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L.A. THEN & NOW

The movie capital of yore

October 25, 2009|Steve Harvey

As a heavyweight contender four decades ago, 6-foot-6 Jack O'Halloran battled such tough hombres as George Foreman, Ken Norton and Cleveland Williams.

Now O'Halloran is in a different kind of struggle, trying to find financial backers to help turn an old 78-acre Boeing plant in Long Beach into a movie studio.

"This will be a great shot in the arm for the state of California," says O'Halloran, 66, who later turned to acting and was a villain in the movie "Superman II."

But his chances of success with the studio project are uncertain in this economy. Also, other business interests have their eyes on the site, vacant since 2006.

Whatever the outcome, don't get the impression that the city is late coming to the movie business.

There was a time when Long Beach deserved the title "Hollywood by the Sea." Or maybe Hollywood should have been called "Long Beach North."

From 1913 to 1918, Balboa Amusement Producing Co. near downtown Long Beach was one of the largest independent filmmakers in the world, producing more than 1,000 movies, said Jean-Jacques Jura, co-author of "Balboa Films" with Rodney Norman Bardin II.

It was run by two brothers whose names were too long for marquees, Herbert and Elwood Horkheimer. And it employed such actors as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Mabel Normand, and such directors as William Desmond Taylor and Henry King.

Slapstick comedy was a specialty at Balboa Films, prompting the Los Angeles Times to later say of the period: "Long Beach pie bakeries flourished as never before."

It also was the home of the nation's first child movie star, "Baby Marie" Osborne, a curly-haired moppet who appeared in "Little Mary Sunshine" in 1916 when she was 4.

Careful to protect its headliner, the studio published several rules for the treatment of Baby Marie including:

"While on the stage, the child is not to be touched by anyone excepting her director, her attendant or those assisting the director or participating in the scenes in which she appears."

"She is not to be teased at any time. . . . She is not to be shouted at nor addressed in slang."

Alas, the reign of Balboa Films was brief. The studio saturated the market with too many unprofitable movies. Another factor was World War I, especially because Balboa's two main distributors were British and French. And a deal in which novelist Jack London would have starred in movie versions of his works fell through and resulted in a costly legal battle.

Then a new industry emerged in the Long Beach area. As O'Halloran puts it, "A guy shot a hole in the ground and oil came out. The property was far more valuable for the oil business."

Eventually, the Horkheimers filed for bankruptcy and disappeared from history. So did Balboa Films, though Jura notes that the studio made several technical contributions in such areas as the processing of film.

Jura estimates that only 10% of Balboa's films survive. Because the movies contained nitrate, which is an element in explosives, many were recycled for combat during World War I, the author says.

Actress Ruth Roland made sure her movies survived, though. She stored them in her backyard in a concrete vault, where they were found after her death in 1937 at the age of 45.

Balboa Films itself was torn down in 1925, and the Museum of Latin American Art now occupies the site at the corner of 6th Street and Alamitos Avenue.

Tragedy engulfed some of the old Balboa stars. In 1921, Arbuckle was tried for manslaughter in connection with the death of an actress at a party. Though he eventually was exonerated, his career never recovered, and he died at age 46.

In 1922, Taylor was shot to death at age 49 in his home. The crime was never solved.

Baby Marie's story proved happier.

At the age of 89, she told a Times reporter in 2001 that she'd had "a fascinating, wonderful life," even though her acting career largely ended when she became an adult.

She stayed in the business, working as a costume supervisor on several movies, including "The Godfather Part II" (1974).

She is 97 today and in fragile condition.

But author Jura recalled a day about a decade ago when Osborne drove some friends and relatives from her home in San Clemente to Long Beach.

After their arrival, it began to rain and Osborne walked back to her car and fetched "an assortment of her own umbrellas, each one a different color and pattern," Jura wrote. "She passed them out, while eyeing and matching each umbrella to what each passenger was wearing."

He added: "Never did our costumer ask for a hand."

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steveharvey9@gmail.com

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