Posted by Susan Doll on May 28, 2012
The Hollywood Museum is located on Highland Avenue near Hollywood Boulevard. The innocuously named museum was formerly the Hollywood History Museum, which likely sounded too dry or dull for tourists. Before that it was the Max Factor Museum, because the building is the original Max Factor headquarters where many a Golden Age star developed her signature look, from hair color to makeup design. My friend and I decided to check out the Hollywood Museum while attending the TCM Classic Film Festival in April. Visiting the museum became part of my quest to find some remnant of the glamor and mystique of the Golden Age among the noise and clamor of today’s Hollywood.
The rose-colored lobby and first floor of the 1935 Max Factor Building have retained its original Art Deco look. The primary make-up rooms have been preserved and restored with the original chairs, settees, lights, and multi-angled mirrors. It was enlightening to stroll through the rooms where Billie Burke, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, and dozens of others were given the star treatment. The rooms suggested the kind of lavish attention the stars must have received: Each of the four primary rooms was devoted to women of a specific hair color: Blondes, Redheads, Brunettes, and Brownettes. The color of each room was selected to flatter the hair color. The rooms reminded me that the stars’ personal looks were extensions of their images, and it was their images that the studios were selling. The stars’ images were not only used to lure people into theaters to see their films but also to promote products in magazines. Ads featuring virtually every major star of the Golden Age lined the walls of the hallways.
Meandering around the first floor, we discovered a room filled from floor to ceiling with black and white photos of the legendary places of Old Hollywood that were frequented by stars—the Brown Derby, the Mocambo, Ciro’s, the Trocadero. It was easy to lose track of time while scouring the photos for favorite stars. At last, I had found the old glamour that I was looking for, even if it was only via photographs.
The lower level, which was once a bowling alley—and reputedly a speakeasy during Prohibition—now houses memorabilia, lobby cards, sets, and costumes from horror films—a must-see for fans of the genre. The exhibit includes everything from the entire jail cell corridor from The Silence of the Lambs to rare posters of classic horror films.
Three additional floors included costumes from films from all eras as well as temporary exhibits designed around a star or event, such as the Academy Awards. My favorite exhibit was a permanent display of Jean Harlow memorabilia, including vintage articles and rare photos that revealed much I did not know. Like many larger-than-life stars, Harlow epitomized the old adage about those that burn brightest also burn fastest. She seemed to attract controversy and strange tragedy, such as the death of her producer husband Paul Bern. He left a cryptic suicide note (“you understand last night was only a comedy”) that has been interpreted 100 ways. According to information in the museum, Bern may have actually been murdered. Most haunting was a photo of William Powell, who was the love of Harlow’s life and vice versa, taken as he was leaving her funeral. The expression on his face is what a broken heart looks like.
Attending movies in the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the restored Egyptian Theater was a lot of fun, but a walk down Hollywood toward Vine Street revealed that movie theaters dominated the boulevard at one time. How exciting the street must have looked backed in the silent era or Golden Age with one movie premiere after another. Sadly, most of these picture palaces no longer exhibit movies, but at least they are still standing. I walked along Hollywood Boulevard from Grauman’s Chinese to Ivar Avenue, and I passed the El Capitan, the Hollywood, the Egyptian, the Pacific, the Pantages, the Vogue, the Vine (originally the Admiral), the Fox (originally the Iris), and what’s left of the Ritz (originally the News-View). Many more theaters along that stretch have been demolished, including the Hunley, the Marcal, the Hawaii, and the Apollo. So many movie theaters in such a short span reveals how vital film exhibition once was. Most of the existing theaters have been repurposed: The El Capitan, which was restored by the Disney Company, hosts The Jimmy Kimmel Show; the Pantages offers stage plays; the Vine became a church then the Lazzarium and now holds special events; the Fox has re-opened as a nightclub known as the Playhouse; the Hollywood now houses the Guinness World of Records museum; the Vogue is also a nightclub called the Supper Club, and the Pacific is now a church.
Each theater boasts its own piece of Hollywood history, and as long as it is still standing, that bit of history is still alive. The Pacific, which sports two radio towers, was originally the Warner Hollywood Theater. In the early 1950s, it became the Warner Cinerama Theater and premiered the widescreen film This Is Cinerama. The runaway success of that film resulted in the permanent change in screen size from the almost-square Academy format to the rectangular shape. This Is Cinerama ran for 133 weeks at the Warner, which was renamed the Hollywood Pacific in 1968. The Hollywood Theatre was the city’s second movie theater after the Idyl Hour, but since the demise of the Idyl Hour, this 1913 structure is the oldest existing movie theater in Hollywood.
The Pantages Theatre was the site of live telecasts of the Academy Awards from 1950 through 1959. The Egyptian, which was completed in 1922 by Sid Grauman, opened with Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood. The spectacular opening night was Hollywood’s first real premiere. The Egyptian intended to show nothing but “masterpieces of the cinema art,” according to the opening night program, and Grauman enjoyed long, profitable runs of classic silent blockbusters. In its first three years, the Egyptian exhibited only four movies, Robin Hood, The Covered Wagon, Ten Commandments, and Thief of Bagdad, which I saw at the Egyptian during the TCM film festival—my personal connection to the theater’s history.
Among the restaurants or clubs along Hollywood Boulevard that retain an Old Hollywood connection are the Musso and Frank Grill, which opened in 1919. Supposedly, the menu has not changed in 90 years, which adds to its claims of embodying authentic Hollywood history. The first pay phone installed in Hollywood was installed in Musso and Frank’s, and it was used to make deals. Chaplin, Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks were regulars during the silent era. Chaplin was fond of the roast lamb kidneys while Gary Cooper and Greta Garbo preferred the flannel cakes. Bogart was fond of having cocktails with Dashiell Hammett at the bar.
Musso and Frank’s was fun, but more enticing for me was the Frolic Room, which is next to the Pantages Theater. Still sporting its old-fashioned neon sign from back in the day, the Frolic Room opened in the 1930s as a VIP lounge connected to the Pantages. The walls sport caricatures of stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. When the theater hosted the Oscars during the 1950s, the bar spilled over with the industry’s biggest stars, but it is now referred to as a “dive bar.” During Hollywood Boulevard’s seedier days, writer Charles Bukowski was a regular at the Frolic Room. Most haunting is the claim that Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia, frequented the lounge in the weeks before her murder. The dark side of Old Hollywood is no less enticing.
A friend of mine suggested I walk by the Alto Nido apartments, which became my favorite Old Hollywood discovery. Located atop a hill on Ivar Avenue, the Alto Nido apartments are in a Spanish Colonial Revival style, but their Hollywood pedigree is more interesting than their architectural design. The Alto Nido is famous as the apartment building where William Holden’s character lived in Sunset Boulevard. What I like about the Alto Nido is how the location has attracted so many unsubstantiated Internet stories that claim any number of famous and notorious celebrities once lived there, everyone from Claudette Colbert to a disgraced Fatty Arbuckle. Another rumor is that actress Marie Dressler once owned the building; still another claims that Lila Leeds, the scandalized starlet who was arrested with Robert Mitchum for possessing marijuana, once lived there. The most outrageous story maintains that the Black Dahlia lived at the Alto Nido “shortly” before her murder. A quick search through legitimate, researched, and documented biographies of most of these people reveals that none of them had a connection to the Alto Nido.
Much of my time at the TCM Classic Film Festival was well spent watching as many movies as possible. Still, the time spent searching for hints of the Old Hollywood that exists mostly in my imagination was well worth it.
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