LA: A Place Where Dreams are Made and Lost
LA is its own universe. It attracts monsters and angels, the forgotten and the famous. Sure it exists in the physical world. Just as importantly, LA is an idea and a dream.
It's a place where people come hoping to find fame only to discover that they are just another face in the crowd. It's a city filled with the never-to-be-found as well as the famous and ordinary people just living their lives.
Talent counts for a lot for the lucky few who find fame. But there's also a ton of luck. A lot depends on being at the right place at the right time. No. I'm not just talking about Schwab's Drugstore, the iconic pharmacy where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered in the 1930s. The truth is that Turner, whose real name was Judy Turner, was spotted by famed Hollywood Director, Mervyn Le Roy, at another soda fountain - Top Hat Cafe - some miles away near Hollywood High School where Turner was a student.
Back to Schwab's. Opened in 1932, Schwab's soon became known as the place to see and be seen. It was made famous by Sidney Skolsky, a syndicated Hollywood gossip columnist who hung out at the drugstore, using it as his office to write about the movie business. The column was entitled "From a Stool at Schwab's."
Schwab's housed not just a pharmacy but a newsstand, shoeshine, a check cashing center, cosmetics and place where you could get your mail. You could also grab a quick breakfast or lunch or one of their famous sundae's or milkshakes at their lunch counter. But many went to Schwab's in search of much more than just a milkshake or a shoeshine.
Schwab's soon became the hang out for Hollywood's A team. Back in the day, it was packed with producers, directors, agents, gossip columnists and rising stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Judy Garland and Ava Gardner. It was said that Gardner would go behind the counter sometimes to make sodas for Schwab’s customers.
Many actresses would buy their make up and perfume there. My mom was no exception. At least twice a month she'd take me to Schwab’s for a burger or tuna sandwich while she shopped for fragrances and cosmetics. We almost always spotted a celebrity having a bite or a soda while reading a copy of the The Hollywood Reporter or other trade paper. I clearly remember seeing the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Linda Ronstadt, Jerry Brown and others.
For decades people from the Midwest and across the world would flock there, hoping they too might be discovered. But alas there's no straightforward formula for becoming a Hollywood star. So much depends on being at the right place at the right time.
Take Michael Landon. Landon came to LA wanting to get into the business. Instead he got a job pumping gas. One day he happened to be refueling the car of a Hollywood executive. The executive took a look at him and suggested he might want to screen test for a part. That was Landon's start. Landon went on to star as Little Joe in the TV series Bonanza. He also had a leading role in the TV series "Little House on the Prairie."
This is the Hollywood I was born into. A tad past its heyday, but close enough to the old Hollywood which still existed in the 1950's when I was born.
While I was born a little bit after the height of the classic Hollywood era, a newer era of celebrity culture was just around the corner. This new culture would be infused with rock stars, many of whom would go on to become just as famous if not more so than film stars. This new era would be driven by a youth culture filled with millions of baby boomers who were born after World War II.
This new age also brought with it a clear culture clash between the Baby Boom youth-driven generation and the traditional Hollywood of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Many of these new celebs came from well established old Hollywood families, such as Henry Fonda's kids, Peter and Jane; Debbie Reynolds' daughter, Carrie Fisher; Lloyd Bridges's son's, Beau and Jeff; Kirk Douglas's son, Michael; Carl Reiner's son, Rob, and way too many more to list. But the new generation of celebrities were distinctly different from their parents. Their concerns often went far beyond just being a celebrity. Many inevitably got involved in politics, including the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and living in a more care-free culture, one where you didn't have to be married to live together.
I was lucky to be born at a time when the old Hollywood was fading and the new one was rising. I had one foot planted in the old Hollywood while the other stood in the upcoming celebrity age of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I got to meet, work and socialize with celebrities from both eras. This new age would bring a big dose of conflict with it, not only because Rock 'N Roll was so different from much of the music from the 1940s and earlier, but even more so because of deep political and cultural divisions brought on by the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, San Francisco's Summer of Love in 1967, the rise of the hippie movement and student unrest on campuses across the nation.
Of course there was also some overlap between the two eras, with many old-school Hollywood celebrities experimenting with some of the things that came with this new time, including letting their hair grow and drug use.
I'll be going into more of this soon. Until next time.....