Silent film studio revived as architect's live-work retreat
A hundred years before “The Artist” made its run for Oscar history, American Film Co. arrived in Santa Barbara and produced nearly 1,000 silent films in what the industry considered Hollywood North. You can find out about the influential Flying A, as the studio was called, and take a trip back in time at the recently opened Santa Barbara Historical Museum exhibition “The Flying A: Silent Film in Santa Barbara.” Or if you're architect Peter Becker, you can simply take a walk in your garden.
Becker is the proud owner of what had been part of the Flying A. His long, narrow garden, planted circa 1913, still has the original redwood pergola and a profusion of Cecile Brunners, the ubiquitous soft pink roses that bear successive flushes in spring, summer and fall.
“Indeed, they seem to be in bloom year round,” says Becker, who believes his Cecile Brunners may be some of the earliest plantings of the rose in Southern California.
They are but one part of the silent film studio once located at Chapala and Mission streets — at its peak, “one of the most influential studios in the world, cranking out nearly a reel or two a day,” says Dana Driskel, studio professor of film media studies at UC Santa Barbara.
The pergola runs the length of Becker's office and home, formerly the studio's green room, where actors waited to go on set, as well as dressing rooms for the stars. Mary Miles Minter, right, was the big swoon of the day, remembered now only by the most avid film buffs for her exploits in “Faith,” “Youth's Endearing Charm” and “Peggy Leads the Way.”
World War I, a flu epidemic and the more lucrative deals beckoning actors to Hollywood — as well as the higher cost of living in Santa Barbara, then as now — caused the studio to stop production by 1920. The buildings were leased, then most were razed in the 1940s, but the dressing room building remained. Arleigh Adams, once a child actor at the studio, and his family had bought it in 1932.
“I can still remember seeing his mother in the front room, canning,” says Driskel, who knew the family. Adams delighted in giving tours of the green room and was passionate about his garden, Driskel says. “He spent hours tending to it.”
In 1999, when Becker bought the property from a contractor who had purchased the building from Adams, the garden was overgrown. Tenting for termites caused a number of plants to die. Becker called in Santa Barbara landscape designer Jim Melnik to help restore the garden. They began by reinforcing the old redwood pergola with steel plates and augmenting the existing Cecile Brunner roses with eight new plants along the edges of the pergola “to make everything even rosier,” Becker says.
Today, near the garden entrance, a new box hedge surrounds a small pond and fountain sculpture that belonged to Becker's family in the 1950s. At the back of the property, behind the garage, a row of giant bamboo masks the adjacent three-story office building. Three new California pepper trees hide unsightly telephone wires. Nearby, an arc of citrus — tangerine, lemon and lime — and a classic Edwin Lutyens teak bench offer a cozy place to take in the trees' fragrance.
“We added a few geraniums and iris,” Becker says. “The rest were from Arleigh. His flowers are continually popping up, almost like a hello from the past.”
Like Adams, Becker enjoys taking friends and clients on a tour of his quiet, verdant space — an outdoor green room, really.
“I'm always telling them how small can be beautiful and, well, not feel small at all,” he says.
On lazy afternoons when the light is sweet, it's not hard to conjure an image of the actress Minter leaving the green room for a stroll in the garden, taking time to take in the slightly spicy fragrance of the Cecile Brunners or pick some of the hardy, pink blossoms for her dressing room vase. Occasionally, Becker will pluck one of the roses and put it in his lapel — a little bit of the past to carry with him into the future.
The entrance to Becker's home and architecture studio has sculpture by Simon Toparovsky.
The view from Becker's bedroom into the library.
Becker's Cecile Brunner roses in bloom.
BIOGRAPHY OF A ROSE
Variety: Cecile Brunner
Born: 1881 in France
Father: Rosarian and hybridizer Joseph Pernet-Ducher, who crossed a variety called Mignonette with a tea rose called Madame de Tartas; he named his creation after the daughter of famous Swiss grower Ulrich Brunner.
Nicknames: Sweetheart rose, the Buttonhole rose
Appearance: Soft pink exterior petals surrounding a richer pink center
Scent: Sweet and slightly spicy
Bloom: Successive flushes in spring, summer and fall
Preferred location: Full sun, though it will tolerate partial shade (and poor soil)
-- Barbara Thornburg
Photos: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times