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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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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Frank DeCaro dishes up heaping helpings of camp in ‘The Dead Celebrity Cookbook’

“Highly offensive and exceedingly faggy.” It's all good for retro cookbook author Frank DeCaro.

“There’s a name for someone who says, ‘I can’t watch a movie in black and white.’ Stupid!”

So said Frank DeCaro, author of “The Dead Celebrity Cookbook,” last night at a book signing in West Hollywood. A writer, critic and performer, DeCaro hosts a morning call-in program on Sirius XM satellite radio and writes the Icons column for CBS’ Watch! magazine.

He also likes to cook and throw parties. When the celebs were kind enough to die, as he puts it, the book seemed a natural. Highlights from noiristas include: Otto Preminger’s Deviled Eggs, Joan Crawford’s Poached Salmon, Bette Davis’ Red Flannel Hash, Lucille Ball’s Sunday Night Goulash, Fred MacMurray’s Flemish Pot Roast, Truman Capote’s Fettuccine, Anthony Perkins’ Tuna Salad, Alfred Hitchcock’s Quiche Lorraine, Janet Leigh’s Gâteau Doré, Agnes Moorehead’s Lobster Mousse, William Holden’s Hamburgers à la Hong Kong and Gregory Peck’s Ratatouille.

DeCaro’s favorite: Liberace’s Sticky Buns. “If Liberace didn’t know how funny that was, then the whole world crumbles,” said DeCaro. He is up front that he did not test every recipe, particularly Don Ho’s pigs’ feet soup. DeCaro suggests not picking Crawford’s salmon as a first effort. “Don’t start with Joan Crawford; that’s always good advice.”

And be warned: because many of the recipes are retro, they might call for fat-gram disasters like canned cream of mushroom soup. “You have to remember that frozen and canned food was not considered tacky,” he said. “It was considered modern, instant, groovy!”

Frank DeCaro and FNB at Book Soup in West Hollywood

Having spent 15 years collecting recipes, DeCaro also has plenty of noshing trivia. Did you know that per capita Hawaii eats the most SPAM and Utah eats the most JELL-O?

Granted, the book might cause some to wince or groan (he includes a pie recipe from Karen Carpenter). One detractor told DeCaro she thought his book was “highly offensive and exceedingly faggy,” which pleases DeCaro to no end. He is now working on a Christmas edition.

Speaking of maximizing opportunity, DeCaro’s domestic advice was not limited to the kitchen. He’s fond of telling his husband Jim Colucci: “You cannot sleep with anyone but me. Unless it’s good for your career.”

“The Dead Celebrity Cookbook: A Resurrection of Recipes from More Than 145 Stars of Stage and Screen” (HCI Books, $19.95)

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