The following was written by John Gregory, Special to The Outlook.
When motion picture pioneer Thomas Edison dispatched a cameraman and assistant from their New Jersey studio to Southern California to find more light for his six-to-eight-minute documentaries, one of the first stops was the 1898 Rose Parade. The result, “Horticultural Parade,” cost less than $200 per minute in finished product, including cross-country train fares, editing and producing multiple copies for hand-cranked video scopes into which Edison’s customers plunked in their nickels.
Jump ahead to the present day. Woody Allen’s comedy “Café Society,” now in theaters and including scenes shot in Pasadena, cost $312,500 per minute of finished product. And there were no mountainous sci-fi sets to build.
Motion pictures have gone through other major changes during this 118-year span, including filmgoers’ tastes, sound and camera tricks, animation and delivery to venues beyond theaters alone. When television series became popular in the early 1950s, homeowners were as likely to see a movie crew shooting an episode of Jack Webb’s “Dragnet” in Pasadena as they were “Beverly Hills, 90210” in Altadena some 45 years later.
Pasadena and Altadena were among the earliest West Coast venues for film shoots. Legendary Director D.W. Griffith tested the waters, beginning in 1905, with three short documentaries of the Rose Parade. In 1910 he transported his New York-based troupe of 22, including future stars Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett, to Los Angeles and made daily trips to shoot scripted dramas. One was filmed in Altadena’s Rubio Canyon and four in Pasadena, including the Fenyes Mansion on Orange Grove Avenue, and in Eaton Canyon.
Canyons were kept busy in the early days. Crown City Film Manufacturing Co., the only movie studio known to have operated in this community, produced at least 13 scripted films in 1915-16. All motion pictures starred Dorothy Davenport, whose movie career lasted until 1971. Titles of some of Crown’s films — “A Tale of the Hills,” “A Wisp of Wisteria,” “The Adventurer” — indicate that the studio combed the hills of Altadena and Pasadena for locations. Crown City, based at 40 W. Mountain St., was besieged by squabbles between owners and cast members. It closed the following year.
Other studios began using Pasadena for film shoots. Fine Arts Films produced “Reggie Mixes In,” starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., at the Fenyes Mansion in 1916. Two years later, Tom Mix starred in Fox Film’s “Western Blood” at the same location. The Fenyes blazed the trail for house-based film venues in the San Gabriel Valley.
Mack Sennett left Griffith to produce comedy films with his zany Keystone Kops. In 1915 he used Colorado Street Bridge for “Love, Speed and Thrills.” The bridge played a sinister role — a jumping off place — for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” in 1921.
Hollywood has long been attracted to other landmarks. Paramount studios shot “The Yankee Girl” at the Huntington Hotel, now called the Langham. More recent films at the hotel include “My Fellow Americans,” “Nixon” and “The Parent Trap.” Pasadena City Hall was the emperor’s palace for Chaplin’s 1940 Oscar-winner “The Great Dictator.”
Spoiler alert: The bottom line of film footage shot in Pasadena and Altadena comes here, rather than at the end of this story. Altadena’s landscape, homes and other buildings have appeared in 18 major films — that is, those shown in theaters across the county. Twenty-three television series that survived for two seasons or longer have been filmed in Altadena. Pasadena’s numbers are 266 major motion pictures and 47 long-running TV series. Six films shot in Pasadena have won Academy Awards for best picture; 14 have been nominated.
Pasadena’s mammoth Busch Gardens in the Arroyo Seco hosted 21 film shoots, starting in 1915 with “Old Heidelberg,” starring Dorothy Gish and Eric von Stroheim. In 1939’s Oscar-winning “Gone With the Wind,” actress Vivian Leigh flirted in the gardens with three suitors, one of them played by George Reeves, a Pasadena resident who would star as the man of steel in the TV series “Superman.”
Nominated for best-picture awards were the gardens’ “Disraeli” in 1929 and “David Copperfield” in 1935. In “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), Busch hosted a huge archery tournament. That was the year Busch Gardens was closed to the public by the owners, Adolphus and Lilly Busch. However, the Busches allowed film shoots until 1950, when “Rogues of Sherwood Forest” locked the gates after filming scenes.
Another busy film location is the house and backyard at 1145 Arden St. in Pasadena. To date, 19 films and 21 TV series have graced this west Pasadena location, beginning in 1927 with “Get Your Man,” starring Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers. “Terms of Endearment,” with Shirley McLain, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson, won a best-film Oscar in 1983. Also at this address: “Duck Soup” (1933) with the Marx Brothers, one of highest ranking comedies of all time. Chevy Chase stopped at 1145 Arden for scenes in his 1983 comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Television series include “The Love Boat,” “Knots Landing,” “Starsky & Hutch” and “The Twilight Zone.”
Television’s “Beverly Hills, 90210” rubbed shoulders with 1145 Arden and 13 other spots in Pasadena. However, bragging rights for most shoots in that TV series go to Altadena, hosting scenes for 27 episodes. The house at 1675 Altadena Drive was “home” to the brother-sister team of Jason Priestly and Shannen Doherty. Commercial streets in Altadena hosted such shenanigans as a soap-bubble-filled car-wash contest between teenagers. “Beverly Hills, 90210” concluded its run with a party at 1675 Altadena Drive. An argument could be made that the show, airing from 1990 to 1998, should have been titled “Altadena, 91001.”
Mountain View Cemetery, founded in 1882 at the top of Altadena, has appeared in such television series as “Desperate Housewives,” “The Office” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” According to a film blog, IAmNotaStalker.com, Season 8 of “Seinfeld” had this sequence: George Constanza, played by Jason Alexander, goes to the cemetery with Jerry to pay respects to his “wife,” who died after swallowing toxic glue while licking envelopes to announce their wedding plans. The audience was left to speculate: Did George tamper with the glue to get out of the marriage?
Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena has opened its arms to 19 film shoots, starting with “Born to Be Bad” in 1950. In 1969, Elvis Presley filmed scenes there for “Change of Habit.” In 1997, director Steven Spielberg was surprised when, during a break between scenes of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” students at the all-girls school serenaded him while actor Jeff Goldblum played piano.
A few blocks away, the Craven Estate at 430 Madeline Drive gained Hollywood’s attention in recent decades. The first film here, “You Can’t Run Away,” hit theaters in 1956. Forty years passed before “Down Periscope” was shot there. In 2000, “Traffic” was nominated for a best-film Oscar.
Another Pasadena magnet has been the 10-block street scene of Old Pasadena. For the award-winning “The Sting” (1973), art director Henry Bumstead, a San Marino resident, convinced director George Roy Hill that filming street scenes in Chicago, where the story takes place, would be far more expensive than dressing up Kendall Alley and portions of Union Street in Old Pasadena. Castle Green, three blocks away, became the film’s mob casino and served in the same role for “Bugsy” (1991), starring Warren Beatty.
In the last 15 years, 45 major films have been shot in the Altadena-Pasadena area. Location scouts sought new turf to expand their options, sometimes just a few doors away from earlier venues. Scenes for the soon-to-be released “The Circle,” starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, were recorded at the Art Center College of Design.
Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” (2002), featuring Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, used homes on East Crary Street in Altadena and, in Pasadena, on South El Molino Avenue, East Colorado Boulevard and South Oak Knoll Avenue. Ambassador College, Westminster Presbyterian Church, All Saints Episcopal Church and Huntington Memorial Hospital have become go-to locations. Vroman’s Bookstore on Colorado in Pasadena welcomed Steve Carell for “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Little wonder that Hollywood, only a few miles to the west, doesn’t have to travel far to find a diverse range of scenery and locations in Pasadena and Altadena.
John Gregory curated an exhibit titled “Hollywood Comes to Pasadena” at the Pasadena Museum of History. He is past president of the Pasadena City College Foundation.