Rare Hollywood Artifacts Waste Away Behind Bars

Times Staff Writer

A valuable collection of Hollywood artifacts and memorabilia is wasting away behind bars at the former Lincoln Heights jail because the City of Los Angeles has been unable to find anyone to take care of it.

Two dozen boxes of 78-rpm records, a Norman Rockwell painting of Gary Cooper, a copy of the book “Gone with the Wind” autographed by the movie’s cast, two pairs of Fred Astaire’s tap shoes, and costumes worn by Marlene Dietrich, Peter Ustinov, Esther Williams and others are among scores of items stored in the old jail’s drunk tank and holding cages. The costumes alone are believed to be worth more than $100,000.

The city has been unable to find a home for the collection primarily because of a 20-year-old agreement with its former owners that requires the city to eventually display the artifacts and memorabilia in Hollywood. Several prestigious institutions outside Hollywood--including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--have been unwilling to accept loans from the collection because the city could demand their return.


Items Missing

Dozens of items--including a white tuxedo worn in 1935 by Dietrich in “The Devil Is a Woman"--are missing from the collection, presumably stolen by film crews who often shoot prison movies at the unattended jail, city officials said. Heavy locks on the storage rooms have been cut or picked open several times during the last several years.

Other items, particularly old magazines, programs and books, have been severely damaged by water from burst pipes and dirt that coats the walls and floors of the five-story building at the edge of the Santa Fe Railroad yard.

“The windows are open. There is no heat, no air conditioning and the place is very, very dirty,” said Linda Barth, who oversees the collection for the Department of Recreation and Parks. “Some of the material is molding so badly you can’t tell what it is anymore.”

The costumes and other artifacts, stored in four rooms on the second floor of the jail, are part of a collection of Hollywood memorabilia acquired by the city in 1967 from Hollywood Museum Associates, an organization that led an unsuccessful drive in the early 1960s to establish a motion picture museum in Hollywood. About 80% of that collection, which was estimated in the 1960s to be worth $2 million, was loaned to several universities and libraries six years ago in an effort to get the most valuable items out of the jail.

Those remaining were left in unorganized heaps on dusty floors or stashed away on shelves in boxes. Most of the passed-over artifacts were thought to be worthless, but an inventory of the collection last year revealed valuable pieces, Barth said.

Since then, the city has found homes for several items--most notably the office files of the failed Hollywood Museum Associates, now of historical significance themselves--but most of the items remain in the abandoned jail.

“The things left over are the things the institutions could not responsibly take and provide better storage for, or things they are very reluctant to take on loan,” Barth said. “The loan agreement allows the city to ask for any of it back within 60 days and that puts the institutions in a situation where they feel they can’t do anything long term.”

Unable to Make Donations

The city has loaned most of the original collection to UCLA, USC, the American Film Institute and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but it has been unable to donate the materials to the institutions because of its contract with Hollywood Museum Associates. None of the institutions are in Hollywood.

According to a report prepared last month for the Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners, efforts to find homes for most of the artifacts have failed in large part because of the contract restriction.

“Although some of the representatives of (several) institutions were interested in the remaining artifacts, they were reluctant to accept items on loan because the use of loaned items is inflexible and loans are more expensive to insure than owned artifacts,” the report said. “The best candidates . . . flatly refuse to take any items on loan although their possession of them would ensure utilization for display and research and the material’s retention in the Southern California area.”

City officials selected University of California, Riverside’s library as the best temporary home for several hundred 78- and 33-rpm recordings--ranging from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” to operas by Wagner recorded by Leopold Stokowski--stored in cardboard boxes at the Lincoln Heights jail. But librarians at Riverside said they were not interested in caring for a collection that could be taken away.

“In order to have records that can be available and accessible to people, they have to be processed, and that involves a considerable investment,” said John Tanno, associate university librarian at Riverside, which has a collection of 15,000 recordings. “To invest in a collection that may not reside in the library may mean you invest thousands of dollars in something that may go away.”

Although the costume collection is considered valuable, it too remains homeless. The collection--which includes everything from a pair of blue jeans worn by Gary Cooper in “High Noon” in 1952 to the slinky gown Jean Harlow wore when she sunk her feet in concrete outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1930s--is stored in a room about the size of a walk-in closet.

Loan Refused

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has a 60,000-piece costume and textile department, has refused to accept the costumes on loan. Other institutions have either been unwilling to take the entire collection--the city does not want to split it up--or do not have the proper facilities to care for it.

Edward Maeder, curator of the costume and textile department at the county museum, said the museum would accept the city’s collection if it were presented as a donation--rather than a loan--because that would enable the museum to get rid of damaged pieces and those of little artistic or historical significance.

“We would want to be able to pick and choose,” Maeder said. “Part of the problem is that much of the material is in terrible condition. With the cost of conserving something, the cost might be several times the value of the object. We would like to be able to pass on to other collections those pieces that are not valuable to our collection.”

The city’s loan policy has also created problems for institutions that already house items from the jail. Uncertainty over when the city may recall the items has prevented some of the institutions from fully integrating the materials into their collections. Others have been reluctant to spend much money restoring or preserving the items.

Sam Gill, archivist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, which has about 80,000 photographs and negatives from the city’s collection, said the academy took items on loan because they were not being properly cared for by the city. Although the academy has invested a considerable amount of time and money storing and indexing the items, Gill said, the Hollywood collection would have a more secure future if it were donated to the institutions caring for it.

“All of us would be worried that if the material was taken back, it might be OK for a while but could end up in a precarious situation again,” Gill said. “If they took it back and did not house it properly, all of the (preservation) work would go down the drain. Stability of the collection is an important issue. I would hate to see history repeat itself.”

In an effort to help the institutions already holding items from the Hollywood collection, the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners last month agreed to allow the libraries and museums to prepare lists of items of minimum value that they would like to discard. Once the lists are compiled, the board will decide what to do with them.

Attempt to Amend Contract

The department also has asked the city attorney’s office to look into amending the Hollywood Museum Associates contract so that some of the collection could be donated to institutions outside Hollywood. Hollywood Museum Associates no longer exists, however, and getting a judge to change the terms could be difficult, city officials said.

The city could also run into opposition from Hollywood Exhibition, the most recent--and some say most serious--of several efforts to pick up where Hollywood Museum Associates left off in the 1960s. A nonprofit corporation formed to develop an entertainment museum, Hollywood Exhibition is negotiating to build a $60-million museum as part of a 17-story office tower and hotel near the Chinese Theatre.

Phyllis Holzman, executive director of the museum drive, said Hollywood Exhibition would probably oppose any change in the city’s contract with Hollywood Museum Associates if it would preclude a new Hollywood museum from obtaining--either by donation or loan--portions of the collection.

“There is a lot out there, and we are probably going to be very selective about what we put into the museum,” Holzman said. “But we would want the option to look at everything.”

Yet numerous efforts to build a Hollywood museum over the past 25 years have failed, and the Hollywood Exhibition, even if successful, would not open for four years. Barth, who oversees the collection for the city, said the city cannot wait that long.

“All we know is that we have a large collection of material there, and we need to find a caretaker,” Barth said. “It has been passed around from warehouse to warehouse for years. Even if the contract is changed, the farthest anything would go is the County Museum of Art.”

Until some decision is made about the collection, the items that cannot be loaned will most likely remain at the Lincoln Heights Jail, city officials said, because they cannot afford to store the artifacts elsewhere.

“We are not ecstatic about the location ourselves,” said Sheldon Jensen, assistant general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, which at one time paid about $15,000 a year to provide cold storage outside the jail for the collection’s delicate nitrate films. The films were loaned to UCLA in 1981.

“The only solution to this is to get this material out of here,” Barth said during a recent visit to the jail, her hands turning black as she fiddled with a piano that some say belonged to Rudolph Valentino. “It is always dirty here. It is just hopeless.”