When early moving picture companies set down roots in the farming community of Hollywood, they employed simple structures like barns, warehouses, and even an abandoned roadhouse as studios. These early production entities ventured west in 1909 and 1910 to escape frigid, icy winter conditions looking for sunny, warm weather in order to shoot scenes, while some later companies arrived to escape the wrath of the Motion Picture Patents Company.
In 1911, David Horsley rented a former rest stop and tavern at the northwest corner of what is now Gower and Sunset from Marie Blondeau to establish Hollywood’s first permanent film studio. In existence for less than 20 years, this simple one-story building possessed a colorful story ready made for the daring, adventurous young medium.
The tale begins with a former perfume and soap exporter from France who came to Hollywood looking for new possibilities himself. Rene Blondeau, born in Normandy, France May 3, 1838, was the son of an ardent Republican exiled from Paris to Normandy during the Empire regime. Educated in Jesuit schools, the young Blondeau took up exporting perfumerie and art goods to European countries, making a successful living as he traveled the world.
In 1868, the adventurous Blondeau immigrated to New Orleans, Louisiana looking for new merchandising opportunities in South and Central American countries. While in the Crescent City he met a Marie Lousteau, marrying her May 1, 1870 and becoming a naturalized citizen. The couple moved to San Francisco in 1874 sensing new possibilities, with Blondeau continuing his exporting work in South and Central America for 15 years before they retired to Hollywood.
On July 5, 1889, real estate man Harvey Henderson Wilcox sold the Blondeaus the seven acre Lot Eight of his new development called Hollywood for $2,000, just two years after the tract was opened to the public. The Blondeaus first tried farming before constructing a rambling, one-story facility which they operated as a way station for weary travelers offering blacksmith service and sleeping quarters. In February 1892, Blondeau was granted a liquor license by Los Angeles, which some Hollywood residents protested against in March to no avail. With a year, the couple named their establishment Cahuenga House, which gained a reputation for sometimes disreputable practices like prize fights.
Marie filed for divorce from Rene October 14, 1900 but apparently pulled her decree after Blondeau fell ill. The couple leased the hotel and saloon for ten years from January 1, 1902 to Maier and Zobelein Brewery, one of Los Angeles’ most successful breweries looking for a new distribution center and outlet. German immigrant Joseph Maier and George Zobelein had taken over the site of the Philadelphia Brewery near El Aliso, the sycamore tree that marked the spot of the Gabrielino village of Yang Na near the current site of Union Station and established Maier and Zobelein Brewery September 30, 1882. Growing quickly, the successful company grew in size, adding malthouse, bottling plant, kiln cellar, and shop turning out pilsners and other German type beers.
For unknown reasons, the deal appears to have fallen through. After Rene’s death in early 1903, Marie leased the structure some newspapers called Casa Cahuenga to J. W. Jeal on March 26, 1904 which he continued to operate as a tavern. Not long after however, Sheriff G. T. Gower arrested Jeal for selling liquor without a license, the first violation of the new Hollywood liquor ordinance forbidding the sale of alcohol and closed the business. The Los Angeles Herald called the establishment “…with one or two others, an eyesore to the people of Hollywood.” Blondeau was found liable for leasing the property to a party selling alcohol. On April 8, 1906 Los Angeles Herald reported that she had “sold six 1/4 acres to an eastern investor for $22,500.” Once again, the proposed sale collapsed, leaving Marie with the property, which she subdivided that year.
In October 1911, David Horsley and Al Christie arrived in Hollywood from Bayonne, New Jersey looking for a large open facility centrally located to establish a West Coast branch for the young Nestor Film Company. Originally established on the East Coast in 1907, the company turned out a variety of product, from roustabout comedies to respectable dramas. Horsley leased the property October 27, 1911 from Blondeau, converting the former roadhouse into offices, dressing rooms, and storage for his new studio, with Christie serving as general manager.
As the company leading director Al Christie reminisced in 1928, “Motion pictures are a business now, but they were a “freak” when we came out to Los Angeles in 1911. Hollywood was a sleepy little town of dusty roads and yellow orchards, pepper trees, ad a profusion of flowers. Hollywood Boulevard seemed all orange trees, sunset all lemon trees. The flowers and fruit were so beautiful that we tried to use them as background in every picture…There stood an old abandoned roadhouse [Bondeau Tavern], a low, rambling building with a big veranda and many private dining rooms. There was a big bar which we made into a carpenter shop. Margarita Fischer and Harry Pollard were given the little dining rooms for dressing rooms. A lot of others who weren’t so fortunate dressed in the old barn, where the horses had formerly been kept.”
An expanding Universal Film Manufacturing Company purchased Nestor in 1912, taking over the fledgling studio location and continued operating under both names. In 1913, director Lois Weber would feature a side shot of this studio in her one-reel short “Suspense,” as a husband borrows an automobile parked nearby to rush home and rescue his wife from a home invading hobo.
The aging studio was virtually demolished in a raging fire in 1926, though newer facilities remained in operation as the Christie Comedies studio into the early 1930s. In 1936, the remaining studio was demolished to make room for CBS Columbia Square, later the home of both radio station KNX 1070 AM and KNXT Channel 2, later renamed KCBS. A bronze plaque was installed in September 1940 to recognize the historic location.
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I enjoyed reading this fascinating history. Thank you. It is one of the great joys of the blogathon format.
Thank you for this detailed article, it’s a great addition to the blogathon! It seems like everyone’s strongest memory of early Hollywood is all the fruit trees along the roads. Wish I could go back in time!
Thank you for all your research. I’m René and Marie Blondeau’s great-granddaughter and have a couple of questions and a correction about their residence in San Francisco.