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.

This entry was posted in Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, Los Angeles Historic Core and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Harry Houdini Solves a Charlie Chaplin Mystery!

  1. Greg says:

    Hello again John,
    Thanks for another great one!
    It is always fascinating to see how and where you’ve culled your information from to pinpoint locations used a century ago.
    I believe this mountain of work you’ve produced should not go unrewarded or worse, be lost to the sands of time again.
    I wonder what body or organisation in Los Angeles would need to be approached to begin a program similar to the U.K.’s “Blue Plaque Program” commemorating English heritage?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_plaque
    Los Angeles and particularly Hollywood are world renowned for their century-long connection to motion pictures and an iconic pioneer like Charlie Chaplin would be the perfect figure to begin this program here in Los Angeles. A simple brass (or blue ceramic) plaque laid on a sidewalk at some of these locations would would suffice. It could make for a fun and interesting walking tour.
    After all, the Brits have already commemorated Mr. Chaplin with a Blue Plaque in the London borough of Lambeth.

    Kind regards,
    Greg
    Palm Springs, CA.

    • Thank you so much Greg. I feel the same way, London honors Chaplin, and San Francisco honors local artists/authors, by naming alleys after them.

      I pinned the Chaplin Keaton Lloyd alley in Hollywood onto Google Maps (sort of). It only appears if you know to search for it. If people could review this historic location on Google Maps, maybe it would show up on the “real” map. Thanks again – John

      https://goo.gl/maps/kWXNJe8nYkEujNe18

  2. Kevin Dale says:

    Thanks for the update John – My first big find! Hope you are well. On a personal note my older brother Steve who was with me when you hosted ‘Speedy’ at Moma about 7 yrs ago passed away Aug 2018 at 69 – he really enjoyed Speedy so I want to thank you again. Be well – Kevin Dale

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Bob Borgen says:

    Brilliant! Thanks for sharing with us all.

  4. Skip says:

    A guess at the 1920 sign: The population of the county was approaching that number for the 1920 census. Nothing immediately turns up explaining who W.M. Carl and Co. were, but it has a boosterish feel at a time of rapid growth.

  5. tref says:

    Your posting of two days ago Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley is blocked and unavailable on your page. It is listed as “private”

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