Showing posts with label Hollywood. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hollywood. Show all posts

12 May 2020

Location Location Location – In “The Blues Don’t Care”


by Paul D. Marks

In front of Club Alabam
Every time I have a novel come out I do a post about some of the locations in it. I try to set most scenes in the real world and give that world a sense of verisimilitude (remember, don’t use a small word when you can use a six syllable one). Much, though not all, of what I write is set in Los Angeles. As is The Blues Don’t Care (dropping on 6/1/20, and available now for pre-order)…but with a twist this time. Instead of being set in the modern L.A. of White Heat, Broken Windows and Vortex this one is set in 1940s L.A., with World War II raging in the background.

Bobby Saxon is a young white piano player whose ambition is to get a spot with the all-black Booker ‘Boom Boom’ Taylor Orchestra (big band) at L.A.’s famous Club Alabam. He gets his wish but at the price of having to help investigate a murder that one of the band members is accused of.

Like Randy Newman said, I love L.A. (well, more like love-hate, but overall love) and I really loved researching the locations and history of 1940s L.A. Bobby’s adventures take him on a wild ride through mid-century Los Angeles, from the swanky Sunset Tower apartments in West Hollywood to seedy pool rooms near downtown and the vibrant jazz scene of Central Avenue.

So here are some of the stops on Bobby’s journey:

The Club Alabam and The Dunbar Hotel: In the days when African-Americans couldn’t stay at most hotels and couldn’t go to just any “white” nightclubs—or other establishments—they formed their own businesses. In L.A. the heart of the black community during the mid-twentieth century was Central Avenue. Clothing stores, barbershops, restaurants, doctors, dentists and pretty much anything one could want could be found there. And the heart of Central was the Dunbar Hotel (formerly Hotel Sumerville), which featured an elegant lobby with arched windows and entry ways and Art Deco chandeliers. The Dunbar was where the cream of black society, entertainers, politicians, et al., stayed when they were in town. Duke Ellington kept a suite there. Right next door to the Dunbar was the most famous of the nightclubs (of which there were many) on Central, the Club Alabam. Bobby spends a lot of time at both the Alabam and the Dunbar. And it’s said that one night when W.C. Fields got drunk at the Alabam he stayed overnight at the Dunbar, accidentally integrating it.

Two shots of the Dunbar Hotel, interior & exterior.
It was formerly the Hotel Somerville.

Famous couple at Musso & Frank.

Musso & Frank: Has been a Hollywood watering hole for decades, since the 1920s. There was a back room bar where famous writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Fante, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner hung out. Movies stars like Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Betty Davis, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo and Edward G. Robinson all dined there. It’s known for its red-coated waiters, many of whom have worked there for decades, probably since the time of the story (maybe?). In Blues, Bobby plays piano in exchange for a free meal, but pays dearly for that meal when he’s ambushed outside of the restaurant. Here’s a recent pic of Amy and me there. We didn’t get ambushed that night, but anything’s possible on Hollywood Boulevard.

Another famous couple at Musso & Frank ;-)

The La Brea Tar Pits: Located on Rancho La Brea lands, the tar pits were a major excavation site in the 1910s for paleontologists from all over the world. In the 1920s ranch owner, Hancock, donated the land to Los Angeles County with the stipulation that the tar pits be designated as a protected park and that the fossils found there be retained and exhibited. When I was a kid we’d go on picnics at the park surrounding the tar pits and I have fond memories of them, including the acrid smell of the tar. Since those days the George C. Page Museum was built and fossil excavation continues to this day. Bobby visits the tar pits in a scene in the book, and let’s just say not all the bones in the tar pits are that old….but you’ll have to read the book to find out what really happens there.

La Brea Tar Pits (photo by Kimon Berlin)

The Long Beach Pike: In the novel, Bobby and his “partner” Sam Wilde head down to the Pike in Long Beach, while looking for clues. For decades the Pike was an amusement park by the sea. It featured a wooden roller coast, The Cyclone, with two tracks so cars could “race” each other. Bobby and Sam ride the coaster in one of the scenes at the Pike.

Long Beach Pike

There was also a midway with arcade games, shooting galleries, fortune tellers and assorted shops. And because it was situated near Naval shipyards, it earned a reputation for being a hangout for rowdy sailors looking for girls. That’s the atmosphere that appealed to me as a setting for some of the scenes in Blues.

In the 1970s it fell on hard times, got seedy and eventually closed.

One of the challenges writing Blues was figuring out how Bobby and Sam got down to Long Beach in the 1940s, before freeways. I turned to the usual sources for help, the internet, books, etc. But the best source was buying old Los Angeles area street maps from eBay. They really helped in this regard and were just plain fascinating in general. My mom also helped with her memories of how to get from “here” to “there.”

Here’s a short excerpt of Bobby and Sam heading to the Pike. When Bobby first meets Sam it’s not exactly under pleasant circumstances and Bobby isn’t sure if Sam is on his side or not, so the long ride to Long Beach is a little tense to say the least:

Long Beach was a navy town south of Los Angeles, the Pike its oceanside amusement quarter. Bobby knew there’d be lots of sailors around, if they ever actually made it to the Pike. They’d have to pass through the Wilmington oil fields on the way and that was as good a place as any to dispose of a body. The oil fields were a well-known dumping ground. Bodies were always bobbing up through the greasy black muck that leached to the surface.

Bobby white-knuckled the steering wheel, gripping as hard as he could, mostly so Wilde wouldn’t notice his shaking hands. They passed through the oil field, with its forests of towering derricks—supplicants reaching for the sky. Safely past the dumping grounds, he loosened his grip on the wheel.



Pickwick Books (in case the sign didn't give it away :-) )
Pickwick Bookshop: I loved this place, which is, unfortunately, gone now. It was an institution on Hollywood Boulevard for decades. Three stories of books, books and more books. There was a time when there were a ton of bookstores on Hollywood Boulevard, most of them used or antiquarian. I think most are gone today, replaced by electronic stores and gimcrack souvenir shops in large part. And people running around dressed up like super heroes who, if you take their picture without paying some ridiculous fee will chase you down and… Bobby has occasion to go there in the story, but my favorite part of the scene there was cut. Supposedly this is a true story that actually happened there, but fictionalized to include Bobby. So here it is:

Bobby looked away.
“There are no second acts in American life,” the salesman said, as Bobby handed him a five dollar bill.
“No, I guess not.”
“Know who said that?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“F. Scott Fitzgerald, the famous writer.”
“I like his books,” Bobby said. “But I don’t know the quote.”
“A man came in here one day looking for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You know our store here’s on three floors, the first is current titles, the second level is for rare and unusual books. The third floor is for used books, bargains and the like.”
Why was the salesman telling him all this?
“So anyway, this man comes in and asks for Gatsby. The salesman tells him, ‘We don’t stock the work of dead authors on this floor. You’ll have to try upstairs.’”
“So did he find the book upstairs?”
“He did. And do you know what his name was?”
“No.”
Pickwick Books (interior)
“F. Scott Fitzgerald. I didn’t even recognize him and it’s been making me sick ever since. Especially since he died shortly after that. Another customer who knew him told me my not recognizing him and thinking he was dead had a catastrophic effect on him.” The clerk looked at the book Bobby had set on the counter. “Thomas Wolfe. No, you certainly can’t go home again.”
“Neither you nor me.”

The clerk finished wrapping Bobby’s book in brown paper, tied it with string. He handed it to Bobby with a wink. “Here’s your change.”

Max Factor Building: Bobby has occasion to go to the Max Factor building in Hollywood on Highland near Hollywood Boulevard. Max Factor is the famous Hollywood makeup artist, who branched out into a line of cosmetics that I think you can still buy today. He also had a salon where anyone could make an appointment and you might run into someone rich or famous while there. Bobby goes there on business, but feels a little funny, and maybe not for the obvious reasons. Today it’s the Hollywood Museum, so luckily here’s one building the Powers That Be didn’t tear down as happens so often in the City of Angels.
Max Factor building (the pic doesn't do it justice)

Cocoanut Grove: The Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire was one of the premier, if not the premier nightclub in L.A. for ages. On a darker note, the Ambassador is also where RFK was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968. Bobby takes Margaret, a woman he’s interested in and someone who might know more than she’s saying about the murder, on a date there. It might not have worked out so well for him…

Cocoanut Grove

Clover Field (A.K.A. The Santa Monica Airport): Douglas Aircraft worked out of Clover Field in the heart of Santa Monica. As such, during the war Warner Brothers technicians and artists came out from Burbank to camouflage the airfield so it couldn’t be seen from the air. Movie magic applied to real life. Bobby, his pal Sam Wilde, and Margaret wind up there when they’re chased by a mysterious car and end up almost breaching the base’s security, not something that is taken lightly by the MPs on duty. But what happens after that makes Bobby wish they’d been arrested by the MPs.


Clover Field: the center/bottom half of the pic is the concealed Douglas Aircraft
Cars parked under the camouflage tarp

Bradbury Building (photo by Jay Walsh)
The Bradbury Building: With its atrium, caged wrought iron elevator and marble and brick is one of my favorite places in Los Angeles. I’m sure you’ve seen it ’cause it’s been in many movies, especially the interior. Generally, one can’t go above the mezzanine as it’s still a functioning office building. I had a meeting there one time and felt special to be able to go up the elevator and walk the upper hall. Someone Bobby has an interest in has an office here, too. I don’t think his visit was as pleasant as mine… I did a whole SleuthSayers post on it some time back so if you want to check that out: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2016/05/the-bradbury-building-screen-star.html .

These are a few of the places Bobby visits. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of 1940s Los Angeles. Stay tuned for more when the book comes out on June 1st. It’s available for pre-order now at Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com and iTunes.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My short story "Fade-Out On Bunker Hill" came in 2nd place in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Poll. In lieu of the pre-Edgars cocktail party, we had a virtual awards ceremony. You can see the whole thing (including my bookshelves) on YouTube. I want to thank Janet Hutchings and Jackie Sherbow of Ellery Queen and, of course, everyone who voted for it!



Coming June 1st from Down & Out Books – The Blues Don't Care:

 “Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40s’ L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. He is one helluva writer.”
                                                               —Michael Sears, author of the Jason Stafford series



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

03 April 2020

Character bios


It's hard to write a column when you see this headline online from the New York Times: 13 Deaths in a Day: An 'Abocalyptic' Coronavirus Surge at NYC Hospital.

But I'll give the column a shot –

A nice reader emailed me recently asking if I compiled a bio of the main characters in my series books. I replied, "Yes." The nice reader asked me to send examples. I replied, "No. That information is classified." I explained what I want readers to know about my characters is in my published fiction. The reader persisted, so I sent the following bio of a non-series character, information recently declassified by the CIA, FBI, NSA, FOP, SPCA, BMW, AARP, FDFUU, and Mensa.

Bio of character Christopher Fry from fiction written by O'Neil De Noux

Christopher Fry (white male, born 1910 in Spitzhavelziess, Germany, 5'8" tall, 150 pounds, blue eyes, sandy hair).

French fries

Christopher Fry's real name was Cristoph French Fry. He changed it when he left Europe in 1937, after the Popsicle Affair (still classified) in Bavaria. He came to America to fulfill his dream of meeting Rita Cansino after seeing Rita play an Egyptian girl in Charlie Chan in Egypt (20th Century Fox, 1935). He spent a year knocking around San Francisco until someone told him Hollywood was in Los Angeles. He spent another year in a futile search for Rita Cansino until he spotted her in another movie, Only Angels Have Wings (Columbia Pictures, 1939) and realized she had changed her name to Rita Hayworth.

Rita Cansino
Rita Hayworth as Gilda

Christoph managed to run into Rita at the swank Hollywood nightclub The Lion's Roar (which burned down in 1944 during the Great Coloring Book Scare). Rita did not call the police on the adoring fan but told Fry if he really wanted to be someone she admired, he should paint ducks. Lots of ducks. Just ducks.

"Do you mean I should catch ducks and paint them?"
"No. I mean duck paintings. Painting images of ducks on canvas."

a duck

Unfortunately, Rita soon married another and a crestfallen Fry moved to Algeria to begin a fifty-year sojourn into art and painted some of the most expressive ducks ever painted. Critics hailed the expressions he was able to portray in duck eyes. In Algeria, he met his wife Azocolzzzlollah, a former nun who made chocolate giraffes in the Algiers Kasbah (Casbah). When the bottom fell out of the chocolate giraffe market, the couple migrated to Saskatchewan where Fry became the most celebrated duck artist in the province. Fry returned to the US, settling briefly in New Orleans in 1965, where he nearly drowned in Hurricane Betsy. He vowed to never return to the US, leaving several paintings with local art dealers, paintings now hanging the New Orleans Museum of Art between the Gaugin section and E.J. Bellocq's lurid nudes of Storyville prostitutes.

Storyville photo by E.J. Bellocq

Fry returned to Canada.

In 1997, Fry and Azocolzzzlollah were canoeing on Reindeer Lake in Saskatchewan during moose mating season. They were last seen frantically paddling away from a large moose.

a large moose

END of Fry bio

My reader thanked me but had one question. Was Fry's sandy hair the color of Sahara Desert sand or Gobi Desert sand or Death Valley Desert sand. I informed the read the color was more like the sand of the Kalahari Desert. The reader thanked me.

Thats all for now –
http://www.oneildenoux.com

28 January 2020

MGM: More Stars Than There Are in Heaven – Part II


by Paul D. Marks

We're back for Part II of my interview with Steven Bingen, co-author with Stephen Sylvester and Michael Troyan of MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT.  If you missed Part I you can find it here: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2020/01/mgm-more-stars-than-there-are-in-heaven.html .

Enjoy:


Paul: Welcome back, Steve. What are your and your co-authors backgrounds?  Tell us a little about your personal as well as Hollywood backgrounds.

Steve: There are 3 credited author's on this book, "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot."

Years ago our agent was told by a publisher that there could never be a "unified vision" on a book with 3 perspectives.  That publisher didn't understand that we all felt exactly the same way about Hollywood's backlots and shared exactly the same odd obsessions.  Whatever the book's virtues and flaws, I defy anyone to figure out where one of our voices stops and another's starts.  Our collaborating was just like the production of most Hollywood movies.  The book's very existence is a sort of 2-Dimensional denial of the auteur theory.   Creativity by committee, if you will.

Mike (Troyan) and I both came out of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive – although his background is more academic than mine.  I have a background rooted in film production while his is more literary.  Mike is the author of "A Rose for Mrs. Miniver," about MGM star Greer Garson – which I can't recommend highly enough, by the way.

Steve (Sylvester), my other partner is in possession of vast amount knowledge and a vast collection of materials relating to MGM as a physical place.  He's the only one of us who was actually able to boast of visiting the MGM backlot before it was all destroyed.  In some ways, in visiting the studio he was able to do what I've aspired to do for my whole life. Because I was too late to see the place, the studio always seemed almost mythical, like Shangri-La or Camelot to me.  But it was real and Steve was there.  I wanted that perspective in the book.  It just seemed like a good fit for the three of us to coauthor – and it was.

Who have you contacted (MGM old-timers, etc.) and have they been willing to help?

I don't know if it was a conscious decision, but we tended to avoid talking to movie stars because their stories have been told so often, and because their worlds at the studio were so insulated.  Elizabeth Taylor was at MGM for decades, but her experience on the backlot would have consisted of being driven through the sets in a limo to her particular location.  I doubt if she would have had much opportunity or interest in exploring a place which wouldn't have seemed at all unusual to her because of the odd circumstances of her life.  It would be like asking a coal miner what was extraordinary about a mine shaft!

On the other hand we spoke to a lot of "regular people," some of whom worked on the lot for their entire careers who had amazing stories to tell, and who realized, even at the time what a bizarre and wonderful place MGM really was.  Some of our best stories were from people who grew up near the studio who used to climb the fences and explore inside as children.  I really do envy those people.

How many backlots were there?  Where?  What did they have on them?

MGM wasn't a single lot. Lot One contained the soundstages, corporate offices and post production facilities.  The backlot was literally at the rear, or back, of the plant.  As the studio grew it expanded across the street onto a property known as Lot Two.  Lot Two contained a small-town street, residential districts, railroad stations (with working trains) – the largest of which replicated New York's Grand Central Station.  It also had European and Asian villages, a jungle with a bridge, man-made lake, gardens, pools, castles, Southern and English estates, and a half dozen blocks, built full scale, replicating New York City and all its Burroughs – right down to the last street sign, man-hole cover, and fire escape.


Up the road a few blocks was Lot Three, which was even larger and contained three distinct old western settings, two more waterfront districts, a tropical rainforest, rock formations, winding roads, a Mississippi steamboat, a circus set, military bases, a POW camp, a vintage era New York Street, farms, ranches, an Arabian Knight districts and the world's largest process tank for shooting miniatures.

Lot Three was itself surrounded by the satellite lots; Four, Five, Six and Seven – which collectively housed zoos and stables, more sets, storage sheds, partial fleets of aircraft and locomotives, a peat farm….   whatever there wasn't  room for anywhere else.  When L. B. Mayer, the boss, took an interest in horse racing in the 40's, people used to suggest that the Santa Anita racetrack should perhaps be rechristened  Lot Eight!


What are your philosophical thoughts about the loss of the backlots?

I've always been haunted by and interested in Hollywood's backlots in general.  The idea that there exists places in the world where there are entire phantom towns constructed to mimic the real world – and yet where no one has ever lived, could ever live, is fascinating and mysterious and a little creepy.  Backlots are supposed to duplicate our lives, our homes, and the city streets we move thorough every day, and yet although they can be as familiar to us as places we've lived in our actual lives, they remain unknowable, untouchable, just out of normalcy and of recognition.

Backlots are like the purest form of architecture.  They really are designed just for aesthetic reasons.  The backlot architect doesn't have to worry about service elevators or building codes or faulty wiring.  A backlot just has to look good and to set a mood in order to do its job.  There are no real world considerations involved. Find an architect and ask him where else in the world that happens?

During the writing of this book it occurred to me that Hollywood's backlots are responsible for an awful lot of the defining non-movie architecture of the last century as well.  Think about it.  If Hollywood hadn't started designing sets to suggest moods or foreign settings would we really have shopping malls, or theme parks, or places like Las Vegas today?  All of these places, for good or bad, came out of backlots and the people who designed them.

I used to give tours of Warner Bros. Studio in my capacity as historian for the company.  Once I was showing the family of some executives an artificial lake out on the backlot and describing how that lake had been dressed as India for a film which I'd seen shot there.  I was going on about how the set had looked exactly like the real India when all of a sudden it occurred to me, and I told my bemused guests this, that I'd never personally been to India at all.  That my entire idea of what India is, in fact came not from the real thing, not from India at all, but rather from movies, some of which had undoubtedly been made right where we were standing right at that moment!

You should talk to my wife, she grew up in India for a time – but yes, she does have an American birth certificate....  But changing elephants in midstream now, What is your next project?

I can't speak for my partners…but…I will.  Honestly, I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to shake off the current project!  After all, I'm doomed to see the MGM backlot every time I sit back to relax and turn on the TV!

We'd love to make this book the first volume in a series about all 7 of Hollywood's major studio lots – the Seven Sisters.  I'm just not sure if logistically, and legally it's going to be possible to do so.  To look at it from the viewpoint of the other studios I can't really blame them for not wanting someone from the outside to come around and start rooting around in their past.  We were able to "do" MGM because so many different hands have been running the company and the people who owned the copyright on the materials we needed weren't the original owners. But I don't know if that set of circumstances could come up again in regards to another studio.  We'll see…

Thank you, Steve, for joining me here at SleuthSayers.  And good luck with the book. "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot" is available in bookstores and at Amazon.  Click here:



~.~.~

And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.


***

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com



22 January 2020

Once Upon a Time


This is a quixotic sorta thing, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood got me thinking about Who It Might Really Be. Granted, it's a counter-factual narrative, and part of its weirdness is how and where the real world overlaps the fantasy. Sharon going into the matinee and watching herself in The Wrecking Crew is an enormously charming conceit. Her murderers going to the wrong house and finding Brad Pitt stoned out of his mind is a lot more disturbing, because in real life the Manson crew did actually go to the wrong house, and Terry Melcher wasn't home.

Anyway, some of you might have noticed that Edd Byrnes died last week. He was obviously most famous for 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie. He was also from a generation of actors who caught the last gasp of the studio system. He was under contract to Warners, along with Ty Hardin, and Peter Brown, and Troy Donahue. Doug McClure signed with Universal, as did James Farentino and Guy Stockwell. They did a lot of series TV with their respective stablemates, for their specific studios, and they got feature work, but again, they were locked into longtime studio commitments.



The part that Leo gets in the pilot for Lancer was in fact played by Joe Don Baker, who was in his mid-thirties at the time. Jim Stacy and Wayne Maunder, series regulars, were in that same age band. It's one of those simply odd things, that one of these guys breaks out. Steve McQueen, for instance, after Wanted: Dead or Alive, the model for Rick Dalton's show. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood came out of the same Petri dish, but bear in mind that for every one of them there was a Vince Edwards or a George Maharis.




Of this group of actors, what you might call male ingenues - like Robert Wagner or Jeffrey Hunter a couple of years earlier - I've always thought Guy Stockwell was the most poignant. He got some really good breaks. So did Doug McClure, for that matter, but Guy was an actor with more range. (They worked together twice, in Beau Geste and The King's Pirate, both of them dogs.) Brad Pitt has himself remarked that there are a lot of pretty boys out there, and a lot of pretty boys who can act, but it's still purely a crap shoot. Guy did a bunch of guest shots, and then he was signed for Adventures in Paradise. A year after that, he joined Richard Boone's repertory company for Boone's anthology show, which unhappily only ran one season. Then we get The War Lord, with Boone and Chuck Heston (and James Farentino), Blindfold and Tobruk,  with Rock Hudson, and Banning, with Wagner, and Farentino again, and Gene Hackman - right before Buck Barrow. Not too shabby a playlist.




He doesn't catch fire. It doesn't help that he gets cast in some real stinkers, but he goes back to guest work in television, much like Rick Dalton. Lancer (you guessed it), Bonanza, The VirginianThe F.B.I. (more cross-collateral with Once Upon a Time), and like as not, playing a charming psychopath. As he gets older, character parts.



It isn't that his career went in the tubes. That's not what happened. It's that he couldn't or didn't leverage his early advantage. Maybe he was disappointed in the parts he was offered. Maybe he didn't have enough animal magnetism. He reinvested himself in theater, and was a highly-praised acting teacher. It's not like he lost his chops. It's one of those unfathomables. He should of been a contender, along the lines of Bob Culp or Brian Keith.



All the same, he's got a legacy, whether or not he's the real-life model for Rick Dalton or not. That's just a conceit on my part. Every time I watch The War Lord, I think, Jeez, this guy is good. And this is a picture, basically, where everybody overacts. On the other hand, it seems so physically authentic. The bare stone tower, the winding stairs. When do any of these people bathe? you can only wonder to yourself.

So there it is. My little paean to Guy Stockwell, probably over-thinking on my part, conjured up by Tarentino.

07 January 2020

MGM: More Stars Than There Are in Heaven


On New Year’s Turner Classic Movies ran all the That’s Entertainment movies. Amy and I caught a few minutes of them. The host appearances were largely filmed on the MGM backlot, or what was left of it at the time. And that got me thinking about some of my own experiences there and an interview I did with Steve Bingen, one of the authors of the highly acclaimed book: MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot. The interview is from a while back but hopefully still of interest. This is part one of two.

Only one studio in the golden days of Hollywood could claim as its motto "more stars than there are in heaven" and actually mean it: MGM – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Not only did MGM have more stars than in heaven it also had more backlots—the place where dreams were made.  In Culver City, CA, besides the main studio lot, were eight backlots, depending on how one counts them.  I have the distinction of being one of the last people to have shot a film on MGM Backlot #2, one of the two main backlots, which is an interesting story in itself, but for another time.

Because of that, I was contacted by Steven Bingen, an archivist at Warner Brothers, who, along with Mike Troyan and Steve Sylvester have authored a book called MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT—with a foreword by Debbie Reynolds.

Unfortunately MGM ain't what it used to be and, in fact, the main lot, the only lot left, is now owned by Sony.  All the backlots met with the wrecker's ball and made way for condos or houses.  "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," as Joanie Mitchell once sang.  Luckily the photos, memories and stories of people who remember the backlots have been collected in this book.

What follows is Part I of my interview with Steve Bingen about the book and the backlots.  Please note that the interview was done before the book was finalized and released so that is reflected in the interview's wording.

Paul: Thank you for dropping by, Steve. What gave you the idea for this book—what was your inspiration?

Steve: There have been books written about MGM before, and I recommend them all.  But there was always a major part of the equation, maybe the major part of that equation missing on each and every one of them. All of these books would inevitably contain one aerial shot of the lot—usually the same one—and a single paragraph, maybe, about soundstages and backlots at the studio. And that would be it!

This struck all three of us as mysterious.  It always seemed to us that if you were writing about a place, and MGM was indeed an actual physical place, then why would an author choose to tell us what amounted to virtually nothing about that place?  People always describe Hollywood's studios as "dream factories." Well that phrase isn't bad for what it is, and anyone who was there will tell you that life in those dream factories was if anything, even more interesting than the product the factory was producing.  Yet no one had ever talked about that factory.  Ever.

What we wanted to do with our book was to zoom in on that single aerial photo in everyone else's book, to climb the fences of one of those dream factories and look around a bit.

More stars than there are in heaven.

Tell us about the book and what makes it unique.

Let me just say that the book is formatted as a "virtual tour" of MGM Studios.  The text mostly consists of a walk around the lot, circa 1960, with every major set and department described and illustrated.  We've included hundreds of unseen photos of the place as well, many of which were saved from catacombs and basements and archives which no living person has accessed in decades.  I'm not sure about the "not living" people.

MGM Backlot #2

What did you learn about MGM and/or the various backlots that was new or really interesting?

I thought it was fascinating and haunting how many famous movies and television shows shot on that lot for which no one ever suspected that what they were watching was a backlot at all.  Even if audiences were watching a set they had already seen in hundreds, thousands of other films, people seemed to accept that a curved European street was Paris one week and Transylvania the next just because a visual cue, a street sign or an establishing shot told them it was. Something like a fifth of all the movies made in the United States, historically were made somewhere on the MGM backlot!  Sadly, and decades after the fact, this only proves how successfully these facades were at doing what they were designed to do.

Even today in an era of wide-spread location shooting and so-called digital backlots, Hollywood's few surviving actual backlots manage to succeed in constantly fooling today's "sophisticated" audiences time after time.  I recall watching the Super Bowl on TV recently, and counting at least 4 commercials during the broadcast which replicated real locations using current LA backlot sets which every single person in that game's vast worldwide audience had seen hundreds of times before. I can't help but wonder how many of those people, besides me, have ever suspected that was the case?

What were some of the movies shot on them?

In the book we came up with a list of every major backlot set with the titles of films shot on that set listed underneath.  I'm not sure how much of that list is going to be published, and in what form, but as  it stands now those lists alone, in reduced print, equal over 40 pages of text, and frankly are not even close to being comprehensive!  It amuses me that people write books about, and make pilgrimages to, locations where their favorite scenes from their favorite films were shot.  You know, Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood hills where a single scene in "Rebel Without a Cause" was recorded for example. Well, that location pales in significance to any single inch of any single movie studio—which has probably hosted hundreds, thousands, of films across the decades.  I sometimes drive though those vast anonymous subdivisions which were built where MGM's Lot Two once stood, and I can't help but wonder if the people in those tract homes on that land, know, or care, how historic their property really is. Movie-wise that real estate is more important than any single block of Hollywood Boulevard ever was!

Anyway, I think it's kind of fun to hopscotch through these lists and realize how versatile these sets were, and how much of our shared movie memories were created on them.


How and why did you hook up with me?

Now that's an interesting story.  I don't know if readers of this blog are aware of this but Paul directed one of the last movies ever made on the MGM backlot.  That 40 page chronological list I mentioned of films shot at the studio ends with his name on it.

I didn't know any of this.  I had noticed that there were a few very tantalizing stills floating around on the internet of the studio in its very decrepit very last days.  I couldn't figure out what film these stills were from or what movie was seen in production in them.  I started asking around on the sites where these "holy grail" shots had been posted and that finally led Paul and I to a meeting where he was good enough to loan me some of these same stills and describe the strange production history of his picture.  I'm not going to tell that story here because I can't do so as well as he can, but needless to say it is in my book, and hopefully some of those pictures will appear there as well.  (The photo selection is still being assembled [at the time of the interview]). Let me just say that the history of Paul's movie quite a tale.  Ask him to tell it to you…

MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT is available in bookstores and at Amazon.  Click here.

In Part II find out about more about MGM. Stay tuned.

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And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


***

I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

24 September 2019

Once Upon a Time In… Corriganville


by Paul D. Marks

Famous Corriganville rock in upper left of picture,
Silvertown Street, Corriganville
One of my favorite places to go as a kid was Corriganville. And knowing that Quentin Tarantino recreated the Spahn Ranch of Manson fame (or infamy) for Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on what’s left of Corriganville brought back lots of memories. So I thought I’d talk a little about it today. (Next time I’ll talk about other locations he used in that flick.)

But Corriganville really does have a special place in my heart. It was a movie ranch out Simi Valley way, north of Los Angeles. Tons of B westerns and other movies were filmed there and at the nearby Iverson Ranch (more on that in another piece, too). But on the weekends it was opened up as an amusement park of sorts, sort of a pre-Universal Studios Tour studio tour—or movie ranch tour. My grandparents took me there several times and in those days it was quite an excursion to get out there, if not quite a covered wagon journey over Donner Pass. And the reason it’s special to me is that it’s the only place my grandparents took me that no one else ever took me. So that gives it a special significance.

Quentin Tarantino's Spahn Ranch set at Corriganville - photo by Cliff Ro berts
The ranch was owned by actor and stuntman Crash Corrigan, who could be found there on the weekends—he lived there. Some of the things filmed there included Sky King, Lassie, the Roy Rogers show, the Lone Ranger (for a time it was even known as Lone Ranger Ranch) and tons of mostly B, but some A movies. One of those A flicks was the John Ford/John Wayne/Henry Fonda Fort Apache movie. The fort at Corriganville was built for that movie and was used in many other things, including the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin TV series. I was a huge Rinty fan. So going there as a kid, getting to go to the fort and play around was a big thrill.

John Wayne (back row, third from left) and John Ford (se ated front row) on Fort Apache set
There’s a famous rock in the background—Corriganville Rock—that you can see in many of the TV shows and movies (see postcard pic at top). The western town street was called Silvertown, but the ranch also included a Mexican village, outlaw cabins, caves, Robin Hood Lake, a Corsican village and plenty of rugged scenery.

And what a kick it was to go there as a kid when it was still in use as a movie ranch. As one knows, one should always dress for the occasion and Corriganville was no exception. I would don my cowboy hat and bright red cowboy boots, my six shooters, maybe a vest or even chaps. And off we'd go—because in those days a kid could wear a fairly realistic-looking gun and holster to an amusement park and nobody would look or think twice about getting shot for real.

Girl and boy playing at Fort Apache, Corriganville
I remember the excitement of being on a “real” western street with real cowboys and Indians and staged shootouts. But one of my strongest memories is of going into the western street saloon, through those swinging saloon doors and finding that instead of a false front there was an actual restaurant or cafeteria. It was more of the modern variety but still fun. And in my mind I was a real cowboy in a real cowboy saloon and pity the poor fool who drew against me.


Being a fan of Rinty, Rusty and Lt. Rip Masters my favorite site on the ranch was Fort Apache. It was like being there in the old west. And it was a kick to see it in person to go along with my Marx Toys Rin Tin Tin Fort Apache playset and autographed photo of Jim Brown (Lt. Rip Masters) in cavalry uniform, posing with Rin Tin Tin himself.

Several fires at various times burned down most of the sets. Eventually, Bob Hope bought the property from Crash Corrigan. He changed the name to Hopetown and also built a housing development by that name on some of the property. Eventually, most of the ranch was sold off for development. But about 200 acres of the property, where most of the sets were, has been turned into a park.
Corriganville western town set remnants 
Some time during the late 1970s or early eighties, I saw a newspaper—you remember newspapers, don’t you?—announcement saying there was to be a chili cook-off at Corriganville, the old movie ranch. I was more than a little excited to relive some of those fond memories of yesteryear. So my cousin and I took our nephew and headed to the land of Crash Corrigan. And, like the smell of a Madeleine pastry in Proust's novel Remembrance of Things of Past (yeah, I know they changed the name), which brings on a lifetime of memories for the protagonist, just being at what used to be Corriganville, still called Hopetown at the time of the cook-off, brought on a flood of memories, even if most of the sets were gone with the wind. See the pix here of set remnants—and now even the remnants of the sets that were there then are gone.

Corriganville Fort Apache set location pad

 And then Amy and I went there after it had become a park and even more was gone, but some things remained, mostly the lake/river bed channel and some foundations of the old sets. Still, it was fun to be there and share the experience and reminiscences with her as she’d never been.

Me with Pepper and Audie at Corriganville Park
Since Tarantino is such a fan of Hollywood, I’m sure it was a kick for him to film there. And, corny as it may sound, although Corriganville is gone it will always be there in my mind, a place of fun, wonderful grandparents, and good memories. Who could ask for more? And what are some of your special childhood memories?

You can find out more about it here: www.corriganville.net .

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

23 August 2019

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


by Lawrence Maddox
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.