Buster Keaton’s Scarecrow Adobe

I’m delighted to host guest blogger Jeffrey Castel de Oro’s amazing post regarding the early California history appearing in Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow. A friend for 20 years, Jeff has contributed many significant locations and photographs to all of my books, including at left two of my favorite of his discoveries, both scenes from Keaton’s Cops – the triangle building that proved to be the former USC College of Dentistry Building, and a scene in the downtown Civic Center on long lost New High Street, in the shadow of the former Hall of Records Building and County Court House. Take it away – Jeff.

A true adobe – looking SE towards the Baldwin Hills.

In the 1920 short film The Scarecrow Buster Keaton’s farmhand character, on the run from a dog he has mistakenly assumed to be rabid, is pursued to a small house made of adobe bricks. After a frantic chase diving in and out the doors and windows Buster climbs a ladder to escape. The dog (portrayed by Luke, who was owned by Buster’s good friend Roscoe Arbuckle) amazingly also climbs the ladder, and the chase continues perilously atop the crumbling walls of the roofless structure.

Due to its scale, density and realistic level of detail, it appears that the adobe depicted in The Scarecrow was an actual found location rather than a set specifically constructed for the scene. In the 1920s there were still remnants of adobe structures on existing farmland, dating back to large land grants given by the Mexican government to encourage settlement of its territory and the use of the land as ranches (ranchos) for raising cattle and sheep. After California became a state in 1850, a series of setbacks beset the rancheros, including a decline in cattle prices, floods and drought. Forced to take out loans, and often unable to read the contracts they signed due to a lack of formal education, grantees began to gradually lose their land.

This 1888 map illustrates a period of transition, after the arrival of the railroad began to dramatically increase the population of Southern California and the still-recognizable ranchos were being divided into smaller and smaller tracts.

Having some familiarity with areas in which Buster Keaton likely filmed, I focused my search on the former rancho areas located on the west side of Los Angeles. There are a few clues to how the house must have looked. The joist holes above the door and windows indicate a porch roof that pitched downward on either end. Additional holes along the base indicate a front porch.

This photo entitled “Adobe on the road to Venice” taken by Los Angeles historian and amateur photographer George W. Hazard is currently housed at the Huntington Library. It was recently made available online as part of the Ernest Marquez Collection. The Huntington estimates that the photograph was taken between 1890 and 1908, the years that George W. Hazard was active as a photographer. Enhancing the porch area reveals structural details matching those suggested by the film frame, most notably the porch roof pitched downward at each end.

Also visible in the film frame are numerous large white rocks embedded in the adobe bricks. By carefully examining the location of these rocks among the pattern of the bricks, comparing them to a closeup of the George Hazard photo, and accounting for some years of weathering, it is possible to definitively match the two structures.

The inscription of the Hazard photo “Adobe on the road to Venice” provides a starting point to locate the house. At the time the photo was taken (as late as 1908) there were very few roads leading directly to Venice. The only prominent route to Venice visible on this 1909 travel map is Washington St. (now Blvd.). David Rumsey Map Collection.

But where exactly on the road to Venice was the adobe located? Just above Buster’s shoulder in this movie frame, where the road bends to the right, can be glimpsed a tall white structure amongst the trees. It features a tower topped with a flagpole or spire, a triangular roof, and a pattern of large windows or openings just below the roof. A full length view of the three-story structure appears between Buster’s legs as he falls over backwards (at the time nearby Culver City had only two-story buildings). Notice too the prominent “MJB Coffee – Why?” coffee pot billboard in the background, a curious advertising campaign that helped to solve John’s prior post about a small Japanese enclave living in Hollywood.

The original La Ballona School (above) located along the bend of Washington Blvd. features details which match the building in the movie frame precisely (see comparison inset). LAPL. It stood from 1865 to 1927 and has been rebuilt twice. A modern elementary school still stands at the location, marked as Historic Site #10 by the Culver City Historical Society in 2001.

This 1921 aerial view looking west across Culver City towards the ocean features the Hal Roach Studios and adjoining Henry Lehrman Studios (yellow oval), the Thomas H. Ince Studios (red oval), and the Goldwyn Studios (green oval), which would become MGM in 1924. Washington Blvd. runs diagonally through the image past the four studios before zig-zagging on its way towards Venice, its canals visible in the upper right corner as a set of 4 parallel vertical lines near the beach (blue oval). Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives.

La Ballona School (yellow oval) stood to the right (north) of the bend of Washington Blvd. pictured above in this 1921 view. By zooming in on the area surrounding this bend we can see the likely location of the adobe, perhaps indicated by a lone round tree on the south side of the street (red arrow). Since the adobe stood close to the road, it may have already been demolished in this 1921 view.

A closer and clearer view taken in 1925 reveals the likely site for the adobe (red oval) apparently now demolished, related to the school at the bend in the road (yellow oval). Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives. Just below it stands the Plantation Café (pink oval). Built in 1922 by a former vaudevillian and restaurateur named Mike Lyman and his partner V. B. Clark., it would later be purchased by Roscoe Arbuckle in 1928, the same year Buster Keaton would join MGM.

A final view shows the area as it appeared in 1927. Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives. The adobe is apparently gone, the farms further subdivided with numerous houses visible. The La Ballona School (orange oval) has been rebuilt, while the Plantation Café (purple oval) remains standing across the street. Nearby can be seen the Culver City Rollerdrome (light blue circle), a large indoor skating arena also visible in Laurel and Hardy’s County Hospital (1932). The Rollerdrome site will soon be marked as Historic Site #14 by the Culver City Historical Society.

This view from Google Earth looking NE shows the contemporary La Ballona Elementary School at the bend of Washington Blvd. Across the street at the former location of the Plantation Café now stands a large NFL Network facility. The location of the adobe was approximately the patch of green grass (yellow circle) near 4018 Tilden Avenue.

A former visual effects artist, Jeffrey Castel de Oro is an amateur historian, genealogist, and hopeful professional archivist, who has been a Buster Keaton fan since first seeing Kevin Brownlow’s documentary A Hard Act to Follow on PBS in 1987. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffcdo. Thank you Jeff for sharing your amazing discovery – yet another example of our common history preserved in the background of silent film.

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Silent Hollywood’s Japanese Enclave

The great silent film comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd filmed more frequently on the 1600 block of Cahuenga south of Hollywood Boulevard than at any other street in town. Keaton alone filmed scenes for eight different movies on this block. Popular with the studios as a filming location, I’ve

View south – the 1500 block of Cahuenga from Selma to Sunset, where Cahuenga once ended – LAPL

identified over 40 different silent movies staged here so far. Since most silent films are now lost, it’s likely many other productions were filmed here as well. You can read more about this historic Hollywood street HERE and HERE.

But the 1500 block of Cahuenga, between Selma and Sunset one block further south, tells another compelling story. While this street has also appeared in many silent movies, the block provides mute testimony to Japanese-American history in Los Angeles preceding World War II.

It all began with Buster Keaton’s 1921 comedy short The Goat. While fleeing the police Buster runs past a cop beside a grocery store awning that reads “JAPANESE RICE AND TEA.” One of my earliest discoveries, I found this simply by noticing the confusing and once ubiquitous “MJB Coffee – Why?” advertisement appearing in this matching vintage photo looking south down Cahuenga towards Selma. The photo reveals the grocer’s name “Toribuchi,” confirmed by vintage phone books as the Toribuchi Grocery at 1546 Cahuenga.

Originally a small church, the Toribuchi Grocery building previously served as Hollywood’s first fire station, Hose Co. No. 7. LAFire.com. The building was converted to a grocery when the new joint fire/police station opened up the street at 1625-1629 Cahuenga in 1913. I noticed the Japanese rice and tea sign with interest, but didn’t give it much thought until I recently discovered the store also appears in Colleen Moore’s Her Bridal Nightmare (1920)(above right), filmed extensively on Cahuenga.

Click to enlarge – looking west in 1919 at the 1500 block of Cahuenga between Sunset (left, where the street once ended) and Selma (right), showing some of the Japanese establishments once located there. The map below identifies several small “Japanese Lodgings” near the word “Lodging” above. HollywoodPhotographs.com

Then, while searching through the 1919 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for the 1500 block of Cahuenga, I noticed something unexpected. The map identified a Japanese boarding house, a Japanese laundry, and even a Japanese school on this then sparsely developed street. I already knew the Toribuchi Grocery was located here, and with a little digging it became apparent the 1500 block of Cahuenga between Selma and Sunset was at one time a Japanese enclave, a single-block Hollywood version of Japantown.

Here below is a roster of Japanese-associated names for this single block, keyed to their address and the year such entry appeared in the LA city directories. Mr. Toribuchi relocated his grocery sometime between 1920 and 1927. Click to enlarge each map.

CAHUENGA – from Selma to Sunset
1546       E. H. Toribuchi grocer (1920)
1533       Kitro Suietoni (1920)
1531       S. Tatsukawa (1917)
1529       G. Yoshihashi laundry (1920)
1527       Toribuchi Grocery (1927)
1525       Y. Hisatowi (1927)
1519       Joe Nishigima (1927)
1518       Hollywood Japanese Day Work, M. Suzuki (1917); Eto Boarding House (1920)
1517½   Japanese School
1517       K. Ashina baths (1918) S. Dohara (1920)
1516       Sunrise General Merchandise J.M. Hachiya mgr (1920)
1515       Senzo Imai grocer (1920)

SELMA – from East to West crossing Cahuenga
6374       Japanese Church of Hollywood (1923)
6378       Frank Aiso (1927)
6410       Geo. Yaguchi gardener (1916)
6442       G.J. Matsumoto (1920)

Imagine – at a time when few Japanese resided anywhere in LA, and Hollywood was still sparsely settled, there was once a small enclave on the 1500 block of Cahuenga, directly south from where dozens of silent movies were filmed. Yet there appears to be no record of this history aside from these maps and their related entries in the city directories. How did this enclave form? How did they find each other? (The 1600 block also has some Japanese listings, but no references on the maps.)

While the development of Japanese communities such as Little Tokyo in downtown and in Boyle Heights is well documented, perhaps someday this story will be fully revealed. There are many resources to learn more about Japanese history in Los Angeles, including Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Brian Niiya, Content Director for Densho, shared this oral history of James Ito, born in 1914, recalling his family’s fruit and vegetable store on this block of Cahuenga.

Two closing views looking south at Cahuenga addresses, with Colleen Moore in Her Bridal Nightmare and Mr. Hachiya’s Sunrise store at 1516 (left), and Mr. Imai’s one story grocery at 1515 (center of center), with a modern view of 1515 (right), now a cannabis shop.

Looking south down Cahuenga towards Sunset, where Cahuenga originally ended, continuing south along Ivar instead.

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How Mary Pickford Filmed Daddy-Long-Legs Part Two

In Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) Mary Pickford portrays an endearing young orphan later sent to college by an anonymous benefactor. Complications ensue when Mary meets her sponsor, unaware of his status, and they fall for each other. Pickford’s most financially successful production to date, this charming film reveals surprisingly varied glimpses of early Los Angeles history as described below.

As revealed in Part One, Mary’s orphanage (upper left) was the same former Occidental College Hall of Letters building Charlie Chaplin would later use to portray a maternity hospital at the beginning of The Kid (1921) (lower left). The former college building was abandoned when Occidental moved to its new, larger Eagle Rock campus in 1914. By 1919 the hall had been vacant for years, and was perfectly cast to portray Mary’s orphanage. Mary filmed here first. You can read all about the deserted campus, and true orphanage locations HERE.

Mary’s 1919 production also traveled far and wide, from Malibu, to downtown, to a fashionable neighborhood near her own home at the time. Two beautiful mansions appearing in the film survive intact.

When wealthy trustees visit the orphanage, spunky Mary has a run-in with their spoiled brat daughter. Above, the family arrives back home at 450 S. Lucerne in Windsor Square, built in 1915. As seen to the left in this 1920 view north (click to enlarge), this Lucerne home (top box) stood just three blocks from Mary’s home in Fremont Place (bottom box), due south of Wilshire Blvd. running left – right. HollywoodPhotographs.com. Mary leased this home for a year in August 1918, moving out a few months after Daddy-Long-Legs premiered.

Above, parked on the 5th Street side of the house, the bratty daughter demands that her parents throw Mary out into the street. Residential historian Duncan Maginnis made this astonishing discovery. Duncan is the author of the amazingly rich and fascinating series of historical blog posts about classic Los Angeles neighborhoods, including BERKELEY SQUARE; WESTMORELAND PLACE; WILSHIRE BOULEVARD; ADAMS BOULEVARD; WINDSOR SQUARE; ST. JAMES PARK; and FREMONT PLACE. You can read more about 450 Lucerne at WINDSOR SQUARE.

Mary departs for college from the stately Southern Pacific Depot, opened late in 1914 (seen above, looking north), that once stood on Central Avenue at 5th. Unlike the far smaller and less formal Santa Fe Depot nearby, the Central Station had underground passages leading to numerous boarding platforms sheltered by distinctive awnings, visible at right. Both depots appeared frequently in early film. USC Digital Library.

Sadly, only narrow glimpses of the station appear in the movie. Above, Mary runs up a ramp from an underground passageway to one of the platforms. Notice the bystander in the central image wearing a conspicuous face mask, a precaution against the Spanish Influenza epidemic (1918-1919) raging during the time of filming. The outbreak cost more lives than were lost fighting World War One.

One of the depot’s twin waiting room clocks, depicted in Daddy-Long-Legs to the upper left, appears to the right in this scene from Souls for Sale (1923), where an extensive sequence was filmed inside the Central Station waiting room.

Above, this lovely title card depicting Mary’s college, painted by Ferdinand Pinney Earle, is nearly an exact represenation of the former Milspaugh Hall at the Los Angeles State Normal School, appearing here (right) in Buster Keaton’s 1927 feature comedy College. Located at Monroe Street and Vermont Avenue, the school was designated in 1919 as the Southern California Branch of the University of California (UCLA), before becoming Los Angeles Junior College in 1929 when the Westwood campus of UCLA opened. Still at the same site, the school is known today as Los Angeles City College.

Mary and her love interest (benefactor) played by Mahlon Hamilton share a quiet moment beside the rock pool at Malibu State Park, then known as Crags Country Club. Exterior filming locations expert Mike Malone, a retired national park ranger who leads fascinating tours and lectures about movies filmed in the Santa Monica Mountains and Paramount Ranch, confirmed the site (see matching red circle detail). The pool appeared in Buster Keaton’s The Paleface (1921) and decades later for scenes from The Planet of the Apes (1968). Color photo Mike Malone.

Click to rotate – 360° view above – when visiting the rock pool today people seem to leave behind their three-piece suits and floor length dresses.

Click to enlarge – above, a wide view of the once famous Busch Sunken Gardens in Pasadena. Huntington Digital Library. Mary filmed here at least twice, including her graduation scenes from Daddy-Long-Legs.

Mary’s graduation procession strolled along these curved paths at the Busch gardens, paired with a matching 1912 view. Mary had previously filmed many scenes here for Stella Maris as well. Millionaire beer brewer Adolphus Busch built the massive gardens in 1904. The park closed in 1938 and was sub-divided into numerous home sites. Pasadena Public Library.

Above, the closing scene from Stella Maris, with Conway Tearle and Mary beside the Busch gardens mill house. Known as “the Old Mill,” it still stands in Pasadena, part of a private residence. California State Library.

Now a wealthy and successful author, Mary boldly decides to confront her benefactor for the first time. She arrives at his home to repay him in full, and to confide in him that she has met a man she truly loves. All ends well when she discovers her true love and her benefactor are one and the same man.

Above, the benefactor’s home was portrayed by the Stearns residence, still standing at 27 St. James Park. Residential historian Duncan Maginnis, who discovered the Lucerne home above, provides a full history of the Stearns home and its environs at this post HERE.

Similar views as Mary exits the cab in front of the Stearns home, the iron fence and brick details still match.

Above, the view east from the cab also reveals at back a giant light post that once stood in the intersection of St. James Park and St. James Place. The small, secluded neighborhood was a popular filming site, appearing in several early comedy shorts. Also looking east (upper right above), the light post appears behind Harold Lloyd attempting suicide-by-automobile early in Haunted Spooks (1920). Looking west lower right above, towards the Stearns house to the far right, the back of the light post appears in Snub Pollard’s Where Am I? (1923).

Site of the happy ending, the benefactor’s home at 27 St. James Park.

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Chaplin’s Earliest Scenes Beside the Selig Studio

When Charlie Chaplin began his film career at the Keystone Studio in 1914, the Selig Polyscope studio (above) stood just two blocks to the north, sandwiched between Clifford and Duane Streets along Allesandro (now Glendale Boulevard) in Edendale. Opening in 1909, Selig was reportedly the first permanent movie studio built in Los Angeles. I was unfamiliar with Selig, but when I first noticed it in a vintage photo, I realized it was the setting for several scenes from Chaplin’s Keystone career.

This rare photo looking NW, conveniently featuring a Clifford/Allesandro corner street sign, reveals the Selig Studio was enclosed by a stucco wall sloping uphill and topped with distinctive miniature turrets. HollywoodPhotographs.com.

A similar wall sloping uphill with matching turrets appears above as Charlie flirts with a pretty girl during Those Love Pangs (1914). Given the matching elements and its location two blocks from the Keystone Studio, I’m convinced Charlie filmed this scene looking west uphill along the Duane Street side of the Selig studio wall.

Next, using the Love Pangs frame (upper left) as a reference, I’m convinced these scenes from Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) were also filmed on Duane Street, further uphill, along the back corner of the Selig studio wall. The short lattice fence beside the children in the Love Pangs frame appears clearly here in the Tillie frames. The two homes at back were 2212 and 2216 Duane Street, now the site of modern apartments.

One discovery often leads to another. During Tillie, Charlie and co-star Mabel Normand seek refuge in a movie theater after stealing Tillie’s (Marie Dressler) pocketbook. They panic when the plot onscreen involves similar thievery, and they find themselves seated next to a detective played by Charley Chase.

After learning that the Selig studio wall facing Allesandro was lined with a series of inset curved arches, it’s clear that the film-within-a-film drama (see above) that upset Charlie and Mabel was filmed alongside the studio wall.

Likewise, this film-within-a-film view from Tillie, above left, shows the Clifford/Allesandro corner gate entrance to the Selig Studio.

A final tidbit, just for fun. While King Vidor’s celebrated “everyman” drama The Crowd (1928) caused a minor stir for daring to show a flush toilet in the background of one domestic scene, often cited as the porcelain appliance’s screen debut, it appears Tillie beat this record by more than a dozen years. There must have been a hardware or plumbing store near the small restaurant where Marie Dressler works during Tillie. The children at back are too fascinated watching Charlie at work to notice they are standing behind a commode, apparently promoted for sale as a sidewalk display.

I detail many other Tillie locations in my book Silent Traces, and other “new” locations elsewhere in this blog (HERE).

Be sure to check out the wonderful Flicker Alley Chaplin at Keystone DVD collection that makes these discoveries possible.

Below, site of the former Selig Polyscope studio at 1845 Glendale Blvd.

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Harpo, Chico, and James Cagney at the Brunswig Mansion

Imagine the star power – Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, and James Cagney all once stood on the same mansion front steps. Classic Los Angeles homes frequently played roles in golden-age films, and the former Brunswig Mansion, once standing at 3528 West Adams, appeared in two 1931 productions; Monkey Business starring the Marx Brothers, and Blonde Crazy with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. LAPL.

Above, Harpo and Chico arrive in style, compared to an establishing shot from Blonde Crazy.

The rose pattern window shades match with Harpo, Chico, and Jimmy.

Matching views east as Jimmy exits the Brunswig porch. The Guasti Mansion next door appears at back. You can read a full account of both homes at Duncan Maginnis’s Adams Boulevard blog posts; the Brunswig, and the Guasti.

Although the full Brunswig address was 3528, in both films the final digit “8” appears to have been knocked off of the pillar.

Although the Brunswig was demolished in 1955, its equally stunning next-door neighbor is still standing, the Gausti Mansion at 3500 West Adams, later owned by movie choreographer Busby Berkeley, and now home to the Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Garden. Among its many screen appearances, the Gausti is where Laurel & Hardy filmed Another Fine Mess (1930) (read more HERE) and Charley Chase filmed Fast Work (1930) (read more HERE).

Groucho and Harpo would visit another grand mansion to film scenes from Duck Soup (1933) at the Jewett Estate in Pasadena, where Buster Keaton filmed the opening joke from Cops (1922) beside the mansion gate (read more HERE).

Glamorous homes were often leased to studios as filming sites under the Assistance League’s Film Location Bureau, a charity established by Mrs. Hancock Banning. The Bureau maintained a directory of local mansions and estates available for filming. The studios paid rental fees directly to the Bureau, instead of the mansion owner, which the Bureau applied directly for charitable purposes. This efficient scheme for raising money saved studios the expense of building costly sets, and allowed homeowners to contribute to a worthy cause at no expense to themselves. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Film Location Bureau rented out the Brunswig Mansion for use in Pola Negri’s The Spanish Dancer (1923). Hollywood historian Mary Mallory writes about the Film Location Bureau HERE.

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Early Thrill Comedies – Who Was First?

Thrill comedies featuring a star hanging from the side of a tall building have long been a staple of silent films. The photo at left from Play Ball (1925) eloquently explains the brilliant technique with a single image. Starting with Look Out Below in 1919, Harold Lloyd would become the master of the genre, capped by his masterpiece Safety Last! (1923) that still enthralls audiences today. But when was this effect first used in a movie? I pondered this when film historian Jack Theakston inquired about Ignatz’s Icy Injury (1916), one of the earliest thrill films of which he was aware. While it would be fun to declare Ignatz the earliest winner, it’s likely the effect had already been employed for years, perhaps as early as by George Melies.

Using Lantern Media to research Ignatz, the L-KO Kompany’s Billy Armstrong comedy promoted at right in Universal’s The Moving Picture Weekly trade magazine, I quickly happened upon two other contemporary L-KO stunt comedies promoted by Universal, Billie Ritchie’s A Bold, Bad, Breeze (1916), and Dan Russell’s Rough Stuff (1917). As we’ll see, these three films share much in common with each other and with other stunt comedies of the era.

Above, the two stunt images from Ignatz touted in the July 8, 1916 Moving Picture Weekly trade advertisement; (left) looking west down 8th at the Hamburger’s Department Store, and south down Broadway (right). Both scenes were staged from atop the 1912 Chapman Building at the NE corner of 8th and Broadway.

Matching views west – the extant Chapman Building (756 Broadway) has a small two story structure on its large rooftop, where Billy Armstrong crawled around presumably with scaffolding or nets below out of camera range, but far from the 13 story drop to the street.

Click to enlarge – above, looking north up Broadway towards the two story structure atop the Chapman (Investment) Building where the filming took place. The “Examiner” Building (orange) and the four tall buildings immediately behind it all remain standing. USC Digital Library.

Ignatz was filmed atop 756 S. Broadway looking south towards the same block appearing north behind Harold Lloyd, where he filmed the clock scene from Safety Last! atop 908 S. Broadway. Notice the opposite views of the Majestic Theater (M), Tally’s Theater (T), and Hamburger’s (M). Marc Wanamaker – Bison Archives.

Click to enlarge – next for discussion is Billie Ritchie’s A Bold, Bad Breeze, pictured here in the July 1, 1916 issue of The Moving Picture Weekly. Billie was filmed atop the extant Southern California Gas Company building at 950 S. Broadway, the same rooftop where Harold Lloyd staged the middle sequence of his climb in Feet First (1930). The “JOSEPH’S” wall sign at the left is where the “RADIO SUPPLY CO.” wall sign is to the right. The L.L. Burns building at back is 908 S. Broadway, where Lloyd staged the clock sequence from Safety Last! Both the 908 and 950 buildings remain standing, but a giant modern apartment complex has been built between them. USC Digital Library.

After solving this location the hard (but fun) way, I then found this full view photo depicting the view up Broadway. The white building behind Billie is where Harold Lloyd later filmed the clock scene from Safety Last!

Last comes Rough Stuff appearing in the August 4, 1917 issue of The Moving Picture Weekly. How did they film it? Again, from atop the same two story structure on the roof of the Chapman Building, only this time looking north. The beautiful white Hass Building in the background, at the NE corner of Broadway and 7th, remains standing, but has been “improved” with a modern facade. LAPL.

This other view from Rough Stuff also reveals the Bullock’s Building to the left, still standing on the NW corner of Broadway and 7th.

This absolutely convincing yet low-tech special effect no longer seems to be employed much today. One of the few (no longer modern) examples I’ve found was the 1985 pilot movie for the TV series Moonlighting with Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. Looking south, the rooftop structure just to the right of Bruce is the same stairway entrance structure the cops are standing on, and pictured here to the right, both looking north.

A modern view from the two story structure atop the Chapman Building towards the Hamburger Building. (C) 2019 Microsoft.

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Harry Houdini Solves a Charlie Chaplin Mystery!

Harry Houdini helped to discover where Charlie Chaplin filmed crucial scenes for his very first movie Making a Living (1914). The initial scene of Charlie’s entire career (below), discovered by Kevin Dale and reported HERE, was staged in front of a residential porch adjacent to the Keystone Studio that is now site for the driveway to a Jack-In-The-Box restaurant!  The former house at 1722 Allesandro appears in five other Chaplin Keystone films and in many other Keystone films as well.

In his debut role, con man Charlie witnesses a spectacular automobile accident caught on film by a reporter, then steals the camera and rushes downtown to apply for work at a newspaper. Above, Charlie stands at the Broadway side of the former Los Angeles Times building on the corner of 1st Street. The building was then barely a year old, rebuilt after a horrific bomb blast destroyed it, killing over twenty people, during a labor dispute in 1910. My book Silent Traces reveals more locations and history from the film. LAPL.

Exploiting the stolen photos, the newspaper churns out “extra” editions of Charlie’s front page story, which he eagerly helps to distribute. Above left, Charlie loads bales of the hot-off-the press edition into the newsboys’ bicycle carts in the alley beside the paper, and above right, hands out more copies to the newsies at the corner office of the paper, where “LARGEST CITY CIRCULATION” appears conspicuously in the window.

Despite the paper boasting of its “largest” circulation, its identity, and hence its location, eluded me for years. But then famed magician Harry Houdini, via champion Houdini historian and blogger John Cox, came to the rescue. In John’s recent Wild About Harry post, he proves Houdini performed a suspended straight-jacket escape in downtown LA on December 4, 1915. John writes how this stunt was frustratingly difficult to confirm until he finally located the story searching microfilm of the Los Angeles Tribune at the downtown public library. When Harry accepted the paper’s challenge to perform the stunt suspended from its headquarters building, it made the front page both when Houdini first tested the block and tackle rigging (at left), and again the next day when he escaped the straight-jacket in two minutes suspended in front of huge crowd. The only newspaper reporting the stunt was the difficult to access Tribune itself, because at the time the competing newspapers ignored the story completely. No wonder confirming the story had been so challenging.

While it was exciting to read Houdini had performed his signature escape in Los Angeles so early in his career, what caught my eye is that the front of the newspaper matched Chaplin’s corner paper office. Founded in 1871, the Los Angeles Express began operating at 719-721 S. Hill Street in 1911, the same year the Los Angeles Tribune morning paper began publishing from the same building. The two papers were later run by the Express-Tribune Company.

When Charlie filmed here the Express was the city’s oldest surviving daily paper. The building parapet reads 1871-1910, presumably to honor the years spent at its former headquarters. In 1917 the Express-Tribune Company advertised that the combined circulation for its two papers exceeded 115,000. Other newspapers complained these figures were fraudulent, and filed suit against the owner-publisher E. T. Earl. While some contemporary accounts of the 1917 lawsuit appear in the Los Angeles Times, I wasn’t able to determine its eventual outcome, and Mr. Earl died suddenly early in 1919. The photo detail at left, attributed to November 1917, shows for some reason the building now deserted, stripped of its EXPRESS name and up for lease. USC Digital Library.

Above, matching window details confirm the site. The 1913 postcard comes courtesy of author-historian Brent Dickerson, who manages the absolutely fascinating A VISIT TO OLD LOS ANGELES website, guiding readers up and down each block of 1900-1920 era downtown Los Angeles.

Above, this 1910 aerial view, a snippet of a wide panorama taken from a hot air balloon (!), shows the alley leading west from Hill Street to Olive Street alongside the Express building (arrow). USC Digital Library.

Looking closer, this frame from a different movie print shows the former Hotel Washington boarding house at 711 S. Olive Street across from the Hill-Olive alley, appearing (right) in this 1907 photo. The hotel was demolished in 1917 to make way for the Coulter’s Dry Good store building (more below), still standing at this spot today. USC Digital Library.

The Hill-Olive alley appearing in the film was defined by five buildings, those flanking each end of the alley, and the Hotel Washington across the street at back (see map, Charlie marked by the star). The area was a booming construction site at the time, and only one of these five buildings (dark gray on map) survives today, the corner at 716-722 S. Olive built in 1906 as headquarters for the Home Telephone & Telegraph Company. The building’s distinctive quartet of pitched roof skylights shown above remain today.

This wider view west down 7th reveals the filming site on Hill Street stood half a block from the Los Angeles Athletic Club at 7th and Olive where Charlie often resided. (Charlie wrote to his brother Syd from the club as early as August 4, 1914). Given the club’s prominent role in Chaplin’s life, and its proximity to where he began his career, it’s easy to imagine Charlie would reflect about his debut filming on Hill Street when visiting the club. Harold Lloyd filmed Never Weaken (1921) on the roof of the Ville de Paris department store (center), built in 1916 after Charlie filmed in the alley. The photo is attributed to November 1917, likely correct, as the right corner of 7th at Hill stands bare (a demolition permit was pulled in September 1917), in preparation for the future Warner Bros. Downtown – Pantages Theater which began construction there in 1919. Astute reader “Skip” suggests the apparent anomaly “1920” on the center roof promotes LA’s projected 1,000,000 census tally for that future year. USC Digital Library.

Looking east along 7th at Olive, this scene of Charlie and the drunk millionaire driving home in City Lights (1931) was staged across the street from the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and one block from Charlie’s debut performance site beside the former newspaper. The Ville de Paris appears at left, along with the Coulter Dry Goods store (built in part on the former Hotel Washington site around the corner).

Above, a final then and now view looking west at the alley side of the 1906 Home Telephone & Telegraph building, still standing. The Coulter Building, rather than the Hotel Washington, now appears at the far end across the street.

Houdini had connections to Buster Keaton as well, including this scene from Harry’s 1919 thriller The Grim Game (1919), filmed at the Chaplin-Keaton- Lloyd Hollywood Alley. I have several posts about the historic locations appearing in Houdini’s The Grim Game HERE.

Be certain to check out the fantastic Chaplin at Keystone DVD set from Flicker Alley.

Below, the 719 S. Hill Street corner where Charlie Chaplin AND Harry Houdini both once stood, creating history, is now a parking lot. But thanks to the work of John Cox and Brent Dickerson, and the incredible array of resources now available online, we can appreciate Charlie’s sense of what Los Angeles looked like over 100 years when he began his career.

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