A Little Magic Returns: Miniatures Re-Create Hollywood of the 1940s
Lights, camera, action. Look out, folks. Hollywood of the ‘40s is back--this time in miniature.
All those long-gone glamour spots like the Trocadero, the Mocambo, Ciro’s and the Garden of Allah, where gaggles of movie stars often hung out, come alive once again at a new place on Hollywood Boulevard called On Location.
On Location, a deco soda fountain complete with lots of neon and a sound system including Andrews Sisters recordings, features a unique exhibit of Hollywood in miniature, fashioned more than 40 years ago by cabinetmaker Joe Pellkofer.
Until On Location opened last month, Pellkofer’s miniatures had not been seen publicly since 1948. They had been stored in his barn in La Habra Heights.
“I’ve been looking for a permanent home for them all this time,” said Pellkofer, 80, when he came to Hollywood with his wife, Josie, recently for a viewing. “They had been traveling around the country from 1946 to 1948. The last place was Atlantic City. I just pulled them out of there and brought them home. I wanted a place for them where they didn’t travel.”
Over the years, Pellkofer said he had turned down several requests for his miniatures because he didn’t like the way people proposed to use them. He also felt they should be displayed somewhere in Hollywood.
“I met a lot of stars because of it,” Pellkofer said of his display. “But I didn’t build the damned thing to see a movie star. I built it just because I felt like it. And because Hollywood is Hollywood. It’s magic. You could pick any other city and who would care? But Hollywood in the ‘40s was still a live city. It was really alive. That’s why we built Hollywood. Hollywood was known all over the world. It still is.”
Last year, Pellkofer’s grandson, John Accornero, wrote to Marian Gibbons, founder of Hollywood Heritage, a preservationist group, about his grandfather’s creations.
Gibbons quickly made an appointment to see them.
“When I got there, I was kind of speechless,” Gibbons recalled last week. “They said ‘miniatures.’ I didn’t expect them to be 12 feet.”
Indeed, these are no ordinary miniatures. The one called “Hollywood” shows 45 main blocks of Hollywood, including 450 buildings, all built to scale, and is 11 feet wide and 12 feet in depth.
Lights, and Even Waves
An electrical cycle takes the city from dawn to dusk, when lights glow in buildings, with street lamps and automobiles of the era.
A replica of the Malibu film colony as it was in the 1940s is even bigger, 12 feet wide and 12 feet deep, complete with waves that actually roll.
From the time Pellkofer began the miniature projects in 1940, it took 25 artists and craftsmen four years to complete all of them. Originally, there were six--Hollywood, the Malibu film colony, a composite of the film studios of the day, Graumann’s Chinese Theater, the Hollywood Bowl and the Brown Derby.
$250,000 Total Cost
But the one of the Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard was smashed during a cross-country tour and was never redone. In total, they cost about $250,000 to build. About $50,000 of that, Pellkofer said, was spent to painstakingly photograph all the locations before they were constructed in miniature in a building in Pasadena, next door to Pellkofer’s cabinetmaking shop.
“We even had a man sitting down at the ocean (in Malibu) with a stopwatch timing the waves, so that in the miniature they would be just right, not too fast, or too slow,” Pellkofer explained. “There are about a dozen hand-carved rolls of wood with steel rods through them that turn to show the waves rolling. That was tricky.”
In addition to seaside homes of the stars, Pellkofer re-created in miniature the $1 million Rindge Castle with 54 rooms, built by the family that founded Malibu. It alone cost $6,500 to duplicate.
“They were just so spectacular I was determined to save them,” Gibbons said of the miniatures. “But we didn’t have the money at Hollywood Heritage to buy them. I started talking to people about them and we decided to form a group.”
Gibbons enlisted the help of four partners, who decided to put the miniatures back on display in Hollywood and at the same time open a 1940s-style lunch counter and soda fountain and a retail store.
They picked the ground floor of the old El Capitan Building, next to Paramount Theater on Hollywood Boulevard near Highland Avenue. The art-deco El Capitan, built in 1925, has recently been refurbished into office suites by Hollywood revitalizationists Nick Olaerts and Tom Harnsberger.
Gibbons estimates her group’s total expenditure, including purchasing the miniatures and building the set for them along with the lunch counter and retail space, was about $750,000. The five miniatures were purchased for about $250,000.
Only four miniatures--three originals of Hollywood, the Malibu film colony and the Chinese Theater and one replica of Paramount Pictures lot--are on display, Gibbons said, “because we didn’t have room to show all of them.”
Gibbons enlisted Landmark Entertainment Group, which has its headquarters in the El Capitan Building, to refurbish the miniatures and build a replica of the Paramount Studio lot as it was in the 1940s. Landmark also added fiber optics effects for lighting, including optic fireworks that light up the Hollywood skyline over the city display. Veteran disc jockey Gary Owens did the narration for the 12-minute walk-through exhibit, which costs $2.50 for adults and is free for children under 12.
In addition to the original downtown Hollywood display and Malibu’s film colony, Pellkofer’s creation of Graumann’s Chinese Theater is a gem in miniature. Its facade is fashioned of ivory and copper, and its sidewalk includes tiny hand- and footprints of film stars, just like those at the real theater (now called Mann’s Chinese).
“Everything on each one is detailed,” Pellkofer said. “We were after the perfect miniatures. I wanted everything to be exact. We even chipped some of the original paint off the Chinese Theater so we could match it to its original color. The buildings that you see are finished on all sides and they’re made out of solid wood with birch facing so we could get the recesses. Originally I planned on building just one large miniature of the city, but then I decided to make several. They didn’t have room for the one of the Hollywood Bowl.”
Gibbons said that the group has not decided yet what to do about putting the Bowl miniature on display elsewhere, or what to do with Pellkofer’s original studio miniature, a composite of Hollywood’s movie studios of the 1940s.
“We’ll do something to have them seen,” Gibbons said. “But we’re not sure what just yet.”
Gibbons said the exhibit is drawing crowds, especially since it was recently listed as an attraction on the Hollywood bus tour lines.
The lunch counter, which seats 20 (eight tables can seat 23 more) is popular, too, and it has already developed a “group of regulars, people who work in the area and come for breakfast,” On Location general manager Burt Horowitz said.
The Paramount Connection
Under a contract with Gibbons’ group, Paramount Pictures manages the retail outlet part of On Location, receiving a flat management fee, a license fee for its merchandise and a percentage of the net profits. Most of the souvenirs offered have logos from Paramount-produced television programs and films.
Earl Lestz, president of Paramount Pictures Studio Group, predicted first-year gross sales at On Location will be $5 million.
“We’re waiting to see how this goes on Hollywood Boulevard,” he said. “And if it goes as well as we think it will, we’ll expand. We’ve had people from Paris and London approach us (about outlets).”
Joe Pellkofer’s original miniatures, completed in late 1945, made their official debut in Hollywood on Jan. 4, 1946, to glowing reviews.
“Just plain remarkable,” Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote. Her counterpart, Hedda Hopper, said the exhibit was “destined to create a sensation . . . breathtaking and truly amazing.”
Film star Gloria Swanson wanted to buy it, Pellkofer said, but he wouldn’t part with it. Swanson called the exhibit “a dream come true, a great work of art.”
Decided Not to Make More
After people saw the miniatures, several suggested to Pellkofer that he make more, of other things in Hollywood.
“Somebody said, ‘Why don’t you build a Forest Lawn,’ ” Pellkofer remembered. “I said no, you’ve got to stop somewhere. You could go on building them forever. But I stopped at the cemetery.”
The exhibit of miniatures went on national tour in June, 1946, first to Macy’s department store in New York, where a reporter for the New York Daily News wrote: “What a whale of a job . . . it’s a miniature colossus.”
Pellkofer, who was born in Munich and came to the United States with his parents when he was a year old, had two special trailers built to house the miniatures while traveling.
The exhibit toured cities in the East, then went to the Midwest and West Coast, where it made the rounds of stores and county and state fairs. Sometimes groups used its appearance as a fund-raiser for charity, to raise money for organizations that supported the blind, or children’s home societies.
Troubles Along the Way
Once, the exhibit was stolen.
“It disappeared while it was being shown for a police department in Oregon,” Pellkofer said. “I called every fair from here to Florida and up and down the coasts.
“We finally found it in South Carolina at a sheriff’s department. The guy who had taken it also had stolen the police loudspeaker system, and I had to pay for that to get the miniatures back.”
There were other troubles, too.
“Even though we had cases with glass for them, we still had problems,” he said. “The one got smashed, and then whenever they would move them, somebody would walk by and snitch something.”
Pellkofer, who still runs his cabinet business, but now specializes in creating executive offices, said he was pleased with the miniature display at On Location, and hopes “some of the old-time stars will come to see it. They lived here.”
Said his wife, Josie: “We’re very pleased that Papa gets the glory. It was a shame that it sat out there in the barn for umpteen years collecting dust. Someone would come and want to see it, and we’d go through and clean it up.
“Then it would sit there getting more dust.”