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A Walk Into Movieland History : The Streets and Hills of Hollywood Are Alive With the Murmur of Memories

June 27, 1987|ROBERT JOHN PIERSON | Pierson is the author of "The Beach Towns: A Walker's Guide to L.A.'s Beach Communities" (Chronicle Books).

When they first surveyed the open fields, wooded hills and scattered orchards of Cahuenga Valley, the Prohibitionist couple from Kansas dreamed of creating a Christian utopia in this frost-free belt.

Purchasing 120 acres in 1887, Horace and Daeida Wilcox subdivided the property, plotted streets, planted pepper trees and offered free lots to any church community. Gambling halls, billiard dens and saloons were prohibited when Hollywood was born.

By the turn of the century, the village was a peaceful community of 500 Midwesterners whose Victorian and Craftsman houses were set amid citrus, fig, cherimoya and apricot trees. To these early settlers, Hollywood appeared to be "paradise found."

A Different Place

By its 50th anniversary, Hollywood had become a very different place. Annexed to Los Angeles in 1910, its population had grown to more than 150,000 by 1937 and its name was generally synonymous with glamour, wealth and fame. To many, however, Hollywood became "paradise lost," a place of ruined lives, widespread vice and scandals involving drugs, sex, suicide and murder.

A few chroniclers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, revealed this darker side of Hollywood. But it is through Nathanael West and his riveting apocalyptic novel, "The Day of the Locust," that Hollywood as a "dream dump" best came to light. The novel portrays a Hollywood filled with the absurd and surreal, and West saw its tension in the town's architecture, religion, populace and economy.

Even if you can't join the film premieres and celebrity tennis tournaments that continue to mark Hollywood's ongoing centennial celebration this year, you can take your own two-hour walk into its history that will lead you to many of the places used by West as the settings for "The Day of the Locust."

Begin the walk at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, the legendary crossroads. Walk north on Vine Street. At 1735 N. Vine St. stands the Palace Theater, built in 1927 as the Hollywood Playhouse. The Spanish Churrigueresque building originally served as a legitimate theater and later hosted radio, television and recording studios. The Palace now is a nightclub.

(Across the street, at 1750 N. Vine St., is one of Hollywood's most famous buildings, the Capitol Records Tower, a 13-story structure designed by Welton Becket in 1954.)

Cross Yucca Street and turn left. The Yucca-Vine Tower at 6305 Yucca St., a Zigzag Moderne high-rise built in 1928, features panels of florid geometric patterns and a row of rooftop figures.

At Ivar Avenue, turn right and walk uphill. This isolated hilltop neighborhood of apartments and bungalows, particularly the Parva-Sed Apta Apartments at 1817 N. Ivar Ave., was very familiar to West. Here, while living as an unemployed writer in 1935, he began to research "The Day of the Locust."

Many of the residents who shared his Tudor-styled rooming house--aspiring actresses, aging vaudeville performers, extras, prostitutes and a dwarf--inspired the characters in his novel. West even noted the neighborhood in his book: "Another name for Ivar Street was Lysol Alley." His protagonist, Tod Hackett, first lives in the Chateau Mirabella, inspired by the Parva-Sed. The Chateau "was mainly inhabited by hustlers, their agents, trainers and advance agents," West wrote; each morning "its halls reeked of antiseptic."

Continue walking uphill to the Alto-Nido Apartments at 1851 N. Ivar Ave. This imposing Spanish Colonial revival building, with its red-tile roof and wrought-iron balconies, may seem vaguely familiar to some. It was the setting for the apartment of Joe Gillis (William Holden), the unemployed screenwriter who became the live-in writer for Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the aging silent- movie queen in Billy Wilder's film, "Sunset Boulevard."

At the end of Ivar Avenue, turn left, take the walkway down to Franklin Avenue, cross at the first crosswalk and walk north again on Ivar. As you approach the freeway underpass, note the Craftsman houses at 6407 Dix St. and 1931 Ivar Ave., which were built between 1910 and 1915 when Hollywood was still a small town.

A Reclusive Neighborhood

On the other side of the freeway, you'll find yourself in one of Hollywood's most reclusive neighborhoods. In 1901, four acres of this land, then filled with oaks and grassy hillocks, were purchased by William Mead as a rural retreat. As Hollywood growth exploded by 1920, the neighborhood, because of its setting and proximity to the studios, became one of L.A.'s first film colonies.

When Mead died in 1929, he deeded his property to the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Today, the Vedanta Society continues to own much of the property, which includes a temple, bookstore, convent and monastery.

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