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.


  1. Excellent question -- why doesn't Georges Méliès have a star on the Walk of Fame?. I think it's time for a star campaign. I mean if Adam Sandler is recognized as worthy, c'mon...

    1. Exactly! I read about the process, but I’m not sure how it works when the nominee is long-dead and died penniless. It’s definitely something I’d like to work on, though.

    2. It's my hunch that most people who are the guardians of cinematic history (e.g., Scorsese) might be surprised to find Georges has no star. I'm sure it could take off if the right people can be addressed.

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    4. I’m sure Martin Scorsese knows...he addressed Méliès’ later life (broke and selling toys in a train station) in his film “Hugo”. He rewrote Méliès’ story with a happy Hollywood ending, of course.