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HOLLYWOOD - 100 YEARS : FACTORY TOWN for an ART FORM

January 04, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Charles Champlin is arts editor of The Times.

A century of Hollywood! Who would have dared to imagine that the plan the good Harvey Wilcox filed with Los Angeles County, dividing nearly treeless foothills and featureless fields into streets and blocks and lots, would become a storied place as famous as Rome or Rio or London, known and celebrated in the farthest corners of the globe?

It was all, of course, a delightful, serendipitous historical accident: a blissful, unforeseeable coincidence of climate, scenery, robust entrepreneurship and a new technology for mass entertainment. The colonel's brave little venture had hardly found its feet when the movies found it.

Hollywood as a place of legend rests on a foundation of What Ifs. What if the Motion Picture Patents Co., trying to enforce a monopoly on cameras, had not driven fledgling film companies west? What if D. W. Griffith had not led the way by bringing his entourage to make films in Los Angeles in the winter of 1910, when it was too cold and dark in New York? And what if Jesse L. Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille, put off by the snow-covered mountains in Flagstaff, Ariz., had not continued west to make the first Hollywood feature-length film, "The Squaw Man"?

But the What Ifs all came up positive. And Hollywood, which might have fulfilled the Wilcoxes' practical dreams of a tidy, prosperous suburb with a little mercantile activity, a little farming and orcharding, became instead the Hollywood we've sung hoorays for.

It became not only a piece of geography but the fabled and fabulous symbol of all American film making, a locale of legend and looniness, a magical fountain of slapstick and melodrama, a factory town for an art form. It was--and to an amazing degree, still is--the face that America sends to the world, for better and occasionally for worse.

But Hollywood also remains a real place, a hometown, although one with an extraordinarily vivid and eventful past, a lively if occasionally stressed present.

The photographs and words on the following pages are a kind of family scrapbook for the hometown Hollywood as well as the Hollywood of legend. As the words and pictures suggest, both Hollywoods have plenty to remember.

There are stars in the sidewalks and ghosts in the woodwork. And as much as Hollywood has changed, there are still plenty of visible reminders that bespeak the grand assertiveness of the golden years: the cinemas in Middle Eastern mode, worthy of a sheik or Croesus; the Mediterranean-style apartment buildings with fountains that, sadly, no longer plash; the multinational eateries that have nourished the stars.

The memories and the tales are most often glamorous: the star-studded premieres on Hollywood Boulevard, with searchlights vectoring the night skies, and fans in the bleachers craning for glimpses of the mighty (and crying "It's nobody!" when the occasional civilian car gets into the line of limos); the footprints of the giants in the forecourt of the Chinese (Mann's or Grauman's, depending on your age).

The years before television, when the movies reigned unchallenged over the public fancy everywhere, were the glory days for Hollywood. In the glittery nightclubs along Sunset, it was possible to imagine that the glamour Hollywood put on the screen was merely borrowed from its private life.

The writers of legend, who were themselves to become legends, hung out at Musso & Frank, a landmark that outlived Scott and Ben and Charlie. The Vine Street Brown Derby, now alas only a memory, was a kind of upscale industry commissary, open round-the-clock, seven days a week in its busiest years, with a celebrity in every banquette, or so it seemed.

Fred Allen, on his first visit to Hollywood, was approached as he dined at the Derby by a little fellow who identified himself as a legman for Sheilah Graham. Turning to his dinner companion, Allen said: "I have now met a legman for Sheilah Graham. I have met a legman for Hedda Hopper. I have met a legman for Louella Parsons. I have yet to meet a whole columnist."

Even then, the industry was not confined to Hollywood proper. Studios stretched from Disney, Republic and Universal in the Valley to Metro in Culver City. Hollywood itself had Columbia on Gower (the former Poverty Row), Paramount, then as now, on Melrose, Fox-Western on Sunset and Goldwyn on Formosa.

Inevitably, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, formed to shine up the industry's scandal-darkened image in the mid-'20s, took shape in Hollywood, and the first Academy Awards were presented at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. (At that first family-like banquet, the tickets were $5, the entree pheasant.)

Older Los Angeles often looked askance at the film people (Gypsies and parvenus from Elsewhere, it was thought). The Los Angeles Country Club was famous for refusing to admit actors, even those who could afford to join. In an immortal Hollywood story, Victor Mature is said to have told club officials while pulling his reviews out of his pocket: "I'm no actor and I can prove it."

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