23 August 2019

The Heart of Hollywood is in....Pasadena?

Pasadena Playhouse alumnus Charles Bronson
I've always felt that the stars on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame are the biggest sightseer scam ever. I see the tourists get excited about finding their favorite celebrity's name on the sidewalk and all I can think is: rubes. Perhaps the best thing about the Walk of Fame is the Kinks' song Celluloid Heroes. It's a little maudlin, but Ray Davies gets to the hollowed-out heart of stardom in his infectious way.

The foot and handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater, located near Hollywood and La Brea, make more sense as a tourist draw. They're an actual artifact of the glory days of Hollywood, like those cigarette lighter ports in cars (now used as power sockets) are remnants of the glory days of smoking.   You place your hand in the cement print of Humphrey Bogart or Judy Garland, and with enough imagination and movie magic, you're shaking hands with yesterday.  It's kind of neat, but it's a half hour diversion, tops. A bigger diversion are the "actors" dressed up as action heroes or old time movie stars that hang around the Chinese, offering to pose for photos. If you snap a selfie with one in the vicinity, they will hunt you down until you fork over some cash.

Besides Grauman's, what else does Hollywood have to offer? Paramount is on Melrose, southeast of of Grauman's. If you're a tourist hoping to hang out on a movie set, good luck getting past the gate. Disney, Universal and Warners are all out in the San Fernando Valley, north of Hollywood. Fox and Sony (formerly MGM) are a traffic-jammed trip to the westside. Besides the Universal Tour, the studios are busy places of hustling crews working long hours. Editors are locked in their windowless rooms pouring over hours of dailies. Gawking tourists looking for selfies aren't welcome.

The original Brown Derby ca 1968. RIP. 
The powers that run Hollywood-land  have gleefully torn down its past in favor of strip malls and parking lots. The Hollywood Hotel, built in 1902, stood at Hollywood and Highland. It was demolished fifty years later. It's said the stars on its ballroom ceiling were the inspiration for the Walk of Fame. The Garden of Allah Hotel, party central for writers like Fitzgerald & Hemingway, and actors like Bogart & Bacall, was torn down in '59.  The iconic Brown Derby, south of Hollywood on Wilshire, was a world-famous tinsel town symbol. Lucy met William Holden there in an I Love Lucy episode. It bit the dust in 1980. Schwab's Drugstore, where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered, was leveled in the late '80s. The Cinerama Dome and the Hollywood sign have been on the chopping block, but both we're saved by massive public campaigns.

An original postcard from The Formosa Cafe.
The Maddox Archives.
Greed wins out over history in Hollywood, and it burns those of us who grew up loving not only the movies, but also the historical hang-outs that catered to show biz. I used to frequent  the Formosa Cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard in the '90s. The Formosa was a cozy asian-themed bar that officially dates back to 1939, but the owner claimed pre-dated prohibition. A bartender named Lindy Brewerton had worked there since the 1950s, and he regaled patrons with tales of the drinking habits of movie stars. He told us of John Wayne's whiskey binges, and how Dean Martin would deliver his alimony checks there. Elvis tipped a Formosa waitress with a Cadillac.  When the original owner died, the place was gutted. A tacky second story was added, along with a techno vibe.  It was a typically short-sighted Hollywood move that failed. After that it pained me just to drive by the place.

Twelve miles east of the hype is Pasadena. When Hollywood Boulevard was a dirt street and America's only movie studio was in New Jersey,  Pasadena was a vacation spot for wealthy east-coasters who wanted to soak up some rays during the winter. With them came vast vainglorious mansions and a deep turn-of-the-century thirst for culture.

The Pasadena Playhouse was built in 1925, two years before the Chinese Theater. It was such a big hit that Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw called the Playhouse the "Athens of the West."  Authors such as Eugene O'Neil and Tennessee Williams had world premieres there. When talkies became the rage in the 1920s, Hollywood needed a place where actors could learn to "speak." Twenty-four students enrolled in the first class in 1928.

The Pasadena Playhouse awaits.
The Pasadena Playhouse really hit its stride when it became a college of theatre arts. Tyrone Power took classes there in 1932.  TV Superman George Reeves was a local kid who interned at the Playhouse before his supporting role on Gone With the Wind.  Dana Andrews hitchhiked from Texas to California to become a star. He was a Playhouse darling before hitting it big in films like Laura. Carolyn Jones, another Texan, dreamed of joining the Playhouse when in high school. She made it in 1947, and went on to become a unique screen presence in films such as The Big Heat and Career. Most remember her as Morticia Addams in TV's The Addams Family.

Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman became fast friends while studying at the Playhouse in 1957. Hackman was voted least likely to succeed, and he moved to New York to prove the Playhouse wrong. Hoffman soon followed, as did Robert Duvall, who moved to New York to study with Randall Meisner after serving in the Army. The trio became the epicenter of a group of actors who were just a few years away from taking Hollywood by storm.

The Mechanic-Bronson at his detached best.
Perhaps my favorite Playhouse alum is Charles Bronson. After serving in the Air Force during World War Two (he earned a Purple Heart), Bronson moved to upstate New York. He picked onions, studied art, and even joined the local bakers union. Nothing seemed to fit, so he moved to NYC to study acting. When Roger Ebert asked Bronson why he chose acting, he said, "It seemed like an easy way to make money...I had nothing to lose."

Bronson left New York for the Pasadena Playhouse, where he took classes and acted in several plays. Steady work soon followed. In 1951 he landed a role in the Gary Cooper film You're in the Navy Now.  Two years later he joined fellow Playhouse alum Carolyn Jones in the Vincent Price horror-hit  House of Wax. Bronson starred in a slew of classic movies, including The Dirty DozenOnce Upon a Time in the West, and Hard Times. My favorite Bronson film might be The Mechanic, where he plays an expert hit man who takes on an apprentice.

Inside the Pasadena Playhouse.
If I mentioned that Eve Arden, Leonard Nimoy and Nick Nolte were also Playhouse players, I'd still be scratching the surface. Okay, William Holden was one too. Still surface scratching. The Pasadena Playhouse went bankrupt in 1975 and was shuttered. You're probably thinking, "What a bummer. I bet they tore it down to build a plush new parking lot." Dig this. The city of Pasadena bought the building and held onto it for seventeen years until in reopened in 1986. Unlike Hollywood, Pasadena takes pains to protect its history. It's not perfect, but it tries. Pasadena is a mecca for lovers of old-time LA, Greene and Greene architecture, and craftsman bungalows. The Pasadena Playhouse is a thriving part of Pasadena today.

If you find yourself standing over John Tesh's star on Hollywood Boulevard and you have that cold clammy feeling that you've been scammed, jump on the 134 East towards Pasadena and its famous Playhouse. There's plenty of street parking. Across the street from the Playhouse is Vroman's Bookstore, where I've had the good fortune to attend readings held by literary heavyweights like Frank McCourt and James Ellroy.  On the way to Pasadena is Eagle Rock, where Dragnet's Frank Gannon fictionally lived, and where some of the action of Fast Bang Booze goes down. Stop at the family-owned Casa Bianca for pizza. Steve McQueen ate there.

My latest novel is Fast Bang Booze, from Down & Out Books. The sequel is coming soon.


  1. Larry, so much to talk about in your piece today. The first thing that strikes me is where you talk about the Hollywood-land powers that be having “gleefully torn down its past in favor of strip malls and parking lots.” There’s so much of L.A. that I remember as a kid or young adult that just isn’t there anymore and we’re losing more and more of it every day. This city used to be dotted with movie studios and backlots. You’d drive down Santa Monica Boulevard and see the backlot sets of 20th Century-Fox sticking up over the fence in what’s now Century City. And all the MGM backlots in Culver City that are now condos. Even down at PCH and Sunset was the Ince Studio, though that one I don’t remember personally. And what is it today, a gas station and market or something like that. I guess nothing stays the same, but some things I wish wouldn’t change.

    One of my favorite places is/was Corrignaville movie ranch, which pretty much all burned to the ground and became a park. But back in the day, of course, it was where the John Ford Fort Apache Fort was and tons of westerns and other movies were filmed there. And I remember going there as a kid and really having fun. But what’s really cool is at least momentarily it became a movie set again recently when Tarantino built the Spahn Ranch set for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood there.

    And then, of course, all the ranches that are gone, like the Fox Ranch in Malibu, Iverson. At least Fox is a park, but much of Iverson has been developed. So much is gone.

    As for tourists coming, I think we get jaded. But to someone coming from out of town it might be a big thrill to see So and So’s star on Hollywood Boulevard. But if they ever really did get on a real set they’d probably be bored out of their minds. There might be a little excitement initially and at seeing a star, if there was a star in the shot, but the waiting around would make them realize it’s just not as glam as it seems.

    So much more to say, but I'll just end with this:

    And, I have to mention the Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes, one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. I think Ray Davies captures the zeitgeist pretty well:

    “Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star,
    And everybody's in show biz, it doesn't matter who you are,
    And those who are successful,
    Be always on your guard,
    Success walks hand in hand with failure,
    Along Hollywood Boulevard.”

  2. Interesting piece. Thanks for sharing the information.

  3. Paul, your response really struck a chord. We’re both LA natives, and we’ve scene the LA of our memories torn down. One place I miss is the Highland Movie Theatre, which stood on an arm of route 66. It was a grand ornate movie palace that my parents used to take me to as a kid. It still stands, but it was gutted and turned into a multiplex. I hear Taix, and old Hollywood restaurant built in the whimsical Tam O’Shanter style has an appointment w/ a wrecking ball. These are special places that should be historical landmarks.I feel your pain, Paul!

  4. Thanks O’Neil! If you make it out to Pasadena, look me up!

  5. I wonder if the house that we all called "The Castle" is still there back up in the lower hills of Hollywood? Looked like a small castle, but in the late 60s early 70s had become a drug haunt.
    And the Blackburn Hotel, two blocks back of Hollywood Boulevard, where all the freaks and trannies and hippies lived dirt cheap in the same period.
    And the Free Church. And...
    Probably all gone now. Thanks for the blog. Good to know that Pasadena's held on to the old places.

  6. Thanks Eve! I’m not sure about The Castle or The Free Church. I believe The Blackburn is gone. I’d be really interested in hearing your opinion of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (I loved it). Have you ever written about your memories of Hollywood?

  7. I've written a semi-novella, called "The Blackburn Chronicles", names changed to protect the guilty, etc. Some day I should look for a market for it.

  8. Great piece, Lawrence, and congratulations on your new novel! Where would you place Musso & Frank's in the Hollywood pantheon of historical landmarks? Does it measure up with the likes of Schwab's and the Brown Derby? Not talking about its prominent role in several Michael Connelly novels, or how they've featured it in the not-to-be-missed Kaminsky Method (But Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, am I right?).

    Lastly, have you seen Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD yet? Talk about a love letter to a bygone era in a mostly vanished Los Angeles! My wife and I are planning to see it AGAIN before it leaves the theatres...

    Thanks again for the notalgia tour. And when will YOU be doing an event at Vroman's?


  9. Thank you Brian! You are right about Musso’s. I place it at the top, Destination One, of the Hollywood history treasure hunt. The patina of Hollywood’s glory days is all over that place. I feel Once Upon a Time is worthy of it. I highly recommend Once Upon a Time, esp to those who love Tinsel Town lore. The best piece Ive read about it is The Illustrated Manson by Ethan Warren. Fast Bang Booze actually came out last year but I don’t want it to slip from away before the sequel hits!

  10. Interesting article, interesting responses. I had to turn to Paul's comment immediately to get his take.

    Before your article, I merely thought of Pasadena as just another city. Now I'm finding I like the town a whole lot more. Good job, Larry.

  11. Thanks Leigh! Like I said to O’Neil, look me up next time you’re down this way. We can meet Paul at El Coyote.

  12. Any time at El Coyote, Larry, Leigh, O'Neil :-) .

  13. What about the “Little Old Lady” from Jan and Dean hit. Where’d she drive around?

  14. Go Granny, Go Granny, Go Granny, go!

    Damn good answer!

  15. I just saw the teaser for Motherless Brooklyn (one of my favorite books) and immediately thought of Frank in Fast Bang Booze (also a great read). Funny I didn't think of it when I read FBB last year.

  16. Thanks Earl! You DID think of it last year, and you kindly mentioned it somewhere. Like many, I'm waiting for the next Charlie Miner.


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