Hot Property was just a kernel of an idea when Ruth Ryon proposed it in 1984 to Dick Turpin, then-editor of The Times' Real Estate section. The reporter thought there could be a column in the short stories she had started writing on notable people and their real estate dealings.
If three decades of continuous publishing, a worldwide readership and the emergence of a slew of celebrity real estate copycats are any measure, she was right.
"In a world where we don't know our neighbors, 'celebrity' has now become something that we can connect around," said Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an associate professor at USC and author of "Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity." "Hot Property did tap into that early on."
Documenting a star's home purchases gives us a sense of access, she said. "Where do they eat? What does their living room look like?"
Hot Property helped answer some of those questions.
It debuted on Nov. 25, 1984, with talk-show host Johnny Carson's purchase of a Malibu home at a then-record-breaking $9.5 million. The early columns mixed residential and commercial real estate news, philanthropic events and even ribbon cuttings — as long as a celebrity was involved. Composer Burt Bacharach, the Lakers' Magic Johnson and actress Jane Withers were among the famous faces featured in the first few months of the weekly column.
Stars didn't necessarily communicate through an agent or real estate broker back then. In a column, Ryon recounted a phone call about an aerial photograph that had run in the paper.
" 'Hello,' the caller said, 'this is Rock Hudson.' 'Sure,' I thought, 'and I'm Doris Day.' Turned out it was Hudson, interested in securing a copy of the photo, which showed his property before his home was built."
Talk-show host and game-show creator Merv Griffin once fielded Ryon's questions at a breakfast in his honor in Beverly Hills "between bites of scrambled eggs and bacon."
Actress and home restorer Diane Keaton met Ryon for an interview over Shirley Temples in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and another time the columnist got a personal tour of Phyllis Diller's Brentwood home. They stopped in the wig room, where the comedienne had Ryon try on a pink 'do. From then on, the two exchanged Christmas cards.
Houses that changed hands from one star to another became a mainstay of the column.
Among such deals in the late 1980s, actor Eddie Murphy bought singer-actress Cher's Egyptian-inspired contemporary on four acres in Beverly Hills for an undisclosed sum. It had been listed at $6.4 million.
Pia Zadora and her then-husband, Meshulam Riklis, bought Pickfair in Beverly Hills from L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss for $6.675 million. They would eventually tear down the famous house, which had once been owned by early film star Mary Pickford and her husband, actor Douglas Fairbanks.
A Beverly Hills mansion built in the early 1940s for Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz," has been home to such stars as actress Betty Grable, band leader Harry James, actress Melanie Griffith and actor Don Johnson. The gated estate is now for sale at $28.5 million.
Real estate listings started including the words "celebrity pedigree" as a selling point.
Fast-forward to 2014 and celebrity-to-celebrity handoffs are still big news — although celebrity status has expanded over the decades to include reality television personalities, Internet entrepreneurs and others of note.
Days after selling Beats for $3 billion, self-styled "hip-hop billionaire" Dr. Dre spent $40 million this summer on the Brentwood estate of model-actress Gisele Bundchen and her husband, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The country French chateau of nearly 18,300 square feet is distinguished by its moat-like water feature stocked with koi.
Although the focus of Hot Property has always been on the stars, the agents have gained their own share of fame.
Kurt Rappaport of Westside Estate Agency has established himself as an uber-agent of sorts in recent years, pulling together multimillion-dollar deals involving Dr. Dre, Ellen DeGeneres and Oracle Corp. billionaire Larry Ellison. Because celebrity real estate news is now commonly reported — from TMZ to the Wall Street Journal to Us Magazine — the public has a peek into the lives of the ultra wealthy.
"It's a modern-day keeping up with the Joneses," Rappaport said. "Oftentimes with celebrities ... people want to live vicariously through them."
He likens reading about such real estate deals to sports fans buying jerseys of their favorite athletes.
"The American dream is to own a home," he said. "Everyone, on every level, can relate to that. When you have the very rarefied few who have surpassed all limits of fame or wealth, people want to know — the world wants to know — what they are doing? Those on all levels want to hear about the amenities, the prices."
The interest in luxury real estate is so high that fan followings have even extended to the agents. In recent years, some have found their own fame on reality television.
Chad Rogers of Hilton & Hyland/Christie's International Real Estate, Josh Flagg of Rodeo Realty and Madison Hildebrand, now with Partners Trust, were among the trailblazers in the early seasons of Bravo's "Million Dollar Listing."
Former pro athlete turned real estate agent Kofi Nartey of the Agency is just one of many who have had a star turn on HGTV's "Selling L.A.," while Mauricio Umansky of the same office appears as Kyle Richards' spouse on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."
Insider details from the real estate community, contractors and sometimes random delivery people have enlivened the column, while property listings and public records provide the foundation. But good old-fashioned beat reporting remains at its heart.
A decade ago, Shaquille O'Neal wanted to be traded after the Lakers' loss in the NBA Finals. Rather than announce his intended move to Miami, the 32-year-old center let real estate agent Jordan Cohen of Re/Max Olson give Ryon the information that Shaq was putting his Beverly Hills area home on the market at $7.5 million.
That bit of news couldn't be kept secret until the column appeared in Sunday's paper. The Sports section ran with the scoop in the daily paper, ahead of the column's publication, much to Ryon's ire.
Digital publishing has since leveled the competitive playing field.
The first inkling that then-LAPD Police Chief William Bratton would be leaving his job and Los Angeles five years ago was discovered when a diligent check of property records revealed he had put his Los Feliz house up for sale. The Hot Property story, posted online that day, sent The Times' own metro reporters scrambling.