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A Mystery Revisited

A building that figured in the unsolved death of actress Thelma Todd is for sale

May 29, 2002|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They found actress Thelma Todd's lifeless body on the morning of Dec. 16, 1935, slumped over in the front seat of her chocolate-colored 1934 Lincoln Phaeton convertible, her car parked in a two-car garage near her married lover's brooding cliff-side mansion in Pacific Palisades.

She was dressed in a mauve and silver evening gown, expensive mink wrap and adorned with a small fortune in jewelry, after attending a party in her honor into the wee hours of the morning with her Hollywood friends at the famed Trocadero nightclub on Sunset Boulevard.

The death of the blond, wisecracking comedian dubbed "Hot Toddy" who had appeared in more than 40 films, including "Horse Feathers" and "Monkey Business" opposite the Marx Brothers, would unleash a media frenzy rivaling the O.J. Simpson case six decades later and spawn endless theories over what led to the 30-year-old starlet's untimely demise.

Now, a piece of this Raymond Chandler-like mystery is up for sale, and, from the looks of it, the public's appetite for the long-simmering Hollywood scandal has not abated.

Just down the hill from the death scene in the Castellammare section of Pacific Palisades, a sprawling, three-tiered Spanish-style building that housed Todd's swank ocean-view apartment in the 1930s went on the market this month for the first time in decades. The asking price: $4.7 million.

The salesman handling the property said he has been deluged with phone calls from prospective buyers, many of them local residents, who are entranced as much by Todd lore as they are by the rare opportunity of buying a prime piece of commercially zoned real estate on Pacific Coast Highway that goes for $300 a square foot.

"The first day my sign went up, I had 75 phone calls within six hours," recalled Rene Soto of Les Small & Co., a real estate consulting firm in Century City. "I'm averaging about 50 calls a day."

Soto noted that prospective buyers are not just asking him about the building, they want to hear the Thelma Todd saga. Like other scandals from Hollywood's early days, from "Fatty" Arbuckle to William Desmond Taylor, the strange death of Todd was a tale filled with glamour, intrigue and enough colorful characters to populate a novel.

Even today, authors, film buffs and local residents vigorously debate what happened that fateful night as they try to fill in the blanks around this dark chapter in Hollywood history. At the time, her death was a nationwide sensation. "Body of Thelma Todd Found in Death Riddle," read the front-page headline in the Los Angeles Times. Her mysterious death has been a cause for speculation ever since:

* Was she murdered by her business partner and sometime lover, a fading screen director and producer named Roland West?

* Was she followed home from the Trocadero that night by her abusive ex-husband, Pat De Cicco?

* Did gangland boss Charles "Lucky" Luciano order his boys to rub her out after she allegedly balked at allowing casino gambling above her restaurant?

Or, was it all just a tragic accident?

The three-story, 15,000-square-foot building in which Todd once lived is only a pedestrian bridge away from the beach at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway--a familiar sight to thousands of motorists who zip along daily between Santa Monica and Malibu.

Using the actress' fame as a draw, West and Todd opened a popular restaurant on the ground floor of the building called Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe. One floor up was their private nightclub named Joya's, which played host to Hollywood's rich and famous. Given its flashy history, then, it is no small irony that today the building is owned by a religiously oriented motion picture and television production company called Paulist Productions.

Founded in the 1960s by a much-beloved Catholic priest, the late Father Ellwood E. "Bud" Kieser, Paulist Productions came to prominence in Hollywood for its award-winning television series "Insight."

How the production company acquired the property has a Todd connection. The owner, Lola Lane of the singing Lane sisters, had married Roland West and inherited the building after his death in 1952. She remarried and, after converting to Catholicism, she and her husband met Kieser and were so impressed that they invited him to set up shop on the ground floor of their large residence. The property was later deeded to Paulist Productions.

Today, officials at Paulist Productions say it just doesn't make sense for the production company not to utilize the money that can be realized from selling the property. "This is an asset," said Father Frank Desiderio, a Catholic priest who heads Paulist Productions, "and we've been sitting on it rather than putting it to work."

Just touring the building is nostalgic. Desiderio points to a frayed menu from Todd's eatery that is framed and mounted on his office wall. Among the menu offerings: Gin Fizz--35 cents, Thelma Todd Knockout--$1, Thelma Todd Milk Punch (gin base)--45 cents, and a Thelma Todd Rickey--45 cents. "A hot weather suggestion."

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