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Hollywood: From Orange Groves to Red Carpets

Mar 30th, 2020

Hollywood seems to be synonymous with the movie industry. The giant Hollywood sign is as much of a marker of entertainment as a film reel or red carpet. But how did the Los Angeles neighborhood become the mecca of modern film?

The history of Hollywood

Hollywood all started as a field of nopal cactus and was called Nopalera (after the cactus) as early as 1853. 

Los Angeles, at that time, was just a small city in the brand-new state of California. It had been settled by the Spanish in 1769 and became the site for many Catholic missions and churches. By 1821, however, the area known as New Spain finally became independent of Spain, and the city called  El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles ('The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels') began to operate under the governance of Mexico. 

In 1847, the Mexican-American War brought an overhaul to New Spain’s government, and the area fell under the control of the Americans. Transcontinental railroads were completed by the 1870s, and soon after that petroleum was discovered in the area. 

As people slowly began migrating to the Los Angeles area, real estate developers started jumping on the ripe opportunities that the land offered. A man named H.J. Whitley was one of these developers who had plenty of experience establishing towns in the expanding United States, and he arrived in Los Angeles with a plan to purchase land for a new town. Whitley bought 480 acres of land in Nopalera in the Cahuenga Valley and swiftly began construction of a new town. 

Harvey Henderson Wilcox and his wife, Daeida, were major contributors to the town’s development. It was Daeida who learned of the “Hollywood” name from a friend, and it was in 1887 that Harvey’s city plan first featured the name Hollywood

After Harvey Wilcox submitted the deed for the town of Hollywood, H.J. Whitley transformed the simple town into a wealthy and flourishing community. By 1900, the town already had a post office, a hotel, two markets and a newspaper. The area surrounding the town was full of citrus groves, barley fields and vineyards, and Los Angeles was just a short 10 miles away. 

In 1902, Whitley opened the Hollywood Hotel, which drew plenty of visitors, tourists and land-buyers to the region. The town grew and prospered as Whitley’s developments were sold, and in 1903 Hollywood officially became a municipality in the state of California. In 1910, the city merged with Los Angeles in order to access the water supply and sewer system. 

The film industry arrives

Early motion pictures began circulating in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the invention of motion toys. Nickelodeons, which were 5-cent movie theaters, became popular as more and more people became interested in the short films. As public interest grew, and as World War I propaganda became more widespread, more and more money flowed into the movie industry. 

Most of the films produced in the early 1900s were produced by the Thomas Edison Motion Picture Patents Company on the East Coast. Since the company virtually held a monopoly on the movie industry in the area, many filmmakers began to move west to escape the legal issues associated with the Patents Company. 

Surprisingly, Hollywood itself did not allow any movie theaters, but the filmmaking industry was welcome in the town. Filmmakers found the scenery and price of Hollywood favorable for growing their industry, so film studios began to pop up all over the town. Movies would be filmed and produced in Hollywood before being shown in Los Angeles movie theaters.

Hollywood quickly became a popular filming location after the 1908 movie "The Count of Monte Cristo" finished filming in the city. "In Old California" is considered to be the first movie filmed entirely in Hollywood in 1910, and "The Squaw Man" was filmed in a barn one block away from present-day Hollywood Boulevard in 1913.The first Hollywood studio, the Nestor Motion Picture Company, filmed its first movie on H.J. Whitley’s home in 1911. By the time the Roaring 20s arrived, Hollywood had become the center of American filmmaking.

The famous Hollywood sign was only constructed in 1923 in order to promote a new real estate development, and it originally read as “Hollywoodland.”  The sign was changed in 1949 after the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the City of Los Angeles agreed that the large sign referred to the district, rather than a single development. 

Hollywood, although just a neighborhood of Los Angeles, became the center of a powerful industry that ranked fifth in the United States. Over 600 movies were filmed, produced and distributed per year, and by the 1930s Hollywood was fully established as the nation’s most glamorous, glittering city.

The 1930s were known as Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Movies with audio were brand-new to the industry, which resulted in a massive boom in public interest. Studios like Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and RKO were the biggest studios in Hollywood at the time, and they held tight contracts with famous actors and actresses like Judy Garland, Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, Audie Murphy and John Wayne. These actors weren’t allowed to work with other studios, which increased the competition between the studios dramatically.

A Supreme Court case in 1948 prohibited studios from owning their own theaters and only showing their own movies. This decision, which gave the studios less power over their product after distribution, marked the unofficial end of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In the 1950s, soon after the Golden Age ended, Hollywood began producing TV shows in addition to movies. Hollywood has transformed as television has grown in the past five decades. While most studios have moved into the Los Angeles area, Hollywood is still a center of production for the industry.

Hollywood changed quickly and drastically in its relatively short existence. It grew from a field of cactus to a small town of orange groves to a booming city of glamour and glitz in a few decades. So next time you drive from our apartments for rent in Woodland Hills or our apartments for rent in Glendale, CA to Hollywood, think about how much it has changed and what it might look like in the next few decades.


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/tpsdave

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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