Prescription for retro glamour: A look back at Schwab’s

Sunset b & wHeading to the West Hollywood Rite-Aid to do a little schmoozing? Not bloody likely. But, in Tinseltown’s golden age, Schwab’s Pharmacy, at 8024 Sunset Blvd., ranked as one of the city’s top spots to meet, greet, mix and mingle.

A program Saturday at the Egyptian Theatre highlighted the pivotal role Schwab’s played in Hollywood networking from the 1930s to the 1960s. Teacher/history buff Marc Chevalier delivered a photo-driven presentation, followed by a short that was filmed at Schwab’s to promote a 1946 bio-pic, “The Jolson Story,” and the exquisite movie “Sunset Blvd.” (1950, Billy Wilder), which features the drugstore in a key scene.

Chevalier started his talk with a cherchez la femme angle. The property – on the south side of Sunset Boulevard, between Laurel Avenue and Crescent Heights – first belonged to Dr. George E. Paddleford and his wife, Genevieve McKinney Toomey Teal Paddleford, a “international adventuress and love pirate,” with a string of duped husbands.

The Sunset Medical Building complex opened its doors in 1931.

The Sunset Medical Building in the 1930s. Schwab’s was to the right of the window awning (far right).

The Paddlefords owned lots 1, 2 and 29 of the Crescent Heights tract and built a mansion on lot 2. Fond of giving Dr. Paddleford’s expensive cuff links and other valuable belongings to her lovers, Genevieve drew her husband’s ire and the couple divorced around 1920. She left for Europe where she continued to live the high life, charm men, court scandal, oh and steal stuff from Ritz-Carlton hotels.

Dr. Paddleford (an associate of oil magnate Edward L. Doheny) sold the property and in 1931 architects Alvan Norstrom and Milton Anderson designed the Sunset Medical Building for developers C.H. Thomsen and W.L. Easley. The year before, for the same developers, Norstrom and Anderson designed a building directly across the street. It’s in use today as the Laugh Factory and Greenblatt’s Deli.

Schwab’s was a place to see and be seen.

Schwab’s was a place to see and be seen.

Despite the prosaic name (it became known as the Crescent Heights Shopping Center and later simply “The Corner”), the new building turned out to be a modern-day palace. Its front and side facades were clad in dark tan marble from Southern France and trimmed in rosso levanto Italian marble. (At the time, the only other commercial structure in Los Angeles that boasted so much marble was downtown’s Merritt Building from 1915.) Inside The Corner, rooms were paneled and floored in mahogany; some had terrazzo marble floors. Doctors’ and dentists’ offices were on the second level. A covered-bridge walkway allowed patients to cross from one wing to another. The back court had a 30-space parking lot.

Nearby was the Spanish-Moorish style Garden of Allah apartment complex, originally owned by actress Alla Nazimova in 1919; the Garden was torn down in 1959. Many residents from this chic residence supported businesses at The Corner.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the notable residents at the Garden of Allah.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the notable residents at the Garden of Allah.

Norstrom and Anderson’s marble stunner housed several merchants on the ground floor, including Richard Talmadge, former actor and stuntman for Douglas Fairbanks, who ran a flower shop, and the owner of the Crescent Heights Market, Ben Ruben, known for insulting his customers at no extra charge. Howard Hughes treated his girlfriends to makeovers at the beauty salon.

In 1932, the Schwab brothers (Bernard, Leon, Jack and Martin) took over a failing drugstore in the complex; they would eventually own six pharmacies. But Schwab’s on Sunset wasn’t just a place to drop off a prescription or buy toiletries. Open from 7 a.m. to midnight, the gathering spot served meals as well as soda-fountain drinks. The store had five phone booths and frequently offered automatic credit. Customers could also buy high-end liquor, tobacco, chocolate, perfume and cosmetics. There was no charge for deliveries.

Billy Wilder filmed the Schwab’s  scene at Paramount.

Billy Wilder filmed the Schwab’s scene at Paramount.

In the movie “Sunset Blvd.,” William Holden’s character, a struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis, tells us the pharmacy is his headquarters, explaining: “That’s the way a lot of us think about Schwab’s. Kind of a combination office, coffee klatch and waiting room. Waiting, waiting for the gravy train.” (Though it would seem the ideal location shoot, Wilder had the interior recreated and filmed on a Paramount lot.)

Arguably, what made Schwab’s the place to network and nosh was the fact that journalist/actor/producer Sidney Skolsky wrote his Photoplay column “From a Stool at Schwab’s” in a second-floor office, by arrangement with the Schwab family.

Sidney Skolsky and Marilyn Monroe attend an industry function.

Sidney Skolsky and Marilyn Monroe attend an industry function.

Among Skolsky’s many talents was a knack for nicknames and he dubbed the drugstore Schwabadero’s, an allusion to the Trocadero nightclub down the street. (Even more famously, in 1934, he was the first journalist to write a story using Oscar to refer to the Academy Award.) As a producer on the 1946 movie “The Jolson Story,” it was Skolsky’s idea to shoot the after-party at Schwab’s and use the footage as a publicity short.

Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mickey Cohen, Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, the Marx Brothers, Cesar Romero and Shelley Winters were regular Schwabadero’s customers. Marilyn Monroe, another loyal patron, reportedly left messages for Skolsky, under the name Miss Caswell. Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner stopped in and made their own milkshakes.

Though it’s widely thought that Lana Turner was discovered sipping a soda at Schwab’s, in fact it was at the Top Hat malt shop, several blocks east on Sunset, that in 1937, at age 16, she attracted the attention of Hollywood Reporter publisher William Wilkerson.

Debunking the myth: Lana Turner was discovered at a malt shop down the street from Schwab’s.

Lana Turner was discovered at a malt shop down the street from Schwab’s.

By the time Schwab’s had its closeup in “Sunset Blvd.,” Russian immigrant/Beverly Hills businessman Martin Belousoff owned the property. In 1949, Googie’s coffee shop, designed by architect John Lautner in Space Age/midcentury modern style, was built nearby and served customers such as James Dean, Marlon Brando and beat-generation poets. (Googie’s lasted until 1989.)

Compared with Googie’s, Schwab’s looked passé and in 1955 Belousoff decided to remodel inside and out, commissioning architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis for the job. But not long after Schwab’s updated, new Sunset Strip venues were opening up and gaining popularity with aspiring stars and ’60s hipsters.

Schwab’s, which had been in business for 50 years and earned worldwide fame as a Hollywood hive of activity, closed its doors in 1983 and was torn down in 1988. But it remains Hollyood’s most famous drugstore – a legendary place to sip sodas, schmooze, spot stars and, like many a prospective Lana Turner, strut your stuff.

Schwab's was open from 7 a.m. to midnight.

Schwab’s was open from 7 a.m. to midnight.

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Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin create a gorgeously over-the-top Gatsby for the new millennium

The Great Gatsby/2013/Warner Bros. Pictures/143 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Director Baz Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle, ultra-snazzy movie of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby” – which has been unjustly trashed by a number of critics – is a sometimes sensational movie that may not match the aesthetic brilliance and roaring ’20s allure of the book. (How could it? )

But it gives us plenty to enjoy anyway: a great story, much of Fitzgerald’s matchlessly lyrical narration and memorable dialogue, and a strong cast. Leonardo DiCaprio makes one of the best Gatsbys possible in a part that now seems perfect for him. Tobey Maguire plays Nick Caraway, Carey Mulligan is Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton is her husband Tom.

There’s also a truly spectacular visual realization – by Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin, who is the film’s production and costume designer – set in a dreamy fabrication of 1922 Long Island and Manhattan (actually shot in Luhrmann’s and Martin’s native Australia) that knocks your eyes out again and again.

This is Luhrmann’s (and Martin’s) Gatsby, as much as Fitzgerald’s: a romantic musical Gatsby, a hip-hop Gatsby, a gorgeously over-the-top Gatsby for the new millennium. But Luhrmann so obviously loves and admires the book that it becomes not only a beautiful movie and the best Gatsby film adaptation of the several made so far (1926’s with Warner Baxter, 1949’s with Alan Ladd, and 1974’s with Robert Redford), but, for me, one of the best movies of the year so far. It’s also a picture that deserves far more appreciation than it’s getting from a lot of my colleagues.

“The Great Gatsby” opens today.

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Noir City X film fest starts Friday in San Francisco

The Film Noir Foundation celebrates 10 years of deliciously dark programming with NOIR CITY X: The Stuff Bad Dreams Are Made Of. The 10-day festival features a Dashiell Hammett marathon, freshly preserved 35mm rarities, by-popular-demand encore screenings, and special guest star Angie Dickinson. The fest runs Jan. 20-29 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Among the rarities NOIR CITY is presenting this year is a new 35mm print from Universal Pictures of 1949’s “The Great Gatsby,” starring Alan Ladd as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary hero. Universal is also providing a new 35mm print of 1954’s “Naked Alibi,” starring noir’s favorite bad girl, Gloria Grahame. Also on the bill are preservations of the 1946 classic “Three Strangers” and 1950’s “The Breaking Point,” directed by Michael Curtiz and starring John Garfield.

After San Francisco, the fest will travel to other cities with variations on the programming.

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‘Mulholland Dr.’ takes us through shiny dreams and devastating nightmares

Mulholland Dr./2001/Universal, Studio Canal/145 min.

Let’s face it, reality sucks. So, on second thought, let’s not face it.

David Lynch

Instead, pluck an image from your fantasy du jour, then jump into your limousine, Lamborghini roadster or sedan chair and head to “Mulholland Dr.” for poolside cocktails with your dear chum writer/director David Lynch.

Or just put your feet up and watch the movie. This terrific neo-noir mystery is a story within a story within a story within a story about Hollywood, its shimmering promise and dark secrets, its cut-throat power and caustic pain, and its huge cast of heroes, hopefuls, heavies and hangers-on. The film is also a visual poem and Lynch’s highly personal, surrealistic imagery resonates long after you see it.

Lynch’s Tinseltown reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes in “The Great Gatsby,” the famous Hollywood sign, like the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, set amid wild delight and staggering decadence.

Lynch’s detractors complain that his motifs – portals and shadowy rooms, lurking danger beneath an innocent exterior, secret languages, nightclub singers and stages, for example – are shallow gimmicks that Lynch leans on from film to film. (His other work includes: “Eraserhead” 1977, “Blue Velvet” 1986, “Wild at Heart” 1990, the TV series “Twin Peaks” 1990-91, “Lost Highway” 1997, “Inland Empire” 2006).

Nevertheless, in each film, Lynch creates a unique cinematic world that takes your breath away with its striking beauty, sly humor, intense characters and uncommon depth. In “Mulholland Dr.” Lynch invites us into a shiny dream as well as a devastating nightmare. Though it’s a contemporary setting, there are so many retro references that the story almost feels like a period piece.

In part one, we meet golden girl Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a young actress who’s just arrived in Hollywood. Sweet, perky and hopeful, Betty has a retro-chic apartment to live in and an audition set up for a role in a major movie. Just in case she needs to borrow a cup of sugar, her charming landlady Coco (Ann Miller, in her last movie role) is ready and waiting to help.

Laura Elena Harring

Ann Miller

Nothing throws this girl, not even finding a stranger using her shower. This particular mystery woman calls herself Rita (Laura Elena Harring) because she can’t remember her own name or anything else about her life. Arrestingly beautiful, with raven hair and ravishing features, Rita appears to be on the run from some nefarious mobsters but she doesn’t know why, natch.

Nor does she have any idea why she has a key and $50,000 in her handbag, which the girls hide in a hatbox. (Well done! If you’ve picked the right frock and got your lipstick on straight, why bother to carry cash?)

Betty decides that Rita needs to retrace her steps in order to regain her identity. But first Betty must prepare for her audition. Rita helps her rehearse and the next day Betty wows everyone in the room, including her debonair co-star Jimmy Katz (Chad Everett). Afterward, Betty is whisked away to meet edgy young director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who’s casting a flick called “The Sylvia North Story.”

Later, over coffee at a diner (Lynch always loves a diner), Rita remembers the name Diane Selwyn; this leads them to an apartment where they make an unsettling discovery. That night, Rita has a few tricks up her sleeve for Betty – first a seduction, then a visit to a strange, nearly empty dive bar called Club Silencio, where Rebekah Del Rio, playing herself, performs a stunning a capella rendition of Roy Orbison‘s “Crying.” When they return home, Rita uses her key to open a box and Betty disappears.

Watts, Lynch, Harring and Theroux

There are several subplots involving a fantasy creature in a diner parking lot; a hitman (Mark Pellegrino) who steals an address book, then casually kills three people; and slick-suited heavies (including Dan Hedaya as Vincenzo Castigliane) pressuring Kesher to cast unknown blonde actress Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) in his movie. Oh, and Kesher’s wife (Lori Heuring) is sleeping with the pool guy (Billy Ray Cyrus).

In part two, Lynch rejiggers this world. The glossy, fun-filled days and Betty’s wholesome aspirations are gone, replaced by pitch-black, sinister nights, acts of betrayal and quests for revenge.

“Mulholland Dr.” – whose abbreviated title may be a tribute to Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” – deserves high praise, for its look, its performances, its humor, its risks, its weirdness. Angelo Badalamenti (he has a cameo as gangster Luigi Castigliane, a man who takes espresso extremely seriously) contributes a stellar soundtrack and Peter Deming’s cinematography, with bright light and saturated color, is a treat.

Most of all, though, Lynch’s direction is superb. So is the acting. Watts easily shifts from fluffy and fierce, graceful to gritty. Similarly, Harring makes a fluid transition from lost soul to lady in charge. Though the plot is sometimes thorny, the actors are breezy and believable.

To think that Renée Zellweger received a Best Actress Oscar nom for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Watts didn’t make the list is baffling. (Halle Berry won that year for “Monster’s Ball.” The other contenders were Sissy Spacek for “In the Bedroom,” Nicole Kidman for “Moulin Rouge” and Judi Dench for “Iris.”)

Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Ron Howard won for “A Beautiful Mind,” which also won Best Picture. At Cannes, however, “Mulholland Dr.” received the Palme d’Or for best direction. (Lynch shared the honor with Joel Coen for “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Don't want to keep Clive waiting ...

Of all that’s been written about “Mulholland Dr.” critic Stephanie Zacharek sums it up best: “‘Mulholland Dr.’ is the most womanly of David Lynch’s movies. … It’s wily and sophisticated, stylized like an art deco nude, and suffused with so much feline glamour and beauty and naked eroticism that its chief aim seems not to be to dazzle us with its typically Lynchian plot twists, but to seduce us into its sway and keep us there. This is a movie with hips.”

Speaking of seducing, I must dash back to my fantasyland. I’m meeting with my agent so I can sign that $3 million book deal. Then, I’m off to dinner and dancing with Clive Owen at the Stork Club. Ta ta!

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