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ESCAPE FROM HOLLYWOOD : So Near and Yet So Far, Orange County Has Long History as Celebrity Hideaway

October 21, 1990|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall used to hold weekend trysts aboard his boat in Newport Harbor during the 1944 filming of "To Have and Have Not," the still-married Bogart careful to keep Bacall under wraps below deck as they moved away from the slip. Newport was far from what Bogie liked to call the "Hollywood gossip and leeches." Bette Davis had eyes for Laguna. In the '40s, she bought a house overlooking Woods Cove, its "breathtaking view of the sea and sky" a respite from her legendary battles with studio boss Jack Warner. Orange County may be perceived as an endless string of housing tracts and shopping malls, but for decades it has been a playground, a place for celebrities to escape the congestion and notoriety of Hollywood. And like the famous folks' own mercurial popularity, Orange County's celebrity roster is constantly changing. In 1989, actor Chuck Norris sold his home in North Tustin to be closer to his work in Hollywood. Six months ago, singer Jose Feliciano, who had lived in Villa Park since 1969, sold his ranch-style home (complete with recording studio) and moved to Westin, Conn. And last March best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh, who has lived on and off in Newport Beach the past 13 years, put his Linda Isle home on the market.

But just as some names are erased from the county's celebrity score card, new ones are added.

Singer-actress Bette Midler, who bought a home in Laguna Beach in the late '80s, has been spotted working out at a local health club. Actor Robert Englund (Freddy in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films) also bought a weekend home in Laguna, where he can be seen surfing with the locals.

And last November pop singer Tiffany moved to Orange County after finding the "perfect" house in Santa Ana.

While she doesn't relish the commute to Los Angeles for work, the Norwalk native told a reporter she couldn't live in L.A.: "It's too crowded."

To put Tiffany's move to Orange County in historical perspective, we offer this celebrity sampler:

Hollywood's Back Lot

One stormy midnight in 1910, three carloads of actors, film-crew members and cowboy extras pulled into the depot at San Juan Capistrano.

Biograph Studio, a 50-member New York company spending the winter in the California sunshine, was headed by the legendary director D. W. Griffith. Among the cast: an unknown 17-year-old actress who would later be known as America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford.

Checking into a two-story wooden hotel with only 10 bedrooms, two toilets and a single tub, the movie makers waited out the storm for three days and then proceeded to shoot an 18th-Century Spanish romance in and around the old mission.

"The Two Brothers," a one-reeler, was the first motion picture ever made in Orange County, according to historian Jim Sleeper, author of "Great Movies Shot in Orange County."

Over the next two decades, as Hollywood became the film capital of the world, hundreds of silent movies were filmed, at least in part, in Orange County.

And county residents, who were often hired as extras, could observe some of the silent screen's great stars emoting before hand-cranked cameras: Theda Bara, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and John Gilbert.

As Sleeper says, during the period between 1910 and 1930, Orange County reigned as "Hollywood's most popular back lot."

In the summer of 1925, Mary Pickford and her swashbuckling husband, Douglas Fairbanks, began leasing a quarter-mile stretch of beach in Irvine Cove north of Laguna, where they would set up colorfully striped tents for their large retinue of family and friends.

"Hollywood's most popular back lot" would soon become one of Hollywood's most popular back yards.

Palmy Days

When the Spanish colonial-style Balboa Inn was built on the Balboa peninsula in 1930, it quickly became a favorite haunt of the movie crowd. The 34-room inn's celebrity guest list included Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and a host of big bands that played at the nearby Rendezvous Ballroom.

The '30s and '40s were the heyday of Orange County's Hollywood connection.

It was a time when Bogart, Errol Flynn, Dick Powell, Leo Carillo, Tom Mix, Preston Foster and James Cagney (who bought Collins Island in 1938) docked their boats in Newport Harbor.

During World War II, Bogart even served in the Coast Guard out of Balboa and was on duty once a week patrolling the shore. And when the 45-year-old actor fell in love with his 19-year-old co-star, they spent frequent weekends together in Newport Beach.

As Bacall wrote in her autobiography: "Bogie wanted me to see Newport--to feel the atmosphere that he had described to me so many times and loved so much."

Late movie tough guy Broderick Crawford, a frequent visitor to Newport Beach in the '40s, recalled those palmy days in a 1978 interview at the Newporter Inn.

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