Sunday, March 8, 2009

Searching for ABW - Hill Street in the 20's

View of S. Hill Street, facing south, from 7th, circa 1926.

In 1918, ABW sold his printing business in downtown Los Angeles to take a job with the Hilo Tribune Company in Hawaii. His wife, Oro, and his 4 year old son Richard, [The Man I Love]'s father, went with him. His grown daughter stayed behind in Santa Barbara with her new husband.

Up until 1898, Hawaii was a sovereign nation, ruled by a monarch. The islands became the U.S. Territory of Hawaii on February 22, 1900. There were fortunes to be made in this new tropical paradise, and it's no surprise that ABW, with his wanderlust, would succumb to the allure. It was a way to start anew, in a new land - and maybe revitalize his marriage, which may have been strained by his frequent traveling.

Whatever it was, it didn't take. Only three years later, in 1921, the family returned to Los Angeles - on different ships. There is no record of divorce, but the family had separated. Oro and Richard settled in Santa Barbara again. ABW moved to Los Angeles. He was 47 years old.

Los Angeles was booming. The population in the 1920s grew from half a million to 1.5 million. There were dozens of print shops and newspapers - lots of opportunities for a newspaperman.

From downtown L.A., ABW could ride the Pacific Electric Car to any of the local papers he claims to have been "connected" to, including the Santa Monica Outlook, the Venice Vanguard, the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Long Beach Morning Sun.

In 1926 the voter registration records show him residing at 845 S. Hill Street. This photo from the early '20s shows S. Hill Street looking north from 9th Street. 845 is the Hotel Percival at left.

A newly single man could find a lot to do in this part of town. Beyond the apartment hotel, anchoring the corner of Hill and 8th, stood the Hill Street Theatre.

The theatre, which opened in 1922 as part of the Orpheum chain's "Junior Circuit", featured five-act vaudeville shows alternating with movies, running all day long. Seats were 36 cents, 50 cents on weekends. In the next block north was the Alhambra Theatre, and on 6th between Broadway and Hill was Grauman's Metropolitan - the largest movie house in the city, with a brilliantly lit marquee.

You could grab a bite to eat at Herbert's, a restaurant at 745 S. Hill, where $2.00 bought a full Thanksgiving Dinner. Or for something a little finer, the Victor Hugo Restaurant at 623 S. Hill featured French cuisine.

Across the street from the Percival, the May Company department store chain occupied the former A. Hamburger store. This magnificent building had opened in 1905, featuring the first escalator west of the Rockies. In the '20s a shopgirl named Sadie Marks worked in the ladies' lingerie department - a vaudeville performer named Jack Benny was so smitten he hung around to court her, buying so many pairs of stockings from her it set a sales record. In 1927 he married her, and she became part of his act, using the stage name Mary Livingston.

Through the 1920s, the relentless building boom continued. On Hill at 11th, two new theatres - the Mayan and the Belasco - were built side-by side, intended for the presentation of plays. A block to the east, development on Broadway was rampant In 1926, construction began for the Pacific National Bank at 9th and S. Hill - right next door to the Hotel Percival.

This view looking north on Hill Street shows the Belasco Theatre at center, with the Mayan immediately north. The tallest structure in the photo is the gothic-design water tower atop the newly-constructed United Artists Theatre on Broadway. The Pacific National Bank building is the large building to the left of the street, with the row of arched windows on the top floor.

Perhaps it was the noise and inconvenience of all this construction, or perhaps rents were skyrocketing in the changing neighborhood. ABW writes he went back into business in the linotype trade, and moved to Santa Monica, where he lived until 1930.

Today, there is an empty parking lot where the Percival Hotel once stood. The Hill Street Theatre was torn down in 1964, and today a modern parking garage runs the width of the block between Hill and Olive, where it once stood.

The Mayan and the Belasco are still standing - the Mayan operating as a salsa music nightclub. The Belasco, while shuttered, has been preserved and is used for film locations.

The Pacific National Building still stands, surrounded by empty parking lots, home to a branch of Washington Mutual Bank, which declared bankruptcy in September, 2008.

On a recent Saturday afternoon visit, S. Hill Street was deserted, with even the parking lots empty.

Photo note: all historic photos are from the USC Digital Archives.


KBeau said...

What wonderful history, and I love all of the old black and white photos.

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

really enjoyable post - loved seeing one of the Orpheum Circuit's "lesser" theatres. Apparently these theatres were where June Havoc (and her sister, Gypsy Rose Lee) got their start with Mama Rose.

It's very nice when you have a family chronology to run along with it, isn't it?!

JCK said...

Sometimes LA reminds me of Atlanta in that so much gets torn down. All those beautiful old buildings - such history and architecture!

You know what I keep saying... You have the travel writer in you! A book. I just know it.

Aren't you coming up on your 1st blogoversary this Spring?

mo.stoneskin said...

Fascinating. Love the photos.

Queenly Things said...

I wish we'd been freinds when I lived down there. I would have been thoroughly entertained going with you and learning the history of what is, unquestionably a beautiful, though unused downtown LA.