On Friday, May 28th, there was an event in Hollywood just a few blocks from the Walk of Fame, right around the corner from the Hollywood Bowl. There were no flashing lights, no red carpets, no paparazzi. There were quite a few cameras, however, and I was wearing a special outfit that I had bought for the occasion, because they were all pointed at me. The event was the unveiling of an artwork I designed for one of Hollywood’s hidden gems, Canyon School, a cooperative nursery school. This parent-run preschool got its start in 1948 as a backyard playgroup. A director was hired two years later, and by 1960 the co-op was well established at its present location, a small park at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. The school is devoted to a whole learning environment, and parents form an integral part of the program. In addition to cooking, cleaning, supervising, etc. parents also are required to lead weekly groups in reading, art, cooking, music, acting, gardening – in short, whatever that parent is good at and wants to share.
My family’s time at Canyon School was a rich and rewarding experience, and we made some real friends there. It was an honor to be able to leave my mark, in the form of a “legacy tree” to create a reserve fund to ensure the school’s survival through lean years. I collaborated with one of the other parents, Monty Lawton, an artist and furniture designer, to translate my design into mahogany. The result was something like a giant wooden puzzle, which was assembled on the wall. Meanwhile, the people in charge of the business side of things wooed alumni families and friends to purchase the metal leaves and apples, which needed to be ordered and then engraved. With many people working on many aspects of the project, and what with life and all, there was a lot of waiting in between stages. After almost two years since the idea first hit the drawing board, the tree was finally completed. I felt proud and excited, but also found the ceremony to be awkward, as I am not accustomed to being in the spotlight. Not for nothing am I called the Hollywood Hermit. I suppose people who are used to being photographed standing in front of things must have some kind of special pose they have worked out for the occasion, but I felt pretty goofy. The best thing about it was that it gave us the opportunity to have a reunion and celebrate with one of those legendary Canyon School parties.
After the official ceremony, artists, organizers, and donors gathered our pot luck and headed up a small street into an interesting historical district. Back in the 20’s, when these houses were first built here in the manner of an Italian hillside village, a network of nearly vertical stairways was created to connect the owners of the villas to the newly bustling city of Hollywood down below. Only a few of these original stairways remain, and they are guarded carefully behind locked gates. Well let me tell you something, back in the day, those movie stars did not need to go to the gym to get their stairmaster workout! I tried to imagine what traffic here would have been like, back before everyone up in the hills had an SUV to take them down to Musso & Frank. But I had to concentrate on breathing and not dropping my platter of Viking Puffs*, and by the time I got to the top I was all sweaty and didn’t even think about taking a picture of the view.
Our hostess told me a bit about the history of her house. It had been built by a famous silent film star named Marie Dressler. Largely forgotten today, she was in her time a successful actress and comedienne, starring in several roles alongside Charlie Chaplin, and remained popular even with the advent of the talkies. She was rumored to be a lesbian, and the house we were standing in was supposedly built for her lover, a younger actress. Dressler’s own home was located further up the hill, just a “Yoo hoo, Darling” away from a balcony lined with tangerine trees. Originally, it had overlooked a romantic view of the Pacific ten miles away, but over time the scenery has filled up with high rises. Looming over us on the other side was a stately villa that used to be home to Bela Lugosi. Taking in all those beautiful, mysterious houses on the hill, once full of secret doorways and hidden passages, underground tunnels leading to lover’s boudoirs and private baths overlooking the ocean, I felt a creepy and not unpleasant shiver, and it wasn’t just the sea breeze wafting in under the darkening sky. I raised my glass in a silent toast to the ghosts of Hollywood past, and wondered how many of them had ever sung nursery rhymes to a group of four-year olds down the hill at old Canyon School.