Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Palisades Park: Santa Monica

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the top of steep, crumbling cliffs, Palisades Park is a long sliver of green space marked by huge date palms. First-time visitors usually recognize the park from the numerous films that were shot on location within the park.

Today the park is popular with joggers and is usually sprinkled with a few homeless people. From the cliff side fence there are fantastic views of Santa Monica bay and the famed pier. Separated from the beach by the Pacific Coast Highway, the park is crisscrossed by paths lined with trees and benches for nearly two miles. There's a war memorial, a world-class rose garden, sculpture, a senior center, drinking fountains and clean restrooms.

Photo below: The twisted ground-hugging trunks of the Australian tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) are a photographer's delight. Salt resistant, drought tolerant and very hardy, these trees are often planted to help stabilize sand in California’s coastal areas.

If these walls could talk...

The Ghosts of L.B. Mayer, Peter Lawford,
The Beatles, J.F.K. & Marilyn Monroe

Houses exist all over Los Angeles that were once occupied by a Hollywood mogul or star, but there is one that was home to an astonishing string of famous and infamous people. Owned by Louis B. Mayer, then by Peter Lawford and his wife Patricia (sister of John F. Kennedy), it was the scene of trysts between J.F.K. and Marilyn Monroe and was later rented by The Beatles.

Still standing at 625 Palisades Beach Road (ocean front) and the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica is a Spanish style beach house. Unassuming looking today, it was built in 1936 for movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (co-founder of MGM), the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time. He purchased an empty ocean-front lot in Santa Monica, hired architect H. Libbert and told the builders (Carpenter Brothers) to “hurry up.” Using floodlights at night, construction went on 24 hours a day, seven days a week – the 20-room Spanish style house with a red tile roof was finished in a remarkable six weeks. The house is distinguished, then as now, by a two-story semi-circular section that projects toward the swimming pool and beach.

The 5-bedroom structure was lavish without being ostentatious. Not a mansion by any description, the house nevertheless had bathrooms fitted out in onyx and marble, and the exterior walls were a foot thick. Naturally, there was a private projection room, and Mayer installed his father in the gatekeeper’s apartment. The ocean-front swimming pool, it is said, would often fill with sea water during a storm. Mayer entertained guests only on Sundays, when he hosted his legendary open houses that included supper, drinks and a movie. Even Greta Garbo showed up.

Born Lazar Meir in Russia in 1885 as an impoverished Jew, Mayer became a titan of the film industry after making his way to Los Angeles. A most notable achievement was his founding of the Academy Awards in 1927. Mayer’s annual compensation during the depression was well over a million dollars, making him the highest paid person in the United States.

Mayer’s beach home was strategically located close to Culver City, the base for MGM Studios (Hollywood, home to other studios, was 14 miles inland). Mayer entertained lavishly while at his beach house and heavily promoted the careers (and controlled the personal lives) of his stable of MGM stars. When scandal threatened to expose Van Johnson’s (1916-2008) homosexuality, Mayer arranged for a cover-up marriage that saved the star’s career.

Van Johnson with co-star Esther Williams

Mayer’s MGM studio machine taught up-and-coming stars how to dress, walk, talk, dance and sing. He conceived the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland series of musical films and gave Judy Garland an especially felicitous pool-side birthday party in this house in 1939.

Below: Peter Lawford in MGM's "Picture of Dorian Gray" 1945

When Mayer divorced his wife Margaret in 1947, the Santa Monica house became part of her settlement. Nine years later this home became the notorious pad of Peter Lawford, actor, rat-packer and peripheral Kennedy in-law. Although born in England, Lawford spend his childhood in France and was never formally educated. Lawford’s film career began at age eight in British films. He grew to be a handsome and suave young man and was being groomed for stardom by MGM in the 1940s. Lawford had the distinction of being the first actor to kiss Elizabeth Taylor on camera. An MGM contract player during WWII, his career peaked in the 1950s. At the height of his popularity, Lawford married John F. Kennedy’s sister Patricia, a union that lasted from 1954-1966. It was during these years that the house entered its stage of infamy. Lawford had bought the house in 1956 for $95,000; living in the former beach home of MGM founder L.B. Mayer and being the brother-in-law of the President of the United States must have been twists of fate to savor.

On the occasion of J.F. K.'s 45th birthday celebration at NYC's Madison Square Garden in 1962, Lawford introduced Marilyn Monroe before she sang "Happy Birthday" to the president. In hindsight, his words were eerily prescient. When he uttered "The late Marilyn Monroe!," he was referring, of course, to her tardiness, not her fate just nine weeks later.

In the 1960s this beach house was the scene of trysts between J.F.K. and Marilyn Monroe, who were introduced to each other by Lawford. In fact, J.F.K, who “officially” stayed at the Beverly Hilton while in Los Angeles, spent so much time here that the house was given the title of "The Western White House." An oft-told tale is that Lawford became a U.S. citizen just in time to be able to vote for his brother-in-law. Several of Monroe’s trysts with R.F.K. also took place here. Lawford spoke by phone with Marilyn Monroe twice on the evening she died (August 4, 1962); first he called to invite her to a dinner party being given at 625 Palisades Beach Drive. When she did not arrive, he called her back around 8:30 pm and noticed that her voice was slurred. Eventually she stopped talking without hanging up the phone. Lawford called his lawyer to arrange for someone to go by to check up on Marilyn. The official time of Monroe’s death was established as 9:30 pm.

Lawford was to marry three more times before he died on Christmas Eve 1984 of cardiac arrest complicated by kidney and liver failure, after years of drug and alcohol abuse.

This last known photo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney together was taken by John Lennon’s girlfriend May Pang at this very house, which Lennon was renting in March 1974. When John decided to produce Harry Nilsson’s “Pussy Cats” album, Lennon thought it would be a great idea to have everyone who was working on it living under one roof. John and May took the master bedroom. When John first saw it, he said, “So, this is where they did it,” referring to John F. Kennedy and Monroe. The other bedrooms were occupied by Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson and Klaus Voormann (the artist who had designed the cover for The Beatles’ album “Revolver”) The library, complete with official portrait of President Kennedy on the wall, was converted into a bedroom for Ringo Starr.

The house is still visible from the cliffs of Palisades Park, between Palisades and Alta Avenues. This neighborhood was once called Rolls Royce Row, as Hollywood’s founding royalty took up residence here: Mayer’s business partner Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer, oil man J. Paul Getty, comedian Harold Lloyd, silent film star Marian Davies (mistress of publishing magnate William Randoph Hearst), Mae West, Darryl Zanuck, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Warner, and leading man Douglas Fairbanks and wife Mary Pickford, to name a few.

To this day celebrities live all over Santa Monica, not just in this area. Well-known residents have included Sean Penn, Jane Fonda, Arnold Schwarzenegger, June Lockhart, Tobey Maguire, Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ted Danson, Judge Reinhold and Tom Selleck.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Hollywood Sign

Unveiled on 1923, the "Hollywoodland" sign was erected as an advertisement to sell homes. Built at a cost of $21,000 by the Hollywoodland Real Estate Group, the sign’s individual letters were 45 feet tall and 30 feet wide. There were plans to demolish the decrepit sign after its useful days as an advertisement were over, but it was decided to remove only the last four letters, retaining the word “Hollywood.” Today it remains one of the most recognizable signs in the world.

A beautiful way to approach the sign is by driving up Beachwood Canyon Drive from Franklin. Get your camera out at the intersection of Cheramoya and click away! It is against the law to approach the sign, which is screened off by fencing and a battery of security cameras.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Paradise Cove Beach & Café (Malibu)

Photo above taken from the fishing pier at Paradise Cove Beach.

Paradise Cove is a secluded beach in Malibu just shy of Zuma Beach. It is one of the few beaches in L.A. where drinking alcohol is permitted. you can bring your beach chairs, blankets, tents and alcoholic beverages and have a party on the sand, or dine at the Paradise Cove Beach Café. They have both indoor as well as outdoor seating right on the sand that affords the option of tables, chairs or even lounge beds. You can walk off a meal on the scenic rock trail and tidepools, and the sunsets are spectacular. Parking is $3 for the first 4 hours (with restaurant validation), or $20 without validation. The café is open 365 days a year – breakfast, lunch and dinner, but be warned that weekend waits for seating can be well over an hour. Try to visit on a week day. 310-457-2503

Placed along the paved road down from the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach are well-spaced trailer homes, mostly double wides with added decks and porches. In spite of the humble pedigree of the structures, prices reflect the reality of California coastal living. One was for sale in 2009 for $2,275,000 (not a typo). Decades ago the television program "The Rockford Files" was shot here. On the show, actor James Garner lived in a trailer adjacent to the pier.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Venice Canals

Venice Beach, immediately south of Santa Monica, is not just a place where body builders come to show off. It's also where old hippies go to die. Much gray hair tied up in bandanas, sandals and puka shell necklaces -- all sported by 65 year-olds. Don't even ask what they're smoking.

But just two blocks inland from all that beach-front geriatric "alternative" lifestyle business are the spectacular and unique Venice canals. TV goers know the Venice canals as home to lifeguard David Hasselhoff on Baywatch. Movie fans will recognize the canals and bridges from the film "Nightmare on Elm Street."

Impossibly picturesque, these modest homes overlook small footbridges and strips of carefully tended vegetation. Just a couple of decades ago you couldn't give away one of these ramshackle abodes. After the recent gentrification of the area, however, you'd be lucky to find one for sale for less than two million dollars.

A video by a long-term resident of the Venice Canals:

Friday, November 26, 2010

Santa Monica Pier

Photo: Patrick Smith

The Santa Monica Pier, which opened on September 9, 1909, offers entertainment, dining and shopping, including thrill rides, a historic 1922 Carousel, and an interactive aquarium. Popular rides include a roller coaster and Ferris wheel. Just recently an old fashioned soda fountain opened in the carousel building. Visitors may enjoy street performers, a game arcade and vendor carts, not to mention spectacular sunsets.

The pier has burned twice, but was rebuilt each time. It weathered destructive, harsh winter storms, bankruptcy, changing popular tastes, and economic depression. Part of what stands today, like the carousel building, dates from the beginning of the 20th century, but some of it, like the LED solar-powered Ferris Wheel, is brand new and state-of-the-art.

Historical notes:
In 1924, the La Monica Ballroom opened on the pier. The main room, decorated in a French Renaissance theme, could accommodate 5000 patrons, who danced to live music. At the time it was built, La Monica was the world's largest dance hall, and listeners from all over the country tuned in to its famous New Year's Eve radio broadcasts.
Corruption infected Santa Monica’s waters, beginning in 1928, when gambling ships started anchoring in Santa Monica Bay, just beyond the 3-mile territorial limit. Water taxis ferried patrons from the piers in Santa Monica and Venice. The largest was the S.S. Rex, launched in 1938. Capable of holding up to 3,000 gamblers at a time, the Rex was a target of anti-gambling interests. After state Attorney General Earl Warren got a court order to shut the ships down, the crew of the Rex fought off police with water cannons and sub-machine guns. The ship surrendered after nine days, in what newspapers called The Battle of Santa Monica Bay. Its owner, Tony Cornero, went on to build the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Santa Monica Pier is open 365 days a year, and admission is free.

This iconic sign, still welcoming visitors to the pier, was installed in 1940.

Two photos from the 1920s. The 1924 La Monica Ballroom (first photo) served as a big band venue and roller skating rink until demolished in 1962. The second photo shows the Carousel Building.

Camera Obscura in Palisades Park

The phrase "camara obscuratio" is Latin for “dark room,” but the technology goes back to Greece, when Aristotle noticed how, when a pinhole of light entered a dark cave, it projected an upside down and reversed image from outside onto the interior cave wall.

Santa Monica’s historic example is one of only three located in California. Originally it was housed in a small building up on stilts (see photo) and donated to the North Beach Bath House in 1899 by Robert F. Jones.

In 1907 it was moved from the beach up to Palisades Park, when ownership was transferred to the city of Santa Monica. The relic is reminiscent of a class of novelties known as “pinhole cameras” that sprung up along boardwalks and popular tourist destinations at the turn of the 20th century. In the 1950s it was moved into the recently completed Senior Recreation Center along Ocean Avenue, north of the Santa Monica pier, at the southern tip of Palisades Park.

To experience this relic from the past, all one has to do is stop at the desk of the Senior Center, drop off a driver’s license, obtain a key, then take the stairs up to the dark, cramped room that houses a round display disk onto which the camera image is projected. The lens is located within a small cupola type turret atop the building (photo at top of post). A ship’s wheel controls the position of the camera, which affords a 360 degree view, and visitors can change the position of the disk manually to control the focus. The following photo shows an image of the Santa Monica Pier projected through the mirror/lens of the Camera Obscura.

Camera Obscura
1450 Ocean Avenue (Senior Recreation Center), just north of the Santa Monica Pier. Access to the camera obscura is free, but is available only until mid afternoon (currently until 3:00 pm, but hours are seasonal; call first 310-458-8644).

Annenberg Beach House (Santa Monica)

In 1928 Will Rogers sold a parcel of land on the beach with two large houses on it to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who then gave it to his mistress, silent film actress Marion Davies (shown at right). Hearst remained legally married to his wife Millicent (who was a 21-year-old show girl at the time of their marriage) until his death, but he lived openly with Davies in California after Millicent established herself in New York in 1919. Hearst commissioned Julia Morgan, the architect of the Hearst Castle, to design and build a three-story, 118-room, 34-bedroom, 55-bath Georgian mansion on the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. Not to mention 37 fireplaces, Tiffany chandeliers, a ballroom, a dining room from a Venetian palazzo, and a room that was coated in gold leaf. It was accompanied by three guesthouses, two swimming pools, tennis courts and dog kennels and was called “Ocean House.” The complex cost over $7 million, a staggering amount at the time.

When Davies moved into the house, she began her role as Hollywood's elite hostess. She held parties constantly, and they were events attended by anyone who was anyone, always populated by Hollywood's biggest stars. Those who knew Davies say she never took herself seriously and was beloved by all who knew her for her gracious spirit and charitable tendencies.

After completing the Santa Monica mansion, Hearst gifted Davies with a castle in Wales, St. Donat’s Castle, which he completely refurbished and restored, at far greater cost than Ocean House. Today the Wales complex serves as the campus for Atlantic College, an international boarding school.

In 1947 Marion Davies sold the ocean-front property to the state of California, which leased it to the City of Santa Monica. The city leased it to Joseph Drown, who ran it as a hotel called Ocean House. After operating it for a period of time, Drown incomprehensibly demolished the 118-room main house. Of the original structures, only one of Davies’ three guest houses and the 110 foot marble swimming pool remain. In the 1980s, a restauranteur planned to develop the property as a new luxury hotel, but locals bristled at the idea and voted to prevent the project from going ahead. Instead, on April 26, 2009, a $29 million Annenberg Community Beach House opened on the site of the original main house, at the bequest of Wallis Annenberg, in partnership with the City of Santa Monica and California State Parks. It is open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to sunset.

The original marble pool has been restored, and a line of tall columns in front of the new building marks the location of the wooden originals that delineated the double height ocean facing portico in Davies’ day. The original wooden guest house has likewise been restored and is now used as an event venue (shown below).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Beverly Hills

You can't afford it - the shops on Rodeo Drive (above)

Beverly Hills
, almost completely surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, was formerly the vast Hammel and Denker ranch, a fertile stretch of land on which the owners grew lima beans. Around the turn of the 20th century a syndicate purchased the ranch and marketed lots, naming their development Beverly Hills, after Beverly Farms in Beverly, Massachusetts. The investment company promoted Beverly Hills as “between the city and the sea,” a reference to its location between ocean-front Santa Monica to the west and Los Angeles city to the east.

In September, 1911, work began on the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Los Angeles Times called it a “monster hostelry,”" since it cost in excess of $300,000; it remains a fashionable, expensive hostelry serving the world’s glamorous elite. In 1919, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford bought land on Summit Drive and built their landmark home, Pickfair, completed in 1921. A land boom followed, and prominent members of the film industry built lavish homes in the hills north of Sunset Boulevard. In ten years the population grew from 674 (1920) to 17,429 (1930). The Beverly Hills City Hall, built in 1931 in Italian Renaissance style, was featured prominently in the “Beverly Hills Cop” films (photo below). Approximately 35,000 affluent residents live in Beverly Hills today.

Beverly Hills contains some of the largest homes in the nation. In recent years Beverly Hills was listed as the most expensive housing market in the United States, with a median home price of over $2.2 million (note: averaged in to that price are the many small duplex rental units and detached homes of less than 2,000 sq. ft., all located south of Sunset Boulevard).

While the rich are sleeping: A little known fact is that underneath the city lies the large and still-productive Beverly Hills Oil Field, serviced by four urban drilling islands which drill diagonally into the earth underground.

Major east-west thoroughfares in Beverly Hills include Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Sunset Boulevard, all of which lead west directly to the Pacific Ocean. The homes in the hills north of Sunset Boulevard have a much higher value than average homes in the rest of Beverly Hills. High end shopping is prevalent along Beverly Drive and world-famous Rodeo Drive.

In 2009, a group of Beverly Hills residents created an online blog which details their lives growing up and living in Beverly Hills. Called “The Daily Truffle,” the name pokes fun at the luxury lifestyle of its residents.

At home in Beverly Hills: