• We’re All Just Extras Here: Wandering the Back Streets of Old Hollywood

    David L. Ulin Traces a Season of Displacement in Old Los Angeles

    I had forgotten about the churches. Or maybe I had only imagined that I ever knew. Hollywood, city of churches. Wasn’t there a line about this somewhere? An internet search didn’t show me much, but still, the church bells rang all day. Nine AM, twelve PM, three PM, call the faithful to their knees. That was not what I’d anticipated when my wife and I decamped to this Airbnb in Hollywood, a turn of the last century craftsman on Las Palmas, north of Santa Monica Boulevard. It was the type of place Raymond Chandler had described in his 1949 novel The Little Sister; “Hollywood,” he’d written there, “was a bunch of frame houses on the inter-urban line.”

    The inter-urban line was long gone, but many frame houses, including this one, remained. For four and a half months, we’d been out of our home because of a flooded bathroom. This was our third Airbnb. At times, it felt as if we were making a slow motion exodus across the id plain of the city, and from the morning that we landed here, I understood that I was out of place.

    To be fair, this had less to do with the neighborhood than with my inner weather. To be fair, this was the (bad) luck of the draw. Since the end of August, we had been living out of suitcases, driving back to our place on a daily basis to retrieve the mail. Now, it was December, and there was no end in sight. The sensation was of being rootless. The sensation was of the conditional. I kept thinking about Joan Didion, the period she’d spent on Franklin Avenue, a mile-and-a-half to the north and west. “[D]uring the five years that I lived there,” Didion recollects in her essay “The White Album,” “even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I should live in the house indefinitely.” Sinistral inertia. This describes precisely the floating quality of our days and nights in Hollywood.

    And yet, those churches. They didn’t remind me of Didion so much as of another Southern California writer: Horace McCoy. Born in Tennessee in 1897, he had worked as a newspaperman in Dallas and came to Hollywood in 1931. He aspired to be an actor but only appeared in a single short before turning to fiction and screenwriting instead. If he is remembered for anything, it’s the 1935 noir They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?—filmed in 1969 by Sydney Pollack, with Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin—which unfolds during a Santa Monica dance marathon.

    The novel is fine enough … until it unravels. So let’s say it is most essential as a precursor (a preliminary mapping of the territory) for McCoy’s 1938 follow-up I Should Have Stayed Home. The story of Ralph Carston and Mona Matthews, a pair of movie extras, I Should Have Stayed Home is centered for the most part in a bungalow not unlike the one in which my wife and I found ourselves, the Hollywood of frame houses and church bells. “There was a red haze above the boulevard eight blocks north, thrown up by the neon signs,” McCoy writes. “The only building you could see over the tops of the small houses across the street was the Catholic church on Sunset, its white spire sticking straight up into the black sky.”

    People say Southern California has no history, but this is ignorance. More interesting is what history has to tell us about continuity, which is (as it must be) another form of faith.

    How good is I Should Have Stayed Home? I tend to stay away from these sorts of literary parlor games; “good writing glories all writers,” Malcolm Cowley once observed. Still, in his portrayal of Depression-era Hollywood—its day-to-dayness—McCoy gets a lot of everything right. First, there is the hand to mouth existence of the extras, which has not changed very much across the years. These days, casting calls arrive by text or email as well as the phone, but the urgency remains the same. “That was the first lesson I had learned in Hollywood,” Ralph confides in an early chapter, “that there is one thing an extra does not do—leave the telephone unguarded, not for a single moment. That was the very time Central Casting always called, and when there was no answer they called somebody else.”

    Then, there is the neighborhood, “a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left.” This has in part to do with the edgy and elusive climate, not least the relentless light of day. “I was afraid of the sun,” Ralph acknowledges, “not because it was hot but because of what it might do to my mind.” What he fears is exposure, a reckoning with his lostness, yet merely escaping the sun is not enough. “It was raining,” he tells us later in the novel. “That raggledy palm tree in the middle of the court was more raggledy and forlorn than ever. Nothing looks more forlorn in the rain than a Hollywood palm tree. A fog was coming in from the sea, and you could not see very far beyond the bungalows across the court.”

    Do I need to say that this was how my wife and I were living? Do I need to say that this is what we saw? Outside our living room window were two raggledy palm trees, backgrounded by the high hedge—fourteen feet? eighteen?—that isolated the property from the street. Catty-corner across the intersection was the Las Palmas Market, two storeys, red clapboard, built in 1912. I’d often noticed it when driving through the area; now I walked over to buy wine and beer. Mona and Ralph also lived near a market, “probably the only market in Hollywood where an extra could get credit.” Their bungalow court had been on Vine, ten blocks to the east, although you’d never know it to see it in the moment: a dry cleaner and a strip mall, and across the street, the Pickford Center of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

    On my walks, I sometimes wandered through De Longpre Park, among the oldest community parks in this corner of Los Angeles; it opened to the public in 1924. At its center stood a statue, “Aspiration,” dedicated to the memory of Rudolf Valentino. In the closing pages of I Should Have Stayed Home, Ralph discovers the monument while walking “the streets in the neighborhood, Fountain and Livingston and Cahuenga, looking at all the small houses, telling myself that these were where Swanson and Pickford and Chaplin and Arbuckle and the others used to live.”

    What to do with these echoes? What to do with this history? I had visited this park before but not for a long time, and never had it felt like it had anything to do with me.

    Such a small house, of course, was where we were quartered, in a present that had become unmoored. As with Swanson and Pickford and the rest, we were at a crossroads, although the only place we wanted to go was home. Even so, what to do with these echoes? What to do with this history? I had visited this park before but not for a long time, and never had it felt like it had anything to do with me.

    Here, however … here I was, like Ralph, navigating the neighborhood, all those narrow streets and bungalows. Here I was, like Ralph, seeking consolation or connection, waiting out my time in Hollywood. “I walked over to the fountain,” he notes of his encounter with “Aspiration.” “It was a fish-pond and what I had thought was a fountain was a statue. The statue was about three feet high, a figure with arms at its side, its head lifted. I leaned forward, looking at the tablet.

    Erected in memory of Rudolph Valentino

    Presented by his friends and admirers from every walk of life—in all parts of the world—in appreciation of the Happiness brought to them by his cinema portrayals.

    “Aspiration” is the only memorial of its kind in Hollywood. Vernacular, street level, human scale. A photo shows how it looked in the 1930s, around the time Ralph would have seen it, the four rounded extrusions of the fountain framing water and what appear to be lily pads, like a three-dimensional ace of clubs. A woman, wearing a day dress and a cloche hat, walks at the image’s edge. The ace of clubs is, among other things, a symbol of health, happiness, and longevity. Valentino, despite his renown—100,000 fans showed up for his funeral—could not be said to have experienced any of the three. The fountain is filled in now, and the park is different: workout equipment and an area for dogs.

    Still, just spend a moment before that small bronze statue. Squint your eyes and watch the years compress. Fans committed suicide in the wake of Valentino’s death at 31 of sepsis. More than one died here. “Presently I was aware that there was someone else in the park,” Ralph remembers. “I looked around, behind me, and saw a figure silhouetted in the light from the single globe that was fixed on top of some kind of grass shelter. I couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman. It was on its knees … in an attitude of prayer.”

    There’s something I like so much about this image, which is, by turns, ridiculous and mystical. Look at it one way, and it’s a Hollywood cliché. Change the aperture and it becomes the expression of a different kind of faith. Such a faith—in celebrity or fame, yes, but more essentially in the power of reinvention—lingers, after a fashion, as among the abiding mythologies of this place.

    Occasionally, in the park, I would watch as someone, a man or a woman, gazed at “Aspiration” with what seemed like longing. I always wondered: Could they say who Valentino had been? He’d been dead, after all, since 1926. He’d never made a talking picture. There is scant evidence of his voice. Nearly a century later, he was a ghost, or not even. He was a statue in a park. Like Ralph, though, I couldn’t help but think of him walking these streets like I did, a shadow on the pavement. I couldn’t help but think of my passage through this neighborhood as transitory, as both of theirs had been.

    In his portrayal of Depression-era Hollywood—its day-to-dayness—McCoy gets a lot of everything right.

    And yet, there’s something in that transience, isn’t there? This was the implication of the fall. Experience is neutral, a Buddhist friend liked to remind me. It’s what we do with or about it that makes us who we are. Like “Aspiration,” I Should Have Stayed Home offers a time capsule, with a keen awareness of the world in which it’s set. One subplot involves the then-nascent actors’ labor movement. Others showcase prescient (and progressive) takes on race and antisemitism. “Haven’t you seen any of those pictures in Life or Fortune about all the German youth being drilled in uniforms and wearing signs across their breasts: ‘We were Born to Die For Hitler?’” a publicist named Johnny Hill asks Ralph in the middle of the novel. Ralph is clueless about the looming threat, but Johnny becomes the conscience of the book. Nonetheless, conscience or no conscience, time will have its way with them. We are all extras, in other words, in the face of the universe.

    Ultimately, I came across the reference I’d been seeking: Hollywood, city of churches. The source was a blog called “Under the Hollywood Sign.” There, beneath a black-and-white photograph of the Hollywood Congregational Church, dedicated in 1920 at the corner of Sycamore and Hollywood, I read a short summary, tracing the early history of the neighborhood, when it was an independent municipality. “Hollywood’s powerful religiosity,” the post asserted, “sprang directly from its founder, Harvey Wilcox, a devout Protestant and vehement teetotaler.” Whether, or to what extent, this is true remains an open question, but certainly Wilcox’s widow Daeida, who donated plots of land to a variety of congregations, sought to develop Hollywood as a Christian community. In 1904, voters forbade the sale of liquor. Movie theaters were also banned. In 1910, Hollywood annexed itself to Los Angeles. The same year, D.W. Griffith made In Old California, the first Hollywood film.

    In the future that’s my present, I walked most mornings south on Wilcox Avenue, named by Harvey (in his own image) 135 years ago. As my wife and I waited to return home, I wandered the streets his wife and he had laid out. People say Southern California has no history, but this is ignorance. More interesting is what history has to tell us about continuity, which is (as it must be) another form of faith. Not in the sense that anything lasts, because it doesn’t, but in putting one foot in front of the other, the tracks we inscribe in the day-to-day.

    Throughout the autumn, we’d been making these inscriptions as we moved from one Airbnb to another. Now, here we were. “I turned off Vine Street onto Hollywood Boulevard,” Ralph reflects, “going west, telling myself I was crazy to admit that even now it was too late.” And yet, the church bells, they kept ringing; they are ringing right this minute. Matins or some other morning prayer, a tradition that does not belong to me—although in Hollywood, I’d come to recognize, this could be something of a temporary grace.

    David L. Ulin
    David L. Ulin
    David L. Ulin is a contributing editor to Literary Hub. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, his books include Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

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