In a corner of Rustic Canyon below where Sunset Boulevard slices past Will Rogers State Historic Park, a long-ago rich man’s getaway still stands, a whimsical legacy of an influential band of revelers.
In the sheltered forest in a tucked-away public park, canyon residents pride themselves on maintaining the 1923 Spanish Revival-style Rustic Canyon Recreation Center, which was once the clubhouse for a carousing outfit called the Uplifters Club.
The driving force behind the exclusive men’s group, which lasted for more than 30 years, was plumbing magnate Harry Marston Haldeman--grandfather of H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, a close advisor to President Nixon who was convicted in the Watergate scandal cover-up of the 1970s.
Harry Haldeman was a big, jovial Chicagoan with a passion for Cuban cigars, hard liquor and good times. In 1910, he came to L.A. and joined the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
But he missed “the Bugs,” a small, tight-knit group of friends he had formed from the ranks of the Chicago Athletic Club. So, along with 20 or so kindred L.A. spirits, he established the Uplifters Club in 1913.
Drawn from the rich, the powerful and the notable, its members soon included Marco Hellman, who owned a string of banks; Sim W. Crabill, a Times Mirror executive; Ralph Hamlin, a bicycle manufacturer who was reputed to have owned the first motorcycle west of the Rockies; and Ernest R. Ball, who wrote the tune “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"--even though he had never seen Ireland.
The club’s roster eventually included such Hollywood celebrities as Will Rogers, Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Busby Berkeley, Leo Carrillo, Harold Lloyd and Daryl F. Zanuck, plus composer Ferde Grofe and county Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz.
For a name, they turned to another member, L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books, who is said to have pounded back a few drinks before coming up with the Lofty and Exalted Order of Uplifters. The moniker referred both to the group’s desire to “uplift art” by staging slapstick plays, some of them written by Baum with music by Louis Gottschalk, and to its conviction, expressed by Baum, that “nothing has been found more elevating than a cocktail, except perhaps several drinks.”
Despite a life beset by ill health and financial woes, Baum used his imagination and leadership to help the Uplifters transcend their everyday lives. He died in May 1919, one month before Prohibition began to suck the country dry.
Club member Hays Rice wrote a poem for an all-day celebration: The rye was once upon the bar.
Now the bar is on the rye.
Oh, how will we wet our whistles,
When the world goes dry.
Determined not to let Prohibition spoil their fun, the Uplifters decided to build a clubhouse of their own, away from the Athletic Club, where they could continue to tip the bottle, break bread and indulge in good times. For years, they had held their annual bash, the Hijinx, at spots from Arrowhead to Del Mar, Santa Barbara to Griffith Park, where they drank, cavorted, staged ribald plays and competed in sporting events, including greased-pig races.
In 1920, they cut a $40,000 deal on a ranch where they could escape hectic city life. Club members purchased a 40-acre swath of what would eventually grow into a 120-acre oasis in Rustic Canyon, with a creek flowing through it. Not far from where future member Will Rogers would soon buy a sprawling estate, the old ranch was remodeled with a swimming pool, tennis courts, shooting range, amphitheater and dormitories for relatives and guests.
Some years later, strait-laced Methodists from Huntington Beach purchased land just up the hill, whence they could peer down on the Uplifters and pray for their souls, which they did, according to Randy Young, a historian of the area. (His book, “Rustic Canyon and the Story of the Uplifters,” written with his mother, Betty Lou Young, is the source tome on the period and place.)
“It was a strange juxtaposition between morality of the time, with the Methodists next door and the club members letting their hair down, running around drunk and naked with a certain kind of woman,” said Randy Young.
In December 1922, as members began building private getaway cottages on land they leased from the club, the clubhouse burned down. The only lives lost were those of a bunch of caged turkeys being fattened up for a New Year’s celebration. The following year, a bigger and better headquarters, this time with a red-tile fire-resistant roof, rose on the same spot. Soon a polo field and half-mile racetrack were added.
Cinematographer Charles Rosher was one member who leased land and built a fairy-tale bungalow, filling a room with Oriental antiques for his lover, actress Anna May Wong. Hellman, the banker, bought three log cabins from the set of the 1923 film “The Courtship of Miles Standish” and had them moved to the site. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, one would later serve as the summer retreat for Earl Warren, the California governor who became chief justice of the United States.
Once a year, in their Hijinx gala, members staged circus extravaganzas and chariot races, and bet on the competitors. In 1925, one toga-clad driver and his two-burro team stopped dead on the home-stretch turn. “One flea too many caused [him] to lose by a scratch,” the judges declared.
In 1928, Haldeman, who had led the club in the art of high jinks, satirizing high society in songs, plays and revelry, resigned amid strained relationships. He was under indictment in the celebrated Julian Petroleum Scandal. He was acquitted, but in 1930 he suffered a fatal heart attack while testifying in a trial unrelated to the Julian case. He was 58 years old.
In the early 1930s, neighborhood kids sneaked onto the polo grounds just yards from a tangle of thundering hooves and flying mallets, close enough to cheer on pro polo champions such as Eric Pedley and Carleton Burke and to hear humorist Rogers shout “yippie-ki-yay!” from his own horse. (In 1931, Santa Barbara polo pro Jim W. Colt was killed during a match.) Club sports director Reginald “Snowy” Baker took the kids under his wing, salvaging broken polo mallets for them and letting them exercise the horses for him.
Olympic gold medalists Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller used the pool in the 1940s, while Wimbledon champion May Sutton Bundy shared the tennis court with three sisters for a Childrens Hospital benefit in 1947.
The demise of the year-round adult sanctuary, with its grand ballroom, drinking halls and “library"--actually a poker parlor--came after World War II, when the Uplifters began selling off portions of the property as membership dwindled. By the 1950s, the club had been virtually disbanded and the clubhouse stood abandoned, to become the haunt of inebriated teenage revelers who skinny-dipped in the pool and once ate a pig that they had stolen from a Santa Monica luau.
In 1953, oil company heiress Mabell Machris saved the day, buying what was left of the place and donating it to the city as a park.
To this day, Uplifters’ character sketches by cartoonist George Herriman, known for his popular daily comic strip “Krazy Kat,” line the walls of the Rustic Canyon Recreation Center, evoking the ghosts of a who’s who of Los Angeles’ movers and shakers. In the old club tradition, some of the sketches are considered politically incorrect, and one is papered over.