Walking through Hollywood history

NewPic_Philip_Mershon.jpgIt's Oscar weekend and the entertainment industry's one hundredth year in Hollywood. Is it just a lucky accident that two front-running Academy Award nominees for Best Picture --"The Artist" and "Hugo" --celebrate important moments in film history? Not only do these films recreate famous moments in cinematic development but also highlight the beauty of movie birthplaces. Who can resist the joys of Paris as seen through the eyes of Hugo Cabret and Martin Scorsese? And "The Artist" pays homage to the silent film era by recapturing film locations in our area relevant to the time period.

So in honor of Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, I bring you an interview with a Hollywood expert: a tour guide. Philip Mershon is a researcher of Old Hollywood history who shares his love of Hollywood on his blog, Felix in Hollywood. Philip also conducts walking tours of the old studio district surrounding Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Flavorpill.com labeled his "In A Place Called Hollywood: A Stroll Through The First 100 Years Of Tinseltown" tour "a city gem".

I took the tour earlier this month and enjoyed the way Philip shared his vast knowledge about early Hollywood with wit and affection. Afterwards, I sent him some follow up questions via email.

What did you think of the film The Artist--it seems to have captured many Old Hollywood locations from the silent era.
I really enjoyed "The Artist", though I don't consider it a 'sweep the Oscars' kind of movie like some people do. I suppose that's because I've watched plenty of for-real silent movies and know how brilliant they can be. Watch "Piccadilly" or "Sunrise" for sheer atmospheric other-worldliness, and "The Patsy" or "Exit Smiling" for hilarious comedy and you'll see what I mean. I am, however both delighted and grateful that the "The Artist" was made, made so well, and has found a wide-release audience. Bravo!!! Now if we could just get more American productions to shoot in Los Angeles like this French company did.....

What's your favorite film and why?
Oh no you don't! You're not gonna do a "Sophie's Choice" on me! Someday, over several pots of coffee, we can talk about my 40 or 70 or 100 favorite films, but it's simply impossible to reduce it down to one. For instance the 4 silent titles I mentioned above would probably be on the list but so would a whole bunch of pre-coders, a ton of 30s musicals and gangster pictures, several serials, gobs of noirs, a few surf pictures and - as much as I hate to admit it - even a some modern-era films. An example of that would be: I could watch "The Last Emperor" on a loop for the rest of my life!

What's your favorite stop on your walking tour and why?
[Though it's impossible to answer that question accurately,] I will tell you my favorite part of giving the tour. Not long after I started, I discovered a very unexpected aspect of the tour that people were experiencing. They think that they are just buying a ticket to journey through the history of Hollywood, but then in the middle of talking about movies that maybe their parents or grandparents introduced them to, or TV shows that they watched as children (many of which were old re-runs to begin with), or hit songs that sound tracked the seminal moments of their lives, they realize they are taking a very personal journey as well. These little "entertainments" were quite foundational in all of our personal developments, and I love being able to give that to my guests. It's why giving this tour will never get old for me.

Give me one Old Hollywood anecdote
The private office of Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn was about as easy to get to as Fort Knox. First, of course, you had to get through the front gate of the studio lot. This was no easier a feat back then than it is now.

After which you would locate and enter the Administration Building. Up on the second floor you would walk into what could be considered the President's Suite. That first room was a large and busy reception area where you would announce yourself to the girl at the desk. Phone calls would then be made, intercoms would be buzzed and those that were deemed admissible would be ushered into the next office, Mr. Cohn's Personal Secretary.

At this point you would want to have a seat because regardless of whether you were on time or early for your appointment, there was going to be a wait. No one could tell you for how long - that was up to Harry. Could be 10 minutes, could be 2 hours. Now don't get too comfortable in that chair because you see there is no knob on the door you will use to enter the Holy of Holies. It is unlocked by a buzzer on Harry's desk that he will depress, when ready, for only about a second. And if you miss pushing that door open during that second-long duration and force him to push it again, well, let's just say I feel sorry for you when you get inside! Glenn Ford said there was an area of the door at about chest height where the paint was eaten away from all the sweaty palms that pushed it open.

Why is your site/tour called Felix in Hollywood?
I'll give you the shorter version of a long and boring story. Felix is the nickname given me by my best. He experienced this revelation from a Felix The Cat t-shirt I was wearing one day about 15 years ago. He's a pretty persuasive guy and in a short period of time a number of other people started calling me Felix too. "Felix In Hollywood" is the name of a 1923 silent Felix The Cat cartoon that I decided to use as the title of the blog I started in 2009. Due to the popularity of the blog, I decided to carry the magic of Felix into the tour branding as well. Hey, you still awake?

You can chat up Philip at Musso & Franks on April 30th where he will be the "on-site history guy" entertaining guests at the next LAVA Literary Salon- Down These Mean Streets: Raymond Chandler's Underworld .

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