We take the word ‘Hollywood’ for granted. Whether you’re a corn farmer from Iowa, a tango teacher from Buenos Aires, or you spend your days filling bottles of vodka in the back blocks of Moscow, the word ‘Hollywood’ conjures up the same thing: svelte movie goddesses, towering film cameras, vast sets of Munchkin villages or Saharan oases, red carpet premieres dotted with blinding spotlights, wild parties, sidewalks embedded with star-shaped pink terrazzo, totalitarian moguls with the power to make or break thousands of careers and a curly-haired 6-year-old who can tap dance like she’s been doing it for forty years.
It’s an image we’ve held in our cultural collective for so long that we don’t question it. Hollywood = movies = glamor = abundance = excess. Nobody would–or could–argue differently. So it came as a surprise to me to discover that that wasn’t the case originally. In researching for my Garden of Allah series, I found it interesting to learn that the city of Hollywood was founded originally by a pair of bible-thumping, temperance-approving, prohibitionist-espousing mid-Westerners.
Harvey Wilcox and his wife Daeida landed in Los Angeles from Kansas in 1883 as part of the huge influx of immigrants precipitated by the arrival of the Southern Pacific railway–the first transcontinental line to reach L.A. thus making what was a hellish journey much easier. In 1886 Harvey bought a 120-acre tract of land in the Cahuenga Valley at (what is now) Hollywood Blvd. and Cahuenga Ave. This large parcel of land needed a name but what to call it?
Harvey leaned towards calling his estate ‘Figwood’ because fig trees grew wild in the area but Daeida hated the name: to the mind of a Victorian, teetotaling Midwestern Methodist, the name had positively reeked with pornographic suggestiveness—you know…fig leaves…we’re all quite aware of what the bible says they hide, thank you very much but I don’t think so…
Fortunately though, she had a back-up name to suggest to her husband. She had recently made a cross-country train trip during which she’d met a lady who’d just built an estate which she had named Hollywood. Even though there was a complete absence of holly in her husband’s land, she prevailed upon Harvey to name it Hollywood. Evidently her husband agreed as on February 1st, 1887 Harvey Wilcox registered a map with the county recorder for the purposes of subdivision: the name on the map was HOLLYWOOD.
The Wilcox’s teetotalling, temperance values held firm for the next few decades–the fledgling town banned brothels, casinos, liquor, singing, dancing, theatrical entertainment and was, of course, segregated. This was a time when actors clung from the lowest rung of social class. For years around Los Angeles there would be signs out the front of cafes saying ‘NO DOGS OR ACTORS.’ They were even billed below dogs. Until the 1910s, no actors were permitted to stay overnight in the town of Hollywood. Once they’d finished practicing their lowly craft, they were required to get the hell out of town which usually meant having to catch the street car back to what’s now referred to as downtown L.A.
As far as the thin-lipped locals were concerned, things became unstuck late in 1913 when the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company (a predecessor of Paramount Pictures), headed by director Cecil B. deMille, traveled west from New York to film The Squaw Man in Arizona. But dust storms sent them on to L.A., and then on to Hollywood. Filming on the first important feature film made in California commenced on December 29th, 1913. To shoot the film, they needed a barn and found one to rent. Back then it stood at the corner of Vine Street and Selma Avenue and is still in existence. Today is stands at the top end of Highland Ave opposite the Hollywood Bowl featuring a sign above the porch reading “Lasky-DeMille Barn” and is owned by the Hollywood Heritage, an organization dedicated to preserving Hollywood landmarks.
Unfortunately for the local disapproving naysayers, The Squaw Man went on to become a major box-office smash–the first hit movie made in Los Angeles. Produced for $15,000, it made a whopping $200,000 and led to Hollywood becoming the movie capital of the world. All those horrid actors…?! In our virtuous town…?! Not even to appear on the stage but to make motion pictures…?! The locals must have been appalled but hey, that’s Hollywood, baby!