An overhead view of 6533 Cahuenga Terrace, via Google Street View.
Hyperbole reigns in the world of real estate listings, inflating a dump into a dream palace or attempting to gild a lily. Nowhere is this more prevalent than around the Los Angeles and Hollywood area, where fictionalized listings purport to be the former homes of motion picture stars, particularly Theda Bara, Charlie Chaplin, and Valentino. Most of the time, reality far outshines the make-believe concocted by realty agents. Such is the case with 6533 Cahuenga Terrace, which listings have claimed possessed Theda Bara, Pola Negri, and Rudolph Valentino as owners, but was built in 1923 for opera prima donna Maude Lillian Berri, a little gal from Fresno, with a story fit for the movies.
Born Maude Lillian Berry July 10, 1871, in San Francisco, the star-to-be grew up as one of the daughters of “Commodore” Fulton Berry, early California pioneer. The family moved to Fresno when she was a child, where her father became a raisin and oil industrialist and later member of the Bohemian Club and top yachtsman. Miss Berry, raised to be a lady, lived at home and sang in the local church choir before moving to San Francisco and singing in the First Presbyterian Church choir. The young lady also possessed a wicked sense of humor, with the Marion Daily newspaper reporting August 15, 1907, “Miss Berri says she began to sing when she began to talk.”
Mary Mallory’s latest book, “Living With Grace: Life Lessons from America’s Princess,” will be released June 1. Update: June 30.
6533 Cahuenga Terrace via Google Street View.
Talking about her career with the San Francisco Call in 1909, the opera diva claimed that John Philip Sousa heard her sing at the Midwinter Fair, making her an offer to go east with his troupe. Miss Berri immediately decided to gain professional training, working with San Francisco’s Francis Stuart to build her voice. While in the City by the Bay, she met, eloped, and married Frank Holmes Fisher, an Oakland dentist and son to the manager of the Puget Sound Lumber Company, early in 1894. She gave birth to their daughter, Berietta Maybelle on November 17 of that year. Impressed with her voice, Fisher moved the couple to Chicago and then on to New York in order for his wife to study with top operatic artists. While the couple moved east, they left their daughter to be raised by her grandparents in Oakland.
On Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1897, Mrs. Fisher or Fischer, made her debut as the lead soprano with the Colonial Opera Company in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in a new opera by Newcombe, Brown, and Macy called “The Maid of Marblehead.” Both production and artist earned laurels, and the diva skyrocketed to success. Taking a more appropriate prima donna name, she changed the spelling of her last name from Berry to Berri, becoming Madame Berri in the process as she sang roles in “Il Trovatore” and “Rigoletto.”
An early view of the home, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
By 1898, Berri was star of the Francis Wilson Opera Company and the Madison Square Opera Company in New York, earning rave reviews for her performance at the Broadway Theatre in August of that year. The August 29, 1898, San Francisco Call reported, “She possesses a soprano voice of great range, power and sweetness, a magnetic and striking personality and dramatic ability of a high order.” Touring the East Coast, Madame Berri and the company received excellent reviews in Washington D. C., Philadelphia, and Boston.
Though grief-stricken after Fisher died of appendicitis or pneumonia in 1900, Berri resumed her career, traveling and performing as far away as Chicago and the Midwest with the Castle Opera Company, turning to light opera in 1901. At the same time, she began falling in love with a fellow troupe member, Frank Moulan, who played comic roles. Berri herself began turning to comedy, performing in such popular productions as “The Merry Monarch,” “The Grand Duchess,” and “The Bohemian Girl,” and in George Ade productions. She finally performed in San Francisco as well, starring in “Princess Chic” in 1902.
In August 1901, newspapers suggested that she would marry Moulan, with the couple marrying at Chicago’s Victoria Hotel November 20 after Moulan divorced his wife. The Moulans continued touring the Midwest performing with the troupe and living well thanks to her inheritance. While in St. Louis they rented a three-story, 11 room house, and resided at grand hotels in Chicago, where she lost $2,000 worth of jewelry in a robbery. Berri eventually bought a house at Lake Beulah, Wisconsin as a vacation getaway.
Maude Lillian Berri, from Sunset Magazine.
Lighthearted Berri enjoyed life and exhibited no pretenses, telling the May 25, 1901, St. Louis paper that she collected champagne corks of bottles she downed. The March 23, 1902 San Francisco Call described a comic scene in Minneapolis as she rushed to catch a train, running three blocks from the theatre to the train station wearing crimson tights and an opera cloak swirling behind her as she carried her bulldog Pete Daily under one arm and the other holding a bouquet of roses, making it with seconds to spare.
Prima donna Berri played on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre in “Humpty Dumpty, toured the country, and returned to performing in San Francisco before she and Moulan joined vaudeville in 1908. Their success began taking them in opposite directions, however, with Moulan performing mostly on the East Coast and Berri on the West, where she joined Clarence Kolb and Max Dill in November 1909. Berri filed for divorce on September 16, 1910, claiming desertion, telling the Spokane Press on November 23, “My husband seems to be lured by the Atlantic, and I like the Pacific the best, and there you are. Any how, one apartment is not big enough for a prima donna and a comedian.” The diva paid court costs, and gave Moulan a settlement.
Maude Lillian Berri to marry Frank Moulan, San Francisco Call, May 20, 1901.
Over the next few years, she performed with Kolb and Dill and alone from New York to Los Angeles, where she enjoyed one of her pleasures, taking long drives in the country in her automobile. Los Angeles critics loved her as well, with Julian Johnson in the May 8, 1910, Times saying, “I don’t know of a woman who has Miss Berri’s statuesque beauty, her voice, her ability to display gorgeous gowns and at the same time her acting qualifications and her sense of humor.” Berri earned $300 a week with the comedy duo, and in the show “The Motor Girl,” she even drove a car onstage. Variety featured her on the cover April 1, 1911, performing with her Scotch Laddies, a four man dancing troupe. In November 1912, she performed in San Francisco in the production “In Dutch” with a soon to be movie star, Lon Chaney.
By this point, Berri had hit the age of 40, and playing young ingenues stretched her skills. She met Oscar de Bretteville, seven years her junior and brother to Mrs. Spreckels, marrying him August 6,1915 and retiring from the stage. The couple moved to Coronado, California, where in 1916 Berri announced plans to produce films, starting with “Glory” starring Juanita Hansen for Unity Pictures Corporation. Stories mentioned she invested money, supervised casting and costume creation, and found locations at friends’ homes and outside San Luis Obispo. Released in January 1917, Kolb and Dill played drama as well as comedy in the film, which appears to be lost.
While no other credits, producing nor performing, seem to appear for Madame Berri, perhaps she remained busy behind the scenes in Hollywood. The June 17, 1923 Los Angeles Times ran a long article accompanied by photo announcing that Madame Berri’s new home “Villa Grenada” approached completion in the Holly Spring Heights tract, “the Riviera of California,” at 6533 Cahuenga Terrace. Filled with hyperbole, the story described the palatial Mediterranean style home as “a reflection of Mme. Berri’s own artistic taste,” influenced by her visits and observations to Italian villas.
The twelve-room home contained five bedrooms three bathrooms and interiors based on art from Paris to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A life-sized statue of MacMonnie’s “Bacchante,” based on the original at the Metropolitan Museum would sit on the second landing, with a fountain illuminated by colorful lights at its base. The circular staircase and entrance balcony exactly copied that in Marie Antoinette’s Palais Fontainebleau. Electric chandeliers from the 1915 Exposition in San Francisco hung at the base of the staircase.
Maude Lillian Berri, from Broadway Magazine.
The first floor contained a swimming pool with tiled floors and walls ornamented with green cascade falls and a nine-foot high mural painting hung above the fireplace in the living room. A sunken goldfish aquarium illuminated with submerged lights sat at the base of a large bay window. The second floor contained a roof garden, while servants’ quarters filled the basement. Exterior gardens continued the lavish look, landscaped with stone terraces, cypress trees, and shrubs, and a balcony overlooked a lily pond.
Upon completion, another story ran in the February 1924 issue of Sunset magazine, filled with as much hyperbole as the Los Angeles Times, appearing to be based on the same real estate press release. It stated that “…there is such an artistic mingling of beauty in ‘Villa Grenada’ that one goes in a twinkling from period to period, from place to place.” The many decorative details “…are the expression of an individual woman’s taste, luxurious and yet artistically pleasing.” “Below it, like gay-hued sofa-cushions flung upon undulating green lawns, lie the squatty tiled roofs of the film-colony’s bungalows.”
The interior of 6533 Cahuenga Terrace via Realtor.com.
It appears that Madame Berri enjoyed her magnificent villa for only a short time, for by 1933, the Times lists another owner of the home, Marie Fontayne, in a March 10, 1933 article. The 24-year-old woman, who ran a ‘modeling school’ for young women at 6560 Hollywood Blvd., had been arrested for charging tuition for training and jobs that never came. Unfortunately I found no followup to the story, but Ms. Fontayne continued teaching, lecturing, and running charm classes in Los Angeles as well as in such places as St. Louis and Nevada through at least 1942. By 1935, the home was listed for sale by owner in the classified section.
In 1946, cafe owner Nick Tsoneff is listed as home owner, when he tried unsuccessfully to evict Hollywood writer Bernard Williams and his wife, Margaret, from the residence. Once again, he owned it only for a short time, as the November 22, 1951, Los Angeles Sentinel ran an ad displaying the home and stated that Horace A. Williard served as exclusive broker. Perhaps this was the same Willard that had served as a porter at CBS Columbia Square in 1939 who earned a part of a janitor on the radio show “Silver Theatre,” per the November 15, 1939 Variety. By 1953, ads in the Los Angeles Times note its sale by owner once again.
Still standing regally on Cahuenga Terrace, the lush Mediterranean mansion and its colorful history appears ready for the big screen, with a story more detailed and exciting than any dreamed up by real estate agents.