126 years ago today, a man was wheeled, hat in hand (so I imagine), into the Los Angeles County recorder’s office and registered a plot of land, which
he named Hollywood. This was Harvey Wilcox, a prohibitionist Christian wheelchair-bound by polio, who held a delightful vision of the site as a utopia-like community. Dreams surewere going to come true there, but Harvey’s certainly didn’t.
I wonder what Harvey would have thought if he could have momentarily slipped half a century through time. In a blink, the colour in Harvey’s world would have drained until the 1930s, at least. Harvey’s yellow brick road leads into the midst of 350 alcoholic munchkins, the Wicked Witch of the West writhing in pain as her stage makeup caught fire and nearly gave the actress a nastier end than the character on-screen.
He’d find himself in a place where cornflakes were painted white to look like falling snow, where a little man called Oscar would be everyone’s favourite person at the Academy,and almost everywhere in the world – past, present and future – would exist in a celluloid palimpsest.
In 1911 the first motion picture studio was opened in an old tavern (close your ears, Harvey) on the corner of Sunset Boulevard. By 1913 a little boy named Charlie Chaplin arrived at the New York Motion Picture Company and soon transformed himself into the most famous tramp of all time. He wasn’t the only person from afar; the Wonskolaser brothers journeyed all the way from Poland (their name changed a little bit on the way) and set up the Warner Bros Studios, whilst their star actor, Rin Tin Tin (a rescued German Shepherd) had seen far more dramatic scenes on the battlefields of WWI than anything conjured up in Hollywood.
By the 1920s up to 800 films were made a year, and shown in the movie palaces which had sprung up all over the country. In 1922, the Egyptian theatre opened –looking a little like Tutankhamun’s tomb- and held Hollywood’s first premiere, Robin Hood. Dracula had his first appearance on the silver screen in 1922, and soon there was a stampede of cowboys and dinosaurs, as the westerns and sci-fis grew in popularity.
Now, just in case Harvey’s stopped believing that this is still the same plot of land, in 1923 a kindly soul will build a rather large signpost for ‘Hollywoodland’ up on the hill. Ben-Hur became the most expensive silent movie ever in 1925, with leprosy, Jesus and even a chariot ace shot on 200,000 feet of film.
Stepping into 1928, he’d hear a giant roar, as the MGM studios record their lion for the first time; and a whistle, whilst a mouse with rather large gloves on sails in to the picture on his Steamboat Willie.
Once the depression kicks in, bullets are a-flying as the gangsters come out to play, Scarlett is lamenting for a place and a time gone with the wind, and a little girl in ruby slippers starts dreaming of a place over the rainbow. And that’s where we’ll have to leave Harvey, wheeling along his own yellow brick road.