Even More Villa Elaine

This March my quixotic quest to regain entry to the courtyard of the Villa Elaine (an apartment building in Hollywood I lived in for less than a year in 1982) came to a sudden and surprising fulfillment.  The building has always had a security gate but in my attempts to access I was mostly hindered by the fact that I (over the years) lived at least a thousand miles away and was back in LA pretty infrequently.

As depicted in my earlier post “Villa Elaine,” the VE was a shabby-on-the-outside, shockingly awesome-on-the-inside dwelling where anachronistic WWII looking characters and ‘70’s shitty-chic people lived, or just loitered.  As a kid I was captivated by the courtyard, a vegetation-rich but small strip of walkway that sat between the two wings of the arched-entrance apartments.

As I had occasion to do a few times over the years, in ’89, 2000, and again in 2009, I visited, this time getting out of my car (a rental this time) and surveying the locked gate.  This time was different from the others, however, and not only because I grabbed a rarely-available parking space in front of the building on Vine St.  Rock star parking, my friend Hadley calls it: maybe it was a good sign.

Just inside there was a woman sitting, she was young, she had a stuffed backpack at her feet.  I knew right away that she was not only NOT a resident; she also wasn’t even from LA.  I spoke up, smilingly.

“Um, hi….I’m a former resident of this building, I haven’t been inside since 1982.  I’m writing a book about 1980’s Hollywood.”

She looked about 22 years old, I’ve noticed recently that young people are impressed by year-dropping like this, and decided to try it to my advantage.  The last part I made sure to add because stuff like that always works on TV.  It worked, she opened up to me.

“Oh, cool!  I’m visiting my friend who lives here, I’m from Ohio (I knew it!) and Hollywood is just amazing!”

And then:

“If you promise you’re not here to kill anyone I’ll let you in.”

Now it was my turn to get all gushy, “Really?!  I promise!”

And just like that – the gate opened and I was in.  I would have never guessed that that same day I would be allowed access into another building a mile away where I had once lived; and that I would once again be admonished to not do any killing.  Weird.

I thanked her and headed in to a short corridor, a corridor that used to creep me out as a kid but now didn’t seem quite so forbidding.  In fact it looked a lot better than I remembered.  I was really excited, more than any tourist from Ohio was likely to ever be, for I was about to joust with my own memories.  They were memories that were deeply engrained as they were fresh, as if I always suspected I would not live there, or even in Hollywood, very much longer.  I was right about that.

I strode in quickly, pulling out my camera and my cell phone, remembering again the old axiom about the proverbial father’s advice:

“Son, if you’re just taking pictures you’re not really living the experience.”

I resolved to keep it all in balance.  I inhaled deeply.  It smelled faintly of Raid or whatever bug killer they used these days.  Crinkling my nose I actually uttered this aloud, “Crap, I remember that!”  For back in 1982, the Villa Elaine was a serious bug warren.  That was apparently the same case in 2014 but I knew a lot else had happened since.

Plaque informing residents of Man Ray’s occupancy there

Some things I heard were old-timey factoids about the place that I’d picked up over the years.  Like that Man Ray and Frank Sinatra had once lived there.  Or of the many actors of varying talents and little renown who had made this place their home, as their hoped-for springboard to stardom (for most likely a dive into an empty pool).  Or that an indie group named Remy Zero had taken up residence here and named one of their albums after the building, probably as a tribute to their own humble springboard.

I noticed signs of earthquake bracing on the brick walls.  This may have been a result of the ’94 Northridge Quake; I’d already seen similar things in a few other LA buildings, and the Villa Elaine was built in the 1930’s – before the era of earthquake awareness.

I exited the walkway, which was a tube really, the way to get into the courtyard; other apartments were above and around me.  Then all I saw was green, green, green.  I laughed aloud, this place was great!  It opened up visually to the palmy paradise I remembered and had always hoped to see again.  I needed to confirm, just for myself, “Did it really look like that?!”  Wow, I guess it did!

Things like this were probably not that big a deal to most kids growing up but when we lived there we were not as well off as most kids; and as for our lives there, we knew they were tenuous.  We had to take our pretty vistas where we found them.  At any time we might be moving away to, well, who the hell knows where?  In my case it turned out to be Miami; when we were cast out of Eden we went pretty damned far indeed.  And the courtyard may be just an assortment of plants and trees, but to me one has to look at the whole context.  For my family it was an oasis in the middle of seedy Hollywood, a Hollywood whose glam, as well as grime, we loved well.

Walking slowly and remembering, I kept thinking, “I can’t believe I’m in!”  Some things I remembered exactly, the brick embroidery around the garden plots; while some things were a surprise, like the fire escapes (freshly painted) on the back facing wall.  I knew that, among the residents filing past left, right and front, I was definitely the most excited person in the Villa Elaine that day, March 30.

I had to call my sister in Miami.  She would get the excitement, for she remembered the VE as fondly as I did.  Ring, ring…..”Yo Laura, guess where I am?!  I’m in the Villa Elaine!”  I snapped an iPhone photo and sent it to her.  She loved it.

Cell phones have really made memory comparing and harvesting so much easier.

While on the phone with her we talked about the old days and tried to remember our old apartment number.  Remarkably, back in ’82 we had scored one of the courtyard apartments, one with 18 foot high ceilings and a second floor.  I remembered a tree being just to our right as we would leave home for school, looking around I knew it had to be apartment 13.  We happily agreed that was it and I got off the phone to concentrate of pictures.

Sorry, you axiom-spouting proverbial dad, I had to commemorate this.

I remembered there was a pool in the back of the courtyard and headed to the gate.  Man, this place really was just a big garden.  I peered over and saw an empty pool, though the pool was still technically there it looked like the inside had been clawed out and scraped up.  Maybe they were preparing to remove it.

I went all around taking pictures and headed to the lobby, walking upstairs.  When I lived there as a 13 year old I had a friend named Derek who lived on the 2nd floor.  It was the only time I went up there back then, to say hi to my friend and show him whatever model car I was gluing together.  I didn’t remember it well so there were no surprises for me upstairs.  The smell of bug spray was a lot stronger though.

Within the confined space of the courtyard, everything had grown larger, lusher.  I found another point of comparison weeks later when I checked out the John Cassavetes film, “Minnie and Moskowitz.”  It was filmed in 1971 in apartment 12, right next door to where I lived 11 years later.  It was a real trip seeing the camera go out of the kitchen and up the stairs, the layout being exactly the same as ours.  In the background in some courtyard scenes one can see the foliage, looking pretty sparse, including the tree next to #13.  By ’82 there was more growth and the tree was a little bigger, by ’14 the tree was much larger and leaning over the courtyard to the other side.  As for the movie itself, I didn’t care much for the storyline, I was just there to see the VE.

After a while, after that longed for “a-ha” moment of rediscovery is over and all the pictures are taken, there just isn’t much to do.  I mean, I didn’t live there; there was no place really to sit down and get comfortable.  Plus I knew that when I left I’d be back on the wrong side of the security gate and couldn’t get back in (my friend from Ohio was gone by then).  I decided I didn’t need to, for I’d seen what I wanted to see.  And it was worth it, you know, the place looked even nicer than I’d imagined.  Someone had taken care of the place all these years.

We moved around a lot back in the ‘80’s.  I’d love to go back and see all the old places and plan to do just that, checking them off one by one.  It was good to finally see the Villa Elaine, that’s a special place, though you probably wouldn’t know it from the outside.

7 replies
  1. Laura
    Laura says:

    I adore your verbal documentary of “going home,” even if it wasn’t really home, or only for a short time. Thanks for calling and sharing it with me and everyone here.

  2. David Batterson
    David Batterson says:

    I lived there in the mid ’70s. It was a dump then but cheap, and all I could afford. I worked there P/T painting apartments (so I could pay my rent). Across the street was the historic Hollywood Ranch Market.

  3. Michael
    Michael says:

    I stumbled across your blog by accident while I was looking for information/photos about the old Hollywood Ranch Market. I’ve been in and out of Hollywood since the mid-60s, finally moving here in 1975. I have lived in an apartment complex just a half a block away from the VE, on La Mirada Ave., east of Vine St. When I leave my building and walk towards Vine, I immediately see the VE since the segment of La Mirada I live on ends just across the street from the VE. I have seen the VE go through a lot of changes over the last 40-odd years. I knew a couple of people who lived there at differing times an have been inside once or twice. Reading the recollections of the Fountain & Vine area has brought back a lot of memories. I used to do a lot of shopping at the Hollywood Ranch Market, listened to some very well known bands rehearsing for tours in the old Steve Allen Vine Street Playhouse building at the end of my block, and even got to see Dick Clark and some of his American Bandstand dancers taking a break at the old ABC Hollywood Studio when AB was temporarily quartered there. When the Northridge quake hit in 1994, I huddled in the chilly early morning hours with a couple who lived in the VE and had evacuated further down my block to be away from the building in the event it should collapse if there was a major after shock; there wasn’t and it didn’t. There used to be a sort of Japanese nightclub to the right of the main entrance that I frequented, at times. The VE has had a checkered history over the last 40+ years; during the late 70s to the late 80s, there was a lot of drug and other criminal activity in and around the building, as well as in the surrounding neighborhood. If you look at the front of the building now, you will notice the windows on either side of the fire escapes have been bricked in; ne’er-do-wells used to use the fire escapes to access those adjacent windows to gain entry to the apartments, so the owners had them bricked as a countermeasure, an action rumored at the time to have been at the behest of the LAPD. Things at the VE are much better nowadays…

    I’m not sure if you are aware a film was centered around the VE: in 1979 an R-rated, low budget comedy film about the fictionalized lives of the ‘tenants’ of the build was made with the ‘spirit’ of the VE, in the guise of an attractive young woman as the narrator, of sorts. the film was titled “Up Your Ladder” (alternate title: “Up Yours”) and was mainly a collection of burlesque comedy vignettes with the VE as a backdrop and focal point. The film was actually shot in and around the VE and has lots of footage of the VE as it looked in the mid to late 70s. I discovered the film by accident when I was scrounging around a used video store on Hollywood looking for collectible VHS tapes. I immediately recognized the VE from the box cover art and bought it on the spot. I still have the VHS tape somewhere in my collection. Prior to posting this, I did a little digging and discovered the film is still available on DVD on Amazon as part of a ‘four-films-on-one-disk’ collection titled “Grindhouse Drive-In”. The film itself is true B-movie level and a bit on the raunchy side. I don’t know which of the two versions is on the DVD compilation (I believe I still have both versions on VHS), but one is a bit more raunchy than the other, with a bit of frontal nudity not found on the other. The film used to be posted on YouTube, but I was unable to find it, so it appears it has been removed. I thought you might find the existence of the film of interest.

    • Bill Hardesty
      Bill Hardesty says:

      Michael, this is great, thank you for letting me know all this. I am going to look up that grindhouse film on Amazon ASAP. Every time I read a comment as thoughtful as this one, it really generates the ol’ nostalgia machine and makes me write more.


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