Happy 100, Hollywood! October 26 marks the start of filmmaking in Tinseltown
A new and exciting era arrived in Hollywood in 1911, ushering in the movie industry. HJ (Hobard Johnstone) Whitley, “the Father of Hollywood” had spent over a decade and millions of dollars developing the town of Hollywood. The one thing the area lacked was a viable industry for its residents. One fortunate day, HJ crossed paths with filmmaker David Horsley and suggested he lease the Blondeau Tavern on Sunset and Gower for his endeavors. To cement the deal, HJ offered to let Horsley do a film test on his property. On Oct. 26, 1911, Hollywood history was made: The Whitleys’ orchard was used as a set for a movie directed by David and William Horsley and Al Christie.
The next day, they opened Nestor Motion Picture Company at the former Blondeau Tavern. By May 1912, a merger had occurred in which David Horsley agreed to accept shares of stock in Universal as a payment for his business interests. All the while, Whitley worked nonstop to entice the rest of the film industry into settling down in Hollywood too.
Before providing a prestigious housing development for stars and executives in Whitley Heights, HJ had built the Hollywood Hotel in 1902. Located at the corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Highland Ave., it played an enormous role in placing Hollywood on the world map. Industry giants, such as Jesse Lasky, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Warner and Irving Thalberg, would stay there. Producers, directors and writers held conferences on its broad verandas as stars of the still-silent silver screen made it their home. Dances were held every Thursday night in the ballroom. Rudolph Valentino, who lived in room 264 and brought celebrity status to the hotel by impulsively marrying Jean Aker in its grand lobby, first taught tango lessons there. (Talk about the original “Dancing with the Stars”!) Those learning included studio executive June Mathis, who later offered Valentino the lead in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Later, HJ suggested to mogul Joe Schenck that he put up his entire company, including his movie-star wife, Norma Talmadge, at the hotel while moving his studio from New York to Hollywood. Many years later, Talmadge would be neighbor to HJ and his wife Gigi in Whitley Heights. The hotel register listed another well-known Norma, Ms. Shearer of The Women fame, along with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Fatty Arbuckle, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, King Vidor, Lon Chaney, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Buster Keaton, and countless others. As a thank-you, stars were painted on the ceiling of the dining room with the actors’ names inside. That way, it was easy to identify which table belonged to which star. After the Hollywood Hotel was demolished in the 1950s, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce decided to continue the tradition by placing stars on the sidewalk as part of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
And, most importantly perhaps, the Father of Hollywood also named his child. It was during their honeymoon in 1886 that HJ and Gigi fell in love with the area and HJ decided to purchase the land for development. Riding up in the Hills, they met a Chinese farmer with a wagon full of firewood. “I up at sunrise,” he told them. “Old trees fall down. Pick up wood. All time haully wood.” After gazing in the distance for a while, HJ turned to his wife: “Holly wood…Hollywood! That is the perfect name! I will name this new town Hollywood. Holly will represent my British ancestors and Wood for our Scottish. Yes, Hollywood!”
Gaelyn Whitley Keith is the great-granddaughter of HJ Whitley, “the father of Hollywood.” Using her research, access to family archives and the memoirs of her great-grandmother Gigi, Whitley Keith tells the captivating story behind the man who brought the movie industry to town in The Father of Hollywood (Tate Publishing & Enterprises). Her favorite movie theatre is Grauman’s Chinese, where she went often with her grandmother and attended many premieres. Today, she averages at least one movie a week at Regal Cinemas in El Dorado Hills (“more if time permits”).