Mary Mallory: Hollywood Heights – The Quest for a Movie Museum

Image: Postcard showing a model of a proposed Hollywood museum, listed on EBay $3.99.

Note: This is an encore post from 2011.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Oct. 6 that the Academy plans to open a Motion Picture Museum in the beautiful old art deco May Co. Building at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.  Film museums have been bandied about in Hollywood since the 1920s, with many strong possibilities but nothing coming to completion.

Alfred Allen promoted the idea of a film museum in Los Angeles in a Aug. 2, 1927, Los Angeles Times article.  It would have been a repository for props, costumes, technical equipment, stills, and included a film theater, an area for workshops and a banquet hall.  Another important part of the complex would have been “…research libraries for all the allied subjects, not only of books, but engravings, portraits, and stills.  As he put it, what other location besides “the permanent capital of the film industry” should host it?  Most particularly interesting is the idea of using retired or handicapped stars as its docents, guards, caretakers and hosts.  Of course this idea went nowhere.

May Co.
Photo: The May Co. at Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, via Google’s street view.

USC founded a small motion picture museum in 1930, probably as part of its film school, established in 1927 in conjunction with the AMPAS, and through the good graces of Douglas Fairbanks.  It seemed to quickly disappear.  Monuments rose around time that same year to honor stars:  the Rudolph Valentino statue at DeLongpre Park, along with the Los Angeles Parks Commission looking for a suitable site to place the galleon from “The Black Pirate” on permanent display.  Sid Grauman’s placing of a Joan of Arc statue from an old Rex Ingram picture at Third Street and Vermont Avenue dedicated to Fairbanks in “The Thief of Bagdad” appears to have been the first film monument in the city.

The September 1930 article also claims that Harry Crocker ran and maintained for a short time a film museum on Sunset Boulevard with items donated by stars.  Hobart Bosworth also donated memorabilia to the Southwest Museum for a permanent exhibit on films, but this too seemed to quickly fade away.

Charles Pressley operated a Motion Picture Museum and Hall of Fame in Hollywood for at least three weeks near the end of 1932, featuring wax figures and tableaux from “Rain,” “Bird of Paradise,” “The Cisco Kid,” “Grand Hotel,” The Son of the Sheik” and “Chandu the Magician,”  among others.  The tableaux featured costumes and props from the films, stills were displayed showing the history of film, and wax figures of such actors and actresses as Greta Garbo, Valentino, Clark Gable, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Bela Lugosi, Douglas Fairbanks, Joan Crawford, and Betty Compson were on display.  A wax figure of Mahatma Gandhi guarded the entrance.  Pressley charged 50 cents per person, and attendance dwindled because of the free shows in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre forecourt.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors first proposed a film museum as part of a county arts complex in 1937, ideas which they would continue to put forward for decades.  Sam Wood also donated materials he had collected over 23 years to a movie museum to be constructed in Culver City.  Memorabilia included a series of letters that Valentino wrote to Natacha Rambova, the idea of a screen story sketched on wrapping paper by Mack Sennett, and a dragon ring given to Wood by John Gilbert.  Nothing came of these ideas either, or the 1943 proposal to coincide with the World’s Fair.

Jean Hersholt, Academy president, strongly backed a film museum in 1948, spending decades promoting the idea in the press and industry. He proposed a museum that would host exhibits as well as films, performances,and a larger reference library for students, members and the public.  He continually met with opposition from studio heads as he soldiered on with the idea.

Ideas continued to rage.  As early as 1950, developers promoted building a complex of hotel, shops and a museum at Hollywood Boulevard  and Highland Avenue.  In 1953, the Motion Picture Relief Fund trumpeted the news that it would head a museum campaign, asking for loans from industry people to build it.  Revenue that it brought in would help support the Motion Picture Country Home.  Twentieth Century-Fox built a new complex of buildings in the 1950s that was supposed to house a film museum, but no one followed through.  The county Supervisors resurrected the museum idea in 1959 as well.  United Artists Theatres proposed a permanent exhibit of “Ben-Hur” weapons, costumes and jewelry for the forecourt of the Egyptian theater.

Plans in Hollywood halted, and Supervisor Kenneth Hahn stated that unless Hollywood moved forward with a museum there in the next year, he would have the supervisors move it to Exposition Park.  Daily Variety reported on May 15, 1959, that he stated, “If the picture people don’t do something for themselves, we’ll have to get to work and do it for them.”

By 1961, the Los Angeles Planning Commission proposed a Hollywood Museum at Highland Avenue and Odin Street across from the Hollywood Bowl, which Sol Lesser stated would be a “monument to the cultural center of Hollywood….”  Most of the Whitley Heights property owners approved it, because something was needed to overcome all the young people drawn by the bright lights and nightlife of the big city as well as the suburbs drawing regular people away.  John Anson Ford stated in The Times in 1965 that it would be a “cultural tragedy” if the community and industry failed in this endeavor.

Plans moved forward to build it across from the Bowl (where the Hollywood Heritage Museum is now located), with stars, veterans and other people donating all matter of items to be displayed and held by it.  Money was raised, but an ex-Marine fought his and his family’s eviction from property to be included in the complex because he said he wasn’t offered enough money for his home.  He lost in court and spent 180 days in jail in 1967, seeing his house razed but no museum built.

Even a proposal by the Harold Lloyd family in 1972 to turn his Beverly Hills estate Greenacres into a museum failed in that city because of traffic, parking and other issues.  Culver City attempted to establish a film museum in the old Ince/DeMille/Selznick/RKO facility on Washington Boulevard  in 1977, but this too failed.

Hollywood finally built its development at Hollywood Boulevard  and Highland Avenue, but it does not contain a museum.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory, Museums, Preservation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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