April 28 General Meeting and Program

The Culver Theatre: From The Red Stallion to Kirk Douglas | Virtual Program

Culver Theatre, 1947 (Image courtesy of Marc Wanamaker)

Do you miss going to the movies? Go back in time as we revisit the Culver Theatre which still stands today! The Culver Theatre opened on August 13, 1947 with the film The Red Stallion. It was designed in the “Skouras style,” an over-the-top baroque style named after its inspiration Charles Skouras, head of Fox West Coast Theatres. In the 1970s, Mann Theatres split the Culver into three theatres. In 1989, it was closed and later gutted after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. In 2004, Center Theatre Group restored, repurposed, and reopened it as the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Clare Denk, interim vice president of programs for the society, will discuss its history from its opening day to its closing and subsequent deterioration during the 1990s. Eric Sims, associate general manager of Center Theatre Group, will discuss its restoration as well as share a couple of entertaining stories about Kirk Douglas and shed light on current filming projects taking place within the theatre during the pandemic.

CLICK HERE TO JOIN US virtually for this program at 7pm on Wednesday, April 28.

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Classic Films Commemorative T-Shirt

The city motto of Culver City, California, is “The Heart of Screenland,” and this is not hyperbole. During the Golden Age of major movie studios in the 1930s more films were made in Culver City than in Hollywood.

The Historical Society has memorialized this part of our city’s heritage by commissioning a tribute to classic movie posters that brings to life four memorable and popular images of the town’s history:

The landmark Culver Hotel flatiron building was featured in countless Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy, and Little Rascals films. The original King Kong was filmed on Culver City’s RKO backlot in 1933. The “Spruce Goose,” the largest wooden airplane ever built and a pet project of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, was built in what’s now Playa Vista. Lastly, The Wizard of Oz was filmed in 1938 at MGM, the world’s largest film studio at the time.

These iconic events were re-envisioned by talented artist Jason Moser of Hudsonville, Michigan. The first use of the colorful artwork is a full-color, high quality t-shirt now available in the Historical Society’s online shop.

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Recent Acquisitions – Fall 2020

We have recently grown the Historical Society’s collection thanks to our amazing community of friends and members.

Last year, The Culver Studios and Hackman Capital Partners began conversations with the Society to discuss the future of four cinematic historic windows that had been hidden away for 80 years at The Culver Studios. One was from Gone with the Wind (1939), which can be seen in the final scene after Rhett has left Scarlett and she climbs the massive staircase. The other three are from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), directed by Orson Wells. 

It became evident during preliminary discussions with Steve Auer, VP of Operations for The Culver Studios, that the remodeling of the lot was prompting the urgency to find a home for all four windows. With the help of Society member Karim Sahli, we got to work figuring out a pressing challenge: If we got these massive set pieces, where would we store them, and how would we move them? While working through several scenarios, I received another call informing me that The Culver Studios and Hackman Capital Partners decided to restore the Gone with the Wind window and the two largest windows from the Ambersons and put them up for display on the lot. Historic preservation is alive and well in Culver City! 

Steve then informed me that Hackman Capital wanted to gift our Historical Society the smaller of the Ambersons windows. Because our storage space is at a premium, there was some relief with their decision. After board approval and an introduction from past president Louise Coffey-Webb, we engaged the services of Elizabeth Patt of Patt Conservation to begin the preservation process. With restoration complete, we plan to install it in the Archives and Resource Center over the holidays and cannot wait to reopen for everyone to see.

If you lived on Fairbanks in the Lindbergh Park neighborhood, you might remember Woody and Martha Tolkien. Woody worked in Hollywood as a character actor, seen in hundreds of films. Their son, Eric, reached out to donate some wonderful pieces of Culver City history! We are excited to now have Culver Junior High yearbooks from 1955-57, a sign from MGM Studios, and a trolley stop sign. The Tolkiens were also longtime friends of another Fairbanks resident, Fred Parrish. (No relation to yours truly). Fred was a motion picture still photographer, and Eric donated many items of Fred’s that were used in his craft, and many photos that were part of Fred’s collection. Thank you, Eric!

Some time back a fellow Property Master, Tim Wiles, saw me at a prop house and said, “I have something for you…” While working on Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the Sony lot in 1991, he noticed a high stack of original seats from the original MGM theater on the main lot, the Cary Grant Theater, ready to be hauled away from outside of Stage 20. After asking if he could have a set of seats, they took up residence in his living room for a couple years, and then found their way to his storage unit where they sat for the next 20 years. When Tim heard about my connection with the Culver City Historical Society, he knew where the seats needed to go next. I called Chuck Eskridge, Hollywood stand-by painter and generational resident of Culver City, to ask if the seats could be restored to their original luster so we could display them in the ARC—which he did beautifully! We look forward to inviting you back to the archives to sit for a spell. Thank you, Tim and Chuck!

Laura (Ackerman) Shaw, Culver City High School 1977 graduate and childhood resident of the Lindbergh Park neighborhood, came across fan mail for Red Skelton while going through her mother’s possessions. Laura shared with us that her mother worked for Mr. Skelton and has donated 50-plus pieces of fan mail addressed to Mr. Skelton to the Society! Some of the letters were addressed to MGM Studios, but the majority were to his office in the Culver Hotel. Laura also donated a beautiful haberdashery display case that was her mother’s. Our VP of Museum and Archives, Tami Eskridge, cannot wait to add these items for display. Thank you to Laura and the Ackerman Family!

As a cinematographer, Mark Morris, Historical Society Media Archives Chair, has documented many people and filmed lots events of our local history. Mark has done a yeoman’s job digitizing these videos, building up our YouTube channel with videos featuring Red Skelton, Fred Machado, the Helms 1995 reunion, and our Sister Cities Kaizuka Project. Mark has also begun a new project for the Society, generously pairing his cinematic talents with interviewing local residents who have stories to share. If you have or know someone with a great story of our city’s history that could be lost, please email us. Collections are not built just with actual items, but also by documenting and continuing to build our oral histories.

Lastly (for now!), did you attend our program on Hollywood backdrops last year, which included four backings that the Society was gifted? (If you missed it, it can be viewed on our YouTube channel.) Following the program, we were contacted by Thomas Walsh of the Art Directors Guild, offering us a few more backdrops. Ever resourceful and always with a great idea, Mark reached out to our landlords at Veterans Memorial Building and Heather Moses, CCUSD Arts Coordinator, to inquire whether these backdrops might be of interest to the city’s public spaces. While these are ongoing discussions, it highlights that we at the Society continue to get creative in making room for all these wonderful pieces of Culver City history. If we can help find good homes for some pieces that will be cared for and used for education, we are happy to share the wealth!

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Marking Our Diverse History

Charles Reyes Lugo, my father, was the youngest of eight children born to Mercurial and Rita Reyes Lugo on the local Lugo Ranch. My little brother and I could count on visits annually to the LA County Museum to visit the early Californio exhibits that included a portrait of ancestors like Don Antonio Maria Lugo, from whom there is a direct line. The Lugo family is recognized by the Pobladores as Early Californio settlers. As descendants, we developed a sense of pride in our Spanish history, which was enhanced by Culver City’s La Ballona Days that began in the 1950s. We were not limited to just one line in our ancestry, however.

Even in the early days, this land became what I call “an oasis within the urban metropolis.” And how do we know this? Local directories in early years listed names that were Asian, English, German, Spanish, etc. Although we celebrate our Hispanic history, Culver City developed from a rich, broader heritage. And what kind of food do we enjoy? We all know the names of a favorite taco stand, but then there are Italian restaurants, and Japanese and Chinese along with many others. We clearly know that we don’t have to limit our experiences by heritage!

Although I enjoyed visiting relatives on the Lugo Ranch as a child, it was not until my parents’ later years that I learned more about my father and his experiences on the ranch where he was born. He not only worked in the fields, and at the Lugo Ranch Stand, he also went to school and delivered fresh vegetables to locals. Included in their customer base were many Asian families who invited people like my father, a young delivery boy at the time, to sit at their tables and enjoy their food, where he became a chopsticks pro!   

In his later years, Daddy began to share more stories about his youth. It came in very handy, especially when he was joining us for dinner. I kept chopsticks on hand and I will never forget the great memories made by a grandpa teaching his little granddaughter how to use them, as he told stories of growing up on a portion of Rancho La Ballona, which became Culver City.

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That’s Entertainment

It was 1974 and I was 14 years old. I was visiting a security guard named Ken Hollywood, at MGM’s East Gate. He handed me a pencil and paper, saying “Two fellas will be coming out soon that you will want to meet!” And that was it.

Growing up in Culver City, I spent almost all my time on the back lots, either being chased, or just hanging out, watching as TV shows and movies got filmed. We were sharing stories together at this gate when, lo and behold, a Rolls Royce driven by Fred Astaire slowly rolled to a stop. Ken waved to Fred as we approached him with paper in hand. He graciously signed his name, shook my hand, and drove off.

When I thought things couldn’t get better, an old Chevy Impala appeared. I was not even thinking this was a star since his car was no better than my dad’s, but I did a double take and couldn’t believe my eyes — it was Gene Kelly! He yelled out to me, “Let me pull over so we can talk.”

“What was your favorite movie of all time to be part of?” I excitedly asked.

“I’m gonna surprise you,” Mr. Kelly responded. “It’s not a musical.”

After a long pause he said, “The Three Musketeers.”

“That’s my favorite, too!” I exclaimed.

“All the athletic preparation needed to make it look real was more difficult than almost any of my dance numbers,” he added.

“I love that show. You look like you were born with a sword in your hand,” I said. “You’re very athletic, and I can’t help but admire your skill.”

He then shared his love of baseball. The Pirates were his team.

I told him, “When it rains we sneak into the backlot and dance on the same cobblestone street where you performed Singing in the Rain. Well, mostly we just splash and sing.”

I was probably blushing as I giggled, and then he smiled that wonderful, iconic smile.

Donald blogs at phantomofthebacklots.com.

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