Dream City : Life Through the Years Under the Hollywood H

Carolyn See's new novel, "Golden Days," will be published in the spring

In 1947, Hollywood was where you went on Saturdays if you were a teen-ager. You walked down the Micheltorena Hill (you didn’t know, then, that this was the name of a famous Mexican general), half way between Hollywood and downtown, and caught the Red Car west, on Sunset. It was your day off, after those pesky morning chores, and as you passed the “Hollywood Junction”--where Santa Monica Boulevard and Sunset join, where the Cabaret Concert Theatre would present a series of ever more wonderful “Billy Barnes Reviews” in the next 10 or 15 years--you’d know you were getting there.

The air would be sweet and fresh, and the sun would glisten. You’d screech along on those tracks. There would be three or four of you in Angora sweaters (properly chilled in the refrigerator the night before), and you’d get off at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which was clean and fresh--at The Broadway, Hollywood, where every teen-age girl in the city came on weekends to buy compacts and charm bracelets, or maybe filch a lipstick; pretty risky business. Across the street was the Pantages; up on Vine was Ken Murray’s “Blackouts,” in a theater that sometimes sheltered the worst television show on earth and one of the earliest, “Stars of Tomorrow.” (But before that, hadn’t Fibber McGee and Molly had done their radio show in that same theater?)

The plan, those Saturdays, was to get off the Red Car, stop by The Broadway, see a movie (obviously) but also to find an excuse to walk up Hollywood to Highland and back again, on the other side of the street, to Vine, and the streetcar, and exhaustion, and envy, and melancholy, since almost every 14-year-old girl knows enough to know that she’s not anywhere near the center of things.


One of those girls, Jackie Joseph, had already been taken to stand, hour after hour, outside the gates of Paramount, by her mother, who said, “See? One day you’ll go inside there. One day you’ll be a celebrity.” And as it turned out, she was Doris Day’s best friend on a national television series and for years had her own talk show. And another of those girls, Beryl Towbin, was carted every weekday by her silently swearing mother to a marble building on Hollywood Boulevard, cater-cornered to the Hollywood Roosevelt, for her ballet lesson. And she went on to dance in a dozen Broadway shows and to teach Mary Martin how to fly when Martin played Peter Pan.

What was new about that? Movies for money had been invented in the first decade of this century. The first movie novel, “Love Story of a Movie Star,” written in 1906, had been set in New York, but cameras didn’t work well in the cold. By 1919, when Charles Van Loan wrote “Buck Parvin and the Movies,” the industry was already in place, in Hollywood. Universal, Republic, Paramount, United Artists, would become names like Chrysler, or General Telephone, or God.

The thing was, nobody out here could believe it--the money, the excitement, the celebrity, the fun! Ben Turpin, the cross-eyed comedian, would climb on a streetcar and swing up and down its length like a chimpanzee, wailing: “Ben Turpin! Three hundred and fifty dollars a week!” It had to be a dream, this place where money fell on unlettered dolts who didn’t appear to work very hard. And it never snowed here; oranges really did grow on trees. No matter how hard the East Coast writers who came out here in the ‘20s tried to poke holes in the dream, it stayed. Horace McCoy wrote about marathon dancers begging to be shot to death, but in “real life” he lived in a mansion above Sunset. Once, at a party, when his mother was visiting, he yelled over at her: “Ma! How come we were always so damn poor?” Ma shrugged. Their Texan poverty no longer pertained. They were in Lotusland now.

It’s important to remember that Hollywood, in the teens of the century, the ‘20s, the ‘30s--even up through World War II--was a town rather than a city. On a night in October, 1939, Nathanael (“The Day of the Locust”) West met Eileen (“My Sister Eileen”) McKenney at a dinner party. A guest remembers that “it was a beautiful night. We’d left the screen door open. You could smell the orange blossoms and the night-blooming jasmine. You could hear the night birds singing.”

Such sweet domestic life was possible because, in 1923, Keystone Cop Mack Sennett, publisher Harry Chandler and real estate agents E. P. Clark, Moses H. Sherman, Tracy Shults and S. H. Woodruff had lifted their eyes to the hills, seen “Hollywoodland” and put up a wobbly sign to mark the spot. In the subsequent years, the village of Hollywood stretched out along the boulevard, bright sun shining, and up in the hills, only a mile from “town,” you could live in the country. Irving Shulman--whose novel, “The Amboy Dukes,” brought unclothed ladies’ breasts into popular American literature--lived there; Aldous Huxley lived there; Christopher Isherwood lectured on Vedanta, a branch of Indian mystical thought, up there above Franklin Avenue. Dreams! Writing in the ‘40s, Isherwood would note that nowhere except in Hollywood could you find both fresh air and a life style as corrupt as prewar Berlin. He described the palm trees along the hills in East Hollywood as an edging of lace.

If you followed that dream, tried to find it on the map, you might find yourself, in the ‘50s, living near the corner of Lexington and Vine, in an old Spanish-style hotel, the Brevoort--three stories, maybe 36 rooms, a two-story lobby with a Spanish “tapestry” painted right onto a wall. The Brevoort had seen better days in the ‘20s, when Gary Cooper (it was said) had taken lady friends to several of the tiny bungalows out back, and swum in the Brevoort’s walled plunge. In the ‘50s, living in a dream, you peered down into the dried, cracked pool, covered at the bottom with eucalyptus leaves and withered oleander blossoms, and ventured out, a block away, to the Hollywood Ranch Market, open 24 hours a day and already scary late at night. Walking up Vine, you hit Music City, with a row of rooms at the back where you could take some of the new vinyl records and listen away a morning to Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.

Because, besides writers and actors--whom you never saw on the street anyway, except, once, Hal Peary, “The Great Gildersleeve”--Hollywood gave shelter to musicians, offering them easy living and the honeyed teat of movie money. And so at night, you might wander two or three blocks west on Sunset from Vine and fall by a bar called Whistlin’s Hawaii, where, in some fairly typical Hollywood misunderstanding, a colony of chubby Tahitians congregated, playing island music on the jukebox for hours at a time, thinking that it was their club. Except at about 10 at night, 30 or so sullen beatniks took their place around a tiny bandstand to hear--straight from the East, except that his mom lived in the Valley--Warne Marsh playing exquisite dreams on his tenor sax, while the Tahitians glumly got drunk.

Hollywood in the ‘50s. You could still walk down the boulevard, shop at the increasingly dispirited Broadway. Frederick’s moved into its bright-purple headquarters. You walked down to Pickwick Books and bought used stuff on the third floor, and went farther up Hollywood to C. C. Brown’s for a hot fudge sundae. And a few blocks down in the Hollywood Roosevelt’s coffee shop, where stars used to flock, the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous had taken over, ecstatic on coffee and the unexpected benefits of waking up every morning without a hangover. So new then!

By the ‘50s, the legends of movie history were fading away. Rudolf Valentino was commemorated in an obscure public park by one of the saddest monuments in the world. Up on Cahuenga, the “legendary Joe Albany,” sometime piano player for Charlie Parker, got married to a very pregnant wife in an old burlesque house, while a still-unknown comic named Lenny Bruce made cryptic remarks about the bride and groom. An abortionist plied his illegal trade in one of the business buildings on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. And the Chamber of Commerce, trying to stop change, began putting “stars” into the sidewalk, since they couldn’t keep the real ones in town.

Now it’s all gone, or changed, or--at first glance--too weird for words. Do tourists even come to “Hollywood” anymore? The rank and file go out over the Cahuenga Pass to take the Universal Tour. The smart ones drive over to the City Restaurant on La Brea to see stars hunched over hors d’oeuvres. You’ll search for Schwab’s, or The Garden of Allah, or the Stanley Rose Book Shop in vain.

But in 70 years, Hollywood has built a complex and luminous civilization. Whistlin’s Hawaii has “soul’d out.” The Brevoort Hotel has plywood in some of its windows, but in the courtyard, the pool has been filled in and the current tenants have planted masses of begonias. Both north and south of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, ordinary domestic life still thrives; children bicycle on side streets, housewives gossip in front yards and--no matter its tarnished reputation--Hollywood’s Saturdays are still very much date nights for a whole new crop of teen-agers.

The Broadway is closed. But Laura Huxley, Aldous’ lovely widow, still lives in Hollywoodland, under the H. She’ll tell you how Aldous let all his papers burn in a brush fire, because instead of saving his original home, he elected to roam the fire trails with a kid in a Jeep and had the time of his life while his past was destroyed. And in the very midst of Hollywood, Musso & Frank Grill, on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard--where William Faulkner staggered around behind the bar to show the man how to make real mint juleps-- remains.

Musso has not faltered, not faded. No, it has expanded to twice its size. In one room you can see Jeff Goldblum, in a silly movie mustache, picking at a salad; in the other room--even now--you can sometimes spot Bill (“The Last Time I Saw Archie”) Bowers, who doesn’t ever need to wait for a table. Sitting at the bar, this year’s bright, competitive, wistful, hard-boiled writers, actors, musicians and celebrities belly up for glistening martinis and know, for minutes, hours at a time, that they are in the Heart of Infinity--at the very center of their Hollywood fantasy. The buildings up and down the boulevard may disappear, but the illusion in those few miles is as sturdy as the Sphinx.

A guide to Hollywood begins on Page 60, accompanied by a map on the inside back cover.