Thursday, January 31, 2019

The French Roadhouse That Became Hollywood's First Film Studio

The film and television industry owes an immeasurable debt to French innovators.

The very first motion-picture camera was invented by a Frenchman - Louis Le Prince.

Although Thomas Edison gets much of the credit for early moving pictures, it was the Lumière brothers who invented the cinematograph. The cinematograph, a combination camera and projector, was the first device to make screenings for more than one viewer possible. (Gaston and Auguste Lumière both have stars on the Walk of Fame, although Auguste's is spelled incorrectly. An earlier and very different cinematograph was invented by another Frenchman, Léon Bouly, who sold the name and patent to the brothers.)

Cinema as a whole owes a great many things to Georges Méliès. Not only did Méliès build the first film studio on record anywhere, he pioneered the stop trick, time-lapse, dissolves, multiple exposures, and hand-tinting. Disney* gets most of the credit for storyboards, but Méliès is known to have used them to plan visual effects. His best-known films A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage are among the earliest science fiction and fantasy films on record. (Méliès never came to California, but his brother Gaston did. More on him soon. Also, why does Méliès not have a star on the Walk of Fame?!)

The world's first film company, Gaumont, still exists today and is still headquartered in France.

The Pathé brothers created the world's largest film equipment and production company and invented the newsreel. My Baby Boomer readers might recall seeing "Color by Pathé" in the credits of some of their favorite TV shows.

You get the idea. In order for Hollywood as we know it to exist, French inventors had to exist first.

But in the earlier days of Hollywood, back when it was a very different sort of artists' colony, there was a roadhouse owned by a Frenchman. That roadhouse played a role in changing everything.

René Blondeau was from Normandy, a region of France known more for hard apple cider than for wine. Blondeau's Tavern, built in 1892, stood on Sunset Boulevard near Gower Street.

René Blondeau passed away in 1902. The town of Hollywood, which had not yet been absorbed by Los Angeles, went dry in 1904. The roadhouse was no longer a viable business, and Blondeau's Tavern sat empty for years.

In 1911, filmmakers David Horsley and Al Christie came to town in search of a home for their Nestor Motion Picture Company. Cinema was still in its infancy, and Hollywood residents thought filmmakers were crazy. There were other filmmakers in the LA area, but none in sleepy little Hollywood.

Two stories are told about how Nestor Motion Picture Company found its new home. Either a local photographer introduced Horsley to Marie Blondeau, or a real estate agent knew about the property. In either case, René Blondeau's widow Marie did indeed rent the long-vacant roadhouse to Christie and Horsley.

Blondeau's Tavern, with some alterations, was well suited to an early studio. The roadhouse's large bar area became the carpentry shop, the private dining rooms became offices and stars' dressing rooms, and the less fortunate performers had makeshift dressing rooms in the barn's horse stalls (the barn also doubled as the prop cage). The orange grove and tropical plants in the roadhouse's back garden made a lovely backdrop for outdoor scenes (unfortunately oranges tended to appear pitch-black on film), and a stage was constructed behind the roadhouse.

The day after renting the tavern, Horsley and Christie began shooting The Law of the Range, starring Harold Lockwood. (Although Lockwood died in New York, last year's Halloween and Mourning tour of Heritage Square featured a tableau of Lockwood's 1918 funeral. He is, to my knowledge, the only movie actor to have died in the Spanish flu pandemic.)

If you're wondering why you haven't heard of Nestor, don't feel too bad for them. Nestor was acquired by Universal in 1912.

The tavern is a very distant memory today. The Gower Gulch shopping center now stands on the site. Gower Gulch is themed like a Western town. It's a fitting (if slightly hokey) tribute to the filming location of Hollywood's first-ever film - a Western. (Bringing the whole story full circle, the French love classic American Westerns.)

René Blondeau, fittingly, is buried among later Hollywood legends at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

*Yes, Walt Disney had French ancestry. I'll get to him.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Fasten Your Seatbelts, It's Going to be a Bumpy Entry

(This entry refers, several times, to the 1950 Bette Davis film All About Eve. I felt the comparison was apt.)

As it happens, there are particular aspects of my life to which I would like to maintain sole and exclusive rights and privileges. For instance: all my hard work!

I will establish the facts with the following timeline.

Spring 2013: Began researching LA's lost French community.
Summer 2013: Began mapping French-linked locations in Southern California for personal reference (to date, I have mapped nearly 450).

May 15, 2016: After three years of researching dead French Angelenos, I officially launched this blog and posted my first entry.

Before the launch of "Frenchtown Confidential", the French and French-speaking section of Los Angeles wasn't written as a single word ANYWHERE (I did a LOT of Googling before coming up with the name). Where it had a specific name at all, it was normally called "the French Colony", or, in rare cases, "French Town" (two words). I changed it to one word because I thought it flowed better.

June, July, August, and September 2016: Contacted multiple media outlets in Los Angeles (and one in Paris) pitching an article on LA's lost French community. None of them responded.

I later realized that all but two of the media outlets in question have employed a writer I will refer to only as "Eve Harrington". (I would rather not have anyone Googling her real name, and you'll understand why soon enough. But if you look at the clues, you'll know who it is.)

August 3, 2016: Posted an entry calling out three local writers for making rather egregious omissions at the expense of some very important dead French Angelenos.

One of them - the worst offender, in fact - was Eve Harrington.

September 30, 2016: Posted this entry on Victor Ponet.

October 2016: One of the media outlets that I'd contacted over the summer ran an error-filled, sloppily-researched piece on the lost French community...written by Eve Harrington. (Please don't Google it. It's an inexcusable mess and it doesn't deserve whatever page views it got.)

I complained to said media outlet's editor and received no response.

November 16, 2016: Having received zero response, and having little other recourse, I posted this entry detailing the numerous factual errors Eve Harrington saw fit to put in print and calling her out for her actions.

Once again, no response of any kind.

May 27, 2017: Gave my first talk on Frenchtown. Mentioned early Hollywood's two most important French figures - René Blondeau and Paul de Longpré.

September 12, 2017: Appeared on episode 121 of You Can't Eat the Sunshine, discussing my research, blog, and upcoming LAVA Sunday Salon.

September 23, 2017: Presented my LAVA Sunday Salon (I gave the short version of my Frenchtown lecture) and walking tour of French-associated sites in the Plaza.

October 2017: Eve Harrington runs a piece on Paul de Longpré. (Please don't Google it. Also, I'm interviewing de Longpré's biographer in the future.)

February 17, 2018: Gave my second lecture on Frenchtown.

October 22, 2018: I posted the first in a series of entries on early LA's French restauranteurs.

November 26, 2018: I submitted a job application to the parent company of one of the previously mentioned media outlets. (I hadn't seen Eve's name on the site in months and hoped she wasn't working there anymore. Anything she can do, I can do honestly and without another writer's help.)

Last Week: My LAVA Sunday Salon debuted on YouTube.

Two Days Ago: Eve published a piece on the early history of Sunset Boulevard...including Victor Ponet.

This is especially creepy for three reasons: 1. My mother worked at a private school that was on the St. Victor's church property (donated by Ponet). I've mentioned this in lectures and in an Instagram post. 2. I'm a huge music fan and have spent many, MANY hours at Sunset Strip music clubs. I won't be surprised if she uses this a lead-in for a more recent history of the Strip...and I won't be the least bit surprised if she name-drops most of the bands in my vinyl collection ('60s rock up through '80s glam metal and beyond).* 3. This piece appeared just 12 days after I unveiled a working miniature Rainbow Bar & Grill sign I made.

There is no way she didn't do this on purpose. It hits too close to home, on three counts.

Also Two Days Ago: I received an email (hi Richard) informing me that Eve Harrington struck again, in a different publication.

Not only did Eve hijack my ongoing theme of French dining in early LA, she managed to use part of my blog title without asking me first OR properly crediting my blog (and I think it's pretty obvious she's reading it, since I'm the one who coined "Frenchtown"). She also persists in making the ridiculous claim that Frenchtown is now Chinatown. As I already explained the last time I detailed her various factual errors, that is inaccurate and a gross oversimplification of Frenchtown's geography. Hiistoric Frenchtown is NOT in modern-day Chinatown.  (Trust me on that, I'm the one who's spent 5 1/2 years on The Great Big Map of French Los Angeles!)

The fact that she's using my work for financial gain, when I LOSE money on this blog (rare old books and research trips aren't cheap), makes the whole thing even worse. I started this blog to share French Angelenos' stories, NOT so someone else could profit from it.

I'm well aware of the fact that I'm "just" a shy nerd with a blog. But these are MY people. I care very deeply about telling their stories properly and I don't want them tainted by association with someone who doesn't respect them enough to get the facts straight.

I was merely irritated by Eve's bratty antics at first. But she has now crossed the line and I am VERY creeped out by her latest stunts.

If you like this blog...if you like LA history...if you are as fed up with the Eve Harringtons of the world as I am...if you are a creative who has had their ideas stolen...please help a girl out and send this entry to Eve Harrington's editors.

They've ignored me, but they might listen to someone else. I don't need to talk to them; I just want them to know what kind of person she is. Everybody has a heart - except some people.

Lost LA: viewerservices@kcet.org
LAist: Contact page
LA Weekly: Contact page
Curbed LA: Contact page
Atlas Obscura: Contact page

Eve Harrington, if you are reading this (and I know you will), you shouldn't be a writer if you can't come up with your own material. I suggest moving to Kansas and getting a secretarial job in a brewery.

Look closely, Eve. It's time you did. I am Charlotte de Vere. I am nobody's fool, least of all yours.

Goodnight from Frenchtown (which is NOT CHINATOWN),

C.C.

P.S. I would like to politely, but firmly, remind anyone else who needs to be reminded that original blog content is protected by copyright law. There is a copyright notice in the footer (and even if there wasn't one, it's incredibly unprofessional to do this stuff).

P.P.S. *Update: she did that too. She has since "written" about the Wiltern Theatre (seriously?) which I first did in 2016. QUIT CREEPING ON ME, "EVE". I MEAN IT.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Watch My LAVA Sunday Salon!

If you couldn't make it to my September 2017 LAVA Sunday Salon, it's now available on Youtube. As always, much love to Kim and Richard for letting me ramble and for posting the video...to the sold-out audience for coming to hear me ramble...to my family for patiently listening to me practice...to Nathan "Cranky Preservationist" Marsak for his wit and expertise...and to Jean Bruce Poole for everything she has done to preserve Los Angeles' history.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Open Letter To All The Snobs Who Say SoCal Has No History

(Dear readers: permit me, if you will, to veer slightly off topic tonight. I've been wanting to get this off my chest for quite some time now.)

Dear Snobs:

Look, I GET it. Your East Coast hometowns look and feel like they've been around forever. You're proud of your roots. Unless you have a connection to someone or something absolutely despicable (i.e. slaveowning ancestors), you have every right to be proud.

You do not, however, have the right to loudly, nastily, and inaccurately claim that "Southern California doesn't have any history."

Our history may not look like yours, but that doesn't make it any less real. 

Some of you seem to think the history of North America didn't begin until the first English settlers landed. Wrong - there were already people living here. Southern California, which still has a large Native American population, knows this and doesn't pretend the world began when the Spanish invaded.

North Carolina famously has the lost colony of Roanoke. It's an intriguing story. But we famously have ghost towns (and they're still standing!).

The South has retained many of its historic plantations. Similarly, we have the missions established by Spanish Catholic priests. (I've seen historic homes in Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia. Funny how I don't recall EVER seeing slave quarters on properties that definitely had them. Meanwhile, Californians don't kid ourselves about the fact that Native Americans in the mission system had miserable lives.)

You say Coney Island. I say Knott's Berry Farm (turning 100 next year!), Balboa Fun Zone, and the Santa Monica Pier. (Hey, remember the beautiful antique carousel from "The Sting"? The Looff Hippodrome has been on the Santa Monica Pier for over a century.)

New Yorkers are proud of Central Park. Bostonians are proud of Boston Common. Both are very nice urban parks. But Griffith Park - which has a very unusual history of its own - is nice too. And it has a beautiful Art Deco observatory.

Virginia has Jamestown and Williamsburg. I've been to both and they definitely have educational value. But so does Los Angeles' historic plaza. Ditto for Old Town State Historic Park in San Diego.

Virginia also gives us the heavily sanitized story of Pocahontas. The San Gabriel Valley gives us the true story of Toypurina, a powerful Kizh shaman who helped orchestrate a plot to overthrow the padres at Mission San Gabriel and take back the land occupied by the Spanish. (The plot failed, but the Spanish didn't dare to execute Toypurina when she was convicted.)

Are you from a town with a history of piracy? Cool. I'm not. BUT Southern California did have lots of rum runners and bootleggers during Prohibition (some of them with close ties to Los Angeles City Hall...you can't make this stuff up), along with all the other misbehaving characters you'll find in a classic noir film. There are tunnels under downtown Los Angeles to this day, although many have been blocked off over the years.

San Diego was founded in 1769. That makes San Diego older than Louisville (1778), Nashville (1779), and Montpelier (1781).

Los Angeles was founded September 4, 1781. Which makes Los Angeles older than Asheville (1785), Columbia (1786), Cincinnati (1788), Buffalo (1789), and Washington, D.C. (1790).  Not to mention older than Chicago (1803), Montgomery (1819), Indianapolis (1821), Kansas City (1838), and Atlanta (1843). Just saying...

New Yorkers have every right to appreciate Grand Central Terminal. It is a beautiful building. But so is Los Angeles Union Station, built in a style that perfectly combines both Mission Revival and Art Deco. (And Union Station has outdoor green space - an extreme rarity for a train station in a major city.)

Oh, your hometown has beautiful Victorian houses? Great! So does mine. It's true that many of SoCal's Victorians have vanished over the years, but there are still surviving specimens in Los Angeles (Carroll Avenue and Heritage Square in particular), Santa Monica, San Pedro, Santa Ana, San Diego, Orange, Anaheim (yes, really), and even sleepy old Riverside. (There are more, but it's late and I'm tired.)

You say your hometown has unique architecture - things you won't see anywhere else? That's very cool. But guess where else that holds true? Yup - here! Charles and Henry Greene elevated the humble Craftsman house to an art form, especially in Pasadena (two words: Gamble House). Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses completely unlike his earlier work, doing things with concrete blocks that no one else had ever done before. We have the Bradbury Building. And Los Angeles in particular has many of the earliest, and best, examples of fantasy architecture in the world. My personal favorites are the Snow White cottages in Los Feliz and the Coca-Cola building (full disclosure: my dad worked there).

Chicago has the Field Museum. New York has the American Museum of Natural History. Both are world-famous, and for good reason. But have you been to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which boasts four of the ten complete (or near-complete) Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons known to exist? (My favorite exhibit? "Becoming Los Angeles", beginning with the area's Native American roots and continuing until the present day. I have seriously considered becoming a museum member just so I can visit that exhibit whenever I want.)

East Coast cities (and Chicago) have excellent art museums. Someday I'd like to see them all. But Southern California has LACMA (don't underestimate LACMA, seriously), the Getty, the Broad, and the Huntington Library and Gardens (which has quite a lot of priceless art - Gainsborough, Fragonard, etc. in addition to the rare books and antiques). If you're a snob on a layover in LA, forget the tourist stuff and just spend the day at the Huntington. You'll thank me later.

The East Coast and the South have beautiful cemeteries (especially New Orleans). But Hollywood Forever, Angelus Rosedale, and the many iterations of Forest Lawn are beautiful too. I'm not thrilled about Evergreen Cemetery's shameful history of neglect, but there are neglected cemeteries in every part of the United States.

Does your hometown have a famous ghost story? We've got those too. San Diego's Whaley House is one of only two that the State of California acknowledges as "haunted". There  are way too many other ghost stories for me to list, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of books on the subject. (This one is the best. You'll thank me later.)

Did something very, very bad happen in your hometown? Salem, Massachusetts has learned to live with its legacy as the site of North America's most infamous witch trials (coincidentally, my 10th great grandmother, Rebecca Nurse, was hanged in Salem). Los Angeles acknowledges, but is definitely not proud of, the 1871 Chinese Massacre. That's right - the deadliest race riot in American history happened in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles is also known for the Manson family murders and the creepy Hotel Cecil, which inspired "American Horror Story: Hotel". We're not proud of this stuff, but we don't pretend it never happened. You know what they say about learning from the past.)

When most people think of LGBT+ rights, the 1969 Stonewall riots immediately come to mind. While Stonewall was a major turning point, it wasn't the first such incident in the United States. Los Angeles experienced its own Stonewall on December 31, 1966, when the Black Cat bar was raided by police. The Stonewall Inn moved, burned down, and is now located in half of the original site; the Black Cat building is still intact (although these days it's a gastropub). Oh, and the Black Cat building just so happens to be a charming Art Deco specimen.

Any Art Deco in your hometown? We have tons of it - Los Angeles and Long Beach especially. Los Angeles exploded during Art Deco's heyday; Long Beach collapsed and burned in a 1933 earthquake and rebuilt itself as an Art Deco city. (And yes, the Queen Mary, in all her faded Art Deco glory, is dry-docked in Long Beach...and yes, I belong to the Art Deco Society.) We also have lots of surviving Googie architecture. (You call it "tacky", I call it "fun".)

Does your hometown have a beautiful old movie palace, preferably still screening films? We have lots of those. Some have been converted to retail spaces or houses of worship, some are closed, and some only screen films occasionally. But we love our surviving movie palaces. Los Angeles has its own Historic Theatre Foundation (I'm a member), and one downtown stretch of Broadway has the highest concentration of historic movie theaters in the world. (One of my bucket list items is to see a movie in every surviving SoCal movie palace that still does screenings. I'm working on it.)

Does your hometown have lots of maritime history? So does San Diego. (Full disclosure again: Dad did some work for the Maritime Museum.) Military history? San Diego, Coronado, Long Beach, Orange County, and Wilmington too. Long Beach even has the oldest tattoo parlor in the United States, due at least in part to the Navy's long tenure in the city.

Do you belong to a historic preservation society? The Los Angeles Conservancy is the largest such group in the United States (you guessed it...I'm a member). If the greater Los Angeles area didn't have any history worth preserving, there wouldn't BE a Conservancy in the first place.

Finally, if Southern California doesn't have any history...how, exactly, are you reading this on a niche local history blog?

"Our" history may not look like "your" history. But that doesn't mean we have no history at all. Shut the %&@# up!

Goodnight from Frenchtown,

C.C.