The Day Before Hollywood


Hollywood’s rapid growth was reflected in the little Pass school, whose three rooms were soon impossibly overcrowded, not so much from the local birthrate as from immigration. To accommodate the new population, Hollywood High School was constructed in 1904.

THE CITY FATHERS TOOK CARE to ensure that the expansion was in line with their intentions. They banned the sale of liquor, except by pharmacists, and passed ordinances to prohibit slaughterhouses, glue factories, and gasworks within the city limits. When it was proposed that the streetcar fare from Los Angeles be cut, one of the city fathers declared that while the town needed more people, did it need the kind of person a five-cent fare would bring?

By carefully trying to preserve the dignified character of the town, the city fathers ensured its destruction. Thanks to their prohibition on liquor, the Blondeau roadhouse suffered a crippling loss of revenue, and Mrs. Blondeau was eager to lease it. The roadhouse had a barn, a corral, twelve cabins, and a bungalow. In October 1911 some motion-picture people from New Jersey were directed there by a local photographer, and the Blondeaus leased the place for thirty dollars a month. The newcomers put horses in the corral, props in the barn, turned the cabins into dressing rooms and the bungalow into offices, and established the first motion-picture studio in Hollywood.

They called themselves the Nestor Film Company. The owners, two brothers from England—David and William Horsley—had also called themselves the Centaur Film Company when they worked in Bayonne, New Jersey. They had been refused a license by the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust headed by the Edison company, which attempted to wipe out competition by claiming a monopoly on patents. In common with other outfits, Centaur was harassed by Patents Company agents who used violence when the law failed to work fast enough. Now Centaur wanted to get as far as possible from the East Coast. The California weather was a strong inducement, but they were also attracted by the wild country close to Hollywood, into which they could disappear at the mere sniff of a Patents agent. As a last resort, the Mexican border was not too far away.

City fathers fought a 5¢ fare from L.A. Did they need the sort of people a 5¢ fare would bring?

Nestor began shooting very quickly, and the fine weather enabled them to keep to a rapid schedule. They had no facilities for making prints, so they shipped their negatives to New York. When the results were seen and word got about, more and more so-called independents made the decision to go to California, and many arrived in Hollywood. These were the very men the city fathers strove to avoid—ex-secondhand clothes dealers,-poolroom proprietors,-blacksmiths,-fish merchants. And in their wake came an even more regrettable class of people—actors.

Retired people, who had moved to Hollywood to enjoy its tranquillity, were deeply upset when curious wooden stages appeared on unrestricted property adjoining their homes, to the sound of furious and apparently endless hammering. The owners of these things never seemed satisfied; no sooner had they erected one interior than they tore it down and built another. A closer look revealed people, painted like streetwalkers, contorting themselves in agonized gestures before painted canvas. The staccato click of the cameras, the bellowing of the directors, and the hammering of the carpenters depressed the local citizens, whose ideal of art was the gentle brushstroke of Paul DeLongpré.

The city hastily passed a zoning ordinance to prevent further structures from defacing the landscape. Thus Hollywood escaped the fate of becoming the center of moving-picture production. The early temporary stages gave way to more sophisticated studios, which were built in outlying areas like Edendale, Boyle Heights, and Culver City. But the attractive name of Hollywood sprang to mind long before the names of such obscure places, and it soon became the generic term for the film-producing area of Southern California. Neighboring towns eventually submitted to its fame themselves; Toluca and Lankershim became North Hollywood, while Ivanhoe and Prospect Park became East Hollywood. There was West and South Hollywood as well.

Yet in these early days the nerve center of the moving-picture industry was in downtown Los Angeles, at the Alexandria Hotel, where casting was carried on in the bar and deals were made in the lobby, on the carpet called “the million-dollar rug.” The wealthier actors stayed here, or at the Rex Arms Apartments, or at the Hollywood Hotel. The stars, before World War I, lived modestly. The majestic homes still belonged to the oil millionaires, the mining tycoons, and the politicians. The more ordinary actors lived in cottages, bungalows, or apartments. Such was the prejudice against “movies” that at least one boardinghouse advertised, “No dogs or actors.” Many players, soon to build themselves castles, were satisfied with two rooms and a shared bathroom. Accustomed to stage life, they had been sustained by hotel rooms throughout their careers. “I never had a home in my life,” said DeWoIf Hopper, “until I came west.”