Hollywood - The History of a Movie Capital


The Legend of Hollywood

Hollywood, California - where, beginning a century ago, the great American dream burst out of our collective subconscious and into the open.

There is no other name that frees our fantasies and stirs our hopes and fears, our tears and our eternal romances, like that single incomparable word - Hollywood.

The famous sign was originally longer
The famous sign was originally longer
H H Wilcox
H H Wilcox

Before The Movies

In the seventeenth century when Spanish explorers first entered the area now known as Hollywood, Native Americans had been living in the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains since time immemorial. Before long, the Indians had been moved to missions and the land which Hollywood now occupies was divided in two by the Spanish Government. Acreage to the west became part of Rancho La Brea and settlements to the East became Rancho Los Feliz.

By the 1870s an agricultural community flourished in the area and crops ranging from hay and grain to subtropical bananas and pineapples were thriving. During the 1880s, the Ranchos were sub-divided. Harvey Henderson Wilcox of Kansas, who made a fortune in real estate even though he had lost the use of his legs due to typhoid fever, and his wife, Daeida who was originally from Hicksville, Ohio, moved to Los Angeles from Topeka. In 1886, Wilcox bought 160 acres (0.6 km²) of land in the countryside to the west of the city at the foothills and the Cahuenga Pass. Within a few years, Wilcox had devised a grid plan for his new community, paved Prospect Avenue (now Hollywood Boulevard) for his main street and was selling large residential lots to wealthy Midwesterners looking to build homes so they could "winter in California."

Wilcox's Original Estate Map
Wilcox's Original Estate Map

There is some disagreement as to who was the first to name the place Hollywood. One account says that the name was coined by H. J. Whitley, the Father of Hollywood. He and his wife Gigi reportedly came up with the name in 1886 while on their honeymoon (from Margaret Virginia Whitley's memoir). Another account is that Mrs. Wilcox coined the name in 1883; while on a train she became acquainted with a wealthy lady who often spoke of her country home named after a settlement of Dutch immigrants from Zwolle called "Hollywood", and when she returned to Los Angeles she so named her country place.

Harvey's subdivisions soon became a town with streets named and paved and commercial ventures encouraged. Wilcox died in 1891 but Daeida carried on with their dream. She donated land for 3 churches, the first library and city hall, a park and a school and even a police station. But liquor was still outlawed in the community. In 1894 Daeida remarried and, with her new husband Philo J. Beveridge (the governor's son) she continued to help Hollywood grow.

Prospect Avenue soon became a prestigious residential street populated with large Queen Anne, Victorian, and Mission Revival houses. Mrs. Wilcox raised funds to build churches, schools and a library and Hollywood quickly became a complete and prosperous community. The community incorporated in 1903, but its independence was short-lived, as the lack of water forced annexation in 1910 to the city of Los Angeles, which had a surplus supply of water.

Hollywood, 1905

The Hollywood Hotel is far left
The Hollywood Hotel is far left

Hollywood Hotel

Nestor Studios 1913
Nestor Studios 1913

In early 1910, director D. W. Griffith was sent by the Biograph Company to the west coast with his acting troop consisting of actors Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and others. They started filming on a vacant lot near Georgia Street in Downtown Los Angeles. The Company decided to explore new territories and traveled several miles north to a little village that was friendly and enjoyed the movie company filming there. And, you've guessed it, this place was called "Hollywood". Griffith then filmed the first movie ever shot in Hollywood called, aptly enough, 'In Old California', a Biograph melodrama about Latino-Mexican occupied California in the 1800s. The movie company stayed there for months and made several films before returning to New York.

The oldest company still existing in Hollywood today was founded by William Horsley of Gower Gulch-based Nestor and Centaur films, who went on to create the Hollywood Film Laboratory. In 1911, the Nestor Company opened Hollywood's first film studio in an old tavern on the corner of Sunset and Gower. Not long thereafter Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith began regularly making movies in the area, drawn to the community for its open space and moderate climate. They were the first of many. A legend had been born.

After hearing about this wonderful place, in 1913 many movie-makers headed west to avoid the fees imposed by Thomas Edison, who owned patents on the movie-making process. In Los Angeles, California, the studios and Hollywood grew. Before World War I, movies were made in several U.S. cities, but filmmakers gravitated to southern California as the industry developed. They were attracted by the mild climate and reliable sunlight, which made it possible to film movies outdoors year-round, and by the varied scenery that was available. The first feature film made in Hollywood, in 1914, was called 'The Squaw Man'. All the films made in Los Angeles from 1908 to 1913 had been short subjects. 'The Squaw Man', marked the beginning of the modern Hollywood movie industry. Through the First World War it went on to become the movie capital of the world.

Hollywood sign and one of the early houses
Hollywood sign and one of the early houses
Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, on top of the world in 1921 after forming United Artists.
Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, on top of the world in 1921 after forming United Artists.

The Hollywood Industry Develops

In the early 1900s, when the medium was new, many Jewish immigrants found employment in the U.S. film industry. They were able to make their mark in a brand-new business: the exhibition of short films in storefront theaters called nickelodeons, after their admission price of a nickel (five cents). Within a few years, ambitious men like Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, and the Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack) had switched to the production side of the business. Soon they were the heads of a new kind of enterprise: the movie studio. (It is worth noting that the US had at least one female director, producer and studio head in these early years, Alice Guy Blaché.)

Other moviemakers arrived from Europe after World War I: directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Jean Renoir; and actors like Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, and Charles Boyer. They joined a homegrown supply of actors--lured west from the New York City stage after the introduction of sound films--to form one of the 20th century's most remarkable growth industries. At Hollywood's height of popularity in the mid-1940s, the studios were cranking out a total of about 400 movies a year, seen by an audience of 90 million Americans per week.

Clark Gable

Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
John Wayne
John Wayne
Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in The Rain Man
Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in The Rain Man

The Golden Age of Hollywood

During the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from the end of the silent era in American cinema in the late 1920s to the late 1940s, movies were issued from the Hollywood studios like the cars rolling off Henry Ford's assembly lines. Most Hollywood pictures adhered closely to a formula-Western, slapstick comedy, musical, animated cartoon, biopic (biographical picture)-and the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio. For instance, Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films, Alfred Newman worked at Twentieth Century Fox for twenty years, Cecil B. De Mille's films were almost all made at Paramount, director Henry King's films were mostly made for Twentieth-Century Fox, etc. And one could usually guess which studio made which film, largely because of the actors who appeared in it. Each studio had its own style and characteristic touches which made it possible to know this - a trait that does not exist today. Yet each movie was a little different, and, unlike the craftsmen who made cars, many of the people who made movies were artists. For example, To Have and Have Not (1944) is famous not only for the first pairing of actors Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Lauren Bacall (1924- ) but also for being written by two future winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), author of the novel on which the script was nominally based, and William Faulkner (1897-1962), who worked on the screen adaptation.

Moviemaking was still a business, however, and motion picture companies made money by operating under the studio system. The major studios kept thousands of people on salary-actors, producers, directors, writers, stuntmen, craftspersons, and technicians. And they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across the nation, theaters that showed their films and that were always in need of fresh material.

Many film historians have remarked upon the many great works of cinema that emerged from this period of highly regimented filmmaking. One reason this was possible is that, with so many movies being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles (1915-1985) and often regarded as the greatest film of all time, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard Hawks (1896-1977) and Frank Capra (1897-1991) battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, and Midnight. Among the other films from the Golden Age period that are now considered to be classics: Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, the original King Kong, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Marilyn Monroe

The Roosevelt Hotel has long sat on Hollywood Boulevard near Hollywood High School and Grauman's Chinese Theater
The Roosevelt Hotel has long sat on Hollywood Boulevard near Hollywood High School and Grauman's Chinese Theater

Modern Day Hollywood

On January 22, 1947, the first commercial television station west of the Mississippi River, KTLA, began operating in Hollywood. In December of that year, the first Hollywood movie production was made for TV, The Public Prosecutor. And in the 1950s, music recording studios and offices began moving into Hollywood. Other businesses, however, continued to migrate to different parts of the Los Angeles area, primarily to Burbank. Much of the movie industry remained in Hollywood, although the district's outward appearance changed.

In 1952, CBS built CBS Television City on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard on the former site of Gilmore Stadium. CBS´ expansion into the Fairfax District pushed the unofficial boundary of Hollywood further south than it had been. CBS´ slogan for the shows taped there was "From Television City in Hollywood . . ."

During the early 50's the famous Hollywood Freeway was constructed from The Stack interchange in downtown Los Angeles, past the Hollywood Bowl, up through Cahuenga Pass and into the San Fernando Valley. In the early days, streetcars ran up through the pass, on rails running along the central reservation of the highway.

The famous Capitol Records building on Vine Street just north of Hollywood Boulevard was built in 1956 . It is a recording studio not open to the public, but its unique circular design looks like a stack of 7-inch vinyl records.

The now derelict lot at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Serrano Avenue was once the site of the illustrious Hollywood Professional School whose alumni reads like a Hollywood Who's Who of household "names".

The Hollywood Walk of Fame was created in 1958 and the first star was placed in 1960 as a tribute to artists working in the entertainment industry. Honorees receive a star based on career and lifetime achievements in motion pictures, live theatre, radio, television, and or music, as well as their charitable and civic contributions.

In 1985, the Hollywood Boulevard Commercial and Entertainment District was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places protecting important buildings and ensuring that the significance of Hollywood's past would always be a part of its future.

In June 1999, the long-awaited Hollywood extension of the Los Angeles County Metro Rail Red Line subway opened, running from Downtown Los Angeles to the Valley, with stops along Hollywood Boulevard at Western Avenue, Vine Street and Highland Avenue.

The Kodak Theatre, which opened in 2001 on Hollywood Boulevard at Highland Avenue, where the historic Hollywood Hotel once stood, has become the new home of the Oscars.

While motion picture production still occurs within the Hollywood district, most major studios are actually located elsewhere in the Los Angeles region. Paramount Studios is the only major studio still physically located within Hollywood. Other studios in the district include the aforementioned Jim Henson (formerly Chaplin) Studios, Sunset Gower Studios, and Raleigh Studios.


The Golden Age is over. The film industry has dispersed. Enjoy the memory of the last 120 years of cinematic development. It was crazy, it was fun, and we shall never see its like again.

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Comments 5 comments

RT 8 years ago

I you want a picture od HJ Whitley and family go to

I own the picture.

CC 6 years ago

kool site

Movies Capital 6 years ago

Hello, I love reading through your blog, I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation. Wishing you the best of luck for all your blogging efforts.

mtkomori profile image

mtkomori 2 years ago from Yokohama, Japan

Very informative, and well researched, I enjoyed reading your hub. I used to live near MGM studios (now Sony Pictures Entertainment) as a kid and am also a movie fan.

liz 21 months ago

that's cool

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