Chapter 3, Part 4: There’s No Business But Show Business
It was not in Hollywood where California’s booming movie business began, though an early version of the Walk of Fame was already in existence in the early 20th century. Each celebrity’s star was drawn in dirt every morning, then raked every night and redrawn the next morning. Hollywood Boulevard was then mostly a pathway for bicycles, which at the time had five wheels, each wheel bigger than the one behind it.
No, the first film studios began in the barns and warehouses of Echo Park and Silver Lake, which were very different places before the hipster ships arrived on their shores decades later, bearing bearded peoples from distant islands with names like Coachella and Intelligentsia (oh, the fragrant coffee beans, so single of source, those natives grew in Intelligentsia!). No, the two famed neighborhoods were barely populated at the time. In Echo Park’s pond, peasants in pedal boats fished for lotus and pickled eel. And the lake that gave Silver Lake its name was still a reservoir of pure, liquid silver.
Southern California was the perfect place for show business to sink its shallow roots in the era of silent film. Of course, at the time they weren’t actually known as “silent films,” since there was no other kind of film. They were instead called “no-talkies.”
It wasn’t just the warm weather, sunlight and cheap open spaces that made L.A. the perfect home for the burgeoning business of the no-talkies. The region’s deep, rich celluloid mines were perfect for digging out that precious substance to process into film stock, before strip mining left the land as barren as a moon of Jupiter, and the cellulosis killed every miner who ever mined there. And in places that are now suburbs like Pasadena and Old Placentia there were vast fields of red poppies, which could be woven into red carpets, which the early tribes of celebrities held sacred. Those first carpets were miles long, and took days to walk. And the stars would have to hold their poses for nine hours, since that’s how long one photograph took to shoot at the time.
And, oh, what stars they were in those early days, how bright they shone! Nothing like today’s one-dimensional sili-clones. They could act, they could dance, they could sing (silently of course), they could do cartwheels, they could shine shoes ‘til they sparkled, they could write their own laws then tap dance all the way to Sacramento and get them passed by the legislature.
Stars like Blackie Lawless, the beloved child actor whose porcupine hat and toothless smile made all of America swoon. (Blackie was in fact a 50-year-old man with a taste for home-brewed liquor and long-legged ladies, a secret the studios kept wrapped as tightly as a tin drum!)
Stars like Melinda Fountain Franklin, whose dark gaze, luminous eyes and scattershot charm held the world rapt, until the time of the talkies when that same world learned she had a voice like a bullfrog.
Then, there was Errol Norris, the swashbuckler who had won gold in the aught-4 Olympics in Kathmandu for double-fencing, then took that talent to the big screen and beyond, making the first sci-fi films — then known as “rocket pictures” — with his vaunted laser sword that every kid in America tried to recreate, usually with fire, and usually with horrible, horrible results.
But the biggest star of his era was Mr. Rhodes, a goose who could dance the waltz with a human woman better than any human man. Mr. Rhodes’ last days would be as dark and tragic as his feet were fleet …
The first excerpt in this series by Andrew Dalton is available here: “Excerpt: A Los Angeles Origin Story by a Man Who’s Been Pressed at Gunpoint to Guess,” featured in our “love/hate” debut issue.
Andrew Dalton is a journalist and fabulist who lives in modern-day Los Angeles with his partner and their three children.