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Seminarians Live Where Stars Slept : Mansion on Adams Once Was Home to Film Celebrities

September 20, 1987|CHARLES LOCKWOOD | Special to The Times: Charles Lockwood is a free-lance writer based in Topanga

At 649 W. Adams Blvd., just east of Figueroa Street and around the corner from secluded Chester Place, stands a well-kept Tudor-style mansion.

Today, this tree-shaded,three-story home, built in 1905 by prominent businessman Randolph Huntington Miner, is a little-known reminder of West Adams Boulevard's heyday as Los Angeles' most desirable address from the turn of the century through the 1930s.

(This mansion is not included in the West Adams home tour this year.)

In the 1920s and 1930s, however, this mansion was also well-known to any devoted movie fan in America. For several years following World War I, four movie celebrities lived in the house, one after another.

The first of these was the mysterious Theda Bara, the product of one of Hollywood's first high-pressure public relations campaigns.

With the help of her studio, the dark-haired, pale-skinned Theda became the classic vamp and maintained that image in silent films like "A Fool There Was" in which she ensnares and destroys men with her primitive, almost mystical allure. Audiences gasped when they read the silent-film title card with her most passionate line: "Kiss me my fool."

Skulls and Mummy Cases

Theda Bara filled the mansion's elegant rooms with tiger-skin rugs, crystal balls, skulls, mummy cases and anything else that looked mysterious and sensual.

After Theda Bara's hold over the public declined around 1918, she retired from the screen, married her director, and became a respectable Beverly Hills housewife. But the West Adams Boulevard mansion was just starting its role as a home of the stars--much to the chagrin of the neighborhood's wealthy residents who viewed all movie people with disdain.

One year later, her "society" neighbors got a shock: The boisterous, hard-drinking comedian Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle moved in.

The hulking baby-faced Fatty had been a singing waiter, burlesque comic and vaudeville performer before he met Mack Sennett in 1913.

In 1917, Fatty signed with producer Joe Schenck, and made more comedy shorts and a few full-length movies. His salary was $5,000 a week.

Practcial Jokes

Fatty spent $25,000 for a custom Pierce Arrow convertible, and he went through thousands more throwing parties, giving presents to his friends and buying jewelry for his wife, Minta. Even Fatty's famed practical jokes became more elaborate.

No one was safe from these pranks, not even Paramount Pictures head Adolph Zukor when he came to dinner at Fatty's West Adams Boulevard house one night in 1919. Buster Keaton was going to play the part of the clumsy butler, and all the guests knew ahead of time, except Zukor.

Buster's best performance that night was with the roast turkey. After walking into the dining room, Buster "accidentally" dropped his white linen service napkin onto the floor. He bent over to pick it up while dexterously balancing the turkey aloft on the serving tray.

At just that moment, another servant walked through the double doors, pushing Buster and the turkey onto the carpet. The two men struggled to get the greasy turkey back on the tray.

Jumping up from his chair, Arbuckle grabbed Buster and dragged him into the kitchen. Amid more thuds and smashing dishes, the guest heard Buster's cries for mercy. Suddenly, the swinging doors were flung open and Fatty chased Buster through the dining room and out the front door onto otherwise sedate West Adams Boulevard.

Career Collapsed

But Fatty Arbuckle did not enjoy his fine West Adams Boulevard mansion for long. His career collapsed when actress Virginia Rappe died after a several-days-long drinking party that he hosted in his suite at San Francisco's celebrated St. Francis Hotel over Labor Day weekend, 1921.

Paramount scrapped Fatty's lucrative contract, and in 1923, the out-of-work Fatty briefly rented the mansion to director Raoul Walsh and actress Miriam Cooper.

A year later, Fatty's ex-producer, Joseph Schenck, and his actress wife, Norma Talmadge, moved into 649 W. Adams Boulevard.

In the mid-1920s, the Schencks left and moved into a mansion on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. The succession of movie star residents came to an end, much to the relief of neighbors who had endured fans flocking to 649 W. Adams Boulevard.

During the 1930s, Mrs. Edward Laurence Doheny Sr. purchased the property, which adjoined her Chester Place mansion. For many years, Olin Wellborn III, Mrs. Doheny's attorney, rented the home.

After Mrs. Doheny's death in 1958, the mansion was bequeathed to the Archbishop of Los Angeles, who eventually gave the property to the Vincentian fathers and brothers. Today, the Tudor-style house is a residence for seminarians.

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