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Los Angeles is often called the city of dreams. But just as stars rise and fall in the film and television industry, so have some of the structures that helped define the city. Most of these places are wiped away without a trace and replaced with new, shiny buildings – the way one star eclipses another.
Some remnants, however, remain of structures once left to the history books. Exploring these scant, but unique, sites can provide an interesting sightseeing opportunity for Angelenos.
L.A.’s Abandoned Subway
The tunnels once took passengers from downtown to Glendale, but since the first subway in Los Angeles took its last ride in 1955, the old tracks have been abandoned. Now left for graffiti artists, parts of the subway tunnels and terminals remain remarkably intact. The ability to connect riders from one area to another, however, is no longer possible – with sections filled in for building foundations and the reconstruction of Bunker Hill.
Part of the subway is now sealed off, and a block of tunnel located between Grand Avenue and Olive Street remains closed to the public. Urban documentarians, however, have been infrequently allowed to dive into the site, chronicling a 30-year part of L.A.’s transportation history that has been largely forgotten.
RKO 40 Acres
The Culver Studios lot in Culver City, currently inhabited by Amazon, is one of the most distinctive in Los Angeles. With a stately Colonial façade, its elegance is true to its roots – it was once home to pioneering filmmakers Thomas Ince and Cecil B. DeMille. It was eventually bought by RKO Radio Pictures, as a companion lot to their home base in Hollywood.
The studio mostly rented out the soundstages and offices, most significantly to David O. Selznick, but often made use of the extension backlot that once sat behind the stages, nicknamed “RKO 40 Acres,” though it was actually less than 30 acres. The name was retained even after RKO folded and Desilu took over the property.
In the 1970s the backlot was sold off and developed with primarily industrial complexes. There are no traces of the massive exterior sets the land once held, but its legacy is memorialized with a small sign that has scrawled in big block letters: KING KONG GONE. If you look closer at the sign, located at 8620 Hayden Place, the big words are part of a larger sentence that simply relates the area’s story:
“Near this site in 1927 the set for Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings was built, used in 1932 as the gates for King Kong, which later became the burning city of Atlanta for Gone with the Wind, which was destroyed December 10, 1938.”
After that “destruction,” from the ashes rose the intact Atlanta for the epic’s principal photography, and that was later repurposed as Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show.” This sign, however, is the only tip that history was made on 40(ish) acres in Culver City.
The Brown Derby
The Brown Derby was a restaurant chain with locations across Los Angeles. For years, it was the place to dine and be seen by anyone and everyone. When “I Love Lucy” goes to Hollywood, America’s favorite redhead makes a stop. It was a favorite of shlock director Ed Wood. It was the place where the Cobb Salad was invented.
Its flagship restaurant – which was on Wilshire Boulevard – was noted for having a distinctive giant brown dome, like a hat, atop its entrance. The restaurant – all of them – are long gone, but the hat was salvaged by preservationists and placed on the third floor of the Brown Derby Plaza, where it can still be seen today at 3377 Wilshire Blvd.
The fight to save the Ambassador Hotel was one of the most tumultuous in Los Angeles preservation history. The famed Wilshire Boulevard hot spot, which also hosted the popular The Cocoanut Grove, was famed for hosting many of the early Academy Awards ceremonies and notorious as the site of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.
While it closed for business in the late-1980s, it remained a popular filming location up until its demolition, with movies like “Pretty Woman,” and “Catch Me if You Can.” After many years of attempts to save the structure entirely, the Los Angeles Unified School District was granted permission to build a new school on the property. A deal was reached for the LAUSD to preserve the Cocoanut Grove – but this didn’t happen. Instead, the school’s auditorium is a recreation of the nightclub. Traces of the immaculate hotel that once was remain. A coffee shop is now used as a teacher’s lounge. The epic entrance sign, located at 3400 Wilshire Blvd., has also been preserved, although the sign itself has long been in need of renovation.
The Charlie Chaplin Studios
Unlike many structures, the Charlie Chaplin Studios have remained on La Brea Avenue, with architectural integrity largely intact, since 1917. The famed silent comedian and director used the property to shoot most of his films, including “The Kid,” “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator.”
The buildings’ uses since Chaplin relinquished the property (and began a long exile from Hollywood over communist allegations) have varied. Television shows like “Perry Mason” and “The Adventures of Superman” filmed here.
For many years it was the home of A&M Records, named for Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, and two large soundstages were converted into state-of-the-art recording studios. It brought together a large collection of superstars, including Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan, for the recording of “We Are the World,” along with its video. After A&M left, the Muppets took up residence as the Jim Henson Studios bought the property. The company is still at 1416 N. La Brea Ave. today. A few hints of Chaplin exist on the exterior, including a statue of Kermit the Frog in Chaplin’s “tramp” outfit atop the entrance.
L.A. Missile Site
At one point in time, Los Angeles had more than a dozen Nike missile control sites throughout the city. During the height of the Cold War, these locations were viewed as necessary against potential external threats. The idea was to cover the nation’s largest cities with the supersonic aircraft missiles in case of the worst – an atomic bomb drop from Russia. Missile locations were added during the 1950s all throughout the county. Within a decade, however, the government began to feel the sites were unnecessary. By the mid-1970s, orders had come to deactivate all missile locations. Most of the sites are gone, but one high in the hills has been converted in a city park and can be viewed on a hike. Located at 17500 Mulholland Drive, the two-mile walk at San Vicente Mountain Park takes visitors down a dirt road to a missile control tower, a stark and fascinating reminder of a dark period in America’s past.
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