Turning Back Clock on 1920s Villa

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marlene Dietrich rented it. Then, film great Cary Grant lived here with his wife, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Later, actor James Mason and his actress wife, Pamela, purchased the house.

But when restoration work is completed later this year, this Beverly Hills villa will be most strongly associated with the star who built it in 1926 and lived there until the early '30s: Buster Keaton.

One of Hollywood's greatest comedians, "The Great Stone Face" was a consummate acrobat with an exquisite sense of timing. His movie "The General" (1927), which he also co-directed, is ranked 18th on the American Film Institute's list of the funniest 100 American films.

Keaton died at 70 in 1966, but the Damfinos, the International Buster Keaton Society, is very much alive, and earlier this year, the group toured the property.

"I don't think they were overly pleased that the house was not finished," said John Bercsi, who bought the home with his business partner, Christopher Bedrosian, in May 1999.

The developers had hoped to be further along with their project for the tour, but the restoration has taken longer than anticipated.

"Now we hope to be done by August--we just don't know which year," Bedrosian joked.

"Actually," Bercsi said, "most of the work is just in finishing the landscaping."

When completed, the house, on 1.5 acres, is expected to be priced at more than $25 million range.

That price might have brought a smile to Keaton's famous deadpan face, but the rehab has been a formidable and expensive task, even though the house was relatively intact.

That is due in large part to the Masons, who owned the home longer than anybody else--from 1948 until Pamela died at 80 in 1996. Fortuitously, tThey stored old fittings and fixtures in the basement. That made many items easy to find, though there were still challenges in restoration and replacement. For instance, Bercsi said, "the glass globes for some metal light fixtures are sometimes impossible to find."

Despite the hurdles, Bercsi said, "we're almost done with the main house," which is--at nearly 11,000 square feet--the bulk of the work.

A few things, such as a pulpit Keaton put in the entry as a dramatic touch and a reflection of L.A.'s Mission Revival movement during the '20s, were not reconstructed. But a drop ceiling that covered the original beams in the dining room was removed so the original 1920s stenciling can be seen.

Half of the walls in the house had been covered with cork during the Mason's residency because Pamela Mason hosted a syndicated radio talk show from the house during the '60s. The cork too has been removed, and the oak hardwood floors have been preserved.

One visitor in the Damfinos tour recognized a large mirror that Keaton had made himself at the studio.

"We stripped off the paint and left it here in the original foyer," Bercsi said.

The foyer had a fountain during Keaton's time. It was later replaced by a small merry-go-round. Neither is there now.

"But we might yet replace the fountain," Bercsi said.

The butler's pantry still contains Keaton's "Quick Meal" brand of stove. Restored by the developers, it has been used by every resident of the house and is still in working order.

Some parts of the house called for updating. One was the kitchen, which was old-fashioned and small. It has been expanded into what was formerly the servants' quarters.

"We combined the rooms, raised the ceiling and put in a big fireplace," Bercsi said. "This is where the new owners will spend 90% of their time." He considers it a kitchen/breakfast area/family room/entertainment center.

Keaton spent much of his time in his screening room, where he also played poker and shot pool.

"Tom Mix used to come here and drink with Keaton," Bercsi said. "He only lived steps away from Keaton's fence."

The developers motorized the movie screen, concealed in the wall like a pocket door, and they installed a state-of-the-art sound system and DVD player.

They also replaced a fireplace in the living room, which the Masons had removed, and they restored "the Valentino dance floor" off the living room.

"Keaton had the floor built after he saw Rudolph Valentino dancing on one like it at a party," Bercsi said.

The actor, a neighbor, had told Keaton that there was "nothing like tile for a tango." The checkerboard black-and-white tiles on the floor of Keaton's enclosed veranda were made of imported Venetian marble.

Keaton designed the residence, with architect Gene Verge, as a gift to his wife, Natalie. The couple had two sons. She prompted her husband to build the house to befit a star of his caliber (and herself as the wife of the star and the sister to two others: Norma and Constance Talmadge).

After they moved in, the Keatons were known for throwing parties and barbecues for 80 or more guests including such luminaries as Sam Goldwyn and Howard Hughes.

Sometimes the villa was used as a movie set. In a scene from "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath" (1931), Buster Keaton jumped from his bedroom balcony into the yard, Bercsi said.

The balcony is still there, but his small bedroom was swallowed up in the renovation.

His wife's 21-foot-by-29-foot by-29-square-foot room, now the master bedroom, is still quite grand.

Her bathroom was also sizable. Today, it's a bath and steam room for the man of the house.

Her closet has been paneled in mahogany, and contains a secret closet.

"Buster loved trick, secret doors," Bercsi said.

All of the doors were re-milled to their original 2.5-inch-thick specifications, and the original hardware on the doors was refinished.

The developers created a new closet, dressing room and bath for the woman of the house in an area formerly housing several bedrooms, including Keaton's.

He probably didn't spend a lot of time in his room, according to Victoria Sainte-Claire, a member of the Damfinos who has extensively researched Keaton and the house.

If he wasn't working or playing in his screening room, he often could be found fishing in his man-made trout stream or cutting film by hand in a potting shed outside his film vault, where, the story goes, James Mason found copies of Keaton's finest movies long after Keaton put them there.

Mason ensured that the films were restored, and that helped lead to a resurgence of interest in Keaton, whose career had waned with the advent of talking films.

Natalie Keaton divorced her husband in 1932 and sold the house about a year later, when Keaton went through bankruptcy. After he married MGM dancer Eleanor Norris in 1940, he started faring better again financially. Then, with the Mason discoveries, Keaton's career took another upswing. He appeared in films and on TV.

"He had a ranch in the San Fernando Valley and a new Cadillac every year," Bercsi said.

The film vault that contributed to Keaton's later success is still there, built into the side of a hill, behind a mound of dirt created by the developers, now hard at work on the landscaping.

They built a 1,000-square-foot retaining wall and redid the electrical and phone lines as well as the roof, using original tiles restored to their natural terra-cotta.

The developers are now creating a cobblestone forecourt, a two-lane, 400-foot-long driveway lined with olive and cypress trees, and a motor court 90 feet in diameter.

They built a four-car garage with a three-bedroom staff quarters and a cabana, and they completed a tennis pavilion, which is a 1,100-square-foot building that could be used as a gym or a party room.

They plan to build a 60-foot-long pool in keeping with the one Keaton had before the Masons subdivided the 3.5-acre property. The developers filled in the Masons' smaller pool, built in 1953.

Bercsi and Bedrosian also refurbished the guest house, where actors Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole stayed as guests of James Mason when they first came to Hollywood.

There are six bedrooms in the main house and 14 on the property in all. (There is alsobout 5,000 square feet in buildings outsidebesides the main house.)

The main house also has two basements: one with a full laundry and room for china, the other a cellar for 5,000 bottles of wine.

"We designed the home so there could be a party here for 500 people," Bercsi said.

If not for the rehab, the house, which had been the home of an estimated 30 cats, might have been demolished.

"People wanted to bulldoze it," Bedrosian recalled. "It was on the market for two years. But I said, 'I think we can do something with it.' "

The house brings to mind, after all, a Hollywood legend who is still an inspiration.

As Steve Friedman, a New York City photographer and member of the Damfinos, put it:

"We are interested in learning why, 35 years after his death, Buster Keaton's best work more than 70 years ago still reaches us."

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