The Curious Tale of the Peculiar Monument: Part Three, "A Tribute to Those Celebrities…"
Updated: Jan 15, 2019
(Detail of Will Rogers from the plinth of "Celluloid" ©Jonathan Brown
The monument “Celluloid” is situated on an oddly-angled intersection, but that’s not unusual, Beverly Hills eschews streets that cross at right angles.
Unexpected intersections in Beverly Hills are not limited to its streets. They include the chance encounters of place and people through the city’s just-over-one-hundred-year history. In other words, the fact that Beverly Hills is an independent city might just be because the right woman was in the right place at the right time. And that the man she fell in love with had sought out Stanley Anderson, one half of the mother-and-son duo who owned and ran the Beverly Hills Hotel, to help secure a remote love nest at which they could conduct an extra-marital love affair. Doug Fairbanks married the remarkable-in-many-ways Mary Pickford at the very pinnacle of her fame and influence and gave her, after extensive remodeling that transformed the sans-electricity-and-indoor-plumbing hunting lodge into a Tudor-esque mansion, the house Anderson had helped him find in Beverly Hills as a wedding gift. Because of sequence of events, Beverly Hills very likely owes its existence after 1923 to Mary, the woman who navigated the as-of-then uncharted territory occupied by celebrity and political causes. Who, along with seven of her fellow moving picture stars including her husband Doug Fairbanks, created a model of celebrity intervention in politics that has continued to be refined to this day. And “Celluloid” honors these eight, the biggest stars of silent film era—Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Will Rogers, Conrad Nagel, Tom Mix, Fred Niblo, Rudolph Valentino and Harold Lloyd—for their efforts in leading the fight against the 1923 vote by the City of Beverly Hills to annex itself to Los Angeles, which completely surrounds it. One hundred-plus years since the city’s incorporation, the idea, in addition to the reality, of Beverly Hills looms large in the world’s collective imagination. But without these eight, Beverly Hills’ existence as a separate municipality might have been just a footnote in the region’s history. Without these eight, Beverly Hills, like Hollywood, which was an independent city from 1903 to 1910, would at most be a named suburb of the megalopolis.
Instead Beverly Hills is very much its own city and one to be reckoned with. It has its own laws, police force, fire department, school district, trash collection and parks and recreation department. There are no hospitals or cemeteries in Beverly Hills, population density is low when compared to the surrounding city of Los Angeles, and high-rise buildings are almost non-existent. In 2016, Proposition HH asked Beverly Hills voters to revisit an agreement with Hilton to build two high-rise residential towers adjacent to the Beverly Hilton Hotel on the far western tip of the city. Voters in Los Angeles, which surrounded the project on three sides and whose residents would impacted by the proposition, had no say. In the early days of its existence, Beverly Hills needed streetcars to ferry visitors to its back-and-beyond location in the hinterlands, but not these days. Up until very recently none of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s current stabs at mass transit, such as the subway or light rail lines have made it beyond the city’s borders, although its bus routes do bisect the city. (The expansion of the MTA’s “Purple Line” is slated to have two stops in Beverly Hills.) Oh, and there are no freeways running through it. So, the six-lane Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills, where the monument to the stars who fought against annexation to Los Angeles is located, is the closest thing the city has to a freeway, and is the route of choice for those in a hurry to get somewhere, either west to Century City, West L.A. or Santa Monica, or east to Hancock Park or, even in the post-Kobe days, to a Laker game downtown at Staples Center. In an urban region that is sutured together by freeways, there isn’t one that will take you into or out of Beverly Hills. When the freeways were being built to tie all the far-flung communities of the greater Los Angeles area together, Beverly Hills said, “no thanks.” As a separate city, that was its right. Beverly Hills is an independent city in every meaning of the word.
Saving Beverly Hills from annexation may be the only thing the monument on Olympic Boulevard commemorates, but it far from the only thing the campaign accomplished. The first generation of movie stars was unlike anything world had known. They wielded power not because they had been born to it or earned the money to buy it, their power came from the connection their audience developed with them while sitting in the darkened auditoriums watching “flickers.” In fact, the timing was for the battle of Beverly Hills was prophetic. When the Beverly Hills Eight, led by Mary Pickford, fought annexation they were doing something that had never been done before. What they did was so successful that it became the model for generations of celebrities to intervene in political causes that catch their fancy or in which they have a vested interest. Over the decades people paid attention. It is now so much a part of the United States political landscape, that it’s startling to realize that one hundred years ago, before the emergence of “movie stars,” this type of promotion of causes and candidates by celebrities did not exist. And whether they realized the long-term consequences of using their high profiles to influence an election’s outcome, it had dawned on the celebrities who fought the battle for Beverly Hills against the land developers and realtors that there had been a shift in how they were perceived and the influence they could bring and they were going to capitalize on it.
In fact, the celebrities who fought against annexation not only won that war, they quite possibly changed politics in the United States—and perhaps the world—forever. In their fight against annexation to the City of Los Angeles, and probably without actually realizing it, they also laid the groundwork for celebrity influence that is still a work in progress. Today listening to a celebrity advocating a cause, endorsing a candidate or even declaring his or her candidacy for office doesn’t raise an eyebrow. In 1923, when eight stars battled to keep their city free from the clutches of a what they perceived as a rapacious Los Angeles, it was something new. The Battle for Beverly Hills is the story of how the stars and the city aligned to make this come to pass.