Movie Industry's Roots in Garden of Edendale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before there was Hollywood, there was Edendale.

Today, few visitors or residents who navigate the eastern part of Silver Lake are aware that they are traversing the crossroads of cinematic history.

When producer William Selig opened his mission-style studio at Clifford Street and Glendale Boulevard in 1910, he not only ushered in future stars and eager fans, but also opened the gates to what would become the film capital of the world.

For nearly 20 years Edendale was a movie mecca and the birthplace of the Keystone Kops.

In the decade after Selig set up shop, half a dozen other film companies opened studios in Edendale, clustering on Branden, Aaron and Effie streets. A few blocks north, Teviot Street became "Mixville" after cowboy star Tom Mix established his operation there. That's where he buried his first "wonder horse" too. Even years later, businesses named Mixville Market, Mixville Garage and Mixville Bar remained.

More than a mile away and years after Edendale's studios opened, Mickey Mouse was born at the original Disney Studio on Hyperion Avenue.

The area became such a movie center that in 1917, vaudeville and film actor Julian Eltinge--the original "King of Drag Queens," who squeezed his 200-pound body into a corset with a 23-inch waist--built his Moorish mansion there. He called it Villa Capistrana, and it still stands at the top of Baxter Street.

Selig, who bestowed the honorary title "colonel" on himself--was born in Chicago before the end of the Civil War. He got rich developing a projector called the Polyscope and selling it to Nickelodeon theaters. Soon, he opened the Selig-Polyscope Co. in Chicago, making his own brief documentaries. He was the first to employ artificial light in film, using a borrowed theatrical spotlight.

In 1901, five years before Upton Sinclair exposed the animal and human outrages of the meatpacking industry in his book "The Jungle," Selig experimented with his first documentary, filming at Phillip Armour's Chicago factory.

Armour had the walls whitewashed so the place would look cleaner and provide better lighting for Selig. After Sinclair's book was published, Armour frantically contacted Selig for a copy of the film to rebut the book's accusations.

In 1907, Selig sent two associates west. Director Francis Boggs and cameraman Thomas Persons were among the first makers of dramatic films to hit Los Angeles, where they completed "The Count of Monte Cristo," which Selig had started shooting in Chicago.

The next year, Boggs and Persons set up their cameras downtown--first on the roof of Dearden's Department Store at Main and 8th streets, then in a vacant lot next to a Chinese laundry on Olive Street near 7th Street, and finally in Arcadia, on land baron Lucky Baldwin's racetrack. It was all to film scenes for "The Heart of a Race Tout," the first dramatic film shot entirely in the Los Angeles area. (Webster defines a tout as someone who sells tips on racehorses.)

Finally convinced that the sunshine would last forever, Selig moved most of his operation west in 1908.

In an agreement presaging the "product placement" deals of 80 years later, Selig donated some of his profits to the restoration of the region's crumbling Spanish missions in exchange for exclusive rights to film at the sites, a deal negotiated through Charles Lummis, the colorful character who founded the California Landmarks Club.

Drawn by the grassy fields, rolling hills and lake-like reservoir of Edendale, Selig began building the region's first permanent studio at Clifford Street and Glendale Boulevard. Modeled somewhat bizarrely after the San Gabriel Mission, it opened in 1910 to throngs of excited neighbors.

Plasterer Coy Watson and his wife, Golda, had moved to Edendale in 1900, but soon Watson put down his trowel and got into show business, breaking horses for cowboy stars and eventually designing Douglas Fairbanks' flying carpet--an engineering marvel at the time--for the 1923 film "The Thief of Baghdad."

While his wife washed and ironed actors' costumes, Watson and the neighbors performed in two-reel pictures, sometimes wearing nothing more than breechcloths, red paint and Indian wigs.

"In one scene, we'd be Indians fleeing over the hills from the soldiers. Then for another scene we'd change into soldiers' uniforms, ride back and chase ourselves over the same hills," Watson said. "For that we got $3 a day and $1 more for falling off our horse."

The nine Watson children soon found themselves recruited for scene-stealing roles with such stars as James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, in films such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Heidi."

But the man who started it, director Boggs, had his promising filmmaking career cut short when he was shot to death in 1911 by a disgruntled gardener who also wounded Selig in one arm. The man had been fired from the studio for drunkenness but was rehired after he apologized.

While recuperating, Selig commissioned Italian sculptor Carlo Romanelli to design stone lions and elephants for his planned zoo. As the cameras and the money kept rolling, Selig moved his operation across the Los Angeles River to 32 acres in Lincoln Park, where he built a studio/zoo to house his performing animals. He also constructed a skating rink and dance pavilion where movie scenes were shot.

The first Tarzan movie was filmed at the Selig Zoo, the surrounding hillsides passing for Africa. With more than 700 species, the menagerie--forerunner of the Los Angeles Zoo--was reportedly the largest exotic animal collection in the world.

Although Selig kept his Edendale studio open until 1915, the neighborhood's biggest claim to movie fame was the Keystone Kops. Writer-director Mack Sennett was hired by New York Motion Picture Co. to head up the firm's West Coast Keystone Studios.

Soon after he arrived in 1912, he began to crank out his slapstick silliness. In 1915, expanding the Effie Street and Glendale Boulevard property, Sennett built the first permanent concrete-reinforced movie studio. Soon, the Keystone name came down from the building and Sennett's went up.

Romping on camera in Edendale in the early days of the movies were Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin and Buster Keaton, among others. Gloria Swanson and the first of her six husbands, Wallace Beery, briefly set up house near the studio.

In Edendale, Mabel Normand hurled custard pies in her co-stars' faces, pies baked by Sarah Brener, who catered to the stars from her variety store across the street from the studio. Her best customer, Chaplin, gave her one of his canes as a memento for baking the "best pies in town," said film historian Marc Wanamaker.

Sennett would continue making films there until 1928, when he moved to Studio City. The last movie shot entirely at his old studio was appropriately titled "The Goodbye Kiss."

By the 1930s, the studio had become King's Roller Palace, where neighborhood children roller-skated to the tunes of Glenn Miller on the electric organ. Later, someone gave the floor a coat of wax and called it the Palace Barn Dance. Tex Williams and his 12-piece band, the Western Caravan, played "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)," among other tunes, but country-western music never caught on there, and it soon closed.

Today, the last remaining concrete structure in what once was the city's largest and most successful movie-making complex is a public storage facility at 1712 Glendale Blvd.

Film quality and changing tastes heralded Selig's journey to obscurity, as they did for many others. The only reminders of him are a street bearing his name off Mission Road, and a dozen of the life-size stone elephants and lions that once guarded the gates to his zoo. Those figures eventually will be incorporated into new gates at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°