Blazing Glory : Culver City Plans to Celebrate Its Movie Town Heritage

Times Staff Writer

Fifty years ago, Culver City witnessed a column of black smoke rising from 30 acres of burning movie lot props on city land and knew that the filming of an American cultural milestone had begun.

City leaders hope to capture a sliver of the glamour as the Culver City Historical Society marks the golden anniversary of the production of "Gone With the Wind." That glamour, made visible in part by the extravagant "burning of Atlanta," is ordinarily denied this small movie town, which was once tagged "The Heart of Fast-Food Land" by one of its own council members.

The site of production for such cinematic landmarks as "Citizen Kane," "King Kong" and "The Wizard of Oz," Culver City would seem the natural choice for a "Gone With the Wind" commemorative bash. After all, the city's slogan is "The Heart of Screenland."

After three-quarters of a century of film-making, the passing of nearly a dozen studios and the production of nearly one-third of American feature-length films within its limits, Culver City plans to spend a day reclaiming the splendor lost in the shadow of Hollywood's glitz.

Museum Fund-Raiser

This Sunday, about 400 neighbors and fans will throw a hometown-flavored commemoration at the restored Culver Studios, where the epic of the South during the Civil War was shot. Intended as a fund-raiser, proceeds from the public event will go toward the 9-year-old historical society's goal of securing a permanent museum.

Featured offerings include Mayor Jozelle Smith as emcee for a Clark Gable look-alike contest and 1930s-era refreshments peddled by the local YMCA. More serious film buffs and "Gone With the Wind" devotees can see exhibits of unpublished movie production photographs, original screenplays and the historic studio where original props and dressing rooms remain intact. Dozens of those involved in the original production have agreed to attend, including the actor with the film's opening lines as Scarlett's suitor; the great-nephew of Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her role as Mammy, and a longtime companion of and secretary to Vivien Leigh, the actress selected to play Scarlett O'Hara after a two-year, nationwide search.

But, oddly, Culver City was never swept up in the publicity enveloping "Gone With the Wind," which set box-office records for decades and has never been equaled in hype. Yet when producer David O. Selznick started filming with the "burning of Atlanta" sequence on Dec. 10, 1938, it was in a Culver City studio lot with the entire city Fire Department watching nervously nearby. The town also contributed dozens of extras for the film and even Selznick's famed still photographer, Fred A. Parrish, who took more than 10,000 promotional shots.

Humiliating Survey

Instead, for decades, tourists looking for the excitement of the silver screen never considered Culver City. Added to that was a humiliating 1983 survey confirming that most out-of-staters had never heard of the city and Californians had considered it old, run-down, ugly or boring.

And if being the plain, if respectable, sister to fashionable Westside communities, such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Westwood and Venice, were not enough, Culver City over the years suffered the indignity of anonymity as even longtime resident Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer credited the location of all its productions as "Hollywood" until the 1970s.

"Really, (Culver City) was a studio town more than a glamour town, while Hollywood was both," says Marc Wanamaker, a Los Angeles film historian.

The distinction came through even during the heyday of the big movie studios in the 1920s and '30s, according to cinematic histories.

"MGM . . . is a short distance from 20th (Century Fox), but the distance is all downhill," states one 1981 book. "Culver City, home of MGM, is to Beverly Hills as Yonkers is to Scarsdale. Culver City looks as if there should be a feed store on the corner of State and Main."

The movies also brought their own form of undesirables to town. Swept up in the big productions of the 1930s and '40s, Culver City saw the rise of gambling, drinking and prostitution. Locally, the film industry's reputation began to suffer.

"The stars and studios kind of ran Culver City for years," said former city Councilman A. Ronald Perkins, a Culver City police officer from the 1950s through the early part of the 1970s. But the occasional sighting of celebrities such as Joan Crawford or MGM owner Howard Hughes could not compensate for the brawls and other vices commonplace at the time.

That's the past Culver City's historical society has begun to clean up. While searching for museum space for its growing collection of movie and other historical objects, the society has also polished the city's sullied reputation.

"Any place you go in the world has a history," says society fund raiser Julie Lugo Cerra. "You just need to find it."

With society President Marti Diviak and Joy Jacobs, its public relations director, Lugo can tick off a proud civic history worthy of any California town. Replete with noble Mexican ranch families, Catholic missions and Anglo settlers, Culver City's past includes many a proud--and peculiar--moment.

The society's collections include oral histories of the Prohibition-era Cotton and Plantation nightclubs and 68 vintage MGM costumes from numerous films. It has also placed bronze markers at eight historic city sites.

And its work has become a civic enterprise.

"I'm eminently qualified to do this because my mother was in love with Clark Gable," says Smith. Smith, who will judge the Clark Gable impersonators Sunday, is a society member and lifelong Culver City resident.

Several other city employees have joined the society, and in 1986, 40 local businesses and more than 100 citizens contributed their names and money to create "The Game of Culver City," a variant of Monopoly, the popular Parker Bros. game.

Last summer, about 100 descendants of Harry H. Culver swept into town to mark the 75th anniversary of when their real estate developer ancestor bought the land that became his dream city.

Now, the historical society and City Council are working to bring a Beverly Hills house, originally built in 1921 in Culver City, back to the town. Listed for $1.75 million, the Willat Studio (also known as "the Witch's House" for its unique architecture) may be used as a museum and storage space.

Culver City life is clearly no longer dominated as it was in days past by names such as MGM, De Mille, RKO, Pathe, Selznick, Desilu, Roche and Laird International. Postwar population booms and dozens of commercial and residential developments in the past five years have broadened the community's economic base.

These days, residents talk of the city as a "family town" and reminisce about times when sets and lots dominated street-side scenery.

Ed Schwartz, 62, closed down Big Ed's bar in 1986, an establishment that had served as a town landmark under various ownerships since the 1940s. Upon closing, he reflected, "(Culver's) a very Puritan town now. It's so clean it squeaks. . . . There's nothing wrong with that; it's just the way it is."

The historical society doesn't mind. With its members, the city and Sunday's fund-raiser bringing a museum that much closer to life, its leaders realize that the movies are here to stay, and, in Scarlett's words, "Tomorrow is another day."

There is a limited number of tickets available for Sunday's 2 to 5 p.m. event at the Culver Studios, 9336 Washington Blvd. Tickets are $10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and children under 12.

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