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Saturday, June 15, 2013


Perhaps the second most familiar Hollywood landmark, the Melrose Ave. gate to Paramount Studios.
Cities sometimes become synonymous with certain of the arts. Venice, where I am today, is a painter's paradise, a mecca for thousands of artists over the centuries whose works survive to give us a colorful, in-depth look at the city's past. Rome is a city of sculpture. Paris boasts its architecture. Vienna is famous for its classical music. In the United States, Nashville, Tennessee, symbolizes country music, while on the "left coast" is another city synonymous with a single art form--Hollywood. In fact, the word has come to represent the entire film making industry. The fact that most films today are not made in Hollywood itself but elsewhere, near and far from it in southern California and around the world, seems to make little difference. Hollywood is a mystique, perhaps as much as it is a community.

Originally intended to be short-lived (18 months), Hollywood's trademark sign has lasted
longer than most of the studios looking up at it's lofty heights.
Like virtually every city on earth, Hollywood's beginnings were humble, though even in its founding bore traces of its make believe future. When we visualize early Hollywood our mental images center upon the famous "Hollywood" sign atop Mt. Lee overlooking the glitz and glamour, yet the sign (originally Hollywoodland) was a relative latecomer (1923). When Cecil B. DeMille, and Oscar Aphel filmed the first Hollywood feature film, Squaw Man, in 1914, using as their studio an old barn, Hollywood was already home to Nestor Studios (below), a film factory founded in 1911, which was then cranking out, one western, one drama, and one Mutt 'n Jeff "one-reeler" per week. And before that, in 1906, the Biograph Company shot A Daring Holdup in Southern California, in the Los Angeles area. None other than the legendary D.W. Griffith, working for Biograph at the time, is said to have shot the first film in Hollywood in 1910 (a 17-minute short titled Old California). Thus when land developers Woodruff and Shoults, came along with iconic blinking sign, Hollywood had long been a growing, bustling, easy money film community/real estate development.

Nestor Studios ca. 1912, the first of the Hollywood "film factories"
Hollywood (the name dates from 1888) became "tinsel town" as the result of two factors. First, it was blessed by some three-hundred days a year of sunny weather (ideal for the "slow" films of the time needing exceptionally bright lighting). Second was the Edison motion picture cartel in the east, busily suing the pants off any film maker who dared not to lease their equipment. In the first decade of the 20th century, California was a long way from Edison's New Jersey home base and considered safe from litigation. Of course the legal hassles were eventually settled during the 1920s, but by that time Hollywood had it's sign, its Paramount, its Warner Brothers, RKO, and Columbia. Palm trees were planted, mansions were built in the Hollywood hills, the town was annexed by Los Angeles (to gain access to public utilities), and Prospect Avenue became Hollywood Boulevard. The city had already become legend.

An old map indicating the original limits of Hollywood, ca. 1920.
I wouldn't be the first person to proclaim that "Hollywood is weird." When the town came into existence in 1903, they banned movie theaters (they had none so it made little difference). The early residence also banned the sale of alcohol (which was quite plentiful, in any case, so that too made little difference). After its annexation to Los Angeles, both restrictions went by the wayside. In the early days, "getting to Hollywood" meant a two-hour streetcar ride up Hollywood Boulevard from Los Angeles, and before the so-called "star system," actors and actresses seldom had their names on the screen, performing anonymously for as little as ten dollars a day. Though usually associated with movie stars, most today live elsewhere, having headed for the hills nearby. In fact, several of the major studios have done the same. Only Paramount, Universal, MGM, and a few others have not taken up residence in nearby areas such as Century City, Culver City and Burbank. Hollywood isn't what it used to be, but then, it's barely a hundred years old, as compared to Venice, which is well over a thousand.
This Hollywood map from the 1950s, while somewhat whimsical,
gives a good feel for "what's where."

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