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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Film noir events crowd the calendar this month

There is much to entice noiristas this month in Los Angeles and elsewhere. So much, in fact, that I’ve compiled this handy list.

Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame star in "The Big Heat."

Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame star in “The Big Heat.”

Tues., Oct. 8 @ 1 p.m.: “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang) plays on the big screen at the Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036.

Additionally, “The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” featuring the work of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, runs at LACMA through Oct. 11. “Luis Buñuel and Gabriel Figueroa: A Surreal Alliance” runs Oct. 12-19.

Wed., Oct. 9 @ 7:30 p.m.: Writers Bloc hosts a conversation with Valerie Plame, memoir author and former CIA Operations Officer. At the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404.

Also starting Oct. 9: The Aero and Egyptian theaters host the inaugural Beyond Fest, “an international buffet of badass cinema” that showcases recent horror gems along with classics. In-person guests, live music. Beyond Fest runs through Oct. 31.

Thurs., Oct. 10: The 49th Chicago International Film Festival opens with a gala screening of “The Immigrant.” This year’s fest is dedicated to the late great Roger Ebert. The CIFF runs through Oct. 24. The fest’s After Dark slate of titles never fails to intrigue.

"Sunset Blvd." will screen Oct. 19.

“Sunset Blvd.” will screen Oct. 19 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

Sat., Oct. 12 @ 6 p.m.: Redcat in downtown LA hosts a panel discussion on the controversial French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot and his contribution to 1960s aesthetics. Screening of “La Vérité” (1960 Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film).

Sat., Oct. 12 & Sun. Oct. 13: The Vintage Fashion Expo premieres at its new home in Los Angeles at The LA Convention Center.

Thurs., Oct. 17 @ 7:30 p.m.: Writers Bloc hosts a conversation with Norwegian author Jo Nesbø (“Headhunters”) whose new novel is Police: A Harry Hole Novel. At the Goethe-Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036.

“Moonrise” plays Oct. 21 at the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA in Westwood.

“Moonrise” plays Oct. 21 at the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA in Westwood.

Sat., Oct. 19 @ 2 p.m.: Illustrated presentation on “The Corner” and screening of “Sunset Blvd.” (1950, Billy Wilder) at the Egyptian Theatre (part of the Egyptian’s 91st anniversary weekend). Los Angeles historian Marc Chevalier will discuss the social nexus of Hollywood in the golden age: Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights (now West Hollywood). Followed by “Sunset Blvd.,” which features Schwab’s Pharmacy as a location.

Mon., Oct. 21 @ 7:30 p.m.: “Moonrise” (1948, Frank Borzage) at the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA in Westwood. A luminous and rarely screened crime drama starring Dane Clark, Gail Russell and Ethel Barrymore.

Tues., Oct. 22 @ 1 p.m.: “Shockproof” (1949, Douglas Sirk) plays at LACMA’s Bing Theater. Written by Helen Deutsch and Samuel Fuller; starring Cornel Wilde and Patricia Knight.

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A few of FNB’s fave posts from 2012

Happy 2013, all! Here’s a look at FNB highlights from 2012.

Marilyn Monroe shot by Bert Stern

Top 10 FNB posts (misc.)

Remembering Beth Short, the Black Dahlia, on the 65th anniversary of her death

TCM festival in Hollywood

Interview with Tere Tereba, author of “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster”

Marilyn Monroe birthday tribute

Marilyn Monroe exhibit in Hollywood

Film noir feline stars: The cat in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”

Famous injuries in film noir, coinciding with my fractured toe, or broken foot, depending on how dramatic I am feeling

Panel event on author Georges Simenon with director William Friedkin

History Channel announcement: FNB to curate film noir shop page

Retro restaurant reviews: Russell’s in Pasadena

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REVIEWS: 2012 neo-noirs or films with elements of noir

Crossfire Hurricane” documentary

Hitchcock

Holy Motors

Killing Them Softly

Momo: The Sam Giancana Story” documentary

Polisse

Rust and Bone

Searching for Sugar Man” documentary

Unforgivable

Wuthering Heights

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REVIEWS: Classic film noir

Anatomy of a Murder

Criss Cross

Decoy

Gilda

Gun Crazy

Murder, My Sweet

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Possessed

Sunset Blvd.

They Drive By Night

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REVIEWS: Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Dial M for Murder

The Lady Vanishes

Marnie

Notorious

The 39 Steps

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FNB holiday gift guide 2012: Part Two

I’m back today with more stuff to covet. First, a few classics that any film noir fan should own. These books have been out for a while but I wanted to mention them because the Library of America editions are particularly well done.

Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s” (Vol. 1) includes The Postman Always Rings Twice, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Thieves Like Us, The Big Clock (Library of America), $35.

Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories” includes The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window (Library of America), $40.

Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings” includes The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, Playback, Double Indemnity screenplay, selected essays and letters (Library of America), $35.

And now for some newly released titles.

Film Noir Graphics: Where Danger Lives by Alain Silver and James Ursini, $40.

Hollywood Sketchbook: A Century of Costume Illustration by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, $75.

The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced With the Most Beautiful Girls in the World by Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence, $23.

W: The First 40 Years by Stefano Tonchi, Christopher Bagley and John B. Fairchild, $75.

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance by Marilyn Yalom, $16.

Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons by Peter Trachtenberg, $24.

The Rolling Stones 50 by The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, $60.

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris by Stephanie LaCava, $24.

The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee by James Freeman, Caitlin Freeman and Tara Duggan, $25. Jeffrey Steingarten recommends this coffee; nuff said.

As a curator for the History Channel Shop, I’ve recommended 30 of my favorite film noir titles. You can’t go wrong with the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 1 (Warner Bros.). This essential set includes: The Asphalt Jungle, Out of the Past, Murder My Sweet, Gun Crazy and The Set-Up. (You can read mini-reviews of the first four titles on the Shop page or search for full-length reviews on this site.)

Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 1, $50.

Last month, Paramount released “Sunset Blvd.” on Blu-ray, $27. Here’s a special-feature clip, a discussion of the mansion and pool in the film.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Universal), Blu-ray, $300.

New from Criterion: Purple Noon, Blu-ray, $32.

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Free stuff from FNB: Win ‘Sunset Blvd.’

The winner of the October giveaway has been contacted. (The prize is “Body and Soul.”)

The November giveaway is an undisputed masterpiece, a stellar noir and one of the best-ever insider looks at Hollywood: “Sunset Blvd.” (1950, Billy Wilder) released today on Blu-ray. Starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson, “Sunset Blvd.” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen this, but I had it on the brain this week because it was a special presentation at AFI Fest.

To enter this month’s giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from Nov. 1-30. We welcome comments, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment.

The November winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early December. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Also be sure to check your email – if I don’t hear from you after three attempts, I will choose another winner. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

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Billy Wilder superbly skewers Tinseltown in ‘Sunset Blvd.’

Sunset Blvd./1950/Paramount Pictures/110 min.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is found dead in Norma Desmond’s pool.

Without a doubt, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” is one of the greatest movies ever made about Hollywood, perhaps one of the greatest movies ever made.

Aging Hollywood star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is admittedly a little cut off from reality. She fawns over her pet monkey, has rats in her pool, autographs pile after pile of 8 x 10 glossies for her fans, even though she hasn’t made a picture in years. But, like so many women of film noir, the “Sunset Blvd.” heroine was ahead of her time. She was a veteran movie star who wanted to create her own roles, look her best and date a younger, sexy man. Anything wrong with that?

Unfortunately, though, she spins out of control and winds up shooting this boy toy in a jealous pique. There’s always a downside to being a visionary, I guess. By mentioning the murder, I’m not spoiling anything because the movie opens with Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating lifelessly in Norma’s pool, having stumbled in after she plugged him. He then narrates the movie via flashback, a favorite film-noir technique, but Wilder was the first to let the voice belong to a dead guy. In fact, there are two (perfectly merged) narratives – dead Joe reflecting on the past and in-the-moment Joe, unaware of his fate.

Norma (Gloria Swanson) tries to keep Joe entertained.

An Ohio newspaperman, Joe has come to LA to be a screenwriter but his career has stalled and he’s short on money. Looking for a place to stash his car so that the finance company won’t repossess it, he spots an old mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

It’s an old home, but it’s not deserted – Norma lives there with her butler and former director, Max von Mayerling (real-life director Erich von Stroheim). Once she learns Joe is a writer – a tall, buff, gorgeous writer – she asks him to collaborate on a screenplay that she hopes will relaunch her career. They seal the deal over a glass of champagne and Norma decides he should move in with her. Joe agrees but occasionally sneaks away to slum it with his young, aspiring movie-maker friends, including earnest, ambitious and fresh-faced Betty Schaefer (Wisconsin-native Nancy Olson).

Aspiring writer Betty (Nancy Olson) connects with Joe at a party.

Betty and Joe decide to co-write a script in their free time, but Norma isn’t one to share her man. In her final dramatic encounter with Joe, Norma ironically achieves her long-held dream of hearing “Lights, camera, action!” once more.

“Sunset Blvd.” is rich with irony. Von Stroheim is just one of many Hollywood greats playing parts that were very close to their own lives. (Von Stroheim, a major silent-film director most renowned for “Greed” from 1924, directed Swanson in 1929’s “Queen Kelly,” a few frames of which are shown in “Sunset Blvd.”) Famed director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves as do actors Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson as Norma’s friends from her glory days.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched “Sunset Blvd.” but each time I view, it seems fresh, funny and contemporary, which is the mark of a truly classic film. From the rich, shadow-laden visuals (I love the first time we see Norma – coiled like a viper, clutching her antique cigarette holder, peeking out from behind Venetian blinds) to the perfect, snappy pacing to the outstanding score by Franz Waxman, Wilder left not one detail to chance.

Butler and driver Max (Erich Von Stroheim) takes Norma and Joe to a meeting at Paramount with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Most importantly, Wilder elicited tremendous performances from his actors – Swanson is not only deluded and desperate and vain, she’s funny (especially when she impersonates Charlie Chaplin) and determined and strangely endearing. Holden wins us over, even though there’s very little to like about his character. Of course, a big part of great acting is precise casting and Wilder was lucky on that front.

There was of course no way he could have foreseen how indelibly Swanson and Holden would stamp their parts on the pop-culture landscape. Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri reportedly turned down the Norma role. Montgomery Clift and Fred MacMurray passed on the chance to add Joe Gillis to their list of credits. (Marlon Brando and Gene Kelly were also considered.)

Wilder and his longtime creative partner Charles Brackett wrote the first-rate script with help from D.M. Marshman, Jr. Relentlessly cynical and unforgiving of Hollywood’s callous, cruel and exploitative side, the story ruffled studio- exec feathers but resonated with critics and audiences.

“Sunset Blvd.” received Oscar noms for best picture, director, actor (Holden), actress (Swanson), supporting actor (Von Stroheim) and supporting actress (Olson) as well as for editing and cinematography (John F. Seitz). It won three – for story/screenplay, art direction and score.

Though perhaps not quintessential film noir, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is nonetheless an unforgettable femme fatale, whose life might’ve unfolded very differently had she but Botox enough and time.

“Sunset Blvd.” plays tonight at 7:30 p.m. (in a double bill with David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”) at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

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‘Sunset Blvd.’ quick hit

Sunset Blvd./1950/Paramount Pictures/110 min.

“You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood,” said MGM’s Louis B. Mayer to writer/director Billy Wilder after a screening of “Sunset Blvd.”

In this magnificent skewering of Tinseltown, Gloria Swanson, a real-life silent film star, plays Norma Desmond, a fictional silent film star whom time has forgotten. William Holden is her sometime boyfriend and screenwriter of her comeback script; Erich von Stroheim is her ex-husband and ex-director, now a live-in butler.

Personally, I adore the idea of putting an ex-hubby on the payroll to do all my household chores, in a starched gray uniform, no less! “Sunset Blvd.” is a classic to be watched again and again.

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Top 10 lines from Billy Wilder’s classic ‘Sunset Blvd.’

Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder

“Sunset Blvd,” Billy Wilder’s scathing portrait of Hollywood, plays this Saturday in a double bill with “Mulholland Dr.” at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica.

“Sunset Blvd” stars Gloria Swanson as silent film star Norma Desmond seeking a return to the screen, William Holden as her younger boyfriend, a writer named Joe Gillis, and Erich von Stroheim as her faithful servant and eyeshadow adjuster.

My review will run Friday; meanwhile here are my favorite lines from this terrific film, widely considered to be one of the greatest American movies ever made. It was written by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.

1. Norma Desmond: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

2. Joe Gillis: “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.”

3. Salesman at a men’s clothing store, to Joe: “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?”

4. Norma Desmond: “No-one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.”

5. Joe Gillis referring to Norma’s script: “Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be. This promised to go the limit.”

6. Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself): “You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”

7. Norma Desmond: “Without me, there wouldn’t be any Paramount studio.”

Nancy Olson and William Holden

8. Nancy Olson as Joe’s friend Betty: “Where have you been keeping yourself? I’ve got the most wonderful news for you.”
Joe: “I haven’t been keeping myself at all, lately.”

9. Joe Gillis talking about his car: “I kept it across the street in a parking lot behind Rudy’s shoeshine parlor. Rudy never asked any questions about your finances – he’d just look at your heels and know the score.

10. Norma Desmond: “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

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Edith, Head of her class: A shrewd woman with a sharp eye and unprecedented success in Hollywood

Famed costume designer Edith Head knew that clothes should underscore an actor’s character, not upstage it. And she applied the same discipline to dealing with Hollywood’s elite, putting every ounce of effort into making them look their absolute best while deflecting attention from herself.

Edith Head

Actress Susan Claassen

A shrewd approach along with her natural talent for design, a gift for navigating studio politics and a tremendous amount of hard work made her one of the movie industry’s most successful women.

In her 60-year career, at Paramount and Universal, she worked on more than 1,131 films, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars, more than any other woman. (Walt Disney, with 26 Oscars, holds the record for a man.)

This savvy lady with her tailored suits, neat little bun and statement specs comes out of the shadows and into the spotlight in “A Conversation With Edith Head,” which opened Friday night at LA’s Odyssey Theatre. And she’s spirited, strong, funny and flawed as played by actress Susan Claassen.

One of her peccadilloes was a disdain for modesty. “I’m not different from other designers, I’m the best,” Claassen tells the audience matter of factly. Another memorable Head aphorism: “You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it.”

Tinseltown anecdotes and stories of working with the stars are sprinkled throughout the play, which is set in 1981. Head died in October of that year at age 83, still under contract to Universal, having just completed the Steve Martin film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”

The show recreates Head's cocktail dress for Bette Davis (far left) and a gown for Elizabeth Taylor (far right).

The format includes questions from the audience as well as free advice on your sartorial choices. Since Claassen called me stunning and asked if I was a model, naturally I think the woman is the greatest genius known to Western civilization. ;)

But, joking aside, Claassen is brilliant in this role, capturing the character’s gestures, mannerisms and demeanor without mimicry or impersonation. Claassen reveals the enormous power Head wielded through her sketch pad and pencil as well as the sacrifices (15-hour days, six days a week in her heyday), self-doubt and sadness that were facets of her extraordinary life.

A closer look at the recreated dress for Bette Davis in "All About Eve" from 1950.

Claassen, who recently received an Ovation nomination for Lead Actress in a Play for this part, co-wrote the work with Paddy Calistro, author of the book “Edith Head’s Hollywood.” The idea came to Claassen while watching a TV biography about Head.

Says Claassen: “Not only do I bear a striking resemblance to Edith, but we share the same love for clothes and fashion. … There are many myths about her, but she was a discreet, tenacious personality. She knew whose hips needed clever disguising and made sure those legendary stars always looked the part.”

Head was a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock and added élan to the wardrobe of film noir stars, dressing, for example, Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” and Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.”

She also dressed Bette Davis as the glamorous actress Margo Channing in “All About Eve” and designed Elizabeth Taylor’s white ball gown in “A Place in the Sun.” In fact, she worked with nearly all the Hollywood greats, including Mae West, Clara Bow, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

When in 1967 Paramount chose not to renew her contract, she was hired by Universal, thanks to her friendship with Hitchcock, who perhaps really was her favorite director, despite her practical policy of naming her favorite director as the one for whom she was currently working.

Opening night fell on Head's birthday. Cake and champagne were in order, natch.

Though Head’s motto was to accentuate the positive and camouflage the negative, the chapter of her childhood spent in the Nevada desert was good training for holding her own in Hollywood. She was, she said, used to dealing with scorpions.

Opening night coincided with what would have been Head’s 114th birthday so, after the show, party guests sipped champagne and ate red-velvet birthday cake, donated by Susie Cakes.

“A Conversation With Edith Head” is a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 13. (The play premiered in Tucson, Ariz., in 2002 and has since played in many US cities and abroad.) Tickets are $40. For more information: 310-477-2055; www.edithhead.biz.

Photos from the production are copyright of Film Noir Blonde.

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