Location Sleuth

The High Sign
Buster Keaton in “The High Sign.”

I’ve been going through a Buster Keaton phase on Netflix and in watching “The High Sign,” I noticed this merry-go-round in the opening of the film. I got to wondering where it was – and whether it was the one used in “The Sting.”

The Sting

The short answer is no. The carousel used in “The Sting” was Philadelphia Toboggan Co. No. 62, built in 1922,  The Times says. It was moved from Venice Pier to Santa Monica about 1949.

Then what carousel was used in the Keaton movie? The Times clips say nothing about filming of “The High Sign.” Internet sources – which must always be double-checked – say the scenes were shot in Ocean Park. So I dug into the clips a bit further to see what I could learn.

Google Earth, Ocean Park
A 1940 map from Gillespie’s Guide superimposed on Google Earth. 

The first challenge was to determine the precise location of Ocean Park, and even this is a bit nebulous. As The Times said July 3, 1921: “Although Ocean Park has no independent municipal identity, being partly within the corporate limits of Venice and partly within Santa Monica, it is declared to have a strong individuality as a place of pleasure and happiness.”

According to this 1921 story, Ocean Park extended from south of Marine Street to the municipal auditorium under construction between Raymond and Kinney avenues—streets that have been wiped out by development.

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The first merry-go-round appeared in Ocean Park in 1902, and immediately caused problems.

July 3, 1902, Merry Go Round

July 3, 1902: A  carousel is set up inside a tent “on the beach near Kinney Street” and, after complaints, moved to Pier Avenue. 

Oct. 8, 1911, Roller Coaster

Oct. 8, 1911:  What was called the largest roller-coaster west of New York is proposed for Ocean Park.
 
Sep. 4, 1912, Fire

Sept. 4, 1912: Everything at Ocean Park was destroyed in a spectacular fire, including a ride called the Dragon’s Gorge and a $45,000 merry-go-round, The Times says.

Sept. 4, 1912, Fire Area 

Notice the trolley tracks at the top of the map of the burned area, which fit with the train in the opening sequence of “The High Sign.”

The High Sign

Buster Keaton jumps off a train at the beginning of “The High Sign,” in  a screen grab that shows the ocean in the background. 

May 25, 1913, Ocean Park

May 25, 1913: The Times published this drawing of Ocean Park when it reopened  after the devastating fire of 1912. If “The High Sign” used the carousel at Ocean Park, it should be the one in this sketch. But is it?

image

And here’s a detail of what appears to be a merry-go-round.  I realize it’s a little difficult to tell from a drawing, but based on the windows in the background of the screen grab, I’m not sure this merry-go-round is the one used in “The High Sign,” even though it was in Ocean Park. 

April 9, 1916, Carousel

April 9, 1916: Wait a minute, what’s this? “The Great American Derby,” planned for Ocean Park, will be the largest “carrousel” ever constructed. But was it ever built? The Times’ clips are inconclusive. Could “The High Sign” have used one of these carousels (assuming they were built)? 

Dec. 22, 1920, Venice Pier Burns

Dec. 22, 1920: Meanwhile, down on Windward Avenue, the Venice Pier burns, including the merry-go-round.
 

Jan. 7, 1924, Pier Fire

Jan. 7, 1924: The Ocean Park “amusement zone,” rebuilt in 1913, is destroyed by another fire. The stories don’t mention the merry-go-round, but presumably the blaze burned whatever carousel was used in “The High Sign.”

Jan. 8, 1924, Ocean Park

Jan. 8, 1924: Rebuilding starts immediately.  But the story continues ….

May 28, 1970, Lawrence Welk 

May 28, 1970: Lawrence Welk visits the charred remains of the Aragon Ballroom after Ocean Park’s Lick Pier burned in 1970. The fire also destroyed an adjoining two-story house of mirrors and an abandoned merry-go-round building, The Times said. It’s unclear whether there was a carousel inside.

High_sign_carousel_02

Which leaves us without a definitive answer. Apparently “The High Sign” used a carousel at Ocean Park that was destroyed in the 1924 fire. Maybe further research will turn up more information.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood, Parks and Recreation. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Location Sleuth

  1. Arye Michael Bender says:

    Anyone spending time with Buster Keaton before talkies will be rewarded with silent perfection. And laughter. Peels of laughter.
    What fun to trace back the locations.

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  2. Peter Mullan says:

    Larry, I love your Daily Mirror blog!
    You make so many wonderful choices and dig up so much extraordinary material. Please continue your great work in keeping all that magical history alive.
    I’m sure you’re familiar with the work of another Los Angeles and old movie historian, John Bengtson. In his 2000 book “Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through The Films of Buster Keaton,” he, too, explores the conundrum of the carousel in the opening of “The High Sign.” But, Bengtson comes to a different conclusion.
    Using contemporary photos of the carousel which he believes is the actual site, he compares details of the decorative detail and horse styles to those in the Keaton film, providing convincing evidence for his conclusion. Stunning.
    (The following is a direct quote from his book, all rights reserved by John Bengtson and Santa Monica Press. Although this passage is not reproduced here by permission, I give all credit, and a link, to this phenomenal book which I highly recommend for its extraordinarily detailed and passionate investigative work: http://www.busterkeaton.com/Silent_Echoes/sehome.htm )
    THE HIGH SIGN
    Quote: ” …The carousel pictured here was built in 1911, situated at the Long Beach Pike in the Looff Hippodrome at the northwest corner of Seaside and Pike Walk. Although the carousel is long since gone, the Looff building remains standing, now housing a Lite-o-line game.
    Since the remaining beach scenes were filmed in Venice, which had several nearby (although different looking carousels), I find it curious Keaton filmed this first scene so far away in Long Beach. Although “One Week” was the initial film Keaton released as an independent star, he actually filmed “The High Sign” first (dissatisfied with the results, Keaton delayed its release or a year). Because Keaton made films with Fatty Arbuckle in Long Beach before starting “The High Sign,” perhaps Keaton began filming “The High Sign” on familiar turf and then switched to Venice when it became more convenient.” End quote.
    ©Copyright 2000, John Bengtson/Santa Monica Press
    Still perplexing. And fascinating!
    Once again, Larry thank you for your amazing cultural anthropology work!

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  3. waldo lydecker says:

    I was about to draw your attention to John Bengtson’s book ‘Silent Echoes’ about Buster Keaton’s filming locations when I checked comments. Mr Mullen beat me to it!
    If you’re a Keaton fan, this is a MUST book! Incidentally, Bengtson followed that with a similiar approach to the films of Charlie Chaplin titled ‘Silent Traces’. Another MUST!
    Thanks for all your hard work and the oft-times mysterious Mystery Movie Stars!

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  4. Kurt Eckhardt says:

    In a blog that’s mainly cut and paste-gloriously so-it’s easy to forget that at heart, Larry is a formidable investigative journalist. This was an awesome, painstakingly researched piece. I’m usually reading the Daily Mirror for the crime noir and sports, and except for being a Chicagoan myself who rank’s the Sting #1, I had scant intrinsic, interest in this article. I’m glad I read it though and how neat that Peter Mullan helped solve the mystery. Looking forward to this summer’s 1960 Democratic convention coverage and the Laker’s move out west from the Twin Cities!

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  5. Thomas Scully says:

    I recently found a ride token, good for one ride, for the price of 5 cents. It has the words “Great American Derby” and “Ocean Park” inscribed on it. Could it be from the very first version of the “Great American Derby” which was a carousel/race ride open for only one season in 1917 at Ocean Park?

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  6. The pier at Ocean Park actually burned yet another time, in December of 1915, so the structures you show that were built in 1913 after the 1912 fire would not have been around in 1921.
    Hard to keep track of all these fires! You’d think they’d have made more improvements to fire safety.
    I would be interested, though, to see the rest of the article on the 1913 version; it supposedly had an Eskimo Village, which would certainly have been an unusual attraction for southern California!

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  7. Hi Larry – I can answer both of these location questions definitively. The carousel was the Loofff Hippodrome located at the Long Beach Pike. The horses on the carousel had both front and back legs that turn inward, a trait unique to the Hippodrome. A vintage photo of the carousel in my book matches the movie scenes. Moreover, the carousel appears more prominently in the Harold Lloyd 1920 short Number Please? This carousel was open to the air on three sides, providing ample natural light with which to film. The Abbott Kinney Pier in Venice, where Keaton otherwise filmed The High Sign, had an enclosed carousel, that could not be filmed without artificial light. This likely explains why the Hippodrome carousel was used in both pictures.
    The other shot from The High Sign, where Keaton is thrown from the train by tracks, was shot in Redondo Beach. The sign in the background points to Moonstone Beach, a local beach. The old fire insurance maps show the convergence and split of the various train tracks visible in the shot.
    My new film location book about silent comedian Harold Lloyd, Silent Visions, comes out next month. My similar books about Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin, are called Silent Echoes, and Silent Traces. All are available at Amazon.com

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