HOLLYWOOD ORAL HISTORY
“When Hollywood and I were babies”
By Sally Taft Teschke
December 2, 1934
They called me Hollywood’s “first while child,” which is not true, of course, since the Spanish Californians were there before us and quite as “white” as I. But I am the first Anglo-Saxon to be born in that part of the Cahuenga Valley now called Hollywood, and I am not a doddering pioneer either!
That is the remarkable thing about this city of Hollywood, familiar as it is to people everywhere in the world. It is so young that a person just approaching middle-age like myself can be the first child and not have to mumble recollections of the “old days” through toothless gums.
My father is Alfred Z. Taft, now living in Nogales, Arizona. Our family home was at Fifth and Hill Street but the city was becoming too crowded in 1892 so with the spirit of the pioneer, he moved out into the Cahuenga Valley. On a picnic one day before the removal my father and mother were eating their lunch on the present site of the Griffith planetarium (Observatory). Investigating a mewing noise in the brush they found some mountain lion cubs. The lions often came down into the chicken yards at night.
Even such a wild setting did not disturb those folks of mine. They established our new home where Taft and Hollywood Boulevard intersect today. And there, in the year of the World’s Fair at Chicago, I was born.
An early recollection was of the “dummy” steam engine which ran along Hollywood Boulevard (then Prospect Avenue). There were seven Taft children and the engineer of that primitive street car always had to stop in front of our house to remove one or more of the Tafts from his track.
In 1905 we had a snowstorm which blanketed the hills and groves of the valley with a white, cold substance quite strange to us. It seems to me that the snowfall was much heavier than the one of 1932. Of course we had read about snow men, and every yard had one that day.
While oranges were very popular with the tourists who came out via the Pacific Electric’s “balloon” route excursion the most profitable crop grown in Hollywood were lemons. From less than ten acres my father one year received an income of $17,000. In and about the streets today you can still catch a glimpse of the relics of the famous old citrus orchards which once flourished here. Another valuable crop was tomatoes, the corner of Highland and Hollywood being purchased one year for $2,500, the money being made by the buyer from five acres of tomatoes planted there.
One of the features of the Pacific Electric’s excursion among the orange groves was that the tourist was told he could actually pick a real orange off the tree. So when the cars came through each day we would have to protect our groves from the devouring hands of tourists.
The original boundaries of Hollywood were the present Normandy, La Brea and Fountain Avenues with the hills on the north making the fourth side. It was Mrs. H. H. Wilcox, later Mrs. Philo T. Beveridge, who first named the Cahuenga Valley settlement, Hollywood. She chose it because of the beautiful western holly bushes which were as thick as sage brush everywhere.
We had no need for a newspaper in Hollywood. Our telephone was a ten party line, each subscriber having a “ring.” Ours was one long and four short. You can imagine how thrilling it was to count each ring and calculate who was getting a message. Sometimes when you said “hello” you could hear nine more faint clicks as receivers all along the line were lifted.
Hollywood High School started in a store under a Masonic Hall on Highland Avenue in 1903. I went there, when I came of age, and my father was a member of the board of trustees. When the question of annexation to the city of Los Angeles came up the school board decided to sort of even up accounts. Since the Hollywood village tax rate was very low and, by annexation, the residents would be assuming the higher Los Angeles rats, the board figured we might as well have a fine, large school. So they voted a large bond issue to purchase the present school properties at Sunset and Highland and the city of Los Angeles had to take it over along with our other debts and assets.
The principal of our grammar school was a jolly soul. He had musical inclinations and took them out on his classes. I can see him entering our room, asking if we had a great deal of work to do, then bringing in his banjo and entertaining us for the rest of the day. Today this affable gentleman is an assistant superintendent of city schools and probably would not approve of such informal education.
Incidentally, discussions of early land prices while rather overdone now still intrigue some. My grandfather bought the entire block between Fourth and Fifth, Hill and Olive Streets for $9.80 at a tax sale. It was on this site that Henry Hazard’s Pavilion later stood. It was the show place of the town. I know that before buying in Hollywood my father debated the purchase of a place between Twelfth and Pico Streets on Hill, but decided that $200 was too high.
Before the advent of the movies Hollywood was almost a pastoral setting. We lived a country life, almost like that of an English countryside. I regret the loss of that atmosphere, naturally, but I do not particularly resent the evolution into what we have now.
The present Hollywood Boulevard is the most disillusioning street in the world. A great opportunity was lost in not retaining its simplicity and natural beauty. For a world famed street it is probably the ugliest.
One thing that has made my blood boil was the wanton destruction of trees and landmarks in the name of progress. The dynamiting of the old homestead in Hollywood where General Cahuenga signed a treaty in the famous battle of Fremont to my mind was almost criminal.
That urge to do away with the past did not exist in the Hollywood of thirty years ago. I cannot help but think that our town banker was more interested in the character and integrity of the men to whom he loaned money than in their financial standing. Our merchants were the same way.
Hollywood was a very moral and temperate center. No saloons, pool halls, gambling or card playing were permitted. In fact one man was tried in court for taking a drink in the Hollywood Hotel. Perhaps we were strait laced. Those who wanted to do these things could step over into nearby communities.
But with the movie invasion all this changed. At first the residents tried to stop these strangers from taking over our streets and homes in the machinations of their queer business. We, or out families, were afraid that their children would be thoroughly demoralized.
Like all children we youngsters delighted in watching movies in the making. And soon the excitement began to spread to the parents. After all it was quite thrilling to see your own home on the screen. And to comment on how poorly the neighbor’s homes looked in certain scenes. The money paid for rental of a property was a subtle poison that finally broke down all barriers against the studios.
I had a natural flair for dramatics. When the old Universal Studio first began operating I had a terrific ambition to become an actress. So I took full advantage of the opportunity and applied at Universal. I appeared in three pictures before my teachers and family caught on. When my shame was discovered you may be sure that the penalties were in accord.
One thing I have noticed in travelling is a universal curiosity about Hollywood’s “wild parties.” People will not believe me when I tell them I was born and brought up here, have friends and circulate in studio circles and have never witnessed nor actually talked with those who were alleged to have participatge in one of these much publicized orgies. Our Hollywood wild parties started usually with roller skating and ended with taffy pulls.
NOTE: Sarah “Sally” Taft was born to Alfred Z. Taft and his wife Blanche on July 5, 1893 in Hollywood near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Taft Avenue, which was named for her family. Her father built the Taft Building on the southeast corner of Hollywood and Vine, which still stands. Sally married Ludvik Teschke. a contractor, around 1914 and had three children. She died on September 24, 1973 at the age of 80. She wrote the above article for the Los Angeles Times in 1934.