Thursday, March 22, 2007

For the History Buffs in the Crowd...



I love history, so much so that I have a college degree in it. I think what attracted me to history and ultimately to writing are the stories. I mean it has the word story in its title so there you go...


Hollywood and the surrounding area has a unique hi-story, one of almost constant growth and evolution. Destruction and reconstruction. What I've found out is that along the way, some of these stories have been lost to this evolution. For example, the neighborhood known as Echo Park used to be known as Edendale and the post office there is still called Edendale Station despite the fact its zip code is in Echo Park.

What's also interesting about the area is it's the birthplace of the Mack Sennett Studios. The once thriving operation which produced dozens (if not hundreds) of short comedies, serials, features, Westerns and the like for the theaters of the thirties and forties. Eventually however, the studio fell on hard times and rented itself out to dozens of indie producers - poverty row guys - who slapped together feature movies and serials in days and distributed them on the 'Ranch circuit" - those theater chains that couldn't afford the fees the studios made them pay for their "big budget" cinema.

I was over in the neighborhood today and struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman who remembered the good old days. I estimate this guy was 85 or so. I consider myself a somewhat informed afficionado of poverty row and B-cinema, but this guy was talking about...

People and films I had never heard of before.

Now, I have no reason to doubt him at this point, he had his facts straight on a lot of things - he knew that the Jack-in-the-Box on Glendale Blvd. (the one that is right next to Public Storage) is the site of the old studio. He knew of Mack Sennett and several films I knew of that shot there. He knew where the studios moved to, and where the old Republic studios were. He even recalled being an extra over at Republic on "some western " when they had the big flood in the Valley.

If he was lying, he wrapped it around enough truth to make me want to believe him.

And God help me if he's right, there were a whole slew of really cool poverty row pictures that may be lost forever...or they may be in rotting film snippets scattered throughout the midwest. I hope it's the latter,because I'm sure the public wants to see serials and shorts and 8-day features with titles like:

Tamar of the Desert - a kid is raised by desert warriors. Sort of like Tarzan (only not).

Masquerade - a Bela Lugosi serial (???) with a character who can change his appearance.

"Steel" Dixon - I don't know what this is, but it sounds cool doesn't it?
Nightclaw - a murder mystery with Lon Chaney Jr. Some guy has claws for hands and murders those that have wronged him. I get the feeling there was something supernatural about it, like they were trying to cash in on Chaney's notoriety as The Wolfman.

Sarcophagus - a mummy movie to be sure, though the old man didn't quite know what he was talking about with this one...
It was one of the most pleasurable times I've had chatting with someone, and the old man promised me he would get his grand kids to dig up some of the things he's got down in his storage. Old pics of him when he was an extra in the "Two reelers."

I'll let you know what I find out.

3 comments:

Jennifer Smith said...

If these films survive anywhere, they may be among the film reels dug up in the '70s in Dawson City, Yukon.

Back in the 'aughts and 'teens, Dawson was the end of the line for film distribution, so most of the films just stayed there. At some point the old movie house got paved and about 500 old film reels got buried in the permafrost. Astonishingly, they survived and have been largely restored.

Most are now at the National Archives, and a bunch got shipped to the Library of Congress. They include a number of never ever before seen silent films. Very, very cool.

There's a horribly formatted article here if you want to know more.

Roger Alford said...

Excellent article, Bill. I'm a film history lover myself, especially when it comes to Hollywood history (in fact, my latest script takes place in late-40s Hollywood). One thing that bugs me about the town though is its lack of preserving its own past. Hated it when they finally tore the Ambassador down last year. Hate that many major Hollywood landmarks, like the Brown Derby, Schwab's drugstore, and the Garden of Allah are all gone forever. Last time I was there I found the location of the Buster Keaton studios. There's a plaque on the sidewalk, but it's on the wrong street corner. Hollywood has too many great stories for them to be forgotten.

But the thing I love most about hiSTORY though is that truth is almost always stranger than fiction. You can't beat it for great source material.

Bill Cunningham said...

I haven't found any incontrovertable evidence that proves he's telling me the truth... but if it's a lie it's the way things "should have been."

A forgotten Bela Lugosi serial?

Oh boy!