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Paramount, Universal, the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Los Angeles Aqueduct are among the town’s icons celebrating centennials, as legends from Clive Davis to Robert Towne share with THR their personal memories.
Clive Davis on the Beverly Hills Hotel
The template for Hollywood’s off-hours glamour was set with the opening of The Beverly Hills Hotel on May 12, 1912. Countless stars and moguls have camped out at the hotel’s famous bungalows over the years, among them renowned 82-year-old music executive Clive Davis.
It’s really been my home in Los Angeles since I became president of Columbia Records [in 1967]. The bungalows give you not only privacy but the opportunity to play music at any hour. Any other hotel, no matter how nice, you’re always on the same floor with somebody. I play my music loud and frequently in the later hours. I keep my speakers here. I can come back from the studio and test things on nonstudio speakers. It means I’ve never had to get a home here in L.A., which is preferable. And if you’ve got a relationship with longevity at the hotel, they know exactly how you like your food. I like raisins and carrots in my cole slaw; they know I like dark-meat chicken and turkey. They manage to keep their employees for many years, so you have continuity, and it really becomes a home away from home.
Right from the beginning in the rock era, after Monterey, I had a cabana by the pool on weekends. [Atlantic Records’] Ahmet Ertegun had one on the other side. And we’d watch each other. If I had The Grateful Dead or Sly and the Family Stone, I’d watch him with Eric Clapton or The Rolling Stones. So that memory of the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll is here.
And my tradition of a pre-Grammy party started in its infancy here. I had the party here until about 10 years ago. We always kept it to the capacity of the ballroom, which is about 650. But one year, just as I was about to start the party, the fire marshal came and said we were over the limit. I realized that was a sign we’d have to move it. But for many, many years, the pre-Grammy party was here.
Another thing is the bungalow I’m often in has a piano, and they have a wonderful piano in the Rodeo room. Over the years, whether it’s been bringing in composers to play songs for Aretha, or Whitney, we’d meet to go over material that I had gathered. Whitney would come from her bungalow at midnight.
For doing business and the wonderful memories, it’s not just a home away from home but a repository of music history and my life in music. — As told to Bill Higgins
A.C. Lyles on Paramount Pictures
The July 12, 1912, opening of Sarah Bernhardt’s Queen Elizabeth was the first film release from the brand new Famous Players Film Co., founded by nickelodeon owner Adolph Zukor. By 1916, he’d taken control of the first nationally successful distribution company, Paramount Pictures, and was on his way to movie moguldom. Zukor came west to build his studio, which eventually would become a second home for A.C. Lyles. After watching the film Wings (1927) on his 10th birthday, Lyles, now 93, decided he wanted to work for the studio (which will be honored with screenings of some of its iconic films during the TCM Classic Film Festival April 12-15 in Hollywood). For the past 83 years, Lyles has gotten his wish — first as an errand boy at a Paramount-owned theater in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., then as an office boy in Hollywood for Zukor and then as a producer and executive. He now serves as the studio’s goodwill ambassador and still comes in to work every day. Lyles’ spacious office — which used to be Fred Astaire’s — overlooks the entire lot and is plastered with dozens of photos of him with his friends, who just happen to include such stars as Shirley Temple, the late Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It may sound Pollyanna, but when I drive on the lot, I get the same thrill that I did the first day I came on this lot. The thing that distinguished Paramount from other studios was the leadership of Adolph Zukor. Mr. Zukor was small in stature but a powerful giant in the business. He discovered a tremendous amount of talent — Gary Cooper, Dorothy Lamour, Bing Crosby, big names. And he had vision. He lived to be 103. His secret of longevity? He took good care of himself. He ate appropriately. And he walked around the lot — walking from stage to stage to see what was happening, audit it, talk to the directors, the cast and the crew.
When I think of a Paramount picture, I think of The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, Shane, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. We’ve made an enormous number of classics, all the way back to Lubitsch’s pictures with Maurice Chevalier and Cecil B. DeMille’s epics. When the studio system was in place, we made 50 or 55 pictures a year. We’d have around a hundred actors here — some were under exclusive contract and some were “picture commitment.”
After the 1948 Supreme Court consent decree [which found the studios’ distribution schemes in violation of antitrust laws], we had to relinquish ownership of theaters. The theaters gave us insurance. We lost a good part of our ability to know what a picture would bring in. We and the other majors decided not to make quite as many features. And that brought about the downsizing of the major studios. A lot of the people we had control of — the actors, the directors and the writers — left the studio. So then you had to go on the outside for talent rather than just look at your roster. That was a painful time for us. But, as always, we found a way to survive, adapt and remain on top.
If Mr. Zukor was around today, I think he would be pleased with what Hollywood — particularly Paramount — has accomplished. I think he would be a little surprised, probably, at the cost of production today, but I have no doubt he’d adapt. He had a slogan: “If it’s a Paramount picture, it’s the best show in town.” – As told to Scott Feinberg
Carla Laemmle on Universal Pictures
Before he co-founded the Universal Film Manufacturing Co., which was incorporated in New York on April 30, 1912, German-Jewish immigrant Carl Laemmle was the first to give billing to screen actors at his previous film company — and the seeds of the star system were planted. In 1915, after coming west, Laemmle opened Universal City, the largest film production facility at the time. Eight years later, the studio released The Hunchback of Notre Dame, its highest-grossing silent film ($3 million), under president of production Irving Thalberg. When Carla Laemmle, Carl’s niece, was just 12, her father was invited to move his family from Chicago out to Los Angeles and into a bungalow on the Universal lot. As Carla entered her teens, her prowess at dance led to roles in local ballet productions, one of which was attended by her uncle, who had her screen-tested by director Erich von Stroheim and put under contract. She appeared in two classic horror films, as the prima ballerina in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera and as the secretary who delivers the first line of dialogue in 1931’s Dracula. (The line, she recalls, was “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”) Now 102, she still lives on her own in Hollywood and will appear opposite Gary Busey in Mansion of Blood, a horror film, appropriately enough, this year.
My father and uncle were born in Laupheim, Germany. My father came over when he was rather young. My uncle came over later, when he was 17, and, after a time, he became involved in distributing movies. Well, first of all, he opened a little theater in Chicago. Then he grew his business into a larger area and also began to make pictures.
My father passed away in 1929, but my mother, my grandmother and I continued to live at Universal until my uncle sold the studio in 1936. It was like a little city — it had everything. It had a hospital, a school, a police and fire department and even a zoo. That was my uncle’s vision: to have a little city built for the purpose of making movies.
My uncle became known as “Uncle Carl” to more than just his nieces and nephews because he hired a lot of family members. Willie Wyler became one of the great directors; he was a cousin. He had a brother, too, who worked there. My half-brother, Edward Laemmle, was a director.
Early on, the studio specialized in Westerns — two-reelers — because they sold well. Then they expanded into bigger productions, like All Quiet on the Western Front. The men in the front office were not in favor of doing that one, but “Junior,” Carl’s son, who became head of production around that time, convinced his father to go ahead. It won the Academy Award and is still considered one of the finest war pictures ever produced.
If there was one thing that Universal was known for, though, it was its horror pictures. The field was new, and they were the best at it. Junior was very interested in that field — he probably grew up reading a lot of horror stories. My uncle didn’t like the idea too much, but he changed his mind pretty soon. Audiences couldn’t get enough of them: Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, Bela Lugosi in Dracula, Boris Karloff in Frankenstein and so on.
There’s more violence and blood and stuff in today’s movies, but in those older movies, people’s imaginations were allowed to go a little bit further. And in all the letters that I get, people always stress that they enjoyed those movies more than today’s. I’m looking forward to Universal’s 100th anniversary party. I’ll probably be the only one there who’s older than the studio! – As told to Scott Feinberg
Robert Towne on the Los Angeles Aqueduct
About to mark its centennial, the L.A. Aqueduct carries water to Angelenos from the Owens Valley, 233 miles northeast of the city. The story behind its construction and the devastation of farming in the valley mostly was forgotten until screenwriter Robert Towne stumbled upon it while researching Chinatown. Begun in 1908 and completed in 1913, the aqueduct project was engineered by William Mulholland, who headed the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Towne relates how the waterway became a pivotal part of the screenplay for Chinatown (which recently was released in a new Blu-ray edition).
I had been thinking about doing a detective movie ever since there was an article in the old West magazine called “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.” There were a bunch of photographs that looked as if they were taken in the ’30s but were in fact shot around 1970. I realized it would be possible to re-create the L.A. of the ’30s with extant locations.
From my point of view, [Chandler’s] Philip Marlowe is not a realistic detective, so I created a detective [in Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes] who was the antithesis of Marlowe. But I didn’t know what the crime was.
Then I read the book Southern California: An Island on the Land, by Carey McWilliams. The chapter called “Water! Water! Water!” was the first time I was exposed to what happened in the Owens Valley. I thought, “Wow, it would be interesting to do a detective movie about a crime that happened right in front of everybody’s eyes.” The visuals of it immediately appealed to me. And I guess nostalgia and indignation were the two motivating factors for the screenplay.
The aqueduct was a pretty extraordinary piece of engineering. Mulholland, who has a surrogate in Hollis Mulwray in the movie, is treated rather sympathetically. He was not a greedy man, and he was a very hardworking man. He thought he was doing a great thing, bringing water to the city, and his motives were anything but materialistic. He was an amazing man, self-taught, something of a genius. But the cabal around him were very greedy men, indeed. [Los Angeles Times publisher] Harrison Gray Otis and the others, Fred Eaton, the mayor of L.A., they initially bought up the water rights throughout the Owens Valley and drove out the farmers. They were pretty awful people, in my opinion.
The first time I actually saw the aqueduct was about two years ago. Ironically and oddly enough, after all these years, the thing I’m left with is that because they destroyed that beautiful community, the land itself is as pristine as it was 60, 70 years ago. It’s one of the few places in California where you can see a
stunningly beautiful landscape. It would not be there now if they hadn’t built the aqueduct. It would be urban sprawl, and how much of those ranches would be left, I don’t know. But that’s its inadvertent legacy. – As told to Gregg Kilday
LOOK WHO ELSE AROUND TOWN IS ABOUT TO TURN 100
Western Costume Co. (1912) Founded by a trader who roamed the West doing business with Native Americans, the company (pictured above in 1929) began outfitting Westerns and went on to do Valentino’s The Sheikh and Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer on through The King and I, Titanic and The Artist.
First Gas Station in Los Angeles (1912) Cars started filling up at the corner of Grand Avenue and Washington Boulevard.
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (1913) When it opened, the museum also was given exclusive rights to remove fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits.
Sony Pictures’ Greek Colonnade (1915) The structure fronting Washington Boulevard in Culver City originally was built as the entrance for the Triangle Film Corp., which produced D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance.
Million Dollar Theater (1918) Sid Grauman debuted his first theater, a Spanish Rococo-style palace, at 307 S. Broadway in downtown L.A. It opened with The Silent Man, the 61-minute story of a gold prospector.
UCLA (1919) Founded as the southern branch of the University of California, it’s the second oldest in the UC system. The first campus was on Vermont Avenue near Melrose.
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