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Apartment Complex Has Tropics in Its Backyard

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beyond the palm trees, hibiscus plants and sun-bleached fake flamingos sits a 10-acre village on Magnolia Boulevard where the young and the old sunbathe, golf, dance, play tennis and toast each other with drinks at dusk.

It is a village, the locals like to brag, that a band built.

In 1940, big-band leader Horace Heidt Sr. bought the property when he settled in Los Angeles to work with Jimmy Stewart on a movie based on Heidt’s successful radio game show called “Pot of Gold.” Heidt Sr. also toured the world, hosting big-band variety shows and recruiting singers, dancers, musicians and comedians to perform with him.

His Sherman Oaks property, he reasoned, would house about 100 members of his band troupe.

“My dad looked at his troupe as family,” said Horace Heidt Jr., 53, who has managed the property since his father’s death in 1986. “He felt an obligation to take care of them. Everyone had show business in common, so people easily became friends.”

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Back then, the property, like much of the San Fernando Valley, was nothing more than a horse ranch and groves of orange and grapefruit trees.

But Heidt Sr. looked at the land and saw Palm Springs. He imported palm trees, built two-story bungalows that faced sparkling pools with lounge chairs nearby and, in 1955, invited his band members to live in his village.

He put in a tennis court, an 18-hole, par-three golf course and a recreation room where he hosted parties and talent shows. He also added more bungalows and pools in an area--decorated with waterfalls and tiki statues--modeled after a Hawaiian village.

In an autobiographical pamphlet on Heidt Sr., one visitor described Heidt’s one-of-a-kind estate, dubbed the HH Ranch, as a “combined circus winter quarters, resort hotel and museum.”

Through the years, the ranch attracted a mix of residents beyond the band members, and Heidt Sr. added a series of two-story apartment buildings to accommodate more tenants. There are now 160 apartments and 20 other rental units in bungalows on the property.

Obscured to the public by a wall and tall eucalyptus, the Horace Heidt Magnolia Estate Apartments offer seclusion. And although pine needles fill the dry waterfalls and the decor looks faded and dated, the village resembles an all-inclusive resort for travelers in need of some rest and relaxation--not a place that roughly 300 people call home.

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Coffee and pastries are served each morning in the recreation room. The bridge club plays on Friday. Others may meet for bingo or gin rummy.

There’s a health club, tennis and golf tournaments, spring concerts, movies, dinners, dancing and an annual luau with ukulele music and Polynesian dancers.

Heidt Jr., a former musical director for the Los Angeles Raiders and the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, has also hosted big-band variety shows reminiscent of the kind that helped his father earn two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and enjoy a career that spanned the 1920s to the 1960s.

“It takes me right back,” said Mimi Hatton, 80, a legal secretary and longtime resident who used to sing operatic soprano with Heidt Sr. “The [estate] has so much to offer. There’s always something to do, with loads of parties . . . It’s the kind of place where neighbors know and like each other.”

Which is exactly what Heidt Sr. wanted, said his son, who plans to write a book about his father. “My dad wanted a place with a strong sense of community,” said Heidt Jr., who lives nearby and is president of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce. “I want to carry on that tradition.”

Although the village continues to lure those affiliated with the entertainment industry, residents are a diverse mix of retired couples, the working class, young professionals and struggling entertainers.

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Throughout the years, the estate has attracted celebrities such as Ed Begley Sr. and Ed Begley Jr., Dick Van Patten, Barbara Hale, Robert Cummings and Wally George.

The apartment village--where Heidt Sr. used to live before he moved his family to Santa Monica--honors the history of the big-band era. In the back room of the administrative offices, shelves hold dusty relics that dignitaries gave Heidt Sr. when he performed in their cities.

There’s a piece of shrapnel from Los Alamos, N. M., a gum ball machine from St. Paul, Minn., a plaque declaring Heidt Sr. “The King of Mardi Gras” from New Orleans and steins from Germany.

The room has old typewriters and music sheets, model ships, cowboy boots and a gold bowl with plastic grapes. Hanging on a wall is the old green-and-gold spinning wheel from Heidt Sr.’s radio game show that gave away thousands of dollars during the late 1930s.

Apartments range from a 479-square-foot studio to a 1,650-square-foot, three-bedroom home. Rents vary from $725 a month to $2,100 a month, and there is a waiting list for residents, the apartment managers say.

Village dweller Judy Hatch, 43, called the apartments a bargain.

“It’s so lush and tropical, I feel like I’m living in a resort,” said Hatch, who moved into the village in April and frequently partakes of an informal “happy hour” with other residents. “Everyone greets me warmly and is happy,” she said. “Some evenings I sit outside and watch the birds with my neighbors.”

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Hatch sighed with contentment. “The apartment complex is like our world,” she said. “Every time I leave and return, I feel like I’m coming back to paradise.”

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