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Where I Live by Diane Haithman

When the madam talks, the walls don't have to

A house's oddities suddenly make sense when explained by an, uh, unorthodox former resident.

October 14, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Our home in Studio City, built in 1952, was never destined for one of those brass plaques so common to old homes in New England, declaring the structure a national historic site. You don't get a plaque for being exactly 1.2 miles from the "Brady Bunch" house.

We'd never be able to proudly say, as they do on the East Coast, "George Washington slept here."

But a few years ago we learned that George Washington might be the only one who hadn't.

The daughter of a neighbor, visiting her elderly mom from Australia, informed us that our home was once the headquarters for a call girl ring called Cheri's Angels.

That was why our house was the only one on the block with an electronic gate that rolled across the driveway, as well as a disabled surveillance camera perched atop the garage.

This garage, she added with raised eyebrows, was never used for cars, but rather as an entertainment center related to the "escort service."

The neighbors cheered, she said, when the cops finally hauled Cheri away.

The story of Cheri's Angels explained a few of the house's oddities. One was a box that accommodated multiple phone lines, more suggestive of a business than a family home. The other was the sand that poured out of the garage walls during a remodel, leaving contractors up to their ankles in the stuff. Apparently the sand served to soundproof the garage for recording sessions. Recording what, we didn't know -- but we felt sure it had something to do with Cheri.

We made sporadic attempts to find her. My husband pulled property records, which revealed that a Cheri Woods had indeed owned the home during the era "Charlie's Angels" ran on TV (1976-81). But efforts to track her down led nowhere.

Telling the Cheri story to dinner guests earlier this year inspired yet another Internet search for the missing madam. By then I'd forgotten how her name was spelled on property records. I tried "Sherry," "Sherrie," "Cherie's Angels." That last spelling turned up a 1993 article by Jim Klobuchar, then a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

He had interviewed Minneapolis native "Cherie" Woods, who was making the local talk-show rounds declaring that, at its peak, her former L.A. enterprise employed 185 call girls and served 2,000 powerful clients -- which entitled her, not Heidi Fleiss, to the title "Hollywood Madam to the Stars."

The spelling "Cherie Woods" led to her website, cheriwoods.com, where her self-published book, "Death Row Madam: Exposing Sex and Drugs in the Entertainment Industry," was for sale for $29.95.

The brightly colored page also invites the visitor to "Click here to Email Cheri."

I clicked.

Her response was there the next morning: "Yes, I am the SAME Cheri Woods, and boy, if the walls could talk...."

Our walls didn't talk -- but Woods did.

Woods still lives in the San Fernando Valley and was delighted by an invitation to revisit her former home. She confessed to having sneaked back to the Studio City house around 1990 during a real estate agent's open house, pretending to be a potential buyer.

A few days later, Woods arrived on our doorstep. An ebullient baby boomer with a loud laugh, bright blue eyes and streaked brown hair, she was neat and businesslike in a suit and high heels, and accompanied by daughter Tiana, 19. Woods looked less the portrait of a madam than the real estate agent she became after her incarceration.

"Oh my God, it's like a completely different house!" Woods exclaimed.

Two previous owners had made minor changes to the hillside house before we bought it in 1996. Still, it would have looked familiar had we not gutted the place for a contemporary remodel in 2000.

Woods told us the sand in the garage walls was indeed for a recording room -- for her former husband Stevie Woods, a pop singer. It later became more of a den for the kids, complete with a sofa, a big-screen TV and a video camera on a pedestal. "It was a very family-oriented environment," Woods said. "When the police came, they wrote in the report that I was making porno movies of minors because I had a video camera."

The house's wrought-iron privacy gate was removed in our remodel -- and with it, a bit of call-girl history. She said the gate was installed by an LAPD officer turned metal worker, who accepted the services of Cheri's Angels for his work. In-kind services also reportedly paid for the multiple phone lines.

"Here's where I did all my work and made all my phone calls," Woods said, pointing at a wall that divides the kitchen from the den. "Everything I did was by phone. I never had anyone come into my house. You probably visualized sexy girls all over the house." I told her I had not, though very likely my husband had.

A secret compartment concealed by paneling that Woods had installed in the master bedroom, now the living room, had been ripped out before we moved.

"This was going to be my big surprise to you, and now the surprise is on me," she said, disappointed. "Twice the police raided the place, and they never found it." Woods would not reveal what was kept in the box but said with a laugh that her "little black book" was much too big for such a small space.

"I couldn't wait to come back here," Woods said. "But ... I can't hardly recognize it as the same house, so I don't feel that sadness, that sentimental thing. The house as I knew it is gone."

In 2003, Woods purchased a West Hollywood apartment building that she says is the last known U.S. residence of the late Jim Morrison of the Doors. She is attempting to turn the building into a tourist attraction.

Woods said she thinks we should have a plaque identifying our house as the "Former Home of Cheri's Angels."

"It's almost like a celebrity house," she says. "I think you can get more money for it."

*

Times staff writer Diane Haithman can be reached at diane.haithman@latimes.com.

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