A Brief History Of Hollywood Before It Was Hollywood

A version of this post was originally written for my Classic Movie Hub column Silents are Golden. Hope you find it an interesting weekend read!

Today Hollywood, California is one of the most famous places in the world. The thriving axis of moviemaking, for decades it’s drawn countless dreamers hoping to make it in “the industry.” Real estate up in its hills is bought and sold for millions. And, of course, it attracts perpetual hordes of tourists strolling its Walk of Fame or hoping for glimpses of celebrities in Beverly Hills.

But there was a time when this same bustling neighborhood of Los Angeles was a sleepy little stretch of hilly farmland ten miles east from the city, accessible only by a gravel road and populated by a few hundred people. Little did the residents of this quiet community know what vast changes were in store–especially once those “movies” came to town (as they would nickname early filmmakers, not knowing “movies” referred to films).

In the 1880s, the now-famous Hollywood hills were mostly wild land, covered in scrubby thickets and cacti. Nearby was the Cahuenga Pass, once the site of two early 19th century battles between settlers and Mexican authorities (in the days before California was an independent state). The valley nearby was ideal for barley and orange groves, which thrived in the near-constant sunny weather. 

Hollywood rural

The name “Hollywood” has a rather unexpected origin, at least according to one source. In 1886 real estate developer H.J. Whitley and his wife were honeymooning in the area. He wrote in his diary that while they were gazing at the valley from a vantage spot up in the hills, a Chinese man stopped by with a wagon and greeted them, explaining in a thick accent that he was “hauling wood.” To Whitley the phrase sounded like “holly wood,” which had a certain ring to it. Having started over 100 towns in the past, Whitley decided this quiet corner of southern California needed one too, and that it should be called “Hollywood.” 

Holywood rural hollywood blvd

Downtown Hollywood circa 1907.

Whitley would purchase 480 acres in the valley and begin guiding it through a modest development phase. The following year, rancher Harvey H. Wilcos purchased 120 acres. His wife Daeida happened to hear about the “Hollywood” name, and the couple decided it was a nice fit for their new estate. On the deed to their land they put down “Hollywood,” which made it an official part of the area’s history. By the turn of the 20th century, the young town had a couple markets, a post office, a hotel, restaurants, and a single streetcar line. In 1904 voters even outlawed liquor in their community. Being so small and in such a desert-like area, getting an adequate water supply to the town was a constant challenge. In 1910 Hollywood had to petition to merge with Los Angeles, and one of the changes this entailed was renaming its main street, Prospect Avenue, to Hollywood Boulevard. 

Hollywood prospect avenue

A 1905 postcard showing an (unpaved!) Prospect Avenue.

The film industry first crept into the Los Angeles area around 1906, when the American Biograph and Mutoscope Company established a modest studio. The following year the little Selig Company arrived, having been busy making one-reelers all around the U.S. It’s thought that the first drama to be made entirely on California soil was Selig’s The Power of the Sultan, starring Hobart Bosworth–the filming location was a vacant lot next to a Chinese laundry. More filmmakers began to be drawn to Los Angeles, attracted by the sunshine, warmth, and varied scenery. Forests, deserts, valleys and beaches were all either nearby or a short journey away. The first director to make a film in Hollywood itself was apparently D.W. Griffith, who shot his two-reel In Old California there in 1910. And in 1911 the first Hollywood studio officially opened: the Nestor Motion Picture Company, which got to work churning out one-reel Westerns and dramas.  

Hollywood nestor studios

Nestor worked in this abandoned tavern (the stage is behind it).

It’s been speculated that another reason Hollywood drew filmmakers was its safe distance from New York and Chicago. In those early cinema days, a “Patent War” had erupted between various film companies and the enforcers of Thomas Edison’s many motion pictures patents. Strange as it may sound today, some disputes actually erupted into violence. The Hollywood area likely seemed a good refuge from all the drama, and some historians think it wasn’t a coincidence that the Mexican border was within a hundred miles (although IMHO, if filmmakers really needed a quick getaway wouldn’t they settle much closer to the border? Or simply set up shop in Mexico itself? But I digress).

By the 1910s, the moving picture business was becoming a profitable industry, and little Hollywood was–rather unwittingly–becoming its capital. Residents grew used to the sight of those “movies” filming here, there, and everywhere throughout the town, often setting up in the middle of street to film a Western shootout or asking to borrow someone’s yard as a location for the afternoon. People did get annoyed, however, when filmmakers working in Griffith Park fired off blank cartridges that startled the local wildlife. (The park was so vast that studios could even erect impromptu film sets which often remained undiscovered for days.) While their presence was generally tolerated, “picture people” wouldn’t be considered respectable for a few more years, and often had a hard time finding housing.

Hollywood western crew filming

By 1915, the Patent War had calmed down and the majority of U.S. films were being made in southern California, concentrating in Hollywood. Major directors including Griffith, Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett, and Cecil B. de Mille had all settled in the area. Major stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were entrancing audiences in theaters around the world.

By the end of the 1910s, Hollywood was officially the cinema’s home, and its population was exploding–as were the numbers of tourists seeking their favorite “players.” New buildings and roads sprang up in the hills and valleys like weeds. The marriage of squeaky-clean superstars Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 was a turning point. The two built an elegant home they dubbed Pickfair and entertained visiting aristocrats and other famous names. This brought a sense of respectability to motion pictures, and in time, some of those aristocrats even did bit parts in films.  

Hollywood doug mary graumans

Mary and Doug put their hand and footprints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Hollywood boomed in the 1920s, and many actors and directors would make fortunes in real estate. An exclusive new housing development up in the hills dubbed “Hollywoodland” originated one of the world’s most famous landmarks. The developers decided to perch a giant sign spelling out “HOLLYWOODLAND” near the peak of one of the hills (it was lit by neon lights at night!). While the “LAND” would be removed in 1949 and the whole sign would be rebuilt in the 1970s, it has graced that spot ever since. 

Hollywood sign 1920s

In the past few decades, Hollywood has experienced both ups and downs. In 1960 it commemorated its storied history by launching the Walk of Fame. Hollywood Boulevard itself experienced periods of seediness and neglect, especially in the ‘80s. But by the 2000s, the neighborhood began undergoing a makeover. The classy Dolby Theater was built to house the Oscars ceremony and a shiny new Hollywood & Highland shopping center was created (prominently decorated with replicas of the elephants from Intolerance). Today, Hollywood continues to draw countless tourists and TV cameras from around the world. All in all, it’s been an extraordinary evolution for an area that was once a sleepy town nestled among quiet orange groves. 

Before the Movies Came, Hollywood Was a Rustic Country Town | KCET

12 thoughts on “A Brief History Of Hollywood Before It Was Hollywood

  1. Great article! My mother was born in North Hollywood and my father was an actor in the 1930s and 1940s. I worked with the Cahuenga Playhouse in the 1970s. Lots of great history but I’m afraid it has become depraved.

  2. I grew up in Los Angeles and I love watching movies or TV shows that were filmed there in the 60s and 70s just to compare the differences. Great article!

  3. It seems odd to say it but Hollywood as the hub of US film production was 100+ years ago. How can 1920 be a century ago. I started learning about previous decades of the 20th century by 1970 so the post WWI decades don’t seem so far away. Thank you for the history of the town itself. Some people saw it was originally Holy Wood and then went to hell. Oy vey. Another excellent article.

    • Orginally “Holy Wood”–heh! I like that. Reminds me of the folks who wax eloquent about “Holyweird” (which, if I may, is usually a sign they were part of that weirdness, lol).

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