Monday, October 21, 2019

Photo Essay: The Horror Collection Hiding In a Prohibition-Era Basement Bowling Alley

One of my favorite buildings in LA is the four-story Max Factor Building in Hollywood, built in 1914 and purchased by the cosmetics king in 1928. It was then known as the Hollywood Fire & Safe Building.

But by the time Max Factor had his grand opening in 1935, architect S. Charles Lee had turned the cosmetics company headquarters into the "Jewel Box of the Cosmetic World"—with curved windows, ornamental lamps, bas-reliefs, imported marble, and more ornamentation in the Hollywood Regency style.

I actually did go in there once to poke around the Max Factor historical displays in the lobby and check out The Hollywood Museum, which currently occupies the former factory and showroom. I just can't remember when that was—and took no photos to refer back to. I have a hunch it was around 2013, when I had a lot of time on my hands from not working a steady job.

I remember walking into the elevator, having no idea it was an elevator—and definitely not taking it up or down, the way that partiers reportedly did during Prohibition, as that's where the bar was. It was built big and strong enough to transport Max Factor's cars!

This time, on Chris Nichols's 10th annual "Spooks Tour," I did go for a ride—and I ended up in the basement "Dungeon of Doom," where the exhibit “Monsters, Mummies and Mayhem: Your Worst Nightmares Come to Life” had opened up sometime after my first visit.

They say that lower level used to be used as a bowling alley and speakeasy during Prohibition—but now, its centerpiece is Hannibal Lecter's original cellblock from The Silence of the Lambs. 

Fabricated and later donated by the studio that made the film, it was carefully relocated to the museum in pieces and reassembled to its exact original specifications.

You feel like Clarice Starling—and can practically see the infamous cannibal, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, waiting for you—as you walk down the row of cells.

And that unforgettable mask of his still sits on a table, as though to indicate he was just there.

Jason must've been there, too—because his mask from Jason Goes to Hell sits there, looking freshly bloodied.

All the greatest monsters, villains, and purveyors of thrills and chills are represented there, from Frankenstein and his bride... Vampira...

...and Elvira... well as Pennywise from It...

...and Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Many of their props and costumes have actually been used on screen...

...and even some of the special FX monsters themselves (including a pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean, which isn't exactly a horror film but has some spooky stuff in it).

In a way, an exhibit like this helps promote and extend the legacy of Max Factor himself—who, although rarely credited, actually helped create the "looks" of many of the classic movie monsters with his camera-friendly makeup. (He even coined the term "makeup.")

The Hollywood Museum was only able to move in (and open in 2003) because Procter & Gamble closed its Max Factor Museum of Beauty in the 1990s—after having opened it as a tourist attraction for the 1984 Olympics.

Now, both subjects are able to coexist in the one space.

And, in fact, there's one additional partner that gets to share in this historic space—Mel's Drive-In and Celebrity Bar, an outpost of a local chain that occupies the former makeup studio and wig shop.

After all, what is Hollywood—or horror, for that matter—without proper hair and makeup?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hollywood in Wax
Photo Essay: Curiosity Crawl at Dapper Cadaver
Photo Essay: The Special Effects House That Makes the Stuff of Your Nightmares Come to Life

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Tam O'Shanter: The Storybook Inn That Fed Walt Disney (And His Imagination)

You don't have to have ever worn a Tam O'Shanter cap—like the one worn by the namesake hero in the Robert Burns poem—to appreciate dining at The Tam O'Shanter restaurant.

Especially if you—like the original proprietors—are Scottish only "by affection."

After all, Walt Disney loved it—and his favorite table, #31, right next to the fireplace in the main room. 

Disney animators used to eat there so often, they nicknamed it "the studio commissary." 

And you can see how it inspired the team's work (including Snow White, which they animated at Disney's Hyperion Studios, just a stone's throw away).

Not only by looking at it today—but especially by examining old photos of it. 

circa 1926 (Photo: Lawry's A La Carte)

But the architecture came from a creative out of a different movie studio—several, in fact, including Willat, Selig, Ince, Famous Players-Lasky, and Fox. Its architect was no architect at all—but famed movie set designer/art director Harry Oliver, who attempted to echo Hansel and Gretel's "witch's house" with his design.

Oliver would later become one of the first Oscar nominated set designers for his work on Street Angel. He also designed the Van de Kamp windmill and the Spadena House from Culver City's Willat Studios (later relocated to Beverly Hills, where it stands today).

The "odd Norman-French type of architecture" used to have a thatched roof—but now it's been streamlined into a more traditional Tudor style, retaining much of its burnished-wood exterior. Fortunately, renovations have retained some original features—like the central cupola, its Old World "atmosphere of refinement," hearty meals, and heartwarming spirits—all with a healthy dollop of enchantment.

It hasn't always been The Tam O'Shanter. It was originally founded in 1922 by brothers-in-law Lawrence Frank and Walter Van de Kamp—the same founders as Lawry's The Prime Rib (later, in 1938) and Van de Kamp's Holland Dutch Bakeries—along with business partner Joe Montgomery as Montgomery's Country Inn.

In 1924, they renamed it Montgomery’s Chanticleer Inn, a.k.a. "California's Quaintest Highway Eating House."

In the beginning, it was simply a roadside diner on a dusty dirt road in the old Los Angeles River floodplain, on the east side of Los Feliz Boulevard across the Los Feliz Bridge (formerly the Tropico Bridge, opened 1925). The area sandwiched between Los Feliz, Tropico, and Glendale was then known as Atwater Park or simply "Atwater"—and now as Atwater Village, since 1986.

It changed to a Scottish theme in 1925, advertising the newly christened "The Tam O'Shanter Inn" as the "Home of Ham and Hamburger"—and malted milk for 15 cents.

The 1930s saw the introduction of one of the country’s first drive-ins (or "car hops," as it were)—the "Car Service de luxe," which enabled guests to eat in their cars on a special wooden tray.

At some point, there was also a "HORSEpitality Room" and the birth of the Ale and Sandwich Bar, which remains today.

In 1968, the fantastical eatery was reborn once again—this time as the "Great Scot." The theme and name stuck until 1982, upon the restaurant's 60th anniversary.

That year, the historic business reclaimed its classic name, "The Tam O'Shanter"—dropping the word "Inn," but retaining the spirit of hospitality that characterized it from the start.

Today, the Tam's patrons are greeted by warm lighting and cushy seating...

...original leaded glass windows...

...(which are both whimsical and medieval)... crests and tartans and other Scottish ephemera.

The current menu is dominated by meat-and-potatoes pub favorites, mostly served simply, just the way Walt liked it.

Throw in a huge whiskey selection and carolers during the holiday season, and I'm hooked.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Walt Disney's Snow White-Era Family Home
Photo Essay: A Vintage Drinking Den In a Historic Irish Cottage (Now Closed)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Digging Up the Pioneer History of El Rancho Simi, California

Nestled between California's Santa Susana Mountains and the Simi Hills is Simi Valley, incorporated 50 years ago in 1969.

Known in the 18th century as Rancho San Jose de Nuestra Senora de Altagracia y Simi, or El Rancho Simi for short, it was the first Spanish land grant in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties—113,000+ acres of which originally granted to Spanish soldier Santiago Pico in 1795.

Pico built the Simi Adobe circa 1810—now the oldest structure still standing in Simi Valley—as the headquarters for his Rancho Simi.

But his legacy in what's become the city of Simi Valley has been eclipsed by what a family of Scottish immigrants built and left behind.

Robert P. and Mary Strathearn—cattle ranchers, pioneers, and early Simi Valley colonists—acquired 15,000 acres of the rancho in 1889 and built a wood frame farmhouse in Eastlake Stick Victorian style in 1892-3.

They used two rooms of the Pico-built adobe as a kitchen, breakfast room, and dining room as part of their "Home Ranch"—which has now been converted into a park and showcases a kind of living history of what ranch life was like for the Strathearns and their seven children. (That is, until Strathearn and two of his sons died in 1928 in a plane crash at sea.)

They built corrugated metal farm sheds to use as garages for their family cars.

They pumped water into a tank from a well, powered by a windmill.

The water tank stand remains—but this windmill came to Strathearn Park from Moorpark, the area once known as the Strathearns' "Middle Ranch."

In 1968, the Strathearn Family donated their family home and the the six-acre parcel of land to Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District be preserved as Strathearn Historical Park, now managed by the Simi Valley Historical Society.

Some other historic structures have been relocated to the acreage—including the oldest church building in Simi Valley, which was built in 1902 as a Presbyterian church but became St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in 1910. Restoration was completed in 2007, five years after it moved to the park from from Third Street and Pacific Avenue in Simi Valley.

You can get inside the locked door only accompanied by a docent, who'll show you the original baptismal font, vestments worn for Easter (and other holy days) by the church's clergy...

...and the church bell purchased from Montgomery Ward in Chicago and installed in its steeple in 1916.

Although the Simi Store is a reproduction of a general store that used to stand at Los Angeles Avenue and Fourth Street around the turn of the last century (W.S. Keir General Merchandise), the structure itself is original to the Strathearn property. The family once used it as a garage.

One of the three remaining original structures from the Simi Colony (or historic downtown) has also been relocated to Strathearn Park—a clapboard shop, built in 1905 on Simi Valley's busiest street, Los Angeles Avenue, between Third and Fourth Streets, on the edge of Simi's "Old Colonia."

The two-chair barber shop originally served as a "variety store," selling notions and candy. It also served at one time or another as a cafe, a tiny family home, a Jehovah's Witness meeting hall, and a chiropractor's office.

But it's best known as Manuel "Tito" Bañaga's Simi Valley Barber Shop, which opened in 1958 (when it was the only one in Simi Valley at the time) and ran until Bañaga died in 2008 at age 80.

The 1920s-era apricot pitting shed was moved here from the Currier Ranch on Royal Avenue in 2001.

Over 300 acres of apricot orchards were still in production in the Simi Valley area as late as 1950. The shed now houses farm implements, carriages, wagons, and other equipment.

There are lots of stories of Simi Valley that we'll never know—from pioneers who took them to their graves (namely at the El Rancho Simi Pioneer Cemetery, established in 1890.

A portion of the 7.5-acre Simi Valley Public Cemetery, a public burial ground, the Pioneer Section of contains original burial plots of the earliest Simi settlers—pioneer families including the Appletons and Saviers.

The earliest burial appears to be from 1895, though the earliest arrivals probably happened in the 1870s or so.

We may never know their tales of Angus cattle, the futile search for oil, and the water company land grabs that characterized much of early Simi Valley.

The Simi Cemetery continued as a private cemetery until 1946, when the County of Ventura purchased it and established a Cemetery District. The county also appointed trustees to supervise operations—which hasn't been without its challenges.

The graveyard was ravaged by the Northridge earthquake in 1994. Also in the 1990s, the land sank after heavy rains.

Homemade markers share the land with burrowing gophers...

...perched above reportedly misburied bodies, mishandled human remains, and other deceased victims of the ol' switcheroo.

Come to think of it, the dead probably don't care. But their surviving family members sure do.

Related Posts:
Preservation Means Saving the Stories Beyond the Siding
Photo Essay: The Museum of Misfit Houses
Photo Essay: Oxnard Heritage Square