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Solimar Research

Planners, Welcome To Hollywood

Sep 21, 2008

It' s understandable that California planners will focus at their Hollywood conference this week on "planners in tinseltown" as evidenced by everything from the conference organizers' spoof of "The Office" to the chapter's "Lights Planning Action!" motto for the conference.But Hollywood has a many-layered 120-year history that dates back before the invention of the movies and includes a series of real estate booms and busts that have shaped the urban district that planners will see this week.

Most important, Hollywood the place is not the same as "Hollywood," the name used worldwide as shorthand for the entertainment industry. Many years ago, while still working as a journalist, I made an almost fatal faux pas while getting ready to interview a famous studio chief. Chatting with the studio flak ahead of time, I noted that the executive had spent most of his career outside of Los Angeles working on the distribution side of the movie business in places like Buffalo. I asked her whether she thought it changed his perspective that he had not spent most of his career in Hollywood. She looked at me as if I was from another planet. Of course the executive had worked his whole career in "Hollywood". To her, everybody in the movie business worked in Hollywood no matter where their geographical location, just as everybody in the financial business works on "Wall Street".

How Hollywood became "Hollywood" is a long story dating back to the first big real estate speculative boom in Los Angeles in the 1880s, when this agricultural area adjacent to the foothills at Cahuenga Pass warmed by a typical Southern California microclimate was first subdivided by developer H.J. Whitley A townsite was laid out and, once the inevitable real estate bust had passed, banks and stores were built to serve the local lemon grovers. The name came from a place name his wife had heard near Chicago "Holywood" and the religious reference was not an accident. Hollywood's founders envisioned a teetotaling paradise of hard-working farmers. In 1910, Hollywood was annexed to Los Angeles in order to obtain a reliable water supply. (If you really, really care to learn more about this era in Hollywood, go to a library and read an article I wrote long ago on this topic: "Those Were Her Best Days: The Streetcar and the Development of Hollywood Before 1910," Southern California Quarterly, Fall 1984, pp. 242-252. It's not online anywhere.)

The movies came to Hollywood right around 1910, when the first makeshift studios were carved out of the lemon groves as moviemakers searched for roomier shooting locations than were available in downtown L.A. In the long run, only Paramount built and maintained a major studio in Hollywood on Melrose near Gower, where the famous "Paramount Gate" still stands after 96 years. (If you want to see a startling recreation of what Paramount must have looked like when carved out of lemon groves, rent "Chaplin" staring Robert Downey Jr.)

Most of the other major studios went over Cahuenga Pass to Burbank and vicinity, or to Culver City on the Westside. Universal Studios was built atop Cahuenga pass and is now easily accessible from Hollywood via the Metro Red Line.

Hollywood really became "Hollywood" in the 1920s, when Hollywood Boulevard emerged as the critical business district serving the movie industry. Starting in about 1918, the major movie palaces moved from Broadway in downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood Boulevard, leading to the famous "Hollywood premiere" at places such as Graumann's Chinese Theater (built in 1927). Restaurants along the Boulevard such as Musso & Franks (still in business after 89 years) became movie star hangouts. Hollywood also became a major office center for banks, talent agencies, and the like. The 20s office buildings one of which has semi-precious gems built into the cornice are still spectacular today. The Hollywood sign didn't hurt even though it originally said "Hollywoodland" as a promotion for a real estate development and isn't really located in Hollywood.

Since its heyday in the 1920s, Hollywood has had an up-and-down history. The radio star Fred Allen once called Hollywood "a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for movie stars". The tourists would come to Hollywood but, of course, the movie stars were either filming at the studios or at home in places like Beverly Hills. Hollywood did enjoy a bit of a renaissance in the late 40s and early 50s, when both NBC and CBS broadcast national entertainment programs "live from Hollywood". Even in these days, Hollywood still had streetcars, street life, and the occasional star sighting. One of the most amusing urban legends I ever heard about those days was a woman who recounted walking down Hollywood Boulevard in the 50s, only to encounter an enormous crowd standing on the sidewalk. They were outside a barber shop watching Ricky Nelson get a haircut.

Despite a variety of well-known promotions including the Walk of Fame and the Hollywood Christmas Parade Hollywood languished as seedy and rundown until the late 1980s, when redevelopment efforts began to take shape. The Walt Disney Co. made a major contribution by purchasing and renovating the decrepit El Capitan Theater in 1991, once again making Hollywood a location of movie premieres. The Red Line arrived in 1999, connecting Hollywood to downtown, the Wilshire District, and the San Fernando Valley. With considerable assistance from the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency, the Hollywood & Highland project of which the conference hotel is a part was opened in 2001.

Hollywood today is not what it was back in the 1920s, when all that brand-new movie money was invested in the buildings along Hollywood Boulevard. But neither is it the completely faded district I first encountered in the early 80s while researching that article about Hollywood's history. It has a subway, several renovated movie palaces, a couple of spectacular redevelopment projects and, by the way, a newly renovated Hollywood Bowl just up the street as well. In that sense, it's an excellent subject for California's planners to examine this week.

-- Bill Fulton