It looked as if all of Hollywood was turning out for the occasion just as Jack L. Warner had predicted. “Beyond question,” the venerable studio head had declared to the press, “it will be the largest turnout of stars and personalities from motion pictures, television, radio, recording and civic life ever to assemble for an occasion related to the entertainment industry.” A really bold claim to be sure, but as each shiny black limousine disgorged yet another world famous face it looked as if Warner hadn’t been exaggerating. Jimmy Stewart was there. So was Walt Disney, Gregory Peck, Lana Turner, Karl Malden, Gene Autry, Jack Webb, Shirley Booth, Rosalind Russell and a host of other world renowned celebrities. Even some of the greats of yesteryear made an appearance with such legendary figures as Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Francis X. Bushman and Ramon Novarro all thrilling an enthusiastic crowd of some 6,000 excited movie fans who roared their approval from specially-built bleachers lining the stretch of Highland Avenue across from the Hollywood Bowl on that sunny October day in 1963. The star-studded event had all the glitz and ballyhoo of a major Hollywood premiere, which in a way it was. The production being celebrated, however, was not a movie, but rather a building – a museum to be exact – a museum for Hollywood. And as the huge throngs attested, this was going to be no glorified warehouse of art or furniture. This was to be the most unique museum ever conceived, a sort of Disneyland meets the Smithsonian promising something to please everyone from the casual tourist to the serious film scholar.
The new venture, which was officially to be known as the Hollywood Motion Picture and Television Museum, was intended to be a shining example of how government and private enterprise could work together with private donations funding construction of the Museum itself and the County providing the land upon which it was to be sited. Upon completion, the museum would be County-owned but leased to a non-profit organization established for the purpose, which would physically manage the facility for a period of years. As for spearheading this big civic project, L.A. County turned to veteran Hollywood producer Sol Lesser. Best known for producing the 1940 film version of Our Town as well as a popular and long-running series of Tarzan pictures, Lesser seemed like a perfect choice for the job, a Hollywood insider with stellar connections and an infectiously boyish enthusiasm for the project that belied his 70+ years. Retiring from active production in 1958, Lesser threw himself body and soul into the project, giving his time, expertise and even some of his own money to the venture and no doubt envisioning the long-discussed, long dreamed of museum as the crowning achievement of his long career
And what a legacy it would be! Hollywood’s new Motion Picture and Television Museum was poised to be as spectacular as any of the movies it would showcase and honor. No dusty repository of antiques here – a living, vibrant and exciting venue, a thrill a minute for the millions of lucky visitors who would surely flock from all parts of the globe to see this wonderland each and every year. The show would start on the sidewalk with tickets purchased from none other than animatronic Clark Gables or Marlene Dietrichs and from there, according to William Pereira, architect of the new museum, visitors would “step into a world of illusion.” Their first view would be an awe-inspiring four-story exhibit space where they would wander through a “television forest” and then be whisked up by a giant lift and find themselves back in Imperial Rome where they would stand as part of the throngs hearing Marc Anthony giving his famous oration. Descending a winding staircase the history of the development of electronic communication would unfold before them. If they are hungry they may dine on the Via Veneto, the Kasbah or even a full scale recreation of the Hollywood Canteen. A 600-seat theater would showcase films of all types. Television programs would be viewed from television screens that would descend from the ceiling. Not only could they view current and classic films and television shows they could actually watch them being made while sitting in glassed in booths in one of the two active sound stages on the property. All around them, visitors would be treated to a series of revolving and permanent exhibits showcasing the stunning multi-million dollar collection the Museum had already amassed including not only thousands of props and costumes, but complete sets from famous films as well. An Oscar and Emmy Sanctum was sure to be a hit as would be the priceless collection of early cinematic devices donated by Beverly Hills financier Bart Lytton.
While it might be all “Lights! Camera! Action!” as Sol Lesser proudly declared, the museum’s boosters took great pains to make clear it would be equally dedicated as a place for education, serious study and scholarly research. In fact, an entirely separate tower building was incorporated into the design exclusively for this purpose with space for libraries, offices, film vaults and storage rooms. The museum would surely need this space. It had already gotten pledges to receive both the entire Cecil B. De Mille and Mary Pickford collections, a huge coup indeed as well as the personal collections of pioneer filmmakers Jesse Lasky and Carl Laemmle of Universal and no doubt many more to follow. Another giant acquisition for the museum was the pledge of 20th Century Fox’s mammoth collection of 1.8 million still photographs. And this was just the start. The museum’s acquisitions committee was constantly searching for and receiving pledges for other collections from around the world of important items related to the history of the modern entertainment industry. And by the museum’s standard the “entertainment industry” was intended to encompass not only motion pictures and television, but the radio and recording industries as well. The idea of a single museum, no matter how big, giving equal time to showcasing the history and continuing development of the movies, television, radio and the music industry from birth to today and on to tomorrow all under one roof seemed like an extremely ambitious one and in the minds of some way too ambitious for just one entity to handle. These people saw it as a four-headed hydra with each head demanding equal attention all at once. How would or could such a thing be accommodated? And then there were concerns over the true costs of the project, big concerns over whether the venture would be financially self sustaining as supporters claimed or a financial drain on County resources as detractors feared.
But those negative thoughts were banished to the hinterlands for the moment as 11 year-old Richard Powell, son of the late great Dick Powell, ceremoniously turned the first spadeful of earth on the project to the accompanying cheers of thousands in the appreciative crowd. For so many that symbolic shovel of dirt represented the culmination of a dream, a long held desire to see Hollywood with a museum all its own that honored and celebrated the new yet exceedingly rich history of the movies. As early as 1940 ideas had been floated about to convert such sites as the former Trocadero or the old Warner Brothers Studio on Sunset into just such a museum, but these proposals never advanced past the drawing board and disappointment followed disappointment. Time and again, the idea was revived, cheered and encouraged only to have it undone by one thing or another. It seemed to many that a Hollywood museum was jinxed. But now, with that spadeful of earth the long deferred dream was now finally becoming a reality. There was nothing standing in the way to keep this museum from happening. That is, except maybe for the man glaring balefully out the window from the old house on the hill.
The man in the window felt he had every reason to glare. To him this was no celebration of a grand new civic project, but a provocation for an all out war. Here they were, the Barbarians at his very gate and he knew exactly what all this hoopla meant. It meant the coming destruction of everything he held near and dear. But if they thought he’d slink away quietly they’d better think again. Steve Anthony had never shied away from a fight in his life and he wasn’t about to now. A pugnacious ex-Marine turned Hollywood bartender, Anthony had been living a peaceful and quiet existence in the little cottage on the hill with his growing family for some years now. That was until the Hollywood Museum project came in and decimated virtually everything in sight in the name of “progress.” Just two years earlier, this had been a quaint and vibrant old Hollywood neighborhood filled with cute little Spanish bungalows and English cottages where famous stars of days gone by had once lived. People like Francis X. Bushman, Donald Crisp and even Strongheart the Wonder Dog had called it home. Anthony’s own place had the biggest star association of all – none other than Bette Davis – who had made 6655 Alta Loma Terrace her very first Hollywood residence in 1930. “It was the sweetest house I had ever seen in my life,” remembered Davis fondly. No small compliment considering the literally dozens of homes the peripatetic Davis moved in and out of during her long career in the film capital. It was indeed quite a little charmer. Built in 1923 to the plans of local architect Ray G. Smith, the cottage at 6655 Alta Loma Terrace was Cotswold by way of Walt Disney. A movieland home in the truest sense of the word, it was said that set pieces from Rex Ingram’s 1922 production of The Prisoner of Zenda had been incorporated directly into the home’s design. The cottage had been built for cinematographer and future Broadway producer Gordon Pollock, perhaps best remembered today for his work with Erich Von Stroheim on the disastrous Queen Kelly (1928) and Charlie Chaplin on City Lights (1931). It had been the Pollocks who had rented their house to the newly arrived Bette Davis and her mother Ruthie and some twenty-five years later to Steve and Elona Anthony.
During his time on Alta Loma, Anthony had hit it off quite well with his landlord, helping the older man out in various ways especially during Pollock’s recovery from a stroke. After Pollock and his wife were killed in a plane crash over Lake Eire in 1956, Anthony discovered his kindnesses had not been forgotten with Pollock willing him half ownership in the house. Anthony knew how much Pollock had loved the house on Alta Loma and his generous gift only strengthened his resolve to save it. And had it not been for Steve Anthony, it would have already met the same fate as the fifteen other homes surrounding it – bulldozed into oblivion in the name of progress under condemnation through Eminent Domain. Anthony had been the sole holdout, refusing the $11,000 offered for his share of the house, forcing the County to go through lengthy legal proceedings to forcibly evict him. And forcibly it would have to be for the Anthonys had no intention of going voluntarily. The stage was set for what was to become known as “The Siege of Fort Anthony.”
Stay tuned for the exciting continuation of the “The Siege of Fort Anthony” coming to a blog near you.