Monday, February 23, 2009

The Culver Hotel - Munchkinland

Culver Hotel - 9400 Culver Blvd, Culver City, CA
The Culver Hotel located in downtown Culver City, near the Sony Studios (formerly MGM) and the Culver Studios, has had many famous residents over the years including Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan. However, the most famous guests to stay at this hotel would probably be the Munchkins from the 1939 film the Wizard of Oz.
The Munchkins were apparently a rowdy bunch. According to Judy Garland, "They got smashed every night and the police had to pick them up in butterfly nets." MGM Studios producer Mervyn Leroy had his own acerbic comment about the munchkins saying, "They got into sex orgies at the hotel. We had to have police on every floor." Bert Lahr, the "cowardly lion" had this to say about the munchkins: "Many of the Munchkins were midgets who, in fact, made their living by panhandling, pimping and whoring. Assistants were ordered to watch the crew of midgets, who brandished knives and often conceived passions for other, larger Metro personnel." Most of the comments were likely untrue or exaggerated, nevertheless, they make for interesting stories.
Another legend has it that Charlie Chaplin who was once a part owner of the Culver Hotel sold the place to actor John Wayne for a dollar during a poker game. I'm not quite sure about the validity of this comment but it makes for another great tale.

Wizard of Oz (C) MGM Studios
In addition to housing visitors the Culver Hotel has also been used for filming. The hotel can be seen in old Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang Shorts and relatively more recently in The Wonder Years and 7th Heaven.
If you want to visit the hotel but don't want to stay the night there is a great bar in the lobby. Stop in to have a drink and check out some of the Wizard of Oz, Laurel & Hardy, and Our Gang memorabilia displayed in the ground floor windows.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

40th Anniversary of Heritage Square

Heritage Square Museum - Picture from Flickr
Southern California, Los Angeles especially, has some of the most fascinating history. Unfortunately, for a long time many of the structures and places that make up that history have been destroyed. It wasn't until the late 1960s that preservation became a concern. On March 6, 1969 the last two Victorian-era structures located in the area of Los Angeles known as Bunker Hill were saved from demolition and moved to the Heritage Square Museum. This coming March 7, the Heritage Square Museum will be celebrating its 40th anniversary with the unveiling of a newly rebuilt veranda at the Longfellow-Hastings Octagon Home. Visit the Los Angeles Heritage Alliance blog for more info and links.
Also coming up at the Heritage Square Museum is LA HERITAGE DAY! On March 22, 2009 from 11am - 4pm there will be discussion about culture, preservation, and information on local museums and historical societies. Numerous heritage groups will be present including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, American Cinematheque, Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, Hollywood Heritage, and the Los Angeles Conservancy just to name a few.
Mark your calendars!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Prospect Studios

One of the first major movie companies, Vitagraph, is one that is hardly remembered today. Vitagraph was started in 1896 by two vaudeville comedians, Albert Smith and Stuart Blackton in Brooklyn, New York. The two comedians created films that they incorporated into their live acts, but when the films became more popular than their acts, the two actors invested themselves fully into the motion picture business.
Like most film companies that started on the East coast Vitagraph would open a West coast location. The new Vitagraph Studios was opened in 1915 in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles at the corner of Prospect Avenue and Talmadge Street. The lot can be seen in the forefront of the photo below.

When the Vitagraph Studios first opened there were 2 daylight soundstages, exterior sets and support buildings. Some of the first stars to work at this facility included the silent legends Clara Kimball Young, Wallace Reid, and even a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel. By 1925, Vitagraph was having financial troubles and would eventually be bought by Warner Bros. then a fast growing new motion picture company.
Warner Bros. already had a West coast studio located in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard so the Vitagraph lot, now known as the Warner East Hollywood Annex, was used for the additional space. Many Warner Bros. films were shot at this lot from the mid-twenties to the late-forties. Some of these include The Jazz Singer (stage 5 is where the shot the interior club scenes), Public Enemy with James Cagney, and The Gold Diggers of 1933 with Ginger Rogers and Joan Blondell.
Mill Building where sets are constructed. Photo (C) Peggy Archer
In 1948, the studio was bought by the American Broadcasting Network and then became known as ABC Television Center. Under the ownership of ABC many popular television programs were filmed here including the game shows Let's Make a Deal and Dating Game, variety shows American Bandstand and the Lawrence Welk Show, as well as the long running soap opera General Hospital.

In 1996, ABC became part of The Walt Disney Company and around 2000 renamed the studio The Prospect Studios. Disney, like Warner Bros. mainly uses this lot as an annex studio. Probably the most popular program being filmed here currently is the TV show Grey's Anatomy. Below is a picture of Seattle Grace Hospital from Grey's Anatomy as seen on the Prospect Studios lot.
Photo (C) Michael Patrick Breen

The Prospect Studios 4151 Prospect Avenue

Disney Trivia Note* At the Disney's Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM) theme park in Orlando, Florida there is a reference to the Prospect Studios. As you enter this theme park the very first cross street that you come to is Prospect which intersects with Hollywood Blvd. In reality, these two streets never cross.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tour the Warner Bros. Ranch

Just north of the Warner Bros. Studio lot is another, much smaller, studio lot known as the Warner Bros. Ranch. It was originally called the Colombia Ranch after the studio that founded the facility. Unlike the WB Studio, the Ranch is not open to the public, so if you would like to get a glimpse of what the Ranch lot looks like the folks over at How the Ranch Was Weathered have a pretty nice photo tour. Check it out here.
The How the Ranch Was Weathered group was made up of fans of the classic television show Betwitched, so the view of the lot is photographed from that perspective. In addition to Bewitched many other titles were shot here: National Lampoon's Vacation, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Pleasantville, Friends, Dennis the Menace (tv show), I Dream of Jeannie, and Partridge Family just to name a few.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A.C. Lyles - "Mr. Paramount"

For anyone looking to get into business in Hollywood A.C. Lyles, the longtime Paramount Pictures producer has the perfect advice: "obsession, obsession, obsession." Lyles, who started working for Paramount over 80 years ago and still shows up for work today should know what works.
When Lyles was just 10 years old he saw the Paramount film Wings, which was the first picture to win the Oscar for Best Picture, at a Paramount owned movie theatre in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Lyles fell in love with the picture and knew that he wanted to go to work for the people that made it so he went to the theatre manager, asked for a job, and got a position distributing handbills.
Four years later Paramount founder Adolph Zukor would make a visit to the Jacksonville theatre and Lyles didn't hesitate to introduce himself. Zukor told Lyles, who was interested in going to Hollywood to work at the studio, to finish high school first. After their brief meeting Lyles began writing Zukor every week. "My whole life was writing Mr. Zukor every Sunday. I was quite obsessed," Lyles said.
On another occasion Lyles was lucky enough to meet actor Gary Cooper who was in Jacksonville on his way to Miami. Lyles introduced himself to Cooper and explained how he had been writing Zukor. Cooper wrote Lyles a note and told him to include it in his next letter to Zukor. When Zukor's secretary found the note she wrote back to Lyles and then Lyles started writing letters to her too.
Taking Zukor's advice, Lyles graduated from high school then boarded a train going cross country to Hollywood with just $28 and a sack of apples, peanut butter, and bread. When Lyles arrived in Hollywood Zukor gave him a position as an office boy earning $15 a week. Lyles quickly made friends on the Paramount Studios lot, including a young Bing Crosby, Cooper, and James Cagney's sister. Cagney's sister would introduce Lyles to her brother and they would then become friends, but that was just the start. Cagney would introduce Lyles to who would soon become one of his best friends. "There's a young fellow in town I want you to meet. You'll be inseparable," Lyles recalled. The young fellow turned out to be Ronald Reagan!
At the age of 19 Lyles would become a publicity director. By the 1950s & 1960s he was producing films, especially westerns. Most recently he worked as a consultant on the tv show Deadwood but much of his time is spent playing ambassador for Paramount.
I was fortunate enough to meet A.C. Lyles several times while I was a Page at the Paramount Studios. I remember being invited into his office which is on the side of the Paramount Studios lot that used to be RKO. When you go into Lyles office there are framed photographs everywhere. Most of them are pictures of Lyles with all the stars he has known over the years: Elvis, Clint Eastwood, James Cagney, Shirley Temple, and of course Ronald Reagan.
The first time I went to Lyle's office he told me to take a seat on the couch. He was sitting behind his desk (which used to belong to Fred Astaire!) and asked me to blow on the door of his office. The door suddenly slammed shut. No, Lyles doesn't know magic - he has a control button behind his desk to close the door, but it was a funny little gimmick. Lyles then asked if I would like to see a video? I certainly did and he played a video for me of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush congratulating Lyles on his career at Paramount. The most interesting part was when Reagan mentions during his segment that it was Lyles that first predicted that he would be president.
Lyles shared many stories and advice with me during the few times that we would meet. Much of the advice was that which was passed down to him from Adolph Zukor. Lyles told me, "Zukor used to say to me, to make it in this town you got to dress British, speak Yiddish." Every day that I saw Lyles at work he was finely dressed in a tailored suit that he picked up at Saville Row. He was the best dressed man at Paramount. Lyles also shared another nugget of wisdom that he picked up from Zukor and that was to, "get a Cadillac, join the Bel Air country club, and get a home in Beverly Hills." I told Lyles I would get right on that.
In the picture above you can see Lyles sitting at the desk in his office. If you look closely you can see that he's wearing cuff links. Those used to belong to Ronald Reagan and have the presidential seal.
Another interesting about Lyle is that he still drives himself to work each day in an old 1950s Ford Thunderbird. When he's not driving the old Thunderbird he's driving one of the new Thunderbirds that Ford came out with a few years ago designed to look like the classic Thunderbird. I'm told that Ford gave them the car for his loyalty to the Thunderbird car. I can't say for sure if that is true or not.
If you ever are in Hollywood and take a tour of the Paramount Studios be on the look out for Lyles. He loves guests and sharing his many stories. Don't hesitate to say hello.
Here's a great video of A.C. Lyles talking about western star John Wayne and western director John Ford:

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Chaplin Studios

1416 North La Brea Ave, Hollywood, CA
Above is the entrance to Jim Henson Productions on La Brea Avenue, in Hollywood, CA. If you look on top of the building you will notice that Kermit the Frog is dressed as another famous icon - Charlie Chaplin. That's because this building was originally constructed as the Chaplin Studios.

If you look at the aerial shot of the Chaplin Studios you will notice that the studio was located in a very residential neighborhood. Today this same area is in the center of a commercial area. There are strip malls and businesses all around. But, when Chaplin decided to build his studio in this location it was quiet and residential. The neighborhood was not happy with the idea of a movie person coming into their community and building a studio. To appease his new neighbors Chaplin had his studio constructed so that the buildings on the perimeter resembled an English Village. If you look at the photo below you can see how nice the studio looked. It certainly doesn't look like a movie studio from the outside.

1922 Postcard from

Chaplin Studios as A&M Records Headquarters (C) Gary Wayne
The Chaplin Studios was constructed in 1917 and opened in 1918. Many of Chaplin's greatest films were shot here including The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. In 1952 Charlie Chaplin, who was a target of the McCarthy witch hunts, left the U.S.A. for Europe. The studio was then bought and sold several times. Other owners have included CBS, American International and Red Skeleton. In the 1950s episodes of the tv series Superman were filmed here. By 1966, A&M Records made the Chaplin Studios it's headquarters. During the A&M days many music videos were filmed here including "Every Breath You Take" by the Police and Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters." The Jim Henson Company took over the property in 2000.

Above is a photo of the Chaplin Studios covered in snow from 1921. This a rare sight in Southern California.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Gregory Paul Williams Book Signing

Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood - Photo from Picasa Web Albums
On Saturday, January 31, I attended the "The Story of Hollywood" slide show presentation by author Gregory Paul Williams at the Egyptian Theatre. I was hoping to get some video footage from the presentation but it was just too dark to get a good recording from my little camera. Nevertheless, the presentation was an intense educational experience. Mr. Williams shared at least a 100+ images from his collection of Hollywood photos which were projected onto the Egyptian's huge movie screen while he discussed the evolution of Hollywood as a town.
In his collection of photos were images of Hollywood as farmland, photos of homes, churches, and other buildings that are now long extinct, rare pictures of projects that were supposed to be built but never completed and even some photos of some of the characters that have added to the color of Hollywood. My favorite images included photographs of the first studios that made Hollywood their home but later left for Burbank, Culver City, or other surrounding areas. Those early studios then became ghost studios, sitting vacant until they were eventually torn down.
Some of the other images I found quite interesting included photographs of Hollywood during the early twentieth-century showing these large pepper trees that lined the streets. The trees looked beautiful but were apparently very messy, leaving tree droppings everywhere, but were at the time were almost a symbol of Hollywood, the way palm trees are thought of today. Eventually, the pepper trees were cut down but not without some opposition. Mary Pickford even led a save the pepper trees campaign.
Williams gave a 2 1/2 hour presentation and could have gone on for hours more. He could have done a presentation just on the history of LA drive-ins or just the Hollywood Hotel. When Williams wrapped he went to the theatre's lobby to sign copies of his book, "The Story of Hollywood."

Me with author Gregory Paul Williams

Although I wasn't able to get any video footage of the presentation, here is a clip of author Gregory Paul Williams signing copies of his book. The woman in the video getting her book signed is a sweet lady I met in line. She grew up in Hollywood and had worked at Paramount for several years as a script supervisor. I only wish I would have remembered to get her information before she left to so I could maybe hear some of her stories about the days of Paramount's past!


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