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Memorabilia From the Silent Screen Era

January 31, 1987|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

The barn from which Cecil B. DeMille made his first major film is now a repository of artifacts and memorabilia from the era of the silent screen. Saved from probable dismantling by a volunteer organization called Hollywood Heritage Inc., it's now the Hollywood Studio Museum, on Highland Avenue across from the Hollywood Bowl. The Heritage organization, led by president Richard Adkins, is engaged in a number of projects to restore and preserve historic buildings in Hollywood and Los Angeles. But the barn that served as DeMille's studio when he filmed "The Squaw Man" in 1913 was one of its priorities.

Entering the building is like opening a time capsule from another era. Photographs, posters, antique cameras, props, costumes and videotapes chronicle the history of the film industry from its origins in Hollywood to the advent of sound. Near the door is the tiny office where DeMille labored over the script for that first production--that would be followed during his long career by some of the greatest spectacles ever filmed. In 1913, a number of stalls in the barn still housed horses. When the floor was washed down, DeMille's office was flooded, forcing the director to place his feet in a wastebasket while he worked at his desk. An Underwood typewriter is on another table--the same machine his secretary used to type the shooting script.

Roman Shields on Walls

The interior of the building is filled with giant photographs tracing the history of the building and the early days of the movie industry. Roman shields carried by legions of extras who appeared in DeMille's epics line the walls. There is the crest worn outside the armor of Henry Wilcoxon in DeMille's "The Crusades" in 1935. Among the costumes is a gown Gloria Swanson wore in "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950. A leading lady of the silent screen, she began her career as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty.

Tim Burke, the museum's director, pointed out a small stool. "Mr. DeMille had it made for Pola Negri," he said. "She was a Polish-born actress who appeared in a number of pictures during the early '20s. He had her name inscribed 'Miss Negri Only.' It was the forerunner of directors' chairs that have stars' names across canvas backs, script pockets, drink holders and ash trays."

Also displayed are two model ships used during the filming of Douglas Fairbanks' "The Black Pirate" in 1926, and a camera used by Charles Chaplin when he filmed "The Great Dictator" in 1940. There is a Zenith projector DeMille once used to screen his daily rushes, and a dresser set that belonged to Mary Pickford. Film clips of some of the early actors and actresses are projected on a video screen, but it is also the barn itself and its strange odyssey that intrigues those who visit the museum.

Birth of Paramount

In 1913, Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldwyn and Cecil B. DeMille pooled their resources to found what later became Paramount Pictures Inc. Leaving Lasky and Goldwyn in New York, DeMille came here to direct "The Squaw Man," which had been a successful play. He was also looking for a suitable studio. A barn at the corner of Selma and Vine streets looked suitable. Besides, the rent was cheap--$25 a month, and the property owner, Jacob Stern, offered the use of part of the surrounding orchard for an additional small fee for removing some of the trees.

The studio prospered and soon became a major force in the production of motion pictures, but DeMille loved the building where his career began.

On May 14, 1982, an agreement was made to deed the building to Hollywood Heritage. Hollywood Heritage moved the barn to its final destination in 1983 and began the work of restoration. It was opened to the public in December, 1985.

'Jazz Singer' Debuts

In 1927, Jack, Sam, Harry and Albert Warner formed Vitaphone Corp., filming "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson. When Jolson uttered one spoken line ("Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet"), he changed the course of the motion picture industry, bringing down the curtain on the silent film era of silent films.

The museum is at 2100 Highland Ave. Parking free. Enter the lot on Odin Avenue, just south of the Hollywood Freeway on-ramp. Regular hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults; $1.50 for seniors and students. Children under 12 are $1. Information: (213) 874-2276.

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