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THEATER AND FILM : Tinseltown Descendant Chronicles Its Changes : 'I see my role as depicting the brick- and-mortar history'

January 26, 1988|Herman Wong

Ever since Swanson and Valentino reigned on the silent screen, we have been a nation of movie fans, adoring masses with insatiable appetites for anything and everything about Hollywood.

This fascination has brought an outpouring of starry-eyed biographies, gossipy magazines, all sorts of nostalgic trivia, even homages to such artifacts as Garland's little Oz shoes.

So it goes.

Bruce Torrence, 48, a businessman from Newport Beach, is yet another chronicler of Hollywood's glorious eras. But he has taken a different, less showy approach.

Torrence deals in rare photographs of the old Hollywood. He says his collection, which includes more than 10,000 pictures assembled over 19 years, is the largest of its kind anywhere, and he has used it as the basis for a book, "Hollywood: the First Hundred Years" (1979).

His focus is not on the usual movie-making glitter, but on the less fabled aspects of Hollywood's urbanization--the vanishing orchards and ranches, the emerging subdivisions, schools and mercantile buildings, conversions to the auto age.

"I'm not into celluloid accounts about stars' lives and such. I leave that to the others," said the former Pacific Federal Savings & Loan senior vice president, who now heads a legal personnel agency in Orange County. "I see my role as depicting the town's brick-and-mortar history."

His clientele is certainly diverse: Cinema scholars, libraries, national magazines, television producers and such movie-makers as Steven Spielberg have bought photos from him. So has the Smithsonian Institution: Torrence supplied scenes of Hollywood Boulevard and other real estate developments for "Hollywood: Legend and Reality," the Smithsonian's massive, nationally touring exhibition now at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, through Feb. 28.

Torrence's historical bent shouldn't come as a surprise. He's a direct descendant of the old Hollywood, with a family tree that bears impressive Hollywood connections. His paternal grandfather was Ernest Torrence, one of the most formidable character actors of the 1920s and early 1930s, whose films included some the era's most celebrated, such as "The Covered Wagon," "Tol'able David" and "Steamboat Bill Jr."

His maternal grandfather was the town's busiest developer, Charles Edward Toberman, whose Hollywood Boulevard landmarks included Grauman's Egyptian and Chinese theaters, built in the 1920s. Among Toberman's partners in another big venture, the Roosevelt Hotel, were some of moviedom's mightiest--Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Louis B. Mayer.

In 1969, while he was working for the Toberman-founded First Federal Savings & Loan Assn. of Hollywood, Torrence's photo collecting began. "We put up 30 pictures my grandfather had on development on and near Hollywood Boulevard," he recalled. "It was displayed right in the office lobby. People loved it; they were absolutely fascinated by it."

And none was more fascinated than Torrence himself. "It became an obsession with me, my personal mission," he recalls, "to find more such pictures before they were gone forever." He discovered them tucked away in all kinds of places, from schools and churches to hotels and nightclubs. Still more were donated by developers and pioneer families. Many pictures he found proved to be the only existing copies.

Despite his emphasis on Hollywood's overall urban evolution, Torrence hasn't ignored movie-making in his collection. He is especially proud of unusually rare on-the-set shots, such as Cecil B. DeMille directing "The Squaw Man" in 1913, or the raising of the mammoth "Robin Hood" castle in 1921.

Torrence is working on a second book, "Those Fabulous Film Factories," a history of the American movie industry that he says will emphasize fiscal and other business-related aspects of studio and distribution operations.

But his photo collection remains the keystone of his operation. He thinks Spielberg put it to one of the most interesting uses in his "1941," as the basis for the strikingly detailed set designs of Hollywood Boulevard. It also was used in the design of sets for John Schlesinger's "Day of the Locust" (1975), which ends with sweeping violence in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Talk about a full-circle: The "Locust" designers had faithfully re-created the Hollywood Boulevard landmark from photos supplied by Torrence--including those handed down by the theater's builder, his grandfather Toberman.

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