SI Vault
Daniel Fuchs
July 18, 1984
The land, the movies, the studios, the freeways, the deserts, the canyons, the plants and flowers. Observations factual and fanciful on the host city of the 1984 Olympics
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July 18, 1984

Los Angeles

The land, the movies, the studios, the freeways, the deserts, the canyons, the plants and flowers. Observations factual and fanciful on the host city of the 1984 Olympics

In 1940, my family and I started going to a new young dentist, just in from the East and opening an office, who in time became a top practitioner in the Beverly Hills community. There were altogether two or three or four of them, stars in their profession, sought out and famous; nowadays some new ones are coming up in the nearby Westwood section of Los Angeles. In those days, when the dentist and my family got together, the area was quiet, sleepy in the sun, made up of low-lying stucco structures; I used to tell my two small sons, when they were lost to look up, find the Beverly Hills City Hall—five stories or so with a blue and gold dome above the building's broad base—and then they'd know where they were and how to work their way home. There were, actually, only two other tall buildings, the hotel on Wilshire Boulevard and the building my dentist had his office in.

Sitting in his chair there, I had a clear view around for miles. I could see the arid, deserted fields of the Twentieth Century Fox back lot—now Century City, jammed with high-rise office buildings, condominiums, shopping malls, banks, theaters, department stores, traffic arteries and all the rest, a metropolis. And making my periodic visits as I did over the decades, I had a front row seat, so to speak, at the passing show and was able to watch, in a kind of slow motion, the various developments as they unfolded and changed the region.

I used to take my sons when they were little, and some friends of theirs, to the Fox back lot on Saturday afternoons. The sets were left standing, drying out and abandoned once the shooting was over and they had been used, waiting to be vamped, repainted and used again; and the children would busy themselves for an hour among these pleasant surroundings—the canals (Drums Along the Mohawk, Henry Fonda), the city streets, Western streets, the fronts of great castles (Tyrone Power), galleons, train sheds, old railroad depots, adobe forts. We also played softball games there, the Fox movie writers taking on Paramount's and Warners', a few ringers—directors, actors—slipping in on both sides. A bank, on the corner of Moreno and little Santa Monica Boulevard, now stands on what used to be leftfield.

Lupe Velez had some sort of radio program that was scheduled to be heard on the East Coast at, I think, four in the afternoon. It went out live—the way it was done then—and promptly at one o'clock the tiny actress would be seen at work in one of the studio's unassigned stages—working there in the empty barn so that the sponsors of the program could truthfully say the broadcast was emanating from a real Hollywood studio. That is the picture I have of her in my mind, standing alone and small, hunched up at the microphone in that cavernous place, in the drowsy midday sun that washed in through the big opened stage door.

It was an unhurried time. The streets were lonely and still. This was before the rush, before the hundreds of thousands moved to California and filled up the great spaces of this remarkably overlarge city. There was a freedom, the exhilaration and contentment that come with beginnings, when everything is new. You would go up to someone and greet him effusively, someone perfectly familiar to you but whose name for the moment had escaped you; you'd shake hands, ask him where he had been, what he was doing with himself, how he and his were—and it was only as you walked away and left him that you realized you had been talking to Allen Jenkins or Ned Sparks and not to anyone you knew personally at all. But the point was that he had greeted you back just as joyfully, had shaken hands too, asked how you and yours were, and played along. There were in the early days the oil industry and the citrus groves, but relatively few people were employed in those lines of work, and for the most part it was the movie studios that occupied the attention of the town and gave it its complexion. You saw one actor or another in the hardware store picking up gadgets for his home, Magnani fussing with a companion on the Saks parking lot, Astaire crossing Beverly Drive early in the morning to buy some records at the Gramophone shop. The comedians would hold court on the sidewalk in front of barber shops. Ethel Hill, the screenwriter then under contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, raced her 6-year-old War Knight in the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap of 1946. War Knight won in a blazing four-horse photo finish, and when Miss Hill entered the commissary the next Monday at lunchtime, the actors, the extras in their costumes, the high-powered stars at their long table—Gable, Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, William Powell—and everyone else in the mammoth Metro eating hall rose to their feet and cheered, while she stood at the entrance blowing kisses to all from the fingertips of both hands.

Johnny Carson, some time ago, was talking to Myrna Loy on his show and, in the course of the conversation about the old days, asked her if the stories were true. "You know what they say, that that was the great halcyon Hollywood era. Was it really wonderful?" Miss Loy, after taking a moment or two, said in her misty, modulated tone of voice, "Yes, I think it was."

Mr. Gwynn Wilson, who was part of the group that established the Santa Anita racetrack in 1934, remembered the War Knight win. Now 87, he was at various times the assistant general manager of the track, the treasurer, the general manager, the executive vice-president. By one of those odd twists of circumstances that occur to us all, it happens that Mr. Wilson is my very next-door neighbor in the apartment building I live in—although I didn't know of his connection with the track or very much of anything else about him until the past few months. He is a man of commanding presence, with a guardsman's slenderness of body. He is by birth an Oregonian who, as he says, didn't get down to Southern California until 1899. He likes to take the wheel and, with his wife beside him, go on long drives up to Canada.

"We had the land, but we didn't have the money," he recalled, when we talked about the late Miss Hill's fine thoroughbred; he was telling me how the Santa Anita track—this year celebrating its 50th anniversary—came into being. "Charles H. Strub, in San Francisco, wanted to have a racetrack in the Bay Area. He had the money but not the land—there were some zoning problems. We thought we'd go north and see him, and it all came together naturally."

The reason I got to learn about Mr. Wilson, and who he is, is that he's been in the news lately. He helped to plan the first Olympics held in Los Angeles, in 1932; he was on the executive committee, helped manage the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum—where a good deal of this year's Olympics will be going on—and there have been interviews in the papers with him.

We spent some time together a short while ago in his apartment next door to mine, and he spoke to me at length about the 1932 Games.

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