The modest, one-story yellow wooden building is just a stone’s throw from where the annual Academy Awards ceremony takes place tonight at the Kodak Theatre. Throngs of Angelenos pass it while driving on Highland Avenue to the Hollywood Bowl or 101 Freeway, as do many tourists, many en route to Universal Studios. But few commuters or vacationers notice this unobtrusive structure; still fewer stop.
Yet almost 100 years ago this former barn played a major role in transforming Hollywood from a rural outpost of Los Angeles into the entertainment industry’s nerve center. Today it serves to preserve both Tinseltown’s motion picture patrimony and the history of the community that movies made world famous.
"The Hollywood Heritage Museum is the oldest movie studio that still exists in Hollywood," explained George Kiel, director of operations. "Around 1895 it started off its life a block south of what (became) Hollywood and Vine, in what was the middle of an alfalfa field, as a horse barn in the tiny little farm town of Hollywood, Calif."
HOLLYWOOD HERITAGE MUSEUM
» Address: 2100 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
» Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays
» Admission: $7, members and children under 12 free
» Phone: 323-874-2276
» Website: www.hollywoodheritage.org
That town was founded in 1886 by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox, teetotaling, Midwestern Methodists. Its name was going to be Figwood, named for the fig trees that grew wild in the area, Kiel said, "but Wilcox’s wife hated the name because it had a pornographic suggestiveness — fig leaves and all that."
Daeida came up with the name of Hollywood after meeting a woman who’d given her Victorian estate that name. "She prevailed upon her husband to name the town Hollywood instead of Figwood, even though holly won’t grow here," Kiel said.
The town that would become infamous for loose morals and nicknamed "Babylon" was born with a ban on brothels, casinos, liquor, singing, dancing and theatrical entertainment, he said. It was also racially segregated.
But in 1913 director Cecil B. DeMille and producers Jesse Lasky and Sam Goldwyn played a decisive part in transforming the rural enclave. These New Yorkers had fled West seeking scenery, sunshine and escape from inventor Thomas Edison’s onerous Motion Picture Patents Co., a trust trying to monopolize the burgeoning flicker business.
DeMille, who envisioned shooting a feature-length Western as opposed to the shorts then in vogue, "rented the barn for four months for $400 to be used as a studio," Kiel said.
"To be sure, some films had already been shot in Hollywood. There was even a small studio set up in 1912 by Carl Laemmle’s Universal Picture Co. in an old inn at the corner of Sunset and Gower, where some insignificant shorts were shot. But ‘The Squaw Man’ was the first feature-length film and important movie made in Hollywood."
Kiel, who says he "wouldn’t live anywhere but Hollywood," adds that "The Squaw Man" did boffo box office. The interracial romance starred the Caucasian Dustin Farnum (who had originated the role on Broadway) and African-American actor Noble Johnson as an Indian chief. Actress Lillian Red Wing — the film’s so-called "squaw" — was a member of the Winnebago tribe and acted in many silent films. The actress appears in Farnum’s arms on the cover of M. Elise Marubbio’s "Killing the Indian Maiden, Images of Native American Women in Film."
To shoot "The Squaw Man" a deck was added to the original barn for exteriors, while the stables were converted into dressing rooms.
Many productions were shot at the barn, including some starring "America’s Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, and it eventually became part of a much larger Paramount Studio complex. The barn was moved via semitruck to its current location in 1983 and reopened as a museum in December 1985.
Also known as the Lasky-DeMille Barn, the museum has been given state landmark status and is owned and operated by Hollywood Heritage Inc., a nonprofit entity that Kiel calls "Hollywood’s preservation organization."
Kiel is the group’s treasurer. "We were founded in 1979 by four ladies who were just horrified at the state of things in Hollywood and that it didn’t have a preservation society (focusing on) Hollywood’s golden age. We’ve saved buildings, including the El Capitan Theatre from becoming a multiplex by Disney, and saved the original hat of the Brown Derby."
The museum, which recently celebrated its silver anniversary, is the repository of reel relics, mostly from those days before talkies. DeMille’s old office is to the right of the entrance, across from a shop that sells such items as movie books, videos and portraits of celluloid legends.
A small screening room displays photos redolent of Hollywood history: D.W. Griffith’s gargantuan sets for the Babylon sequences of his 1916 classic "Intolerance," which inspired the architecture of the nearby Hollywood & Highland Center; posters of stars such as Rudolph Valentino; swords, shields, helmets and other props from DeMille’s biblical epics, such as 1923’s "The Ten Commandments"; and high-tech equipment of bygone days, including an early Technicolor movie camera and enormous projectors. It’s nothing short of a La-La-Land shrine to motion picture pioneers, a love letter to cinema itself.
The Hollywood Heritage also screens silent films (accompanied by a live pianist!) at the Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills and on Saturdays offers a 3 1/2 -hour walking tour of historic Hollywood.
The museum hosts movie-themed "Evenings @ the Barn." On March 9 a slide show and book signing will feature Hank Rosenfeld, author of "The Wicked Wit of the West," about screenwriter Irv Brecher, whose screen credits include the Marx Brothers’ 1939 "At the Circus" and 1963’s "Bye Bye Birdie." Brecher’s widow, Norma, will also attend. An April 13 birthday tribute to Charlie Chaplin features a screening of the 1975 documentary "The Gentleman Tramp."
More tourists might visit Universal Studios in one day than stop by the barn-turned-museum in a year. But as the centennial of Hollywood’s oldest studio still standing approaches, the Hollywood Heritage Museum offers an unforgettable trip down moviedom’s memory lane.