Stories, Glories of Stars Are Reflected in Former Valley Homes

Times Staff Writer

Sabu, star of the film "The Thief of Baghdad," took his pet elephant for walks on Winnetka Avenue in Chatsworth.

After Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash in 1942, Clark Gable lived on the couple's 20-acre ranch in Encino until he died in 1960.

When Barbara Stanwyck, who lived in Northridge, and Robert Taylor, a Chatsworth resident, were dating, they shared milkshakes at the counter of Kent's Pharmacy on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge.

John Garfield used to relax in a recessed seven-foot-long Art Deco bathtub in his North Hollywood home. After Jane Russell and football player Bob Waterfield graduated from Van Nuys High School, they married and lived in a 900-square-foot home in Sherman Oaks.

In the 1940s and '50s, dozens of Hollywood celebrities chose to make their homes in the San Fernando Valley, avoiding trendy and expensive Beverly Hills and Bel Air, where many other stars lived.

'It Was Country Then'

"The cafe society types stayed in Beverly Hills, and weren't about to come out to the rustic Valley," said historian Catherine Mulholland, the Valley-bred granddaughter of William Mulholland, the Los Angeles County engineer after whom the winding mountain-ridge drive was named. The Valley "was for people who wanted to settle in and make a home here. . . . It was country then, enough out of the way for Hollywood celebrities to live their lives in privacy."

Mulholland said celebrities who moved to the Valley "tended to blend in well. They were people who wanted to connect with the locals, and didn't look down at us."

By 1945, the number of stars who had built exclusive homes here had soared. The list included:

Bud Abbott, Don Ameche, Dana Andrews, Gene Autry, William Bendix, Walter Brennan, Bob Burns, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Veronica Lake, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy and John Wayne.

Most celebrities lived in one of two general areas--within a block of the stretch of Ventura Boulevard that runs from Studio City to Encino, or in the then-rural areas in the northwest Valley, near Devonshire Street and Winnetka Avenue.

Waterfall, Lagoon

Al Jolson and his wife, Ruby Keeler, lived on a five-acre spread on Louise Avenue in Encino that had a waterfall and a koi-stocked lagoon. Liberace's backyard pool on Valley Vista Boulevard in North Hollywood was built in the shape of a grand piano, with 88 black and white keys painted at the shallow end.

When Mary Astor lived on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino from 1943 to 1956, she had a pool built in the shape of a turtle. The diving board was the turtle's head, and the four stairways into the pool were designed to look like turtle's feet.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on "The Last Tycoon" in 1939, he lived in a white guest house on Amestoy Avenue in Encino behind a huge manor house that belonged to comedian Edward Everett Horton.

Jack Webb, who lived in a ranch house four blocks away, liked television so much, he had nine remote-control, 15-inch color sets installed in the south wall of a bungalow in the backyard of his house on Encino Avenue in Encino. The TV sets are still there.

"No one came here for fashion or splash," said Mulholland, 62, who grew up on a ranch on Corbin Avenue in Northridge. The property is now occupied by a K mart store. Mulholland lived within walking distance of Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons' house, and a few blocks from the home of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on Devonshire Street in Chatsworth. The Ball-Arnaz home was later demolished to make way for a housing development.

Inspired on Location

Mulholland said the idea for celebrity migration over the Santa Monica Mountains often came from film directors in the '40s who picked the Valley for location shots.

"Stars would come out here for filming, and once here, they started thinking that the Valley would be an ideal place for a weekend retreat or a home," she said.

The Valley became such a popular place for Hollywood stars that in 1942 Bing Crosby, a Toluca Lake resident, recorded the hit song "San Fernando Valley," later to be recorded by Roy Rogers, an Encino resident. A sampling of the lyrics:

I'm packin my grip. I'm leavin today

I'm gonna settle down and never more roam

And make the San Fernando Valley my home.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lived on Amestoy Avenue in Encino in a Spanish-style ranch home. The current owner of the house, Bienvenido Tan, said he occasionally still finds reminders of Rogers on the five-acre estate, including wagon wheels and horseshoes.

When Sabu, the boyish Indian actor whose films included "Elephant Boy," lived in the Valley in the mid-1940s and early '50s, he had at least one elephant, said Mulholland, whose brother lived one block away from Sabu's estate.

Virginia Ditto, 61, Sabu's neighbor at the time, recalled hearing the elephant "trumpeting at night."

Walked Elephant

Sabu also walked the pachyderm in the area, which so outraged neighbors that they petitioned City Hall and got a zoning change to prohibit large animals on residential property, Mulholland said.

Walking his elephant wasn't the last of Sabu's problems. The actor, whose full name was Sabu Dastagir, was charged in 1950 with hiring two men to burn his house down to collect insurance money; he was sued by two insurance companies and a jury ruled that Sabu did not set the fire.

William Bendix, the film actor who later starred as Chester A. Riley in the television show "The Life of Riley," built a mansion on Encino Avenue in Encino in the early 1940s. The 2 1/2-acre site still has two 500-year-old oak trees in the front yard, said the house's current owner, Donna Levy. All of the woodwork in the house was handcrafted by actor George Montgomery, an accomplished carpenter, who at the time lived on White Oak Avenue and was married to Dinah Shore, Levy said.

After Bendix lived there, Marie McDonald, a one-time chorus girl at Hollywood's Florentine Gardens who was known as "The Body," moved into the house, Levy said. Later, Jack Webb, who was to gain prominence as Joe Friday in the television show "Dragnet," bought the house, where he lived until 1975. The house has a kidney-shaped pool, a tennis court and guest house.

Olympic-Size Pool

Less than a mile away, at a home on Fruitland Drive in North Hollywood, matinee idol John Garfield installed an Olympic-size pool made with Mexican tile as well as the long bathtub, said Steve Kelly, who lives in the house now.

Sultry actress Veronica Lake, who made famous the wavy peek-a-boo-bangs hair style and starred in the film "The Blue Dahlia," rented a modest Reseda house on Jamison Avenue in the early 1950s.

Mickey Rooney also lived in the Valley, but in a more grandiose style--in a 27-room hacienda on Densmore Avenue in Encino, with a white tile roof, bay windows and a large pool. The two-story house, built in the early 1940s, has five garages.

Radio comedian Bob Burns, the mandolin-strumming teller of tall tales from the Ozarks, owned a 200-acre ranch abutting Sherman Way in Canoga Park replete with a swimming pool, pigs, horses and chickens, as well as a small vineyard. The First Baptist Church of Canoga Park bought the estate in 1961, and the three gabled houses that made up Burns' crescent-shaped living quarters were turned into an elementary school.

Gary Cooper on a Bluff

One day in 1939, Mulholland was riding a horse in the hills of Porter Ranch, north of Devonshire Street, when she saw Gary Cooper on a bluff, riding alone. Cooper didn't live in the Valley but rode horses on its trails, she said.

"I've never forgotten that," Mulholland said of the encounter. "My heart just dropped that day."

Indeed, one of the assets that living in the Valley provided for many celebrities was the chance to own horses. "There just wasn't room in Beverly Hills or Bel Air for stables," Mulholland said. "The Valley's vast undeveloped areas made it into a horse lover's paradise."

That is evidently what brought Broderick Crawford, who played the tough-talking cop on the TV show "Highway Patrol," to the Valley. His 1935 ranch-style house on Magnolia Boulevard in Encino had a stable and a riding ring.

Crawford also installed a huge bar with a brass rail in the house. "You could tell he made good use of the bar," said Ethel LeBaron, who bought the house from Crawford in late '40s, and lived there until 1963. "The floor was well worn there; there was enough room to get 10 people around that bar."

Andy Devine, who lived on Kester Avenue in Van Nuys, was also a "gentleman's farmer with a stables and horses," Mulholland said.

Jolson's Cabana

The Jolson estate on Louise Avenue in Encino had an Olympic-size pool, cabana and arbor on a five-acre plot. The house, built in 1938, was sold in the early 1940s to Don Ameche, who sold the property back to Jolson in 1945. Jolson lived there until his death in 1950. The house now is rented by its owner for parties.

Three blocks away on Encino Avenue is the house Walter Brennan built in 1934. Brennan, who played the cantankerous farmer with a limp in the television series "The Real McCoys," chose an L-shaped design for the Spanish ranch house that was about 3,800 square feet.

Its current owner, Janie Shiffman, said the master bedroom is large enough to roller skate in. The interior resembles the house on the Ponderosa Ranch of the television series "Bonanza," with hand-hewn wooden beams, she said.

Today, many stars, including Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, Pearl Bailey, Pat Benatar, Chad Everett, Michael Jackson, Morgan Fairchild and Kenny Loggins, make their homes in the Valley.

But as much of the Valley lost its rural quality to housing developments in the 1960s, especially after the Ventura Freeway was constructed in 1959, celebrities began choosing other areas in Los Angeles that afforded more privacy, such as Malibu and the secluded canyons in Brentwood, Mulholland said.

"When you could see the smoke from your neighbor's chimney, it was time to move," Mulholland said.

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