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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Malibou Lake has played its part in movie history

The little-known setting for more than 100 movies is the topic of a lakeside program that will show its best roles.

November 04, 2007|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Not everyone can find it, hidden away and closed off as it is. But no doubt lots of people have seen it -- at least on TV or in the movies.

Serene little Malibou Lake -- yes, it's spelled that way -- is tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains near Agoura Hills. It has more than 100 screen credits as the little-known location for many Hollywood productions, including some of the best-known horror movies.

The scarier part of its movie career began more than three-quarters of a century ago, when a monster played by Boris Karloff drowned a little girl in the 1931 film "Frankenstein."

Scenes from 1958's "I Married a Monster From Outer Space" and the 2002 horror film "The Ring" were shot there. Most moviegoers probably had no idea what spot they were viewing.

"Malibou Lake is one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets," said Harry Medved, coauthor of "Hollywood Escapes," a travel guide to Southern California film locations. "It provides a rustic retreat that is so close to home. The lake has always had this irresistible lure to filmmakers and Hollywood talent who live there and shoot movies there."

But the lake and surrounding properties are private. Trespassers might get banished, just like the evil child played by Patty McCormack in the 1956 Oscar-nominated film "The Bad Seed."

Members of the public, however, will get a firsthand look at the lake Nov. 18, when Medved and history buff and author Brian Rooney will show clips of films shot there. The program will take place at the lakeside Malibou Lake Mountain Club.

The remote but sought-after spot -- half a mile south of Mulholland Highway -- began as a resort and real estate development in 1922. Two wealthy Los Angeles businessmen and noted fishermen, George Wilson and Bertram Lackey, bought 350 acres of land and built a 44-foot-high dam across two converging creeks, the Medea and the Triunfo. Over the next four years, as cabins and a clubhouse went up, 300 club members waited nervously as the site they had intended to be a 65-acre lake remained as dry as a bone.

It wasn't until late spring 1926 that storms poured "20 million gallons" of rainwater into the spot, reported The Times, forming the lake. Club members, investors in the project, celebrated for days.

The developers spelled their lake's name with an "o" to avoid confusion with Malibu Lagoon, said Rooney, who wrote "Three Magical Miles," a book about the region.

At first, construction was limited to vacation cabins. Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," was among the first to build a cabin, which he owned until his death in 1987. W.C. Fields and Cecil B. DeMille often visited the private clubhouse and the lake, which offered boating, fishing and target-shooting. Buster Crabbe and Betty Grable made a big splash there, waterskiing in the 1937 film "Thrill of a Lifetime."

"Lots of stars appeared in movies shot at the lake, but then retreated to their homes [back in town] with niceties like proper plumbing and carpeting," Rooney said.

In 1936, a fire destroyed the 24-bedroom clubhouse. A much smaller building of simple colonial design went up in its place. It still stands and is rented for weddings and private celebrations.

As postwar Los Angeles filled valleys and spilled over hills, some people got the idea of staying year-round.

In 1953, local rancher and future President Reagan was named Malibou Lake's honorary mayor. He owned a large ranch nearby.

In late 1959, state safety officials had two-thirds of the lake drained so they could inspect the dam, expecting winter's rain to refill the reservoir.

But little rain fell that season. Malibou Lake Mountain Club, with 120 members, paid $250 to a former Washington state newspaper advertising man turned "rainmaker," Edmond Jeffery, to lend nature a bit of assistance. His arrival in 1961 raised quite a hubbub. "It makes us look like a bunch of nuts," one resident told The Times.

As Los Angeles County officials delayed Jeffery's permit for his "experiment," he built a 25-foot tower atop a hill.

"We'll just say we're fighting mosquitoes with our chemicals if anyone asks," Jeffery told a Times reporter.

Every morning, he placed "radiation" chemicals atop the tower. At night, he brewed another secret mixture in stoves on platforms near the ground to vaporize into the air. After seven days, a slight drizzle materialized.

"I know I did it," he claimed at the time. Weather experts disagreed.

There was talk of paying Jeffery $2,000 to continue his work until the lake was filled. But club members decided otherwise, and the alleged rainmaker left town. A week later, a drenching storm blew in and filled the lake.

Over the years, the place continued to attract moviemakers, not all of them creating horror films. It was the setting for romantic moments between Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1999 movie "The Story of Us" and Diane Lane and John Cusack in the 2005 film "Must Love Dogs."

One of the film clips Medved and Rooney plan to show is a scene from the original "Frankenstein" that portrayed the simple-minded monster who befriends a little girl, played by Marilyn Harris. Together, the characters toss daisies into the lake. When the monster runs out of flowers, he pitches the girl into the lake, and she drowns.

For information on the Malibou Lake film presentation, see www.hollywoodescapes.com. Admission is free, but reservations are required; (310) 280-0200.

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

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