The Only-in-Hollywood Story of the Star Maps Hustler Who Stood Up to the Mob
Courtesy of Jim Heimann

The Only-in-Hollywood Story of the Star Maps Hustler Who Stood Up to the Mob

by Peter Kiefer
February 22, 2019, 6:00am PST

Long before David Permut became an Oscar-nominated producer, he was a teen selling $3 maps to celebrity homes and making enemies among the wrong kind of L.A.'s boldfaced names: "He's going to rub you out!"

David Permut is weaving his way up to his childhood home in Holmby Hills. Traffic is starting to back up behind his Mercedes S550 because he is moving so slowly, probably a good thing given that he isn't too focused on the road. Instead, on this chilly winter afternoon, he's staring at the addresses of the homes he's rolling past.

"This was Walt Disney's house. He had a train in the backyard and he used to give kids rides. This is the Saperstein house. I wish you could get in there. It's insane! One of the preeminent houses in the city … Oh wait — this one is Rod Stewart's house."

Over the past four decades, Permut, 64, has produced dozens of films, including some cult classics: Dragnet, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Charlie Bartlett, Blind Date and Youth in Revolt. In 2017, he earned an Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. And though IMDb lists his first break as a producer credit on 1975's Give 'em Hell, Harry!, which earned James Whitmore a best actor nomination, Permut will tell you his entree to Hollywood actually happened literally on these streets.

He hooks a left up Ladera Drive, arrives at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and exits his car. "This was my corner. I'd probably be positioned right here," he says, peering east toward Beverly Hills. "Oh, yeah, this is a view I remember well. I had my canvas director's chair here with my yellow and black sign, and that was it — that was my shop."

Beginning at age 15, Permut sold star maps on the side of the road, an experience he credits with generating the chutzpah he'd later use to break into the entertainment industry. But his little operation did a lot more than stoke his young confidence. Permut became a central figure in an epic fight that ultimately wound its way up to the California Supreme Court. Along the way, he squared off against some of the most powerful forces in town, including the L.A. City Council and a Las Vegas casino operator with ties to the Chicago mob. Permut also found unlikely allies in some of the biggest names in Hollywood — including Lucille Ball and Johnny Carson — as they battled to save star maps, one of L.A.'s oddest and most enduring cottage industries.

***

In 1966, when he was 12, Permut moved to L.A. with his family from New York's Upper East Side for his father's job as an executive for the Ogden Corp., a New Jersey-based conglomerate. A year before, on a trip to scout neighborhoods, the Permuts bought a star map for kicks. It was the perfect collision of David's adolescent interests. Other kids read comic books. He read the Hollywood trades like they were the Talmud. "I was awestruck by the map," he says.

The family settled on a house in Holmby Hills, and Permut enrolled at the now-defunct Rexford College Preparatory on West Olympic Boulevard in a converted duplex next to a dry cleaner's. The school's digs may have been humble, the students not so much. Permut was happily surprised to find that many Hollywood players sent their children there. Soon enough he was spending time at the houses of Ricci Martin (son of Dean) and Tina Sinatra (daughter of Frank).

Two years into school, Permut had an epiphany. He now knew where megastars lived. There was no reason he couldn't create and sell his own star maps. And for those stars whose progeny he didn't know personally, he had a secret weapon. One of his classmates was the son of a top agent at William Morris. The two struck a deal: For a portion of the revenue from the sale of his maps, the classmate would slip Permut the agency's client list, which included home addresses. For a map seller, that was a gold mine.

Within three years of moving to L.A., Permut was hawking his own $3 maps on the corner of Ladera and Sunset. On a very good day he could pull in $30 (about $180 today). Sometimes he would be out there six days a week.

"I got to know a lot of the neighbors," recalls Permut. "Fred Astaire used to stop in his Rolls-Royce and say hello. Katharine Hepburn used to come by my corner in a '57 Thunderbird because it was a shortcut from Benedict Canyon up Ladera. Elvis Presley lived around the corner. They all knew me as the kid on the corner in the director's chair — some even knew my name." 

Occasionally he fielded a complaint. Like the time hotelier and real estate investor Arnold Kirkeby's wife, Carlotta, who lived in the Chartwell Mansion, famous for its use on The Beverly Hillbillies, came by to gripe about being on Permut's map. Several groups of tourists had rung her doorbell looking for Jethro and Granny. Generally, though, the stars had a more simpatico relationship with Permut and his customers. Some would hand out candy to lookie-loos on Halloween or run out and make a quick cameo on a tour bus.

Then, on a spring afternoon in 1970, a white Lincoln Town Car pulled up. The driver, clad all in white, approached Permut. "Hey, kid," he said. "Beldon Katleman would like to see you. Hop in."

Permut didn't. But he agreed to meet with Katleman that evening at the man's home, at 200 Baroda Drive in Holmby Hills. Before the meeting, Permut dropped off his maps and chair at home, where he ran into his older brother. "Beldon Katleman?!" his brother said in disbelief. "You're not coming back! He's like in the mob, man. He wants to get rid of the maps. He's going to rub you out!"

***

Much like Angelyne or the Walk of Fame, star maps are a quintessential L.A. phenomenon. Perhaps this is because they represent the perfect nexus of the city's two primary lodestars: celebrities and real estate. "They're another aspect of that Nathanael West idea of people coming here looking for something that doesn't really exist," says Taschen executive editor Jim Heimann, author of Hollywood: Playground of the Stars, a cultural history of the city's nightlife from 1900 to 1960.

Star maps began appearing as early as the 1920s. The actress and early power-producer Mary Pickford is credited with creating the first one when she kicked off a trend of actors opening their homes to serve refreshments to U.S. soldiers, who required maps to get to the gatherings. To this day, Sunset Boulevard and the surrounding areas of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air are dotted by kiosks hawking star maps.

The most remarkable thing about the maps may not be how little they've changed — but that they still exist at all. Think of the transformative events in just the past 30 years that could have rendered the industry obsolete: smartphones, Zillow, Google Maps and TMZ. But star maps not only endure — they also bear a striking resemblance to their pre-World War II counterparts. Even the modes of distribution are pretty much unchanged. Despite the introduction of vending machines (1970s) and open-air jitney celebrity-tour buses (1980s), it's still primarily actual human beings selling them on the side of the road.

Part of the reason for the stasis is that the stakes are low. The business has long been controlled by a handful of independent operators, and there's never been any serious consolidation. In the 1980s, turf wars periodically broke out between rival operators who were looking to either defend or expand their fiefdoms. But it was all pretty small-fry. Maps still sell for between $5 and $25. No one is getting rich.

Linda Welton — a third-generation map seller who operates from a collapsible chair on Baroda Drive across the street from Michael Jackson's old estate — still sells the large-format maps that her grandfather Wesley G. Lake first copyrighted back in 1933. The maps offer the addresses of hundreds of celebrities, from Warren Beatty to Renée Zellweger, splayed across a kitschy design. A cursory look shows them to be riddled with inaccuracies, although Welton says she updates them four times a year. She charges $25 apiece, but that seems to be negotiable. Over the course of an hour at her post, three customers purchase a map: a family of three from Veracruz, Mexico; a gentleman in an Oregon State T-shirt; and a group of tourists in a Dodge SUV, visiting from Tennessee. They are all treated to her 30-second sales pitch, which includes some pithy jokes about Jennifer Aniston and Sly Stallone.

She says that business depends on the season (Christmastime and summer are the best). The money she makes is not nearly enough to live off of, and she drives for Uber most of the week to supplement her income.

Welton is friendly with the neighbors, exchanges pleasantries with those who are out walking their dogs. But it hasn't always been this cordial. In 2011, she was the defendant in a bitter lawsuit filed by fashion executive Hubert Guez and his wife, Roxanne, who purchased the Jackson mansion after his death and alleged that Welton's enterprise was impacting its value. Welton ultimately prevailed, but not without some scars. "We're not like the paparazzi. We don't try to knock down celebrities and embarrass them," she says. "We want to help them, make them better. But the paparazzi — those guys are dirtbags."

***

Beldon Katleman wasn't like other Las Vegas casino operators. He grew up in L.A. and graduated from UCLA with a degree in mathematics. He married Leonore Cohn, the niece of Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn, whom he met at the Hillcrest Country Club. After they divorced, Leonore — also known as Lee — went on to marry the newspaper magnate Walter Annenberg and served as a diplomat in the Reagan administration. Her ex-husband chose a different path.

"Beldon was a fairly prominent casino operator here and he had some connections to organized crime," says Michael Green, a professor of history at UNLV who specializes in Las Vegas lore.

"He was a bully and he thought he was tougher than he was," says Beldon's cousin Harris Katleman, a former studio head at both MGM and 20th Century Fox. According to Harris, Beldon, who died in 1988, learned his tricks from his father, Maurice. "Maurice was like a Jewish mafioso, a mix of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein."

Beldon Katleman ran in influential circles, both high and low. He was an associate of Bugsy Siegel and a longtime friend to Sidney Korshak, the legendary Hollywood fixer. After Beldon's uncle Jake was gunned down exiting Vegas' McCarran Airport in 1950, Beldon assumed control of El Rancho Vegas, a casino that became a popular getaway for stars. But it burned down in 1960. Some historians say it was faulty wiring. Others suspect Beldon torched it himself to collect the insurance. But Harris says it was payback from the Chicago mob for the casino eighty-sixing John "Handsome Johnny" Roselli, an influential Chicago mobster. Their message: Stay out of Vegas.

Beldon's mother, Rose, also owned a house in Holmby Hills. When young David Permut was establishing his star map business, he scoured the area to find a prime spot to set up his stand (Beverly Hills was a no-go for map selling because of its anti-soliciting laws). He ultimately landed on a patch of grass beneath a lemon tree on that Ladera-Sunset corner. But he needed permission from the homeowner, and Rose Katleman happily granted it.

The evening in 1970 when Permut arrived at Beldon Katleman's home (purchased from Gary Cooper), he was ushered into the living room. He remembers waiting under the intense glare of two Irish wolf­hounds that were so big they used to crash through the casino boss' screen door. "They looked like they would chew me up and spit me out. They had these black eyes and were just sitting there, watching me," he says.

When Katleman arrived, the two had a friendly chat about which tennis club they frequented. Then Katleman cut to the chase: "What's the deal with the maps? How much money can you make selling them? And why are you selling them on my mother's front lawn?"

"I'm thinking, 'I'm negotiating with Beldon Katleman here. Maybe he's going to buy me out!' " says Permut. But that was wishful thinking. Katleman didn't like the maps being sold in his neighborhood and was hell-bent on stamping them out. Despite the fact that his mother had grown close to Permut, Katleman set out to get rid of all the map sellers in the area, helping to circulate a petition among Holmby Hills homeowners that urged the introduction of legislation to ban the sale of star maps.

When Permut caught wind of the petition, he conferred with the most dominant map seller: Vivienne Welton (Linda's mother). Though Welton wasn't thrilled that Permut had been encroaching on her family's business, she recognized the shared threat that any anti-map legislation would pose. "We're going to need a good lawyer," she said.

***

In November of 1972, the L.A. City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting the sale of any goods on sidewalks and parkways. It was a direct response to complaints lodged by the powerful homeowners of Holmby Hills.

Permut and Welton hired lawyers Jon Golden and Donald Low, who advised their clients that one of them had to either get arrested or be issued a citation while selling a map. That would set the stage for a legal challenge.

Just days after the ordinance passed, Welton returned to selling her maps and Permut made an anonymous call to the LAPD to report her. When a patrol car arrived, Permut was waiting with his video camera. He told the responding officer he was working on a student film and asked if he could record Welton being put in the back of the patrol car. The officer obliged.

Eager to get press for their cause, Permut raced his footage over to the NBC affiliate in Burbank and talked his way into the newsroom. "They went with it. They were going to give me $50, but I just wanted them to mention my name on the air. So I was negotiating for credit, I guess," he says, laughing.

That night he and his family gathered around the TV and watched as the NBC local news led its broadcast with the star maps arrest. The next day, recalls Permut, the story "blew up." He began to get interest from a variety of other shows. One was a primetime public affairs program called The Issue Is, which aired on Sunday evenings. Joel Tator, a producer on the show who now teaches journalism at Pepperdine, remembers that "David said he could get me interviews with Groucho Marx and Jack Haley. So we followed him in his car to all these celebrity homes. I certainly didn't have that kind of access." Both Marx and Haley gave interviews in support of the maps.

Permut sought to frame the story as a David and Goliath tale. "He got a lot of publicity," says attorney Low. "My relatives would come to town and see my name on the front page of the L.A. Times and say, 'You must be successful!' "

Permut recalls going on A.M. Los Angeles, hosted by a young Regis Philbin. During the live taping a call came in from Lucille Ball. "She goes, 'You're part of the fiber of Hollywood' and gushes about her support for us. She couldn't have been more gracious." That's when the public tide started turning in the map sellers' favor.

In 1974, the lawyers filed suit against the city on their behalf. "I could see right away this was a First Amendment case," says Low. The case wound its way through various appellate courts, until, in 1976, the California Supreme Court unanimously decided the ordinance prohibiting the sale of the maps was unconstitutional and struck it down. The precedent-setting suit is still taught at law schools.

Thinking back on it, Low is struck by the fact that the people one would think would be most upset about the maps — the stars — were the ones who came to the sellers' defense. "The complaints weren't coming from people on the maps — they weren't worried about the publicity," says Low. "It was homeowners who objected to the traffic."

As for Beldon Katleman, who started this fight, no one seems to know exactly how he reacted to the law's reversal. "Beldon was such a mercurial guy, there's a world in which he could've backed off and a world where he would have been thrown into a rage over the ruling," says Harris Katleman. "It's hard to say."

During the few years that selling maps was illegal, Permut, ever the hustler, needed a new gig. By 18, he had hooked up with legendary promoter Bill Sargent, helping him to produce live-event movies, and eventually features. 


But he never forgot his own origin story. "I was an introverted kid, and selling maps gave me an opportunity to meet people from all walks of life," he recalls. "And the most important thing about producing isn't what you say, but how you say it. Selling maps — it was all about communication."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe