ESCAPE FROM HOLLYWOOD : So Near and Yet So Far, Orange County Has Long History as Celebrity Hideaway


Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall used to hold weekend trysts aboard his boat in Newport Harbor during the 1944 filming of “To Have and Have Not,” the still-married Bogart careful to keep Bacall under wraps below deck as they moved away from the slip. Newport was far from what Bogie liked to call the “Hollywood gossip and leeches.” Bette Davis had eyes for Laguna. In the ‘40s, she bought a house overlooking Woods Cove, its “breathtaking view of the sea and sky” a respite from her legendary battles with studio boss Jack Warner. Orange County may be perceived as an endless string of housing tracts and shopping malls, but for decades it has been a playground, a place for celebrities to escape the congestion and notoriety of Hollywood. And like the famous folks’ own mercurial popularity, Orange County’s celebrity roster is constantly changing. In 1989, actor Chuck Norris sold his home in North Tustin to be closer to his work in Hollywood. Six months ago, singer Jose Feliciano, who had lived in Villa Park since 1969, sold his ranch-style home (complete with recording studio) and moved to Westin, Conn. And last March best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh, who has lived on and off in Newport Beach the past 13 years, put his Linda Isle home on the market.

But just as some names are erased from the county’s celebrity score card, new ones are added.

Singer-actress Bette Midler, who bought a home in Laguna Beach in the late ‘80s, has been spotted working out at a local health club. Actor Robert Englund (Freddy in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” films) also bought a weekend home in Laguna, where he can be seen surfing with the locals.


And last November pop singer Tiffany moved to Orange County after finding the “perfect” house in Santa Ana.

While she doesn’t relish the commute to Los Angeles for work, the Norwalk native told a reporter she couldn’t live in L.A.: “It’s too crowded.”

To put Tiffany’s move to Orange County in historical perspective, we offer this celebrity sampler:

Hollywood’s Back Lot

One stormy midnight in 1910, three carloads of actors, film-crew members and cowboy extras pulled into the depot at San Juan Capistrano.

Biograph Studio, a 50-member New York company spending the winter in the California sunshine, was headed by the legendary director D. W. Griffith. Among the cast: an unknown 17-year-old actress who would later be known as America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford.

Checking into a two-story wooden hotel with only 10 bedrooms, two toilets and a single tub, the movie makers waited out the storm for three days and then proceeded to shoot an 18th-Century Spanish romance in and around the old mission.


“The Two Brothers,” a one-reeler, was the first motion picture ever made in Orange County, according to historian Jim Sleeper, author of “Great Movies Shot in Orange County.”

Over the next two decades, as Hollywood became the film capital of the world, hundreds of silent movies were filmed, at least in part, in Orange County.

And county residents, who were often hired as extras, could observe some of the silent screen’s great stars emoting before hand-cranked cameras: Theda Bara, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and John Gilbert.

As Sleeper says, during the period between 1910 and 1930, Orange County reigned as “Hollywood’s most popular back lot.”

In the summer of 1925, Mary Pickford and her swashbuckling husband, Douglas Fairbanks, began leasing a quarter-mile stretch of beach in Irvine Cove north of Laguna, where they would set up colorfully striped tents for their large retinue of family and friends.

“Hollywood’s most popular back lot” would soon become one of Hollywood’s most popular back yards.

Palmy Days

When the Spanish colonial-style Balboa Inn was built on the Balboa peninsula in 1930, it quickly became a favorite haunt of the movie crowd. The 34-room inn’s celebrity guest list included Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and a host of big bands that played at the nearby Rendezvous Ballroom.

The ‘30s and ‘40s were the heyday of Orange County’s Hollywood connection.

It was a time when Bogart, Errol Flynn, Dick Powell, Leo Carillo, Tom Mix, Preston Foster and James Cagney (who bought Collins Island in 1938) docked their boats in Newport Harbor.

During World War II, Bogart even served in the Coast Guard out of Balboa and was on duty once a week patrolling the shore. And when the 45-year-old actor fell in love with his 19-year-old co-star, they spent frequent weekends together in Newport Beach.

As Bacall wrote in her autobiography: “Bogie wanted me to see Newport--to feel the atmosphere that he had described to me so many times and loved so much.”

Late movie tough guy Broderick Crawford, a frequent visitor to Newport Beach in the ‘40s, recalled those palmy days in a 1978 interview at the Newporter Inn.

“It was fun to come down here,” he said in his familiar just-woke-up croak. Sipping his second vodka of the morning, to “kill” his hangover, the Academy Award-winner explained: “We worked like a SOB on a picture, then we’d come down here to sit and enjoy it.

“This, to me, is one beautiful area.”

Among those who agreed over the years and had homes here were Shirley Temple, Jascha Heifitz, Ruby Keeler, Joe E. Brown, Ray Milland, Andy Devine, Buddy Ebsen, Leon Aames, Raquel Welch, Mamie Van Doren, Joey Bishop and Telly Savalas.

(The skin-domed Savalas kept an apartment at Park Newport in the ‘70s. He once drove up to the clubhouse in his white Rolls-Royce for a fund-raising event where he was guest of honor, breezed into the foyer and said to the public relations woman: “Give me 10 minutes--I gotta comb my hair.”)

Palmy Days, Part II

Rivaling the Balboa Inn’s popularity with the Hollywood set during the ‘30s and ‘40s was the Hotel Laguna, a mission-style landmark built in 1930 after the original wood-frame hotel was razed. The hotel’s guest registry included Dick Powell, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, and Bogart and Bacall. (The waterfront hotel celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1988 with souvenir hurricane glasses emblazoned with “Yes! Bogie and I Drank Here.”)

Many celebrities who vacationed in Laguna wound up buying houses there.

Ozzie and Harriet Nelson bought a weekend home on Camel Point in the late ‘40s and after selling it in the early ‘50s built another ocean-front home in the gated community of Lagunita, where Harriet Nelson has lived full time since 1978. Rick Nelson also had a condominium down the beach at Blue Lagoon in the late ‘60s, and actor Kent McCord, who got his acting start playing one of Rick’s fraternity brothers on “Ozzie and Harriet,” still has a weekend home in Lagunita.

Other Laguna residents over the years include Mickey Rooney, Victor Mature, Rock Hudson, Lorne Greene, Mike Connors, Tab Hunter, Sterling Holloway, Polly Moran, Frederick March, Robert Armstrong, Claire Trevor, Elmo Lincoln (the original Tarzan) and movie character actor Slim Summerville (whose cottage on Sleepy Hollow Lane is now the Beach House restaurant).

And then there was Bette Davis.

The Academy Award-winning actress already owned a beachfront house on Sleepy Hollow Lane, where her mother, Ruth, lived in 1945 when Davis married her third husband, William Grant Sherry, a young artist she had met in Laguna.

Two years later the couple bought a new home in nearby Wood’s Cove. (A large black wrought iron “D,” for Davis, on the chimney is still visible from the beach below.)

A few months after she moved into her new home, Time magazine reported that the 39-year-old “high-strung cinemactress”gave birth to her daughter, Barbara Davis Sherry, in Santa Ana Community Hospital.

Davis was released from her Warner Bros. contract shortly thereafter and relished the freedom to spend time with her young daughter. As she wrote in her 1962 autobiography: “We spent hours on the beach together--would call on Grandmother for tea. I was so thrilled to be a mother.”

Although Davis sold the Woods Cove home after divorcing Sherry and marrying actor Gary Merrill in 1950, she returned to Laguna periodically to stay with her cousin, John Favour, and his wife, Sally.

“We inherited all her mother’s furniture and it was almost like coming home for her when she came to visit us,” recalls Sally Favour, who describes Davis as “a great family person, very fond of our children, very close to them all and very good to all of us.”

Michael Slept Here

Ever since it opened across the street from Disneyland in 1955, the Disneyland Hotel has attracted more stars than a Hollywood premiere. Over the years, hundreds of celebrity VIPs have stayed there, including Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor.

Michael Jackson, however, must hold the celebrity track record.

Jackson has been known to check into a suite at the hotel as often as four times a year, usually during the Magic Kingdom’s off-season. He visited several months ago.

“The last time he was here he went out shopping in some of our shops,” said a hotel spokesman. “Quite a number of guests recognized him and said ‘hi’ to him. He was real good-natured about that, very personable and friendly.”

Jackson, who always pays to have a Disneyland host or hostess escort him around the Magic Kingdom, sometimes shows up on his own; other times he brings young friends or family members.

“Usually he dresses down, but if he’s recognized he does create a bit of a stir,” said a Disneyland spokeswoman.

Does the Gloved One have a favorite ride?

“Oh, he likes them all,” the spokeswoman said. “He’s a real Disney aficionado and loves everything about the park.”

A Stay in Infamy

Not every celebrity who crosses the county line receives VIP treatment.

“Officer Nabs Film Vamp Near Santa Ana” blared the front-page headline in 1921 when Hollywood star Bebe Daniels was arrested for speeding through the county. Clocked at an unforgivable 56 m.p.h., Daniels was sentenced to 10 days in the Orange County Jail.

Five decades later, in 1970, Truman Capote had his day in court and a stay in the county pokey.

Failing to answer a court subpoena to testify at the trial of a triple slayer he had interviewed in prison, the famed author of “In Cold Blood” was sentenced to three days in jail for contempt of court.

Capote, however, was released after only 18 1/2 hours. Jail officials reported that the diminutive author had spent a restless and “understandably nervous” night in jail but was in good spirits before “quietly slipping away to his Palm Springs home.”

During Richard Nixon’s presidential days, one of Orange County’s top tourist attractions was La Casa Pacific, the Western White House in San Clemente.

The one-story Spanish-style home, built in 1924, is where Nixon retreated after resigning from office in 1974.

During his political exile, Nixon kept a relatively low profile behind the closely guarded walls of La Casa Pacifica. But he surfaced occasionally, celebrating his 65th birthday in 1978 at El Adobe restaurant, a favorite dining spot during his presidency.

Still, it wasn’t like the glory days when Dan Rather and other members of the White House press corps holed up in the Surf and Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach to record his every move.

Footnote: During Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, Villa “A” at the Newporter Inn earned a place in history.

The two-story, three bedroom suite, which served briefly as Nixon’s summer office in 1969, is where Martha Mitchell, wife of Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, made her famous late-night phone call to UPI reporter Helen Thomas complaining that she was “sick and tired” of politics and that she had threatened to leave her husband unless he got out of the political arena.

The phone call ended abruptly after Mrs. Mitchell was heard to say, “You just get away!” Reported Thomas: “Attempts to regain the broken connection failed when an operator said, ‘Mrs. Mitchell is indisposed and cannot talk.’ ”

Martha Mitchell later identified the man who allegedly tore the telephone from the wall during her conversation with Thomas as Steve King, the new head of security for the Committee to Reelect the President.

Duke’s Domain

When John Wayne moved to Newport Beach in 1965, his sprawling bay-front house became the most popular attraction on the Newport Harbor boat tours.

That didn’t change with the Duke’s death in 1979.

Although Wayne’s former home has been remodeled extensively since it was sold in 1980, tourists still strain to catch a glimpse of the house where the Ringo Kid once lived.

When he was alive, Wayne always waved to the passing parade of fans, although he once good-naturedly groused about being on constant exhibit.

“Hell, I have to wear my wig--I can’t even come out in my front yard,” he said.

Fans expecting to pay their respects to Wayne at nearby Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar will be disappointed. The man who spent a lifetime in the public eye rests in an unmarked grave on a hilltop overlooking Newport Harbor.

Those with eagle eyes--or a good pair of binoculars--can catch a glimpse of The Cowboy, California Angels owner Gene Autry, in his private box behind home plate at Anaheim Stadium nearly every home game.

“America’s favorite singing cowboy” watches the games with his wife, Jackie, but he’s been known to have a few friends along: singers Glen Campbell and Johnny Mathis and Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Behind Autry’s 24-seat box is a private suite for entertaining. And although the Autrys have food served to them in their box, The Cowboy generally keeps the talking to a minimum once the game starts.

Explained a team executive: “He doesn’t like to be interrupted.”

And Finally . . .

Onetime Laguna Beach resident Harrison Ford on how he got the scar on his chin in the late ‘60s when he was trying to break into the movies (Vanity Fair, August, 1990):

“I was an assistant buyer in the knickknacks and oil-paintings department of the Bullock’s department store in Santa Ana. I was on my way to work at Bullock’s one morning. I used to drive through the Laguna Canyon. I had one of those old Volvos . . . and I had forgotten to put on my seat belt. I reached over to take my seat belt off the hook, and my attention went to that. And I hit a high curb and the car went up on two wheels and smashed into a telephone pole. I hit the steering wheel, I think.”

Singer Donny Osmond on why he and his wife and three children moved to Irvine (L.A. Times, 1985):

“I could be in Los Angeles but it’s definitely not a place where I’d like my kids to grow up. What we’ve got right now is an ideal situation for them. And that is kids all over the neighborhood, running up and down the streets. Now that I’ve got that, I’m satisfied even though I have got to drive an hour up to the city because that’s where I spend all my time.”

Actor Englund on how his Laguna Beach neighbors have taken to having the star of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movies living on their street (L.A. Times, 1990):

“I think they’re just happy Robert Englund keeps his leaves raked.”

ORANGE COUNTY CELEBRITY ROSTER Orange County has long been a favorite getaway destination -- or even home -- for some of Los Angeles’ and Hollywood’s biggest stars. Some of those who escaped to Orange County include: THEN . . .

Category Residence John Wayne actor Newport Beach Chuck Norris actor Tustin Jose Feliciano musician Villa Park Joseph Wambaugh writer Newport Beach Mary Pickford actress Irvine Cove Douglas Fairbanks actor Irvine Cove Richard M. Nixon former president Yorba Linda and San Clemente James Cagney actor Newport Beach Bette Davis actress Laguna Beach

. . . and NOW

Category Residence Bette Midler singer/actress Laguna Beach Robert Englund actor Laguna Beach Tiffany pop singer Santa Ana Donny Osmond singer/musician Irvine Bill Medley singer Newport Beach Bobby Hatfield singer Newport Beach