The Music Box - Location Shooting
"Eleven twenty-seven Walnut Avenue," answered the good Mrs. von Schwarzenhoffen.
The home, both inside and out, was merely a set erected back at the studio and torn down after filming. Only the heave-ho, arduous climb up the steps, over and over, was filmed on location at the stairway. Which, it's easy to tell, was a real place. But again, where was it? The given address was apparently meaningless fiction; there was no 1127 Walnut Avenue anywhere in Los Angeles. So where was that stairway? Where?
As the Laurel & Hardy films reached a new and curious audience through early television, more and more fans began asking this question, and doing something about it. Search parties went out looking for that hilltop and those stairs. It had to exist somewhere throughout the sprawling city of Los Angeles.
In 1955 Jack McCabe sent Stan Laurel a letter asking if the HATS OFF steps were indeed used again for THE MUSIC BOX: "Yes," wrote Laurel in reply, "they were on the same street off Hollywood Boulevard. They would be hard to find now I imagine, due to so many houses being built around them, and also many of those sections have been cleared to make way for new freeways. I really don't think I would know where they are -- things have changed so much in recent years."
Laurel's letter was written twenty-four years since his last visit to the site. Now another forty-seven years have passed. It was actually Sunset Boulevard (between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles) that the steps were near, not Hollywood Boulevard. One can catch a short glimpse of Sunset Boulevard, a long block away, in some of the opening scenes. Stan Laurel spent only about a week shooting there in 1927, and again in 1931; it's understandable he wouldn't remember specifically where the team filmed. Neither Laurel nor anyone else at the time attached any importance to the matter. Why would they? Almost no one could imagine the residual life these films would enjoy.
When the Way Out West tent was organized a few years after Laurel died, the group began publication of a wonderful magazine called PRATFALL. It was edited by Larry Byrd. The best feature each issue was the juxtaposition of then-and-now pictures. These showed Laurel & Hardy locations around Los Angeles using the original still photos, together with then-current shots of what the same places looked like when PRATFALL was an active publication.
But the PRATFALL staff had to find them first.
In the realm of Laurel & Hardy fandom, no one else had yet researched and presented such photos. It offered enthusiasts a tangible connection to these films. Seeing then and now photos, one could imagine travelling over time and space to Los Angeles and standing where the filmmakers stood. Tracing their footsteps. Seeing what they saw. And getting into physical touch with the illusions presented to us in these films, all of our lives.
First offered in this series was then-current photos of Hollenbeck Park, a site used for filming the water scenes in MEN O' WAR -- as well as Harold Lloyd's HAUNTED SPOOKS (1920) and Charley Chase's DOLLAR DIZZY (1930). But everyone wanted most to see the sought-after landmark flight of stairs featured in both HATS OFF and THE MUSIC BOX. The letters poured in from fans -- where were those steps? That place represented the real treasure hunt.
No one at the relocated offices of Hal Roach Studios (the Culver City plant having been torn down) had a clue as to the steps' whereabouts. Nor could the people then employed at the place be bothered looking through any kind of records or documentation.
Billy Gilbert offered to help. Did the professor say, "I'll take care of you," or "I'll show you," or "You'll learn a lesson"? Not likely. Billy Gilbert was an unbelievably nice man. He took the PRATFALL staff and some eager young fans to a huge staircase in Silver Lake, one of many in that part of town. Photos of their visit were published in PRATFALL, volume one, issue four, 1970.
Except it was the wrong location! In fact they'd found the staircase on the west side of the hill used by the Three Stooges for AN ACHE IN EVERY STAKE. That was why, as PRATFALL reported, "The stairs bear little resemblance to their former glory."
As in, any resemblance of any kind was coincidental.
Then Bob Satterfield got involved researching film sites for the Way Out West tent. "Where there's a will there's a way," said Oliver Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX, and Bob Satterfield said so, too. It was a watershed event when Bob decided to find Laurel & Hardy locations around town. Because he found them, and in most cases before anyone else did.
With respect to THE MUSIC BOX, from far away in Minnesota, I told Bob there was a scene still photo disclosing a street sign that read, "Vendome and Del Monte." Was it a prop sign? Or authentic? Could that intersection be found somewhere in the huge, disorderly city of Los Angeles? In no time, Bob was on his way to find the site of the lost, vertical walk-way.
Vendome and Del Monte turned out to be correct. Bob determined that the terraced steps -- 131 in all -- are nestled between the addresses (and garage doors) of 923 and 925 Vendome Street, in a Silver Lake residential neighborhood. The stairway itself was found to be essentially the same, but time had exacted its price. The surrounding area was run down, drug-infested, and today continues to more or less drift in a seedy direction. Anyone who climbs the stairs these days is greeted by snarling guard dogs, chained down, mostly out of sight. Small brightly colored homes full of bars on their windows now crowd both sides of the staircase, all the way up the hill. The vacant lots are gone. Trees are bigger. Jade plants overrun the small yards. And the city has installed streetlights and handrails up the stairs for safety considerations. But there have been few structural changes.
Fans visiting the site today are often so excited they enjoy the trivial exercise of matching up cracks in the sidewalk with what they see in still photos they bring. The same cracks are still there. The little stucco duplex house fronting Del Monte, where, in the film, the Laurel & Hardy Transfer Co. drove up with its horse and cart, remains virtually unchanged.
At the top of the hill, where "1127 Walnut Avenue" is supposed to be, there exists a cul de sac. So after climbing the steps, they emerge out onto Descanso Drive, which winds back down another side of the hill to intersect Sunset Boulevard.
In 1980 the Sons of the Desert held its first international convention in Los Angeles. The Way Our West tent hosted the festivities in high style. Busses hauled hundreds of fans to Hal Roach Studios locations all over town. Anyone who participated in this event knows what a special event it was, how unique it was, and how the experience could neither be recreated subsequently, nor explained, or even adequately described for those who missed it.
For starters, it was amazing to be there in the company of surviving Hal Roach Studios talent, on both sides of the camera, who made the films to begin with. Then to drive through those sites, to see all the same things those filmmakers saw, to trace their footsteps -- we were all transported in time. It was as if we were walking into the movie screens on which we had enjoyed so many of these movies. And then, too, to see how some people reacted upon finding themselves on such hallowed ground for the first time, well that can only happen once. What a pilgrimage, and for many, it was savored almost as a religious experience. The looks on fans' faces told they knew it was sacred territory!
At THE MUSIC BOX steps, busses kept depositing streams of fans all day -- "professors" and "monkeys" alike. Up and down those stairs they walked, huffing and puffing, heave-ho, heave-ho. People were looking for the ghosts of Stan and Ollie on or near the stairs, and listened for the special sound of random musical notes from within a boxed player piano, which just had to be lurking somewhere in the area. Didn't it?
Local residents, many of whom were Mexican-American immigrants, were clueless as to the nature of all this attention. They seemed as curious about us as we were about their neighborhood.
One fan used her camera to memorialize the occasion. She took photos walking up and down the stairs -- of the stairs. She wasn't focused on anything else in particular. Back home in Minnesota she had those photos developed. They revealed her curiosity had been reciprocated by a puzzled local resident.. Pointing up the steps, her camera had unintentionally captured someone peering back down the hill from behind his full length picture window -- totally nude.
Today the famed steps are a tourist attraction. Despite problems of blight and crime in the area, fans from all over the world continue flocking to see and explore this special place in Hollywood history.
In 1982 The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board considered a proposal to designate the steps an official cultural landmark to be specially cared for and protected. Differing factions, however, could not reach an agreement on how to administer the site. The decision was tabled, and forgotten. Then there was talk of another freeway wiping out the deteriorating neighborhood, and the steps. Threats continued. In January of 1994 came the local Northridge earthquake; homes up and down the hill sustained serious damage, and were vacated.
On November 5, 1994, after two years planning, a plaque commemorating the film location was unveiled at the base of the stairs as part of an all-day Saturday event marking the 67th anniversary of the HATS OFF release date. The dedication was sponsored jointly by the Silver Lake Improvement Association, Hollywood Heritage Inc., The Silent Society, The Hollywood Studio Museum, and The Society of Operating Cameramen. Although it proved to be otherwise, the etched black marble plaque was supposed to be graffiti-proof. It was not. So much for that notion. Disrespectful hooligans defaced the thing practically overnight, as there was no longer any irate, axe-wielding professor in residence to scream and sputter at such delinquents, "What is the meaning of this?...That's enough! Stop! W-w-wait a minute! I'll take care of you! You'll learn a lesson! I'll-l-l-l show you!"
At least the troublemakers waited until the festivities were concluded, and the preservationists were gone, before they marked up the plaque. Refreshments were served, musicians played, a video of THE MUSIC BOX ran, fans arrived in vintage autos and traversed the concrete steps, Jim McGeorge and Chuck McCann performed in full costume as Stan and Ollie, and there were presentations by many. Leonard Maltin spoke. So did a reporter from THE LOS ANGELES TIMES who was an authority on the city's Public Stairways. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who once lived adjacent to the stairs and cleared necessary permits for the project, reminisced about the neighborhood.
It was quite a nice affair, covered by the media, attended by local residents, fans, and politicians. Most curious was the TV crew from a station in far-away Buffalo, New York. They were in town with orders to cover the O.J. Simpson murder trial; he once starred for the Buffalo Bills football team. They thought THE MUSIC BOX ceremony was a much more interesting event!
As of this writing, late in the afternoon, the plaque remains intact. So far. It is, however, now adorned with imbedded graffiti courtesy of some of the brighter, present-day local "monkeys" who have been taught to handle carving implements. In addition, there are now green City of Los Angeles street signs at the top and bottom of the hill proclaiming (in English) "The Music Box Stairs."
Finally, Hal Roach had a Silver Lake connection pre-dating that of anyone else who worked on either HATS OFF or THE MUSIC BOX. Not far from the intersection of Vendome and Del Monte is the former site of Mixville, named for Tom Mix, who made so many early shoot-'em-ups one-reelers in the area. Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd worked as extras in some 1912 Universal westerns shot on the sloping Mixville Main Street which served as a town exterior. Later in the teens Roach directed Lloyd at Mixville, most notably for that most entertaining western short comedy BILLY BLAZES, ESQ. (1919).
One summer Saturday in 1987, Hal Roach and I drove east of Los Angeles to Chino, where we used shotguns to murder game birds at a sporting ranch. This activity enabled his black lab retriever named Tripper to have a workout. Coming back on the Pamona Freeway, it was blocked. There was a traffic tie-up ahead. Roach, always impatient, wanted to get off the freeway and try surface roads. Soon we found ourselves driving on Sunset Boulevard in the seedy Silver Lake district.
I asked if he had ever seen the steps from THE MUSIC BOX.
Not that he could remember. Once any picture began shooting, all he needed to do was screen the rushes and consult on the previews. There was seldom any reason for him to visit a location unless he planned to direct key scenes himself. So the answer was no, he had never seen the steps.
Would he like to see them?
Only if it wouldn't take any time.
We parked and got out. Tripper stayed in Roach's station wagon. Roach looked up the stairs, back at me, shook his head and laughed. His expression asked, "What are we supposed to be looking at?" Then he said, without any prompting from me on the dialogue, "Okay, let's 'heave-ho' and get out of here."
I kidded him, "Don't you want to walk up to the top?" He slowly eyed me up and down with mock disdain, then said, "Let's see you do it first."
Which I took to mean the producer's instruction to get back in the car and leave.