teens and '20s. From reminiscing sessions attended by dozens, they culled a group of eight men and women, ages 74 to 98, who recall Hollywood as the somnolent backyard of their youth.

To many of these everyday citizens, the movie business was an uninvited visitor that eventually disrupted their small-town way of life.

Robbins and Picallo have both acted in the past. They met while teaching acting classes to non-actors and found they had a common dedication to documentary-style directing, and a fascination with ordinary lives lived in extraordinary settings.

Cuban-born Picallo was reared mostly in Las Vegas until she was 15 years old. She said people often find it hard to believe she passed a routine childhood in such a notorious town. In the same way, she said, some people overlook the fact that there are men and women unconnected to the movie business who matured in Hollywood at the same time the industry was developing.

Robbins, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and now lives in the Hollywood Hills, said that she has met strangers as far away as the northernmost villages of Ireland who are awed by the idea that she resides in the legendary city. "I got many Guinesses (bought for her) just by saying I live in Hollywood," she said.

The old-Hollywood video, co-produced by the Hollywood Arts Council, is being completed on a $4,000 grant from the Foundation for Community Service Cable Television. It will be aired by Group W in February to coincide with Hollywood's 100th birthday. The crew, drawn from the film and TV industry, donated its time to the project; materials and equipment were also donated for the most part.

Both Robbins and Picallo appreciate the homey details recounted by the subjects of their story. One woman tells of the organ grinder and his monkey that held court faithfully in an empty field on La Brea Avenue. Another recalls that kids used to catch tarantulas in mason jars at the then-rural corner of Sunset and Highland.

In many cases, the film's producers were the first to elicit these memories from the "bit players," as Robbins calls them, the non-stars of Hollywood's past. Because they are not part of Hollywood's film history, no one thought to ask them before, Robbins said.

"It's frightening to me to think I'm going to be 80 years old some day and people will be going so fast they won't be able to hear me," Picallo said. The first-time film makers made it clear to their subjects that they had unlimited time to listen to stories of the past.

More like devoted grandchildren than documentary film makers, the two sat for hours with their subjects. "What was it like then?"is the question they put to the old people insistently.

"Everybody was just as happy as they could be. It was like the town I came from back in Pennsylvania," one early Hollywood resident said.

"It was a beautiful place," said Gertrude Graner, 83.

Robbins and Picallo interviewed Graner in her tiny house behind a vacant lot on Hawthorn Avenue near La Brea. Her family has owned the property for more than 60 years. Graner has the sort of sensory memory that aided the film makers in resurrecting Hollywood, circa 1920. She recalled the smell of the 10-cent-a-dozen-carnations and the taste of the penny chocolate candies sold in town, as well as aromatic Sunday drives through the orange groves.

Graner told how she felt perfectly secure on the family's nightly strolls to Vine street.

The Changing Neighborhood

That is no longer true. Graner now thinks of her neighborhood as one of the most dangerous sectors of the city.

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