Read the Valleywood chapter

This chapter appears in The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb by Kevin Roderick.

The first filmmakers to come to the Valley, soon after the turn of the 20th century, were attracted by its versatile terrain and authentic-looking western locations.

Early Lasky-Famous Players movie crew.

The weather was also a plus: Compared with New York or even Hollywood, it was more predictably sunny, a crucial advantage since every frame of film had to be exposed in natural sunlight.

Directors especially favored the crumbled-down mission near San Fernando as a backdrop for their productions. When D.W. Griffith brought Biograph Pictures to Los Angeles in January, 1910 — with a company that included future film stalwarts Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett and Lionel Barrymore — he used the mission ruins and surrounding grassland for Over Silent Paths, the story of a pioneer miner and his daughter who journey to California by covered wagon.

The following year, Griffith’s company returned to “the San Fernando desert,” as his wife Linda complained, to camp out with cowboys for The Last Drop of Water. They built a mock western town on the Valley floor for The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, a two-reeler about pioneers doing battle with Indians and sandstorms.

So long as the actors and crew could withstand blazing summer days without natural shade, the Valley could pass for prairie or savanna, old Rome or, especially, the American West. Plenty of real cowboys and ranch hands were around and willing to work a few days as extras.

Directors liked hiring sun-darkened Mexicans and Japanese to add realism to scenes, although ranchers groused that the easy money paid by the film companies made it more difficult to get workers to do hard field labor after the cameras departed.

Over time, the movies came to define the Valley as much as new towns and agriculture did. Many of the biggest early screen stars made it their home. Thousands of films were shot on location in the hills and among the ranches and neighborhoods, or on studio stages.

On the list are classics like Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as hundreds of B-movies, none more forgettable than a World War II western made at Republic Studios but worth mentioning for two reasons. It featured popular cowboy singer Roy Rogers’ first onscreen kiss — to Jean Porter, not his future wife, Dale Evans — and it had a catchy title.

Variety’s review on August 23, 1944: “San Fernando Valley will be pleasant entertainment for Roy Rogers fans . . . but it is just about time for somebody to give screenwriters an ultimatum to turn out decent material or get out of town.”

 

First studios

 

The first established studio in Valleywood opened its doors in December 1912 on the Oak Crest Ranch, in a crook of the Santa Monica Mountains at the mouth of Cahuenga Pass. The Los Angeles River flowed through the studio lot.

Universal, as it came to be called, included numerous makeshift stages and a herd of long-horned cattle, and it provided work for hundreds of silent-film actors and extras. The studio, which grew to absorb the Taylor ranch and other nearby spreads, took the name Universal City on July 10, 1913.

The German-born film distributor who headed Universal, Carl Laemmle, said the studio would operate as an unofficial municipality, with residents voting for a mayor and other officials. In the first election, more than 700 people cast votes, electing actress Laura Oakley as the county’s first female chief of police. She carried badge number 99 issued by the Los Angeles Police Department, according to film historian Marc Wanamaker.

Universal City opened formally on March 15, 1915, with a boisterous party and barbecue attended by upwards of 10,000 people. A poster declared it the “world’s only movie city . . . the strangest place on earth . . . an entire city built and used exclusively for the making of motion pictures.”

It was a new kind of studio, with dozens of stages and theme sets plus barracks, shops, commissaries, hospitals, tennis courts, a school and a menagerie of wild lions, tigers, bears and pythons. The residents lived in cottages or in teepees on the grounds. The public was invited to pay twenty-five cents for a bleacher seat to watch movies being made.

As years went by, passersby got used to seeing impromptu stunts performed outside the Universal gate by would-be actors hoping to be noticed. Cowboys did horse tricks, others showed off their fast draw and all comers displayed their knife-throwing prowess.

“It was all for a purpose,” veteran cameraman Karl Brown noted in his autobiography. “Someone might see them from a front-office window — even Uncle Carl himself — after which a bored assistant might step out, crook his finger at the lucky one, say ‘You,’ and that lucky someone would be sure of a day’s work and a free lunch.”

Movie history of another kind had already been made a mile or so downriver, on a wide slope where Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills memorial park is now. There D. W. Griffith had filmed his silent Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation. The movie was far longer than customary — three hours instead of 15 or 30 minutes — and broke the rules for how to shoot action scenes.

Money was tight, but Griffith dreamed large. He was the first director to place cameras in trenches beneath stampeding horses. He staged big battle scenes among the scrub trees and grass along the river, and lit bonfires to film some of the mock warfare at night. The cast included John Ford, the future Oscar-winning director, who portrayed a Ku Klux Klansman. Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth was played by Raoul Walsh, a future director and Valley landowner.

When The Birth of a Nation premiered in February 1915, it was hailed as a breakthrough that established cinema as art and Griffith as the art’s first master. It was also embroiled in controversy.

Griffith was a Southerner, and the film became his personal attempt to spin the historic record on the Civil War and Reconstruction — “only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story,” he had told the company one night, swearing them to secrecy. He chose to treat the Klan as a heroic outfit saving the South’s gentlemen and belles from the indignities of life with freed slaves, rather than as terrorists hiding behind white sheets and hoods.

Today the film is a classic, which makes it widely available as a video rental to anyone curious to gaze at the Valley landscape circa 1914.

Griffith himself became smitten with the Valley, and he bought a ranch against the foothills of the San Gabriels, northeast of San Fernando. The spread became a hangout for Lillian Gish and other old friends, who gathered on Sundays under the fruit trees or on the screened-in patio, reading Shakespeare and Dickens and musing about the issues of the day.

 

DeMille in the Valley

 

Cecil B. DeMille, another cinema legend in the making, came to the Valley in January 1914 to shoot wild West scenes for The Squaw Man, released the following month as the first full-length motion picture made in “Hollywood.” A rock quarry near the town of Roscoe (now Sun Valley) provided the location. “There wasn’t a house anywhere,” DeMille wrote in his notes, according to film historian Wanamaker.

Later, DeMille’s Lasky-Famous Players company [see photo at top of page] leased several hundred acres along the river east of Cahuenga Pass, a site that became known in Valleywood as the Lasky Ranch. On location there, DeMille began to wear his trademark high leather boots “as a protection against snakes, scorpions, cactus or poison oak,” he later explained.

It was also there, in 1913 or ’14, that DeMille glanced at a rubbish fire started by workmen and saw an official-looking document in the flames. He pulled out and saved what turned out to be a lost copy of the first U.S. census of the city of Los Angeles, taken in 1850.

In 1916 DeMille sent his attorney ahead to check out a remote ranch for sale in Little Tujunga Canyon. The lawyer was driving back down the canyon when he ran into DeMille. Go back, his lawyer advised, “there’s nothing there but sagebrushes. It’s the wildest, most terrible place you ever saw in your life.”

But DeMille relished the isolation and named his haven Paradise Ranch. He built cabins and a redwood guest house in which the limbs of two giant oaks served as pillars in the living room. An expensive Wurlitzer Hope-Joacs pipe organ, the largest organ for home use ever built at the time, was later installed so composers could work on movie scores, beginning with The Ten Commandments.

Paradise Ranch became DeMille’s retreat from Hollywood. He rendezvoused there with his mistress, actress Julia Faye; other visitors included H. G. Wells, Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston. Male guests who accepted DeMille’s weekend invitations to the remote canyon were expected to bring black trousers and to dress for dinner in cummerbunds and silk Russian shirts he had placed in their closets.

Motion pictures fast became the Valley’s third big industry, behind ranching and subdividing. First National Studios moved in 1926 onto farmland that had belonged to David Burbank, the town’s founder. Within a few years the studio became Warner Brothers.

Warner Bros. studio beside the Los Angeles River in Burbank in 1941.

Also in 1926, work began on converting a lettuce ranch along Ventura Boulevard into a studio for Mack Sennett, who had made his reputation on the Keystone Kops comedies, and producer Al Christie. Studio City, as the developers called it, would cover almost 500 acres and include residential subdivisions and businesses. Maxwell Terrace, at Ventura and today’s Laurel Canyon boulevards, became the first housing development in the area.

The Sennett studio lot later became Republic Pictures, home of the movie cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as well as John Wayne — and today a busy TV production studio. Columbia Pictures opened a location ranch near Warner Brothers in 1936. Walt Disney moved his small animation studio into Burbank in 1938, constructing the main building oversized so that, some said, if the studio venture failed the property could be turned into a hospital.

 

Location ranches

 

With land plentiful, filming ventured off the studio lots to large location ranches across the Valley. Warner Brothers’ ranch in Woodland Hills and Calabasas grew to cover 2,800 rugged acres of oak trees and rocky grassland. Harry Warner used a corner of the ranch to raise thoroughbred horses.

No location was busier than the Iverson Ranch, set amid the rocks of Santa Susana Pass. More than 2,000 motion pictures and perhaps hundreds of early television episodes were shot on Karl Iverson’s spread after its craggy canyons and picturesque boulder fields were discovered by location scouts.

The Iverson was notorious among the actors for heat and dust — and rattlesnakes. Lillian Gish said that in the spring actors were given a vial full of poison antidote in case they were bitten. “I’d say about 90% of all the cowboy movies were made on this ranch,” Sunset Carson, who performed in 60 westerns, told the L.A. Times at a reunion of stunt men in 1985, after the construction of the Simi Valley Freeway through the ranch had virtually shut down filming.

Roy Rogers, who made his first and last films at the ranch, and the family of former child actress Shirley Temple each offered to buy the Iverson, but the sales never happened. Much of the acreage has now been subdivided. Townhouses cover the old main entrance off Santa Susana Pass Road.

The Garden of the Gods, a remarkable grove of rock outcroppings where hundreds of film scenes were shot, was preserved by the efforts of the Santa Susana Mountains Conservancy.

Another location ranch covered 110 acres of farmland in Encino west of Balboa Boulevard and south of the river. The RKO studio ranch, opened in 1929, had New York streets, mock mansions, an airplane hangar and a Moroccan marketplace. A herd of black-faced sheep grazed on the open fields between sets and kept the grass in check.

No film ever required disguising the Valley as much as the production at RKO’s ranch of It’s a Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra Christmas classic with Jimmy Stewart as a suicidal man who rediscovers the joy of life. Craftsmen worked for two months to build Bedford Falls, the film’s mythical town, on the lot.

The town’s Main Street was planted with twenty large Encino oaks. For autumn in Bedford Falls, the leaves were knocked off the trees. Before winter scenes, crews coated the trunks and limbs with white plaster. The famous snow scenes where Jimmy Stewart discovers that he likes life were filmed outside on a hot June day in 1946. The entire “town” was covered in artificial snow, using gypsum, plaster and crushed ice. The ranch closed down in 1953, and the site is now suburban homes and soccer fields.

 

The Valleywood colony

Stars in the early days of Hollywood tended to work for a single studio, so it was convenient for actors connected to Warners or Universal or Republic to reside in the Valley. Others were drawn to the Valley for its plentiful ranches, polo fields and open land.

Actor Gary Cooper lived on ten acres in Van Nuys. Cowboy star Tom Mix had a ranch at Canterbury Avenue and Osborne Street in Arleta. Until John Wayne moved to Orange County after contracting lung cancer, his family lived on five lush rolling acres at 4750 Louise Avenue in Encino. Laurel and Hardy, the comedy duo, had a neighborhood theater where they tried out material, the Fun Factory at 14155 Magnolia Street.

The Valleywood colony, then as now, mostly attracted young families who favored a life filled with backyard barbecues and babies outside the swirl of Beverly Hills. Lucille Ball was 28 and Desi Arnaz, her bandleader husband, just 23 when they paid $16,900 for a ranch house and five acres behind a white plank fence at 19700 Devonshire Street, in orange groves between Northridge and Chatsworth.

They dubbed it Desilu Ranch, bought a station wagon and adopted a pack of dogs and six cats. Desi planted fruit trees and built an extra suite for parties that also served as his home in exile when the couple fought, which they did often. One morning, Lucy got up at dawn and in a rage used a hammer to smash every window in the station wagon.

They also made up with style. On her thirtieth birthday, Desi sent Lucy to town to do some shopping. When she returned in late afternoon, she traversed the long driveway off Devonshire to find a Latin combo leading forty friends in “Happy Birthday.” Floating white gardenias covered the pool.

Chatsworth and Northridge were still fairly remote outposts in the early 1940s, and socializing centered around quiet evenings at home. The regulars for bridge and gin rummy at Desilu included neighbor actors such as William Holden, Gordon McRae and Francis Lederer, a matinee idol who reigned over a corner of the west Valley from his hacienda atop a ridge beside Sherman Way. Desi’s musicians often showed up for a good time as well. “We celebrated Halloween, birthdays, new puppies, salary raises: anything was pretext for a party,” Ball wrote in her autobiography, Love, Lucy.

Another pair of lovers who tried their hand at ranching were Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Gable and Lombard were Hollywood’s most glamorous It couple, the hottest male lead in the country and a female comedic star nominated for an Oscar for My Man Godfrey.

After he finished shooting Gone With the Wind and received his divorce, they were married and moved onto a 25-acre ranch in the Encino hills that had been a weekend retreat for director Raoul Walsh. The neighbors included studio mogul Daryll F. Zanuck and singer Al Jolson.

The ranch came with a two-story house, stables for nine horses, a hay barn, workshop and garage, 250 citrus trees and shady eucalyptus and peppers. The lovebirds gave each other horses — a sorrel show horse called Sonny for Gable, and a bay polo pony named Melody for Lombard. She wore pigtails and grubby clothes to work on the property, and took shooting lessons so she could go hunting with the boys. But nights were elegant-linen napkins, Waterford crystal and antique flatware were her style. She also enjoyed driving the yellow Cadillac Gable had given her.

Gable bought a Caterpillar tractor and joined the citrus association, but after three poor seasons he gave up on the notion of turning a profit. They also tried raising hens, but the eggs cost about a dollar apiece to produce. If he couldn’t succeed at growing, at least he could defend the castle. One afternoon a burglar managed to get into the house by bluffing the cook, took a pistol and hid overnight in the garage. The next morning, Gable caught the intruder inside the house and they scuffled. Gable came out on top, and the Van Nuys police were called.

Valleywood’s celebrated marriage ended in tragedy on January 16, 1942. Lombard was returning from a war-bond promotion visit to her home state of Indiana when her TWA DC-3 crashed near Las Vegas, decapitating Lombard and killing everyone on board, including her mother. The Van Nuys News ran an unusual front page tribute:

“Down deep in their hearts, those who had chatted with her over the back fence or across a garden row knew that Carole Lombard wanted more than anything else to be a model housewife and a good neighbor. And she was just that. She was a loveable person, just as much at home in blue denims and ginghams as she was in furs and jewels.”

Gable seemed devastated. He began racing his motorcycle on the country lanes that crisscrossed the Valley, sometimes with actor friends Keenan Wynn, Andy Devine and Ward Bond, but often morose and alone. Lucy feared that her friend was recklessly flirting with death. He would skid to a stop on her long driveway off Devonshire and pour out his grief for hours. “Carole and Clark did everything together,” Lucy marveled. “That was a marriage.”

Gable joined the Army, then remarried and lived in the Encino house until his death on November 16, 1960; his widow, Kay, lived there into the 1970s.

 

The Golden Age of Valleywood

 

In the ’30s and ’40s the Valley became widely known as a playground for celebrities. Many played cricket or polo — studio boss Zanuck had his own field in Encino — but the pursuit of choice was golf.

Lakeside Country Club was the unofficial colony course, and the adjacent neighborhood of Toluca Lake became for many the most chic address. Tales were told of the elusive Greta Garbo being sighted through hedges and a tipsy W. C. Fields battling swans while rowing from his rented quarters across the lake to the country club for his daily round of golf.

Bing Crosby, who built a house at 4326 Forman Avenue, reigned for years as the Lakeside champion. He used to joke that Fields sat in his arbor by the lake sipping bourbon and practicing his comedy and juggling routines. He gave it up, Crosby said, because the geese hissed him.

Crosby moved into Beverly Hills, but Bob Hope, his longtime film partner and golf rival, remained to become the unrivaled dean of the Toluca Lake colony. Hope’s compound on Moorpark Street looks no different than other suburban estates in the area, save for high hedges and iron gates.

Behind the fence is a sprawling house with separate wings for Hope and his wife Dolores, a small golf course and offices that used to house his archives and legendary computer catalog of jokes. The Hope compound was a center of parties and activity; Dolores prayed daily at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church on Lankershim and Moorpark, and there were often priests or dignitaries at the house working with her on projects.

Stars favoring a more rural existence put down stakes farther west. Northridge, which called itself the Horse Capital of the West, boasted dozens of working ranches and attracted celebrities who liked to ride or to breed.

When she became estranged from her first husband, Frank Fay, 28-year-old Barbara Stanwyck fled Brentwood for the hills of Northridge and went into the thoroughbred breeding business with her agent Zeppo Marx, one of the Marx Brothers comedy team. Their Marwyck Ranch covered 140 acres of pasture and barns along north Reseda Boulevard, on a gentle hill near where the pavement ended at two-lane Devonshire Street. On a neighboring knoll lived actress Janet Gaynor and her husband, the designer Adrian.

Stanwyck began dating actor Robert Taylor, a young rising star for MGM who enjoyed Saturday barbecues and swimming parties at the ranch. He soon joined the rush to the land and built his own house on a hill nearby. After Stanwyck and Taylor married, they gave up the Valley for Beverly Hills.

In 1940 Stanwyck sold her share of the ranch to Marx and her Paul Williams-designed house at 18650 Devonshire Street to Jack Oakie, a comic actor nominated that year for the supporting actor Oscar for his role as the dictator Napolini in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.Oakie planted orange trees, raised Afghan hounds and hosted celebrity parties around his hilltop swimming pool, which enjoyed a view to the south across orchards and horse ranches.

“Ah, those bacchanalian Sunday binges at your baronial manor — Northridge’s last stand against civilization — the most palatial rabbit hutch west of the Picos,” writer Seaman Jacobs scribed in a scrapbook presented to Oakie on his 70th birthday.

The west Valley show business colony included gossip columnist Louella Parsons and even labor racketeer Willie Bioff, who controlled the Hollywood unions and who used a $100,000 payoff from the president of United Artists to purchase an 80-acre horse and alfalfa ranch, the Laurie A, at Shoup Avenue and Oxnard Street in Woodland Hills.

The heyday of Valleywood before World War II also included important novelists who tried their hand at screenwriting. William Faulkner worked on The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not at Warner Brothers. Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald toiled as studio writers in the late 1930s, and both resided in the Valley at the end of the decade.

West crafted scripts for Republic Pictures, and later RKO, while writing his Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust. After he married Eileen McKenney in December 1940, the couple moved into a brick house on two acres of walnuts and pears at 12706 Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood.

Fitzgerald’s Valley months were more tortured. Already renowned for The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald did jobs for MGM while struggling to write his novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon. He rented a guest house at Belly Acres, the Encino realm of comic actor Edward Everett Horton.

From his manor house on a little rise on Amestoy Avenue, Horton kept a suspicious eye peeled on his famous alcoholic tenant in the white guest cottage. After Horton was seen poking through the discarded gin bottles, Fitzgerald gave his secretary an unsavory task: She hid his bottles in burlap sacks, then once a week drove up Sepulveda Pass and dropped the bags into a ravine. Fitzgerald memorialized her furtive forays in a story, “Pat Hobby’s College Days,” published in Esquire.

The young secretary, Frances Kroll Ring, became the troubled writer’s caretaker and confidante. He dictated and drank in his upstairs bedroom, often while still in bed, while she typed in the office downstairs. When he wanted to give up his ritual straight gin, Fitzgerald would try to drown the urge with Cokes, cigarettes and fudge, but he could never stay dried out for long.

The Pat Hobby stories and piecework for Hollywood kept him in gin and paid Ring’s $35-a-week salary. After a coronary scare, Fitzgerald left Encino for an apartment on Laurel Avenue in West Hollywood to be near his lover, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. As his health deteriorated and climbing steps became an effort, he moved in with her.

On December 21, 1940, at the age of 44, Fitzgerald dropped dead of a heart attack on their floor. The Last Tycoon sat only half finished.

The next day, Nathanael West and his new wife were driving home from a hunting trip in Mexico when he neglected to stop at an intersection outside El Centro. They were both killed in the crash, leaving the Magnolia Boulevard home full of unpacked moving cartons. West was 37, McKenney 27.