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The Day Before Hollywood

July 2024
13min read

It was a suburb of orange blossoms and gardens, of gracious homes and quiet, dignified lives—until a regrettable class of people moved in.

THE IDEA OF HOLLYWOOD as a boomtown would not have surprised those who lived there as this century began, for they worked hard toward that very ideal. But they would have been astounded and dismayed had they foreseen the kind of boomtown it was destined to become.

In 1886 Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Henderson Wilcox acquired a fig orchard in a remote suburb of Los Angeles called Cahuenga Valley. Los Angeles, an expanding city of fifty thousand inhabitants, was enjoying a real estate boom, thanks to the Southern Pacific Railroad connection, which linked the city directly with the East. Wilcox found himself paying one hundred and fifty dollars an acre for land that had cost less than two dollars an acre a few years earlier. Mrs. Wilcox, engaged in pleasantries with a fellow passenger on a train journey east, was charmed by the name of the lady’s summer home, which she called Hollywood. Mrs. Wilcox adopted the English-sounding name, and upon her return, the Cahuenga Valley-Wilcox Ranch became Hollywood Ranch. Mr. Wilcox, with the literal mind of a Kansas Prohibitionist, sought to justify the name by importing some English holly. The holly seemed to be the only plant in the entire valley that refused to flourish; it withered and died.


Horticulture was a sideline for Mr. Wilcox, whose passion and profession was real estate. He amused himself by subdividing his property, laying out streets in strict rectangles and lining them with pepper trees. He decorated his office in Los Angeles with an impressive map of Hollywood. The original settlers in Cahuenga Valley were not consulted about the change of name. Wilcox also was able to select his neighbors. A wealthy Colorado miner, inspired by a few flourishing lemon trees on the Wilcox ranch, bought some lots and laid out a lemon orchard, adding to it an imposing mansion. But when a Frenchman named Blondeau bought six acres at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, intending to open a saloon, Wilcox threatened to cancel the deal. Nevertheless, Blondeau in time managed to establish a roadhouse, serving meals and liquor. This delighted some of the other residents, for their aim was to spread the name of Hollywood throughout the land, and to achieve this aim many tourists were necessary. Lemon and orange orchards soon stretched across the valley, interspersed with truck gardens. Twelve thousand trees were planted in 1896 alone; samples of the fruit placed on display in Los Angeles were so impressive that the eagerly awaited tourists began arriving.


The Cahuenga Valley inspired those wealthy enough to maintain two homes to establish winter residences there. Asthmatic Easterners moved to this Eden for their health. One prospective purchaser was shocked by the high cost of Hollywood real estate; four hundred dollars an acre seemed excessive. Thirty days later, when he asked for “the best buy in Hollywood,” the price had soared to six hundred dollars. He pointed out that since he had rejected the land at four hundred dollars an acre, he was hardly likely to accept it at six hundred dollars. Thirty days later he learned the price was eight hundred dollars. “My,” he said. “That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but I believe I’ll take it.” He bought.

A local improvement society demanded “charity … more enthusiasm, more kindly feeling for all. More flowers and greater beauty, broad avenues shaded with ornamental trees.” They demanded, too, a live press agent to keep the advantages of the area before the public. One of those advantages came from the valley’s richest man, Col. Griffith J. Griffith, a Welshman who had made his fortune as a mining engineer and owned the huge Rancho Los Feliz. In 1896 he had donated over three thousand acres to the city of Los Angeles to be used as a park—then the largest city park in the world.

The fame of the little community for its park and for its orchards was eclipsed by the arrival of Paul DeLongpré, the French painter of flowers. Mr. Wilcox’s widow offered to sell him an estate on Cahuenga Avenue—with the provision that he establish a studio there. He agreed, but finding the place too small, he bought a lot on Hollywood Boulevard, for which he paid the delighted Mrs. Wilcox with three paintings. He built a Moorish mansion, crowned with cupolas, and surrounded it with a garden of such beauty that it became one of the prime showplaces of Southern California. The handful of tourists who visited the orchards multiplied to thousands yearly coming to see the artist and his dazzling garden. Newspapers praised DeLongpré and his work, bringing Hollywood immense prestige. Many tourists fell in love with the place, purchased lots, and built homes, and in gratitude to the Frenchman who attracted them, the city named a street in his honor—DeLongpré Avenue.

Most of the other streets were named after the original subdividers—Gower Street, Curson Avenue, McCadden Place. When H. J. Whitley opened his “Hollywood Ocean View” tract with immense ceremony, stockholders and prospective buyers admired the fine homes in the course of construction and toured the new Hollywood Hotel. The emotion of the day was expressed by one of the organizers, who declared, with a sweeping gesture, “Behold what God hath wrought.” A little later a group of real estate agents offered Whitley a stretch of rough land in lieu of money they owed him: as Whitley Heights it became some of the most sought-after acreage in town.

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.”

The prejudice against movies caused at least one boardinghouse to advertise, “No dogs or actors.”

Hollywood at this most transitory period was, by all accounts, a delightful and exhilarating place. It was a pleasure to get up in the morning—which was just as well, because picture people were often required on location at six to catch the best of the light. The preponderance of retired people gave the place a drowsy and restful atmosphere. “The citizens,” said Agnes de Mille, “spent long parts of the afternoons moving the sprinkler from one section of the lawn to another.” A weekend drive would take in Beverly Hills, where sidewalks disappeared into open fields, lampposts indicated uninhabited streets, and nurseries glowed with poinsettias. The foothills, hazy purple turning brown in summer, darkened by heat waves and brush fires, miraculously acquired a coat of green in the winter—a winter that was far too warm to deserve the term. “When people mention Hollywood,” recalled Agnes de Mille,” I am not minded of the goings-on in the hot studios, nor the pleasant social life of cheap oranges and easy swims, but of the untouched country behind the town, pagan, pantheistic, where mountain cats still prowl, the little deer start and tremble at human approach, coyotes scream and the beneficent rain comes down in the eucalyptus groves.”

The rain, rare as it was, proved a great inconvenience, and few of the temporary motion-picture structures could withstand it. The barn where the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, Agnes de Mille’s uncle, made Squaw Man in 1913 leaked, so when it rained, DeMiIIe and Mamie Wagner, his film editor, took turns protecting each other with an umbrella. A downpour often brought the fledgling industry to a halt. Flash floods destroyed Universal’s prestigious studio ranch soon after it opened—although, with typical Universal panache, they turned the disaster to advantage by filming a melodrama entitled The Fate of the Flood Waters.

The rains played such havoc with the roads that horses were favored above automobiles. Comparatively few people owned limousines, and a parked Rolls-Royce gathered a crowd. Lillian and Dorothy Gish, on the other hand, complained of people staring at them when they traveled to and from the Fine Arts studio on the streetcar. As the roads improved, the number of cars increased. Licenses were obtainable without a test, and any adult could drive. (There were a remarkable number of crashes for so small an automotive population.) But overcrowded roads were unknown, and cars could travel unimpeded for blocks, side by side, the drivers chatting to one another.

However attractive the town and its climate, there were plenty of complaints, particularly from those accustomed to the conveniences of New York. The sewerage was bad, and when Los Angeles began supplying the tap water, it proved to be so full of alkali that fresh water had to be delivered to the door in tanks. The beautiful pepper trees showered berries onto automobile hoods, and the juice damaged them; the pepper trees paid for this crime with their lives. Telephone operators listened in on the phone calls of the stars and created a spider’s web of gossip. The old guard of original settlers were ambivalent in their attitude to those they referred to as “movies.” The vast sums of money spent brought unparalleled prosperity, but they resented the intrusion of New York. The sight of kosher restaurants and synagogues added fuel to their bigotry. Their desire to hold on to their past led to such anomalies as the exclusive Garden Court Apartments, which refused moving-picture people but could not resist the Old World conservatism of producer-director J. Stuart Blakton, or the enchanting innocence of Bessie Love.

IN CONTRAST TO THE SETTLERS’ CURIOUS mixture of kindness and snobbery, the moving-picture people adopted a casual democracy. “There is no class distinction in Hollywood,” wrote Mary Winship in Photoplay. “The most rabid socialist can point to it as an example of communism as far as social usages are concerned. People who have money make a great to-do about it, of course. But it makes absolutely no difference to the relations of people. You are just as apt to meet every different occupation, position and salary of man and woman at any party you go to. Some of the greatest friendships I have ever known in pictures exist between people of such radically different positions that it could not occur in other professions.”

The freedom of women was another striking feature of pre-1920s Hollywood. Observers of the time were both shocked and encouraged: “Not even Greenwich Village has achieved so great a freedom in this respect.” Women could work, relax, and conduct their lives on the same basis as men. They could be found grinding the cameras both for feature and newsreel companies, marshaling actors as directors and organizing studios as producers. They were not present in any great numbers, but they made their mark—and the importance to early Hollywood of women in the executive class is a worthy subject. Mary Pickford may have been America’s Sweetheart; she was also the highest salaried player-producer in the world.

To call the Hollywood life relaxing was strictly a relative term. The routine was easy enough in the days before studios employed artificial light; work finished at 4:30 as the light went yellow. But motion pictures underwent enormous advances from 1911 to 1917, and with the advances went immense creative effort. Work may have stopped midafternoon in the early days; a few years later it often dragged on past midnight. Streetcars stopped at ten, and Hollywood streets were dark and deserted, so if you had no car and no horse, you walked home. Directors and actors congregated at the Green Room, if there was anything left of the evening. The wild life so beloved of Hollywood fiction belonged to weekends, although the great night at the Hollywood Hotel was Thursday. If you lived in Hollywood, you were welcome, and you could dance alongside Chaplin, the Gish sisters, Anita Loos, Constance and Norma TaImadge. The event was initiated by the light opera star Richard Carle, who staged an impromptu evening so successful that the hotel made a regular date of it.


The lingering prohibition, reimposed during the war, caused revelers to drive to outlying roadhouses, such as the self-styled Vernon Country Club. “They had the biggest bar in the world out there,” recalled the stunt man Harvey Parry. “One time, Tom Mix came up with an old car he had, and drove it right through the door. He got to his feet in this loud cowboy outfit he wore and said, ‘Tom Mix is my name. The drinks are on me.’”

The swashbuckling style aroused antipathy. Citizens were hotly indignant when prevented from crossing their own streets by aggressive assistants. They could not be expected to understand the danger; the road had been covered with soap and grease, and Keystone paddy wagons were about to screech past, skidding in endless circles.

Dignified matrons were not flattered to be propositioned with five dollars to do a walk-on because they were the “perfect type.” Most of them disapproved intensely of motion pictures and went so far as to refuse permission for their houses to be photographed. Not that they were immune even then. A trained mule wandered away from a movie company on location and frightened an elderly resident with a playful nip. When she ran into her house, the mule followed—charging straight through the screen door. Movie “burglars” broke into the wrong house, terrifying the occupants. A bank was held up in true movie style, but the camera was phony and the actors real bandits. Cowboys galloped their horses over newly mown lawns, tearing up the grass. Citizens further complained that picture people bullied them in Griffith Park. But here again, the moviemakers’ need for dangerous charges by cowboy cavalry could not be sacrificed for the sake of ramblers who had two thousand other acres to ramble in. Some of these residents exercised considerable power, however, and in 1915 picture companies were banned from private parks. Reacting with justifiable anger, and pointing to the five million dollars spent by the industry every year in the Los Angeles area, several companies hinted they might move to where more encouragement and courtesy might be shown them. At once the Merchants and Manufacturers Association linked arms to prevent this alarming loss of business. They acknowledged the tremendous advertising service provided by the movies, displaying the city’s scenic beauties and climatic advantages to audiences all over the world, and passed a resolution deploring the obstacles placed by officials in the way of an industry so advantageous to Los Angeles.

One visitor insisted, “The trouble with Hollywood is that it’s so damn unimpressive.”

THIS WAS ALL VERY WELL, DECLARED the picture people, but it wasn’t only the officials. The very merchants discriminated against them! The movies were making the merchants rich, yet they retained their snobbery. A hasty meeting of the Chamber of Commerce and the producers was described as “a love feast” by the press, but the affection was both strained and temporary. The resentment continued: well into the 1920s, real estate agents assured their clients: “No movie people live on this street. There won’t be any wild parties; you’ll be assured of quiet.” When they opened Bel-Air, a residential community, movie people were excluded. A country club went so far as to refuse to allow members to wear knickers; they made them look too much like film directors.

And yet the movies brought the benefit the Chamber of Commerce had always striven for: tourism. To cope with the influx, the Chamber prepared a booklet that assured tourists that motion-picture studios were only a part of Hollywood—“lower Hollywood”—and were “more or less lost in the far-spreading bungalowed landscape.” The only other evidence of movie business might be the presence on the sidewalk of a group of people, “a man turning the crank of a camera … while another man makes a girl do something foolish over and over again. Scenes like this attract little attention. The real Hollywood is engaged in its own affairs, which are those of ordinary everyday humanity, working and trading and living, and well satisfied to live in a beautiful place.” The fan magazines attacked this attitude, calling its authors “Hollywood’s Shameber of Commerce,” but actually most studios were anxious to avoid visitors. Although Universal welcomed tourists at its vast studio ranch in the San Fernando Valley, the other studios were considerably less hospitable. Lacking the space of Universal, they had also suffered from a plague of souvenir hunters on the occasions they had admitted visitors. Objects vital to continuity vanished, and pictures were held up while identical articles were tracked down in town. Anything portable was automatically pillaged by eager star worshipers, and it proved safer to close the studio gates. The wonderful sets tourists had seen in pictures were denied them, and the exteriors of most studios were uniformly dull. In later years visitors were offered special tours of the stars’ homes. But in the early days these were all too ordinary. “The trouble with Hollywood,” said one disgruntled visitor, “is that it’s so damn unimpressive.”


Some of the movie people felt the same way, despite the astonishing climate and the breathtaking scenery. When shots of New York appeared on the screen, you could identify members of the movie colony by their applause.“The heat gets on your nerves,”said one.“It’s so dusty you have to change your clothes three times a day and you’re never clean.”

How quickly they came to change their minds! After the real estate explosions of the 1920s and 1930s, the quietness and simplicity of the early years were greatly missed.

Katherine Albert wrote, in the 1930s, that Hollywood had been like a child, charming and naive. “Now it is a woman of the world, sparkling, bizarre, hard and bitter, with a painted face and narrow eyes.” The description is a period piece in itself, proving the dangers of uncritical nostalgia.

But even today anyone who wanders around the old residential streets of Hollywood at sunrise can scent in their quiet atmosphere something of the paradise that existed just a lifetime ago.

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