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December 13, 2007 |  7:26 pm


1957_1213_elg_poulsonlat Photograph by the Los Angeles Times

Actress Taina Elg and Mayor Norris Poulson at Main and 7th streets in a photo published Dec. 13, 1957.




PLACED DEC. 12, 1957

Taina_elg_1955_0507_edward_gamer03 There was a mob "of holiday shoppers and idlers" at 7th Street and Main in 1957 as MGM actress Taina Elg and Mayor Norris Poulson arrived to unveil a commemorative plaque, which was fastened to the wall of a large furniture store. According to The Times, a Chinese laundry once stood on the site and some exterior shots for "Monte Cristo" were taken on the roof.

And then, a bit like Banquo's ghost in Macbeth, an "unidentified man with a scraggly mustache, wearing cowboy clothes and carrying spurs under his arm, came forward to insist that the location was wrong--that the shots in question were actually filmed at 8th and Olive."

"I was there. Talked to Bosworth himself," he said, referring to Hobart Bosworth, a popular stage actor who appeared in the early films of the Selig Polyscope Co.

Someone told the man that he was wrong and said that Thomas Persons, the cameraman on the picture, confirmed the location.

"The crowd listened with amusement to the argument for a while but then forgot it when Miss Elg appeared," The Times said. "That's a sight you don't see at 7th and Main every day." (Above right, Elg in a Times photograph by Edward Gamer; below, a scene from "Les Girls").

So I set out to discover which site is correct. Unfortunately, The Times failed to realize the historical significance of the occasion and never wrote a word in 1907 about filming these scenes on Main or on Olive.

Unlike the unidentified Times reporter from 1957, who didn't have access to ProQuest, we can easily find that the first reference to filming at 7th and Main was in 1926 when Persons, by then an executive with Biograph studios in New York, visited Los Angeles and returned to his old haunts.

Persons told Marquis Busby of The Times that he arrived in 1906 to shoot water scenes for "Monte Cristo" (the company filmed the interiors in Chicago).

According to the Nov. 7, 1926, story, Persons used the roof of a tinsmith's shop at 7th and Main, which "was considered an ideal location for a studio," Busby wrote. "It was quite a bit removed from the center of the business district of that day and, being upon a roof, nothing could interfere with sunlight upon which the producer was dependent."

The article also says that Persons shot several other movies on the roof of the shop, including "Carmen," with Lillian Hayward and "The Magician" with Francis Boggs.*

Taina_elg_1958_0105 That seems to confirm the Main Street site. But how did a tinsmith's shop become a Chinese laundry? And what about the unidentified man's claim that the film was shot at 8th and Olive?

In fact, he was right about the location (more or less) but wrong about the date.

Two years later, Persons moved to "a new studio at 7th and Olive, across from the site of the present Athletic Club building," Busby wrote. Instead of relying on direct, unfiltered sunlight, Persons had begun using overhead diffusers of unbleached muslin, apparently eliminating the need for rooftop filming.

"For this corner lot and the use of one or two decrepit buildings there was an outlandish rental to be paid of $25 ($541.14 USD 2006) a month," The Times said.

Aha! When we get to 1929, we find the first mention of a Chinese laundry in a story about actor Hobart Bosworth donating his early movie material to the Southwest Museum.  Citing a date of May 8, 1909, the story says Bosworth made a film titled "The Sultan's Power" at a Chinese laundry "near 8th and Olive streets."

A Feb. 4, 1929, story identifies the business as Sing Loo's laundry, "the present site of the Knickerbocker Building."

A ProQuest search for further information about Sing Loo, alas, is entirely unhelpful. Another search shows that the Knickerbocker Building was at 643 S. Olive  St. "just north of 7th Street." Hm. Sounds like shoddy research to me.

Fortunately, a May 5, 1929, story provides two first-person accounts.

Tom Santschi, one of the Selig actors, said: "We arrived in Los Angeles sometime between March 16 and 21 [1909] and began shooting almost immediately.... We found a studio in the backyard of a Chinese laundry on Olive Street, between 7th and 8th streets."

Bosworth wrote: "On May 8, 1909, I went over to a vacant lot behind a Chinese laundry on Olive Street between 7th and 8th streets. Here I found the quiet, exquisitely dressed gentleman who was James L. McGee. He introduced me to a still quieter little gentleman with the bright, smiling eyes I was destined to know and love so well. Francis Boggs, who made me comfortable and put me at my ease."

At last, determination pays off. There was a Chinese laundry (shown here in a clipping from 1895)! The reward for a diligent researcher.

There is a famous story about the filming of a scene from "Monte Cristo," and like all Hollywood stories, it gets better with every telling. Here is the 1926 version:

The entire "Monte Cristo" company, consisting in toto of Tom Persons, the director, Francis Boggs, the leading man, a rented wig and prop beard, set forth for La Jolla.

Perhaps all might have been well but when Boggs got wet he suffered from sciatica shocks. So it was necessary to hire a double for the scenes wherein Monte Cristo emerges from the sea. Without much difficulty they persuaded a carefree La Jolla native to do the "emerging" for the munificent sum of $1.50 ($32.46 USD 2006) a day.

Everything was set for the shooting of the scene when the director looked up to see the pseudo Monte Cristo riding helplessly in the general direction of Honolulu on the crest of the waves.

"Save him!" yelled Persons.

"Save him, h--l!" returned the more practical Boggs. "Save the wig and whiskers."

But kind fate returned wig, whiskers, Monte and all, and the picture was completed without further mishap. The whole action transpired in 1,000 feet.

Next: Searching for a plaque at 7th and Main.

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* His name is frequently spelled Frances.