The Motion Picture Museum and Hall of Fame, about 1932. Photo courtesy of Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives.
On September 30, 2021, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures finally opens to the public. Long a dream of many in the Hollywood entertainment industry, film museums in Los Angeles over the last century have failed due to a variety of reasons: lack of attendance, little faith in the concept, money problems, and even indifference and stinginess by the motion picture studios.
The academy has flirted with movie museums before. In 1928, it established a small museum at the University of Southern California in conjunction with its university film classes, which was called the Museum of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, housing cameras and projectors from the primitive days of cinema. In late October 1940, the academy considered creating a film museum in what was then the Cafe Trocadero, to include a variety of exhibits on the production and creation of films as well as a history of the medium from its beginnings. It would cooperate with various local Chambers of Commerce and the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library to produce exhibits, showcase films, and outfit the museum. Instead, the Board of Governors announced at its November meeting that it was dropping its option on the club and any concept of a film museum would be postponed due to needing a much larger space for exhibits, theaters, and thousands of guests.
A display from the Crocker movie museum, 1929.
As early as 1917, William Fox suggested a movie museum for the fledgling film industry, one of many to come over the years. In a August 2, 1927 Los Angeles Times article, Alfred Allen promoted the idea of a film museum in the “permanent capital of the film industry” containing costumes, props, technical equipment, stills, workshop space, banquet hall, and theater. The complex would also include “…research libraries for all the allied subjects, not only of books, but engravings, portraits, and stills.” He suggested employing retired or disabled stars as docents, guards, caretakers, and hosts.
Young millionaire Harry Crocker, Charlie Chaplin’s personal assistant, opened the Museum of Motion Picture History at 5935-5945 Sunset Blvd. in what was originally the luxurious Peerless Automotive Showroom, later the Old Spaghetti Factory, across the street from Warner Bros.
Charging 25 cents a ticket, the space exhibited costumes, props, photos, and memorabilia, including a coach from Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Gaucho,” a Keystone Kops hat, John Gilbert’s doughboy costume from “The Big Parade,” chariots from “Ben-Hur” and “The King of Kings,” Rudolph Valentino’s sword from “Monsieur Beaucaire,” a pair of Harold Lloyd’s glasses, a Buster Keaton porkpie hat, the miniature cabin from Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” and Chaplin’s original tramp suit and bowler. A year later, it closed for lack of patronage, with the materials supposedly returned to their donors.
Earl Theisen of the Los Angeles County Museum operated a small space inside the full museum displaying photographs, technical equipment, film frames, a Lon Chaney exhibit, and Thomas Ince material. Charles Pressley, organizer of Old Spanish Days in Santa Barbara, operated the Motion Picture Museum and Hall of Fame near the end of 1932 in the location of Crocker’s former museum, with tableaux of costumes, replicas of props, costumes, and wax figures from films like “Chandu the Magician,” “Grand Hotel,” “The Son of the Sheik,” and “Bird of Paradise,” stills, and wax figures of such performers as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Chaplin Valentino, Mary Pickford, Bela Lugosi, and Joan Crawford. The 50-cent admission led to dwindling attendance because of a small exhibit included in the ticket price at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
A display of early movie cameras, as featured in the Los Angeles Times, 1928.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors first proposed a movie museum as part of a county complex and Fine Arts Center in 1937. Director Sam Wood offered to donate materials to the proposed museum in Culver City like a series of letters between Valentino and his wife, Natacha Rambova, a Mack Sennett story idea sketched in pencil on wrapping paper, and a dragon ring from John Gilbert.
In 1945, Col. William H. Evans, chair of the Long Beach and Los Angeles County Centennial authority proposed a huge movie museum and civic auditorium to coincide with centennial activities in 1949 and 1950. Around the same time, industry executive John W. Considine Jr. proposed a major museum with industry support, but studios remained noncommittal. Producer Robert Fellows spoke to the need for an industry museum to house independent organizations, theater, and school in a presentation to the Association of Motion Picture Producers that year as well.
The Picture Pioneers announced plans in 1947 to open a film museum covering the history of cinema to little support. In 1949, Mervyn LeRoy approached Eric Johnson of the Motion Picture Producers Association of America once again suggesting the industry establish a museum. As with the other ideas, it quickly died to lack of enthusiasm to financially organize an institution and the will to follow through.
Academy President Jean Hersholt strongly supported building a movie museum in 1948, spending decades promoting the idea in the press. He proposed a museum to host exhibits as well as films, performances, and a large reference library for students, members, and the general public. As with the other ideas, studio heads announced strong opposition to the subject.
As other countries and cities erected movie museums in the 1950s, the industry and others seemed to finally seriously consider constructing a movie museum, if still not completely sold on the idea.The Hollywood Boulevard Association supported the concept as they announced plans to beautify Hollywood streets by glamorizing the area, cleaning up sidewalks and establishing a Hollywood Walk of Fame to honor stars. While they finally approved and added their snazzy stars to the sidewalks, the museum fell to the wayside. Developers promoted building a complex of shops, hotel, and a museum at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue during the period, but the final result in the early 1990s contained no museum.
A Motion Picture Hall of Fame was suggested in 1953 and evolved into something else. The Hollywood Historama did see construction, opening in November 1953 with three floors of exhibits including Dorothy Lamour’s original sarong, Walt Disney’s first camera, an exhibit of how phonograph records were recorded, costumes, props, and photos, along with newsreel and silent film clips. The San Bernardino Sun stated, “it consists of three floors of exhibits and demonstrations … depicting history. lore, techniques, and nostalgia of movie-making, as well as exhibits from the radio, television, and record-making fields.” It lasted but a short time. The Egyptian Theatre did host a small exhibit on the film “Ben-Hur” during its two-year run at the screen in the late 1950s, with chariots, props, costumes, and other items on display.
Trades reported in December 1954 that the studios were willing to subscribe $300,000 to build a motion picture museum to benefit the Motion Picture Retirement Fund and its country home for retired movie employees. Plans were announced May 5, 1955 for the construction of a permanent Motion Picture Exposition at the former site of the Nestor Film Company at Gower and Sunset, and Twentieth Century-Fox suggested it would construct a movie museum in their upgrade to the studio, which failed to materialize. While the studios were willing to give props, costumes, mementos, and cameras, they refused to donate cash.
Regular citizens were also interested in a film museum. Serge Krizman wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times which ran in the April 17, 1959 paper declaring, “It is indeed a strange situation wherein the world’s motion picture capital officially doesn’t think enough of the great industry to support a permanent exhibit, which would attract millions of tourists each every year.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors finally put forth the first credible attempts at a serious museum after producer Cecil B. DeMille suggested one to Supervisor John Anson Ford at a meeting. Paramount President Y. Frank Freeman suggested that the Association of Motion Picture Producers was also finally ready to discuss such a project. In 1957 the board appointed a committee to study the proposal.
A model of the proposed Hollywood Museum. Photo courtesy of Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives.
After the studios sat on the idea, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn stated that unless Hollywood moved forward with a museum there in the next year, he would see that supervisors move it to Exposition Park. As Daily Variety reported, “If the picture people don’t do something for themselves, we’ll have to get to work and do it for them.” The board decisively took action June 1, 1960, approving a museum complex on 4 1/2 acres at Highland Avenue and Odin Street across from the Hollywood Bowl with producer Sol Lesser named to lead the project. Architect William Periera, designer of CBS Television City and and part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art complex, submitted the accepted design. Lesser stated that it would be a “monument to the cultural center of Hollywood… .” California Governor Edmund Brown signed legislation authorizing the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to officially establish the museum in April 1961.
Groundbreaking for a Hollywood museum in 1962. Photo courtesy of Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives.
The gigantic complex would include a theater, reference area, cafeteria-style restaurant, recording and soundstages, and parking for 800, with the Eagle Rock Sentinel expecting an audience of over a million people to visit each year. Bonds would be issued for construction, with the county owning after 30 years. After ground was broken in 1962, stars, veterans, studios, and collectors eagerly donated a wide variety of items relating to industry history. Money flowed in, but as construction crews examined the site to research for building problems, tensions flared. Steve Anthony refused to accept his family’s eviction from their home, claiming he wasn’t offered enough money and had little time to find a proper residence for his family. Police sneaked in after he left one evening, and ambushed him on return, leading to the home’s destruction. Anthony lost his case in court and spent 180 days in jail. The public’s enthusiasm for the project wavered, especially as financial irregularities were discovered, killing off the museum before construction even began.
After more than a decade of silence, new plans were trumpeted regarding movie museums. The Harold Lloyd estate opened the late comedian’s former home Greenacres to tourists in 1972, only to see the city of Beverly Hills impose rules that eventually shut it down. Sci-fi collector Forrest Ackerman opened his home and collections to the public, while another to showcase the collections of actors Debbie Reynolds, Jane Withers, and others never saw completion. Culver City contemplated a Heart of Screenland Museum in the old DeMile/Selznick/RKO/Desilu facility on Washington Boulevard in 1977, but this too failed.
The Hollywood Entertainment Museum, which quietly faded away. Photo courtesy of Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives.
In 1988, developers announced a movie museum adjacent to the Chinese Theatre in conjunction with the American Cinematheque to include cafe, school, and theater, but the Cinematheque later took over the Egyptian Theatre after the 1994 Northridge earthquake instead. The Hollywood Entertainment Museum did open in 1991 just west of the Chinese, featuring a variety of exhibits on the industry in town, lasting for more than ten years. A hodgepodge of materials and subject matter, the museum quietly faded away.
After almost a century of the motion picture industry posturing, dickering, and failing to deliver, the Academy has crossed the finish line in organizing and opening a massive museum to motion pictures. Here’s to its success.