Perry Mason is in a phone booth getting the crap kicked out of him by a Fatty Arbuckle type and suddenly it’s 1932 in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles — or may as well be.
In point of fact it’s a bright November morning in historic downtown San Pedro, and the sight of modern shipping cranes rising through the haze at the Port of Los Angeles on the drive in is enough to dispel any dreams of time travel. Still, on the set of HBO’s “Perry Mason,” an origin story for the fictional defense attorney starring Matthew Rhys, the city’s Depression-era past is distinctly within reach.
“It is night and day,” Rhys, sporting Mason’s five o’clock shadow, tan leather jacket and fat red tie, says of the period detail, comparing it to the tedium of matching eyelines for green screens. “It adds to your experience of it in an unconscious way … You can’t help but believe the world you’re living in.”
Rhys, who considers himself something of an L.A. history buff after doing “vast amounts of research” for a project about Griffith J. Griffith, the man behind Griffith Park, knows it’s a “mighty pain” to get the details right and is accordingly effusive about the results: He praises co-star Juliet Rylance’s ability to gun a 1930s car engine and calls the work of stunt pilots in “old biplanes” “inch perfect.” (The sound of this phrase in Rhys’ always disarming brogue is enough to make you wish Mason were Welsh.)
“We were not going for the highly stylized, cliched version of the ‘30s,” explains executive producer Susan Downey, half of the Team Downey shingle she formed with husband Robert Downey Jr. in 2010. “We wanted to dirty it up.”
Combined with director and “Boardwalk Empire” vet Tim Van Patten’s desire to find the look of the series through real-life locations rather than visual effects, that meant canvassing Southern California to “find the right nooks and crannies,” says Downey — Camarillo, Santa Paula, Fillmore and Pomona, to name a few, in addition to the four iconic L.A. locations (or cunning stand-ins) detailed below.
USC professor and historical consultant William Deverell, location manager Jonathan Jansen, production designer John Goldsmith were among those who helped “Perry Mason” capture the L.A. of yore, say series co-creators Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald. As Jones jokes, “They went only where people who had been stripping copper had gone.”
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Once the production subtracted bike and fire lanes, parking signs and painted red curbs, its collection of ‘20s and ‘30s facades required remarkably little dressing to make way for Perry’s beat-down by a Hollywood star or a bite with unsavory partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) at Ptomaine Tommy’s. That real-life Lincoln Heights establishment, where the chili burger was reputedly invented in the 1920s, dovetailed with Jones’ Woodland Hills upbringing to inspire the flavor of the series’ DTLA substitute.
“I grew up on Tommy burgers,” Jones says of the unaffiliated Southern California chain that supplanted Ptomaine Tommy’s — in the eyes of Jonathan Gold, no less — after it closed in 1958. “If we’re talking about a series that’s really about the birth of Los Angeles as an international city or national city, and not, like, Phoenix or something, it was just kind of fun to [ask], “What’s a fast food joint that’s still around? ... It captured a lot of the humor and the wildness of Los Angeles.”
“We found a diamond,” as executive producer Amanda Burrell describes the location. “It felt like it was undiscovered.”
Of course, there were other, more labor-intensive modifications required to capture L.A.'s then-bustling urban core. Producers built a Hooverville, or Depression-era homeless encampment, on an empty lot. They shot, treated and projected the faux period movie “Seize the Hay” for an early scene. And, Fitzgerald recalls, they accommodated the owners of the “cranky” 1920s cars used in production by allowing them to set up folding chairs and observe.
If there’s a focal point of downtown San Pedro, it’s the building most pristinely maintained in its Depression-era form: the Warner Grand movie palace, opened in 1931. “You can feel the ghosts in that place,” Fitzgerald says. “I went up on the stage, hung out in the rigging, went down to the dressing rooms. I even went into the boiler room to see what was lying around.”
Step outside the frame, though, and modernity comes rushing in: Inside, on the day of my set visit, the faces of extras in period garb are illuminated — not by the silver screen but by the blue light of their smart phones.
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Perry Mason’s farm
In the HBO series, Perry’s Glendale home is a “two-cow dairy in an airport” inherited from his father: An emblem of an agrarian region’s rapid transformation into a “metropolitan juggernaut,” says historical consultant Deverell. By the time the series opens in 1932, he notes, the seeds of post-World War II (sub)urbanization that now define the Los Angeles landscape have already been planted by the emergence of the automobile and the establishment of the trolley system.
For Jones, this backdrop provides one of the series’ key themes — a sense of dislocation. “When [Perry] was out there playing as a boy, there’s 45,000 people there, and by the time [“Perry Mason”] begins there’s 1.3 million,” he says. And Perry’s not alone: Both Rylance’s Della Street, as an unapologetically modern woman working in a law firm, and Chris Chalk’s Paul Drake, a Black police officer in the corrupt, racist LAPD, navigate restrictive social mores even as they pursue careers that would have traditionally been off limits to them.
As for finding the location for this dislocation? “Go north and go west,” Jones says.
Knowing that “the 1930s had been razed and demolished across the city,” he continues, the “Perry Mason” team found a 19th-century farmhouse in Thousand Oaks and persuaded the owner to let them put in a runway. It makes literal, as Rhys puts it, “the encroachment of the new L.A. on the old” — a phenomenon familiar to Angelenos of any generation.
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The Radiant Assembly of God
In its second episode, airing Sunday night, “Perry Mason” introduces one of the season’s most compelling characters: Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany), a charismatic evangelical whose distinctive brand of preaching draws hundreds of congregants, and countless radio listeners, to her Radiant Assembly of God. “It’s a heathen’s morning in Los Angeles,” she says, dressed head to toe in white.
Sister Alice is a thinly disguised avatar for Aimee Semple McPherson, the real-life religious leader whose International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, founded in 1923 and still headquartered in Echo Park, emerged as one of the city’s most prominent institutions of the ‘20s and ‘30s. As Deverell explains, McPherson, a master of technology and popular media, combined theatrical ministrations, charitable support and a sense of community to appeal to the lonely, destitute or otherwise displaced, particularly those recently transplanted to the city from farms and villages.
“People like Sister Aimee are preaching a line of gospel that, ‘We can steady your imbalance,’” he says. “‘The world is unsteady; here’s the rock.’”
Though that theme resonates through “Perry Mason” as well, it was McPherson’s use of techniques popularized by radio, vaudeville and the movies that made the fictional Radiant Assembly an attractive backdrop for so much of the series’ action, Jones says.
“It was like, ‘What have noirs done before?’ And I don’t think we had seen the sort of revival spirit you read so much about,” he says. “It felt like that was a little untapped. And the theatrics that were involved in the productions of the temple, we thought was an interesting substitute for Hollywood.”
Unable to use the McPherson’s Angelus Temple — “they’ve done so much renovation you couldn’t fake it to look period anymore,” Fitzgerald says — the production turned instead to the former Second Church of Christ, Scientist in West Adams, constructed in 1910. (The building is now owned by the international humanitarian and educational non-profit Art of Living Foundation.) Its white Classical Revival columns function as the exterior of the Radiant Assembly, and also provided some of the locations for church offices depicted in the series, though Sister Alice’s sermons were filmed elsewhere.
The animating event of “Perry Mason” is the discovery of a dead infant on Angels Flight, the Bunker Hill funicular first opened on Dec. 31, 1901 — and, coincidentally, featured in a 1966 episode of the Raymond Burr original.
Since then, the railway has had a checkered history: After the neighborhood was redeveloped out of existence as part of the city’s Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project, Angels Flight closed in 1969. It reopened in 1996 just south of its initial location, only to be closed for nine years after a fatal accident in 2001; it closed again, this time for four years, after a 2013 derailment that resulted in no injuries.
Though now viewed by many primarily as a tourist attraction, Deverell says it places “Perry Mason” within a history that’s been largely decoupled from modern L.A.
“Railroads are woven deep into L.A.’s velocity of takeoff, and Angels Flight is an eccentric little node of that,” he says. “Pick up most of our freeways and look underneath them and a great many of them are trolley lines.”
It’s a different kind of efficiency that attracted Jones and Fitzgerald: narrative.
“There would be multiple points of view. There would be things to investigate there. There would be a lot of distractions,” Jones says of the decision to make Angels Flight the scene of the crime. “For a set piece that you were trying to do, it gave you a lot of runway to play with.”
“How in the very opening moments can you set time and place as efficiently as possible, and also intrigue?” Fitzgerald says. “Because you’re like, what the hell is this thing? Did that really exist? Angelenos will know what it is, but someone in Philadelphia might have to look it up.”