Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Place I'll Never See: The Garden of Allah

Confession time:

I was one of those kids hooked on reading about celebrities. Then I was one of those older kids hooked on reading about old-time Hollywood and watching 20's and 30's and 40's movies on television. I grew up into a gal who bought books about "Golden Age" Hollywood and spent hours gazing at photos of faces utterly unlike mine, figures utterly unlike mine, houses never to be mine, relationships too complicated to be happy or long, and and lives a whole lot messier and wilder than mine. Every now and then, between term papers and textbooks, I sat lotus style on the floor of the college library with reproductions of old issues of PHOTOPLAY.

I had it bad.

So, there you have it. One of my dirty secrets.

Yes, I was one of those probably few (non-film or film history majoring) university students who knew who Alla Nazimova and Norma Talmadge and Helen Twelvetrees and Ramon Navarro and Mae Murray and George Kaufmann and Dolores del Rio and Irving Thalberg and Bebe Daniels were, and who could sing along to Ruby Keeler songs, and who thought Valentino WAS actually rather hot in his sheik outfit. And I was one who longed to time-travel back to dine at San Simeon during one of the costume parties there or walk through a fresh version of The Garden of Allah.

Tallulah Bankhead called it “the most gruesomely named hotel in the western hemisphere.” Others, perhaps thinking of its curious architecture or the monumental hangovers that accompanied its boozy high life, called it simply the most gruesome hotel. To most of its denizens, however—to the scores of stars, writers, directors, wits, and wags who would stay nowhere else when they went to Los Angeles to “make a movie”—it symbolized Hollywood itself. George Oppenheimer

It's gone now. Even if I were a travel-able kind of gal, I could no longer rent one of its once-desirable bungalows or walk the courtyards recalling the famous faces of its onetime residents or the scandalous goings-on of its freespirited or ambitious or troubled souls. As a kid, it seemed like an amazing place in which to reside and watch the famous be different than the rest of us. (I grew up to figure maybe not so different, after all. Mostly just more good looking.)

It's a little less magical of a title nowadays, what with Allah getting a bad rap from the actions of his more sadistic followers. But what mesmerizes a young mind keeps a glamorous glow forever.

In its place is now a strip mall with "a MacDonald's, a Subway Sandwich Shop, and a pizza place."

Since the term "Garden of Allah" puts one in mind of a particular kind of ideological heaven, we can say this: They paved "paradise" and put up a parking lot.

Except, of course, as I grew older and learned, it was no paradise. It was just a very happening and hedonistic and fascinating spot for Hollywood-o-philes to wonder about.

I'll leave you with a Garden of Allah anecdote:

Harpo Marx moved into the Garden of Allah some time in the late 20's when he first came to make movies. Harpo had thin walls. (A lot of different people mention the thin walls.) After Harpo set up housekeeping and grew a sense of ownership, he got a new neighbor whose hours didn't coincide with Harpo's hours, and who played the piano, and who wouldn't shut up even after Harpo banged on the wall, etc.

So Harpo set the alarm clock early one Saturday, tuned up his harp, and played the first 64 bars of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #1 as loud as he could, over and over and over, until his fingers bled, probably getting it wrong because he was self-taught, over and over and over all morning and into the afternoon, until he heard his new neighbor scream in strangled anguish and bang around like he was packing up, slammed his door, and disappeared, never to be seen again. A lot of effort, Harpo thought, but well worth it to be rid of such a nuisance. Then somebody told Harpo that his new neighbor the piano player was Rachmaninoff.

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