Tag Archives: hollywood

Anything For A Weird Life

My nephew found himself with some free time during a business trip in London the other day, so he stopped in to Highgate Cemetery, snapped a photo of Douglas Adams’ snow-draped tombstone, and then fired it off to my email address. (Sometimes family and the Internet can be so cool!)

The photo came at a good time, because I’ve been missing Douglas Adams a lot lately. I usually do this time of year when I mentally “auld lang syne” the heroes from my youth who have moved on.

Adams, who died suddenly of a heart attack at a gym in Montecito in 2001, is most famous for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, a hilarious six-book science-fiction “trilogy.” The story is centered around the character Arthur Dent who escapes the planet Earth along with his alien friend Ford Prefect moments before the planet is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. My teenaged stepson now shares my Adams addiction, ever since we started listening to recordings of the Hitchhiker’s BBC radio shows on the way to his school every morning.

I usually read the entire Hitchhiker’s series every year of two to re-calcify my funnybone. This year I’ve added And Another Thing … to the list, which is the latest offering in the series, penned last year by Eoin Colfer, the creator of the fantastic Artemis Fowl books. Although critics have claimed that the Colfer book is “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Douglas Adams,” I have thoroughly enjoyed it so far.

I was lucky to meet the great man once back in October 1992. It was at a book signing at Book Soup in West Hollywood on the Sunset Strip. I got to the store early and was able to secure a seat right next to the podium. Adams arrived late (he always had an aversion to deadlines) and read from one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books, acting out all of the voices as he read along. We all ate it up. When he went to read from his book Last Chance To See – a rare bit of non-fiction he wrote about vanishing species – the store had none in stock. I gladly offered him my copy, which I had brought along for him to sign. I remember he flipped through it and said, “Wow, it’s marked up!” commenting on my habit of making notes in books. Afterwards, he pulled me to the front of the line where he shook my hand, signed my copy, and stamped a bright red “42” on the front (the answer to the question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”).

A couple of months ago I got the chance to host my own signing at the same venue for my book Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-wrote with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. It was weird standing at the same podium where Adams had once voiced the part of Marvin, the Paranoid Android to all of us nerdy fans all those years ago. The unworthiness I felt reminded me of Adams’ computer Deep Thought’s comments about a superior machine: “A computer whose operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate.”

I heard once that if you want to change your life, you must first change your heroes. A couple decades ago my life changed for the better, becoming a lot funnier in the process, when I first discovered Douglas Adams. The laughs ended far too soon.

I’m not bringing you down, am I?

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A Square for the “King of Cool”

Steve McQueen's son Chad holds up a sign at the dedication of the square for his father, while L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge looks on.

For a woman to board a plane in England on her own and come all the way to L.A. just to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the death of actor Steve McQueen, surely means she has been a lifelong fan of the “King of Cool,” right?

“Actually, only four-and-a-half months,” laughs Teresa Peacock, a 59-year-old administrative assistant from outside London, with a delightful British pronunciation of “hoff” for the word “half.”

“You see, I always knew about Steve McQueen, but I never really paid attention until one day recently when I was bouncing around the channels looking for something when I chanced upon The Magnificent Seven. I asked, “Where have you been?””

I had written a DD post about the same time on McQueen’s last years, which were spent in the city of Santa Paula northwest of L.A. Teresa happened to catch it online, and we have been trading emails ever since. Yesterday, we finally met at the dedication of “Steve McQueen Square” at the corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.

Teresa arrived at the square in style in a 1968 Mustang owned by Mike Farrell (not that Mike Farrell) from Redondo Beach. She had hooked up the sweet ride through a mutual friend who hosts a McQueen fan-site in Germany. The car was one of a long procession of Mustangs, Porsches, and motorcycles that motored through Hollywood, briefly pausing at McQueen’s star on Hollywood Boulevard, before stopping at the newly-minted square.

Teresa Peacock (right) chats wife McQueen's first wife, Neile Adams McQueen.

The brief dedication ceremony was led by L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge and was attended by several McQueen family members, including his son Chad and his first wife Neile Adams McQueen. Dozens of fans milled about the high-performance vehicles that filled the lot of a gas station. The McQueens were photographed with most everyone in the crowd and were kind enough to Sharpie everything placed in front of them. This included the back of the T-shirt that Teresa wore, which sported the “JJZ 109” license plate from McQueen’s Mustang from Bullitt on the front.  

This is Teresa’s first real trip to Los Angeles and most of her other scheduled stops this week will be to other McQueen-related events, including a special screening of Bullitt on Thursday night at the Arclight Hollywood Theater.

The McQueen family.

Are there any non-McQueen sites she plans to see in L.A.?

“I’m going to Santa Monica to the pier because I understand they have a roller coaster, and I love roller coasters. Then on to Venice Beach to see the men. I have got to see the men!”

We lost Cool’s King thirty years ago, but we may have just discovered a suitable queen.

Teresa with Mike Farrell alongside Mike's 1968 "Bullitt"-style Mustang.


It’s About “Buddy” Time

If I could borrow Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine for a day, I’d be tempted to set the dial to October 15, 1955 – 55 years ago today – and head for Lubbock, Texas. On that day, a young headliner named Elvis Presley played shows in two clubs in the Lubbock area – Fair Park Coliseum and the Cotton Club – with soon-to-be legend Buddy Holly as his opening act.

Holly, who had recently graduated from Lubbock High School, was a regular at the Cotton Club, where he was often let in free by the owner’s daughter. The club was unique at the time in that it was a West Texas roadhouse that was “blind to race, color, or musical genre.” This cross-pollination of styles greatly influenced Holly. One of the acts he saw the previous April was Presley, who had created a following in the South from the Louisiana Hay Ride radio program. On seeing the future “King,” Holly immediately changed his musical style from Country-based to the new genre of Rock and Roll.

A few months later, nineteen-year-old Holly and his partner Bob Montgomery, performing under the name “Buddy and Bob,” opened for Presley (Johnny Cash was another of the opening acts). It was thrilling for Holly to be on stage with his idol, and the excitement would only compound when he caught the eye of a talent scout that night from Decca Records and ended up in Nashville a few months later cutting his first demos. (Incidentally, Decca would misspell Buddy’s last name, dropping the “e” from Holley. Buddy would perform under the new spelling for the rest of his too-short career.)

The Fair Park Coliseum still exists, but the original Cotton Club closed down several years ago. It had a wall that all of the performers who played there signed, but some moron later painted over it when it was converted into an adult book store. It has since been reopened as a performing hall.

It was recently announced that Holly will finally be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on September 7, 2011. The date would have been Holly’s 75th birthday, and comes over 52 years after his death in a small plane crash, along with early rockers Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

Holly and Presley were two of the original ten performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. With his Walk of Fame tribute, he will once again share the stage with Presley, who already has a star at 6777 Hollywood Boulevard.


Star School

A mural along Highland Avenue features some of the famous alumni of Hollywood High.

Countless kids have been admonished to stay in school and out of show business. For the students of Hollywood High, staying in school was often the best way to get into show business.

Hollywood High School, at the corner of Highland and Sunset, has been around since the days when Hollywood had more orange trees than people. When the stars arrived in the early part of the twentieth century, Hollywood High became the school for their kids.

In recent years, the school, like the rest of Hollywood, has seen better days, and few celebrities still live in the area, or send their kids to public schools. But the high school’s legacy can still be witnessed in a huge mural which pays homage to many of the stars who once cheered on the “Sheiks.”

Hollywood High, the home of the "Sheiks," which references the Rudolph Valentino film.

It’s difficult to turn on the TV and not see alumni of the school appear on screen. Over the years a veritable who’s-who of Hollywood have passed through its doors, including Mickey Rooney, John Ritter, Laurence Fishburne, Joel McCrea, Judy Garland, John Huston, Carol Burnett, Carole Lombard, James Garner, Alan Ladd, Chuck Jones, Fay Wray, and Ricky Nelson.

Some Hollywood careers actually began at the school.

Actress and producer Rita Wilson (Mrs. Tom Hanks) was spotted by a photographer at the school, which led to her film career.

The most famous Hollywood High discovery, Judy Turner – better known by her stage name, Lana – cut class one day and went across the street to the Top Hat Malt Shop for a Coke. The publisher of The Hollywood Reporter happened to notice the 15-year-old cutie and launched her on the path to stardom.

So, the obvious moral is to stay in school and your dreams of bright lights may come true. But just to be safe, remember to cut class from time to time.


“Modern Times,” Part 1

The entrance to The Jim Henson Company lot at La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood. The lot was built by Charlie Chaplin in 1918, which explains the statue of Kermit the Frog dressed as the "Little Tramp" over the entrance.

In 1935, Charlie Chaplin – the most famous of the silent clowns – came to the Santa Clarita Valley to shoot the final two scenes of the silent era.

Chaplin was over twenty years into his enormously successful film career at the time, having first arrived in Hollywood from his native England in 1914 to make films for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. By the end of that year he had completed 35 films and his character, the Little Tramp, was the world’s most recognizable star.

Chaplin, as the Little Tramp, peeking out the door next to the entrance.

He left Keystone the following year and continued to make dozens of Little Tramp shorts for other producers for the next few years. These films were so successful that by the end of the decade he was able to build his own studio on La Brea in Hollywood, and to partner in the creation of United Artists with his friends Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith.

Chaplin was in essence a pantomime artist and feared that if people heard the voice of the Little Tramp that the character’s magic would be lost forever. As the star, director, producer, writer, editor, and composer of his films, as well as the studio owner, he was the only man in Hollywood with the power and resources to buck the talkie trend. But he knew that the time had come to evolve. By 1935, he finally admitted to himself that talking pictures, which debuted in 1927, were here to stay, and were not the novelty that he had hoped would eventually wear off with the world’s audiences.

Chaplin's footprints and autograph in the steps outside of the "Chaplin door."

He decided to end his silent career with a film called Modern Times. It would be his biggest gamble to date, coming eight years into the talkie era. It would prove to be one of his greatest triumphs, but no one knew that on August 20, 1935, when he came to the SCV to film.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the filming date for the penultimate scene, which was shot on Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce. Ten days later Chaplin returned to the same lonely road to film what would be the final scene of not only Modern Times, but of the entire silent era. I will write about that on August 30.

To be continued …


Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Haunted” House

Do you happen to be in the market for a mansion in the Hollywood hills that was designed by a famous architect, was often seen in films, is unoccupied (except for maybe a few ghosts), and you’ve got an eight-figure budget to play with? Then I have just the place for you.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

Kimi and I watched a marathon of great old Vincent Price movies the other night, including the original House on Haunted Hill from 1959. The plot involves an eccentric millionaire and his wife, who invite five people to a “haunted house” party, promising each of them $10,000 if they remain in the house until dawn.

The main actors in the film are Price, Richard Long, and Elisha Cook, Jr., but the real star is the house itself. It got me to wondering where the exterior shots were taken. Mr. Google revealed that it was the Ennis House in Hollywood, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was time for a road trip.

We wound our way through the Hollywood hills near Griffith Park towards the hulking edifice at 2655 Glendower Avenue. We rounded a corner and there it was. The house, which was built in the 1920s and was influenced by FLW’s interest in pre-Columbian art, hovers over east Hollywood like a Mayan spaceship. The exterior is surfaced with 16-inch interlocking cement blocks that were cast on site using local materials to make the house fit more smoothly into the color scheme of the surrounding hills.

The house was used as a film location as early as 1933, and in addition to Haunted Hill, it has been seen in Blade Runner (1982), and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It was heavily damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and a non-profit organization named The Ennis House Foundation poured millions of dollars into its reconstruction. A year ago the foundation put the house up for sale with an asking price of $15 million.

Incidentally, if an eccentric millionaire just happens to invite you to a “haunted house” party and offers you a princely sum if you are willing to stay the night … you may just want to opt out and enjoy a quiet evening at home.


Hidden Hollywood: Prospect Studios

Prospect Studios at 4151 Prospect Avenue, near Hollywood.

There’s a little known corner of the Disney empire located in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles called Prospect Studios. It’s been around in one fashion or another since 1915, figuring prominently into entertainment history. But ask most people around L.A. about Prospect and you’re likely to be greeted with a blank stare.

Prospect Studios, located at the corner of Prospect and Talmadge Streets east of Hollywood, began life as Vitagraph Studios in 1915. One of the first actors to work on the lot was Stan Laurel long before pairing up with Oliver Hardy. Dozens of silents were cranked out here during its first decade after which it was acquired by an upstart company called Warner Bros. At the time, WB was a second-tier producer working out of Hollywood’s “poverty row”. In 1925, they took their biggest gamble to date in acquiring Vitagraph. The purchase gave them the lot here at 4151 Prospect Avenue and another in Brooklyn.

The studio in the 1920s, when it was owned by Warner Bros.

The Warners soon gambled again, this time on sound, with the release of 1927’s The Jazz Singer. The studio used their Vitaphone sound process for their early talkies, which capitalized on the Vitagraph name.

The old Vitagraph lot was renamed The Warner East Hollywood Annex and was used for many years to stage some of WB’s bigger films, like The Public Enemy (1931), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Captain Blood (1935). It was also here where the ill-fated 1928 epic Noah’s Ark was filmed. The climactic flood scene in that movie actually drowned three extras! (Reportedly, John Wayne and Andy Devine were two of the lucky extras that survived that day.)

The studio in the 20s.

WB sold the property to ABC in 1948 and it was renamed the ABC Television Center. For decades it served as the west coast headquarters for the network. It became the Prospect Studios in the mid-90s when Disney acquired ABC and moved most of the network’s operations to Burbank. For decades it has been the home of several long-running game shows, soap operas, dramas, and sitcoms. Today, Prospect houses several shows, including General Hospital and Grey’s Anatomy.

Incidentally, if you still want to see a visible link to the Vitagraph days, go to East 15th Street and Locust Avenue in Brooklyn’s Midwood section to the site of the old east coast lot. The name “Vitagraph” still graces a smokestack there.

To learn more about the early days of Hollywood and Warner Bros., check out my new book Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.