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Joel McCrea’s beginnings

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Feb 8th, 2013
2013
Feb 8

HOLLYWOOD BEGINNINGS

How Joel McCrea got his start

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Nearly ruined career when, teamed with Dorothy Jordan, he took her to dinner with the Boss’, who married her

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

When Joel McCrea was 12 or 13 years old, attending the Gardner Street grade school in Hollywood, Ruth Roland was making serials in the hills above Sunset Boulevard. McCrea, who was big for his age, had an ambition to be a cowboy, and used to hang around and watch the Roland troupe in his spare time and sometimes even was allowed to hold the horses.

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A New York stage actor came out to play Ruth’s leading man. His job was to be rescued from some dire predicament by the heroine every reel or so.

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“That guy could act all over the place,” McCrea recalled, “but when they brought on the horses he was scared stiff. That was how I got to ride his horse in a couple shots. They dressed me all up in buckskins, and for two days’ work I was paid $5. Boy that appealed to my Scotch blood! Five dollars for having a swell time. Right then I forgot about being a cowboy and decided I was going to be an actor.”

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But it took McCrea eight years to get his second film job. Belonging to one of the town’s “oldest families,” he mixed with the film crowd and was on speaking terms with most of the celebrities of the early days.

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“But as far as getting a job was concerned,” he say, “it didn’t do me a bit of good. I was invited to dinner at the homes of the big shots and they were always awfully nice to me, but nobody seemed to think I was an actor.”

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At the Santa Monica Beach Club one day, Conrad Nagel and Mitchell Lewis took McCrea aside and tried to persuade him to give up the idea of  acting.

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“Listen, Joel,” Nagel said. “We like you, and we don’t want to hurt your feelings, and we wouldn’t tell you this if we didn’t like you, but you just haven’t got a chance. You haven’t got the stuff. Give it up and go into business.”

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Jack Mulhall happened to overhear them. “Listen, kid,’ he told McCrea, “don’t listen to those birds. I haven’t got anything either, but I’ve been getting away with it for seven years now, and they pay me $3,750 a week at First National.”

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McCrea got his first break, just out of Pomona College, when he bought a trench coat and was so proud of that he wore it all the time, rain or shine, around the RKO lot. He picked up some extra work there. He wore the coat so much that Bill Sistrom, who later became an associate producer, finally noticed it.

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“What do you wear that for?’ Sistrom wanted to know—probably thinking that he had a role that called for it.

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 “Oh, because I like it,” McCrea answered.

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“What do you do around here?’ he asked.

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“I’m an actor,” he told him.

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“How do you know you are?” demanded Sistrom.

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“Well, I would be if they’d give me a chance!” McCrea replied.

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“How’d you like to play a lead? Sistrom asked.

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“I thought the guy was crazy,” McCrea said, “especially when he shoved a script at me and told me to report to George Archainbaud, the director, and tell him I was to play the lead in The Silver Horde (1930).”

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 Archainbaud said no; they already had somebody, and, anyway, McCrea was too big. Sistrom insisted McCrea was the guy for the part and everybody else said he wasn’t and there was a terrific argument but Sistrom out yelled everybody. The next thing McCrea knew he was leaving for Alaska and he had his first major role. He asked Sistrom afterwards how he managed it.

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Louis Wolheim with Joel McCrea in The Silver Horde (1930)

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 “Well,’ Sistrom said, “I’d always wondered how much influence I had around here, so this looked like a good time to find out.”

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It was Louis Wolheim who saved McCrea on that picture. After he’d been yelled at all day for lousy work, Wolheim would jump in and give everybody a hard time for making things tough for McCrea. Then when the day’s shooting was over, Wolheim would really bawl him out.

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“Why, you dumb, lazy so-and-so,” Wolheim told him. Then he would go over the script with McCrea, word by word. A former university math professor, Wolheim was just a natural born teacher.

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Two roles with Will Rogers in Lightnin’ (1930) and Business and Pleasure (1932) boosted McCrea’s popularity after that. Rogers liked him because he could talk horses and cattle to McCrea and the latter could make intelligent answers.

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Winfield Sheehan,” McCrea recalled, “who didn’t know me from Adam, used to see me on the Rogers set, and knowing that I was a friend of Will’s, had his secretary call up RKO every year for three years, one month before my option was up, and offer to put me to work, I think that was the only reason RKO ever kept me.

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After McCrea made Bird of Paradise (1932) with Dolores del Rio, and the gorgeous tan which he had spent years in acquiring got a chance to be immortalized in celluloid, the studio intended to team him with Dorothy Jordan in a series of stories. That was when McCrea came nearest to inadvertently wrecking his screen career. Merian C. Cooper, then production head of RKO, came on the set one day and asked McCrea what he thought of Dorothy. “She’s a swell girl,” said Joel.

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Dorothy Jordan and Joel McCrea in The Lost Squadron (1932)

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“Yes, but can she act?” Cooper asked.

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“I think she can,” McCrea replied. “She’s not as good as Loretta Young,”

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McCrea had visions of the team breaking up. He’d been spending considerable time promoting himself with the various studio bosses who were flashing through there at the time, and was having a hard time keeping up with the changes in executive personnel. He finally persuaded Cooper that he at least ought to get acquainted with Dorothy Jordan, and when Cooper invited him over to dinner one night, Joel took Dorothy with him, after spending an hour or more telling Dorothy that their jobs depended on her making a good impression on the boss.

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When they arrived for the dinner, it was one of those “love at first sight” things. McCrea scarcely saw Dorothy for the rest of the evening; within a week she and Cooper were engaged, and very shortly afterward, married. And there went the McCrea-Jordan team. For eleven months McCrea did absolutely nothing but pick up his pay check each Wednesday. Stories had been bought for him and Dorothy. Every two or three months Cooper would hand him a script, say that Dorothy was coming back to work, ask him to study his part and see what he thought of it. One or two of the stories were finally used for Ginger Rogers. Dorothy Jordan decided to raise a family, instead.

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Merle Oberon, Joel McCrea and Miriam Hopkins in These Three (1936)

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Eventual free-lancing and then a Goldwyn contract followed for McCrea. After attending a preview of These Three (1936), in which he co-starred with Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon, he came out and asked one of the boys in publicity department: “Who is this guy McCrea I’ve been seeing? he said. “It can’t be me.”

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McCrea had come a long way since the days when Louis Wolheim taught him dialogue. Known as one of the most unspoiled of the younger celebrities, who didn’t kid himself about the part “breaks” had played in his career. His life as a youngster in Hollywood, growing up with the films, had helped him keep his balance while marriage to Frances Dee and a couple of young sons gave him a sense of responsibility.

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Eugene Plummer, the Last of the Dons

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on May 25th, 2012
2012
May 25

HOLLYWOOD HISTORY

Eugene Plummer, the Last of the Dons

 

 Eugene Rafael Plummer (Los Angeles Public Library)

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

He was straight of stature, succinct of speech, and as well-versed in nature as he was in the old days when Hollywood was not yet a dream and Los Angeles was a dusty pueblo.  Eugene Rafael Plummer, the man for whom Plummer Park in West Hollywood was named, was born in San Francisco on January 8, 1852. His father, John Cornelius Plummer  was a Canadian sea captain and his mother, Maria was half Spanish and half Irish, a mixture which gave the younger Plummer the fire and romance of old Spain and the devil-may-care temperament of the Irish.

 

When Eugene was 16, Captain Plummer moved his family to Los Angeles where he homesteaded 160 acres of land where the Ambassador Hotel once stood. He later acquired property which is now bounded by Wilshire and Beverly Boulevards and La Brea Avenue and Vine Street.

 

In 1828, the land that now encompasses Plummer Park was a part of the 4,439 acre Rancho La Brea, granted by Governor Echandia to Antonio Rocha. After several selling’s, the property was sold to Major Hancock in 1865 for $2.50 an acre. In 1874, Plummer acquired the official title to the Plummer Rancho which comprised 160-acres between Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards and La Brea and Gardner Avenues.  

 

That same year, on the three acres of land that eventually became Plummer Park, Captain Plummer’s sons, Juan (John) and Eugene built their home, a typical ranch house.

 

 

Plummer House, the home of Eugene Plummer that stood in Plummer Park for over 100 years. (Los Angeles Public Library)

 

 

In the early days Plummer’s home was the only habitation from Hollywood to the Plaza district and rattlesnakes, cactus and bandits were his only companions. Later his home was the headquarters for the Vaquero Club, a group of adventurous horse riders.

 

In 1881 Plummer married Maria Amparo La Moraux and the couple had a daughter they named Frances. As a court reporter for 25 years, he would befriend the pueblo’s Mexicans and act as their interpreter in court cases.

 

As early as 1922 the acreage was unofficially called Plummer Park. Six years later options were offered by a committee of prominent bankers and businessmen to make it official. Plummer hoped to make around $25,000 from the deal but nothing ever came of it. In 1925 his wife Maria died and was interred at Hollywood Cemetery next to his father John.

 

By this time Eugene Plummer was Hollywood’s oldest resident and his homestead became its oldest residence. Each year he would host the old-timers picnic which was open to as many of Hollywood’s original residents that were still living.

 

Gradually Plummer’s debts continued to mount until he was forced into foreclosure. Ironically, Plummer once owned 142 acres where the Hollywood Bowl now is and sold it to a company named Burnoff & Teal for $2,400. In the 1930s that same area was worth millions.  In 1935 Plummer Park was registered as a landmark. Finally the county stepped in and acquired the Plummer land in 1937 for $15,000. Plummer was sad at the passing of his heritage, but never bitter.

 

Development of the park began the following year with the construction of a recreation building called the Great Hall/Long Hall at a cost of $65,000. The Spanish style structure made of stucco and a red tile roof included a dining room which seated 300 persons. The building also had a library and reading room. The patio adjacent to the kitchen would seat 600 and was shaded by three ancient olive trees.

 

One condition of the purchase was that Senor Plummer be permitted to occupy the premises as long as he lived. The county designated him as the historical guide for the park. Plummer Park was filled with a fine collection of rare trees and plants. One pepper tree had a branch growing out horizontally over seventy-five feet in length. The limb was trained by Plummer by keeping a horseshoe on the end of it for many years.

 

The old frame home built by Plummer and his brother in 1874 was now used as the headquarters of the Audubon Society and office of the park superintendent. A modern home adjacent to the parks property became Plummer’s new home where he lived for the remainder of his life.

 

 

 (Los Angeles Public Library)

 

In his later years Senor Plummer would sit beneath the shady pepper trees of Plummer Park, rolling cigarettes from loose tobacco or else break store-bought cigarettes into three lengths and smoking them a few puffs at a time in an old amber holder. Between puffs he would conjure up memories of the “good old days” for anyone who asked. Pepper trees were his favorites. “They kept the flies away,” he maintained. There was the time he chased a deer all the way up to what is now the corner of Hollywood and Highland and lassoed it. Nearby in a little arroyo he killed a giant brown bear after it had been gored in three places by a wild bull.

 

Once, in Laurel Canyon he shot an antelope on the hillside and then couldn’t find the bullet hole. “You scare him to death, senor,” said the old Indian who was with him. But it was later found that the bullet went right up the spine and lodged in the antelope’s brain. “Once in a million times,” said the Don concisely.

 

When Helen Hunt Jackson was writing “Ramona” she used to visit Senor Plummer at his home for advice on early day California life. “If anybody is Alessandro, I am,” he said once during an interview, “for I showed Mrs. Jackson how young Spaniards and Indians made love.”

 

 

Senor Plummer welcomes actress Ruth Roland and banker G. G. Greenwood to Plummer Park 

 

 

Plummer delighted in wearing a tan leather jacket given to him by his friend Buffalo Bill. Another of his friends in the early days was the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, who was shot by authorities in 1875. Plummer’s presence at the park gave it an air that no other presence could.

 

The plan was to keep the park in its original state for a unique gathering place for groups and societies. Barbecues and songfests under the old peppers and the eucalyptus trees were planned as the whirl of Hollywood traffic sped by. Visitors were sheltered by the towering blue gums, the gnarled old olives and the gigantic cypress that Plummer planted with his own hand in the late 1800s. Besides the old ranch house, the servant’s houses, the old barns, the barbecue pit, the old windmill and the rodeo grounds, it became a chapter of the past brought into the present for the public.

 

Year after year Senor Plummer continued to enthrall and entertain the visitors to his park. To the last his mind and memory remained keen and filled with humorous memories. It was 69 years ago this past week that the Don suffered a heart attack in his home at Plummer Park. He wanted to remain at his hacienda with his collections of saddles, boots and guns, but friends convinced him to go to the hospital where he sank into a coma from which he never recovered. Senor Eugene Plummer died on May 19, 1943. He was 91 years old.

 

Rosary for Eugene Plummer was recited in the chapel of Pierce Bros. Hollywood Mortuary. Mass was celebrated the following day at St. Ambrose’s Church at Fountain and Fairfax Avenues. More than 300 persons, most of them descendants of some of California’s oldest families, attended the rites. Plummer was interred next to his father and wife at Hollywood Cemetery.

 

 

 The Plummer Family marker at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The names of  Plummers father and Eugene’s wife Maria are engraved. For whatever reason, Senor Plummer was never marked.

 

 

 

 

As for the Plummer House, it was known as the “Oldest House in Hollywood” and was designated as State Historical Landmark No. 160 in 1935. The Audubon Society continued to use Plummer’s old homestead to house their library and exhibits until 1980. Sadly, vandals set fire to it twice and ruined the Audubon’s library and exhibits. The house was almost destroyed and stood abandoned and filled with trash for over two years. It was almost razed. Happily the Leonis Adobe Association heard about the house’s fate and arranged with county to move the front part to the Leonis Adobe grounds. The house has since been repaired and restored and is now a Visitor’s Center and Gift Shop.

 

 

 The old house that Plummer and his brother built was moved to Leonis Adobe grounds in Calabassas

 

Plummer Park is once again in the news for the drastic changes that are planned by the city of West Hollywood. If you asked people who visit Plummer Park, or members of West Hollywood’s city council, who Eugene Plummer was, they probably wouldn’t know. Virtually nothing remains of the park that Don Plummer knew and loved and sadly there is only one plaque that mentions his name. Hopefully the new plan for the park will do something to correct that.

 

 

 

When in Los Angeles, visit Plummer Park at 7377 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood.

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