Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Russians of the Flats of Boyle Heights Go to the Movies, Part Three

This third part of the series by Rudy Martinez on Russians in Boyle Heights and their role in early Hollywood looks at some of the films in which so-called Molokans and fictional representations of the community appeared.

In the summer of 1915, Majestic Studios released the first film to acknowledge the presence of a Russian community in Los Angeles. The “two-reeler” was titled Her Oath of Vengeance, starring one of the most popular actresses of the period, Teddy Sampson as a young Russian girl named Sophia. Sampson had just recently played the sister of Pancho Villa for the Mutual Film Company’s semi-fictional film, The Life of General Villa (1914) featuring Pancho Villa as himself.

According to the Motion Picture News of August 28, 1915, Her Oath of Vengeance “pertains to life in the Russian colony in Los Angeles, where many of the people are employed in canneries.” The plot includes a worker’s foiled scheme to plant a bomb and incite a strike in the canning factory (this was five years after the infamous bombing of the Los Angeles Times building). Beyond a brief plot description, there is little information about this production, and it appears this film is now lost, so it’s unknown if the filmmakers filmed any scenes in The Flats itself.   

A screen capture of a scene and title of the 1916 film Sold for Marriage, starring legendary actress Lillian Gish, second from left in the scene.
By 1916, The Flats was ready for its close-up. On January 13, the L. A. Times reported that Lillian Gish, who starred in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation the year before, was preparing for a role as a “Russian peasant girl” for her next film. According to the article, she even visited “the Russian colony in Los Angeles and was presented with a shawl by a comely Russian girl.” Recalling her role years later, Gish admitted she did absolutely nothing in preparation for the role except read the script and show up to the set.

In the 55-minute film, Sold for Marriage, Gish plays a young girl who aggressively resists her parent’s attempts to “sell her” into a pre-arranged marriage - first in their home village in Russia, and then, after they emigrate, in their new home in the “Russian city in Los Angeles.” The film is notable in that there are a number of exterior shots that appear to be filmed in the Russian Flats neighborhood itself; one scene clearly takes place at the Union Pacific train station opposite The Flats neighborhood on the other side of the Los Angeles River, near the old First Street Bridge. Another notable scene is a brief exterior shot of the Hollenbeck Police Station on First Street, which at the time was called the “Boyle Heights Station.” This might be the earliest example of this police station on film! 

In 1918, Metro Studios released a relatively large-budget film, Legion of Death, based on actual events in 1917, when the Russian Provisional Government organized several all-women combat battalions, including the so-called Women’s Battalion of Death, to fight alongside men on the Russian front. Elaborate scenes of “Russian Battalion women on horseback leaping over enemy trenches” were filmed in the San Fernando Valley.   

Another title from Sold for Marriage, referencing actor William A. Lowery's character of "Uncle Georg," fictional leader of the Boyle Heights colony of Russian Molokans.
On November 4, 1917, the L. A. Times reported that director Tod Browning, future director of the 1931 Universal Studios horror classic Dracula, reportedly “scoured the local Russian colony for real Russian women and men, so they weren’t the regular extras. Seven interpreters were employed to give the director’s orders.”  The Motion Picture News for Nov/Dec, 1917 also reported, “The women’s regiment for the film was made up of Russian women who were secured for the scenes from the local Russian colony.” Unfortunately, this film too, also appears to be lost.

Like the story of Lillian Gish visiting the Russian colony, the hiring of Russian women from The Flats to portray the film’s female regiment could simply be manufactured studio publicity; there is no way to confirm the claim. Nevertheless, it suggests the Boyle Heights Russian community was by then significant enough to prompt some early Hollywood filmmakers to associate their Russian-themed films with the Russian Flats neighborhood to confer authenticity.  

By the 1920s, the motion picture business entered a crucial period in its industrial development as the industry consolidated into a handful of major movie companies headed by “studio moguls” who exerted powerful business and political influence. Bigger film productions also demanded quick access to larger numbers of “movie extras,” who were ready and “on call,” since shooting schedules could be abruptly changed or cancelled. If a producer demanded a large number of movie extras with a specific racial or ethnic profile, studios would turn to the production’s “film advisor,” who had connections to a particular neighborhood, and literally bring in a busload of extras for the shoot. Attempting to save production costs and skirt around labor laws, this kind of casting call would even extend to the Russian Flats community. 

An advertisement for Metro Pictures' 1918 release "The Legion of Death," starring Edith Storey, who acted in over seventy films before her retirement in 1921.  Tally's Broadway Theater, in the southern end of the theater district below 8th Street, was demolished in 1929 for an expansion of the May Company (formerly Hamburger's) department store, which was next door. 
Unionizing efforts by movie extras in L. A.’s open shop climate was generally met with blatant hostility, as exemplified in a 1919 L. A. Times article that reported in an almost gleeful tone about an independent casting agent who “delivered a punch straight to the jaw of a Mexican agitator.” In 1923, a skirmish at a downtown Los Angeles casting office over commission fees demanded by agents, resulted in an armed guard shooting into a crowd and wounding five actors (the office was located where the Mayan Theater stands today). Nevertheless, attempts at unionizing had begun as early as 1916, for example, when the International Workers of the World, or The Wobblies, organized the short-lived International Union of Photoplayers of America. For their part, movie studios continued to promote the romantic allure of working as a movie extra to ensure a continuing union-busting surplus of extras.

By the mid-1920s, the California Industrial Welfare Commission had investigated numerous labor violations by the studios that included, demanding extras be on the set 12 to 15 hours straight, or forcing them to wait several hours before being told the shoot was cancelled, then dismissing them without any kind of compensation. Extras often complained their pay only included the time they were on-set but not for the hours they spent in makeup or wardrobe. It’s very possible that local Russians were hired to work on some of the films noted earlier under conditions that violated state labor laws or local ordinances, if any were possibly enacted, or could be enforced, under the city’s robust open-shop environment.      

Check back next week for the fourth part of the series!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Russians of the Flats of Boyle Heights Go to the Movies, Part Two

This the second in a series of posts about the Russian (known commonly as Molokans) immigrant community that settled in the Flats area of Boyle Heights and often served as extras in the Hollywood film industry.  Author Rudy Martinez, Advisory Board member of the Boyle Heights Historical Societies, gives an excellent overview of the Flats in this post.

Before developers renamed it in 1876, Boyle Heights was called Paredon Blanco 
(white bluff). The area of the Flats is bounded by the eastern edge of the Los Angeles 
River and Boyle Avenue (the bluff side), and from Aliso Street (largely replaced by the 101 Freeway) to 4th Street.  Initially verdant farmland and vineyards and then subdivided, but never developed, as a potential fashionable residential district, the Flats was, by the early 1900s, an area of small modest homes built by railroad and lumber companies for low-wage workers and recent immigrants. The San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad depot sat at the edge of the (usually) dry, white-graveled riverbed, while small industrial enterprises and livestock-related businesses were established in the area.


The headline of a Los Angeles Times feature, from 27 January 1924, of "Holy Jumpers", as Molokan Russians were sometimes called, becoming "Americanized" at Boyle Heights.

As early as 1903, the hardscrabble Flats was known as “Boxcarville” because it was home to a large number of traqueros, Mexican immigrants earning poverty-wages working mainly for the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar system.  Many of the workers and their families lived in self-built wooden shacks, commonly known as “Cholo Courts.”  Some of the first Russian families to settle in this Mexican immigrant enclave also lived in these simple dwellings. Continually used by the most hard pressed of the working poor, these makeshift structures remained a fixture in the Flats for several decades as Russians and Mexicans became the two dominate groups in the area. 
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Through deliberate spatial planning that furthered the city’s seemingly sprawling east-west class divide, the Los Angeles City Council passed two landmark zoning ordinances in 1908. These reserved the west side of Los Angeles primarily for residential development and concentrated industrial zones in the southern and eastern areas of the city, including Boyle Heights. This, along with racially restrictive covenants, confining people of color to southern and eastern areas of Los Angeles, compelled many non-white migrants and the working-class poor to settle nearer these industrial corridors.   


A photo by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles overlooking Aliso Village in the Flats with downtown Los Angeles in the distance to the west, 6 September 1941.  From the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Online Archive of California.

By 1920, the growing multicultural area of The Flats was commonly being referred to as the Russian Flats as Russian immigrants soon achieved the highest rate of home ownership in the neighborhood. Some earned extra money renting out rooms to local non-Russians while a number of others established their own stores and churches on some of the more commonly known area streets, such as Clarence, Gless, and Anderson. While the younger children attended Utah Street Elementary School (Russian students were 40% by 1915), young Russian girls worked in the area’s biscuit, candy, and nut factories and the older women worked in the canneries. Men often found jobs in lumberyards or trash hauling. Incidentally, Utah Street Elementary School was one of the most important neighborhood institutions for the Russian immigrants. Many of the adult Russians in the area eagerly signed-up for evening classes offered at the school to learn English.  

By January 27, 1924, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy article, with elaborate sketches, about the swift “Americanization” of the “happy” Russian Molokans, or “jumpers” of Boyle Heights. A number of articles in this vein were periodically published in an attempt to calm any public fears about revolution-minded Bolsheviks in Los Angeles. It also served to differentiate them from another local, and often referred-to “Russian colony” of immigrants that began to establish itself in the Hollywood area just after 1920. Most of these more recent emigres were either artists or former members of the Russian military and aristocracy who fled after the Russian revolution. However, the two immigrant communities appeared to have had little to do with one another.

Though reserved, the Boyle Heights Russian Molokans maintained a fondness for their traditional native dress, multi-family feasts, and large processions. Because of the common sight of Russian men with beards, many riders recall the Pacific Electric trolley conductors calling out “Beards Town!” when the crowded trolley made a stop in The Flats. 


The razing of Aliso Village dwellings in preparation for the construction of public housing projects (which were removed not long ago for current housing projects), also from the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles and in the holdings of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Online Archive of California.

Speaking of crowded trolleys in The Flats, the area became a popular destination for baseball fans in 1920. That year the black semipro team, the Los Angeles White Sox, one of the best teams in the west coast Negro league, began to play their home games at the new 3000 seat Anderson Park (or White Sox Stadium), located at Fourth and Anderson Streets. The team continued to play in The Flats venue until they relocated to a new stadium in Compton in the late 1920s.

By 1930, this vibrant and crowded family neighborhood was thriving in what was essentially, an industrial zone. While the first-generation immigrants from The Flats lived almost cheek by jowl in somewhat ramshackle homes, some former residents recalled many homes had well-tended gardens, and several others were simple, but neatly kept. Overall, a harmonious atmosphere of cordial respect prevailed in this diverse community.

In her landmark 1935 book about the Boyle Heights’ Russian Molokans, The Pilgrims of Russian-Town, sociologist Pauline Young vividly described her observation of the Flats:
The atmosphere in the Flats is heavy. Factories, warehouses, small industrial plants of all kinds and description contribute their share of pungent smells. Industrial establishments hem in the district to the north, south and east, while a network of railroads defines the west boundaries. Noisy engines, clanking over a maze of tracks, puffing steam and emitting black smoke spread a pall over the region.
Wave upon wave of immigrants have invaded the district and have settled here…. Japanese, Italians, Negroes, Russians, and Mexicans have all settled here. Negro workmen, Jewish merchants, Armenian truck drivers, Japanese gardeners, barbers, tradesmen, all contribute to the community of life in the Flats.
On the other hand, progressive reformers, city officials, and the press primarily had a much more negative view. Since the early 1900s, they continually viewed this working-class immigrant area as a civic embarrassment, often referring to it as a “slum,” perhaps the first area in Los Angeles to be termed as such. In short, this was an area to be eradicated and its residents relocated. The efforts by the city’s urban reformers culminated when the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) razed almost the entire “old Russian Flats” neighborhood for the development of the Aliso and Pico public housing projects in the early 1940s.  In the process, most of the original inhabitants were denied an opportunity to return.


A photo taken 8 November 1932 by Anton Wagner and showing a section of Clarence Street north of 3rd Street in the Flats.  From the California Historical Society Digital Library.

However, during the 1930’s The Flats had already begun to see signs of change. As a run-up to its future relocation efforts as part of its mandate to “cleanse” the area, when Los Angeles County initiated their repatriation program against the city’s Mexican population in the early 1930s, The Flats area of Boyle Heights was the single largest target for repatriation efforts in the entire county.  In addition, by the late 1930s many of the second-generation Russian Molokans began to move further southeast, to cities such as Montebello, Downey, Maywood and Southgate. Nevertheless, they were still the two dominate groups when the city’s rehabilitation program for The Flats began in the early 1940s.

Check back in next week for part three in this series and the Boyle Heights Historical Society wishes you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Russians of the Flats of Boyle Heights Go to the Movies, Part One

Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez continues his series of posts on early Boyle Heights history, including its ethnic and racial diversity, with this remarkable multi-part post on the "Russian colony" of the Flats area of the community.  Check back weekly for further installments and enjoy!

Angry at the indifference to the injustice committed against them and the refusal by a new growing power in their midst to make amends, the angry crowd of about a hundred began to storm the gates, shouting their demands. Some reportedly began throwing stones at the armed security force summoned to subdue the “angry mob” of mostly bearded Russian men. Tension and agitation had been openly simmering between two opposing forces throughout the city for some time, but on this day, the violation was too flagrant to ignore.

An article on the "Russian Revolt" from Variety, 28 March 1928.
This skirmish occurred in 1928 and the crowd of protesting Russians were actually compensation-demanding movie extras who had gathered outside the now-iconic arched gateway entrance to Paramount Studios in Hollywood – one of the largest and most successful movie studios in the world. The “gate-crashers” were Russian immigrants who lived in a section of Boyle Heights known as the “Russian Flats.”  This unscripted expression of labor unrest occurred during a period when Los Angeles civic and business leaders boasted that the local economy produced plenty of jobs and newly built homes, all surrounded by picturesque citrus groves. However, city leaders also supported housing segregation based on race and ethnicity while enthusiastically promoting Los Angeles as the capital of open shop, or non-union labor.

For several decades beginning in the 1920s, the historic and long-gone Russian Flats district in Boyle Heights was home to the largest immigrant “Russian colony” in the United States. Much less widely-known today is that, while the fledgling local movie industry was well-established as an entertainment and economic juggernaut, filmmakers and this unique, vibrant eastside community interacted several times during Hollywood’s silent era in interesting ways, to say the least.  The incident described above will be revisited with a little more detail later in this multi-part post, but let’s start with a brief overview of the Russian immigrants in the Flats in Boyle Heights, and some of the early connections between Hollywood and this little-known community.

Coverage of the "riot" in the Los Angeles Herald, 22 March 1928
    The first wave of Russian immigrants and the first pioneering filmmakers arrived in Los Angeles only a few years apart at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1907, the Chicago-based Selig Polyscope Company came to Los Angeles to film the final scenes of The Count of Monte Cristo on a crudely built outdoor set in downtown Los Angeles and at the shoreline in Santa Monica. Though the film camera had been introduced to Los Angeles as early as 1897 when a few operators occasionally shot some documentary-type shorts, this 1907 production would be the first time an actual motion picture company shot scenes in Los Angeles.

Seeking to escape the almost monopolistic hold that inventor Thomas Edison had on the emerging camera/film technology patents (and the licensing fees he demanded) other eastern-based film outfits would soon relocate to the west coast as they also discovered that year-round filming was easier with Southern California’s mild climate, varied geography, and relatively weak labor unions.

A Bain News Service photo from the Library of Congress showing Russian "Molokanes or Milk Drinkers" in Los Angeles, undated.
Meanwhile, as early as 1893, the Los Angeles Times reported on a small exploratory “committee of Russians” in the Los Angeles area looking for suitable farmland to “locate a Russian colony now based in Canada.”  On July 17, 1904, the Los Angeles Herald published the first account about Russian immigrants in Los Angeles: “six families of Russians from the Kars district of the Transcaucasian territory who are living in a single dwelling on South Utah Street.”

The new immigrants were members of a close-knit sect of the Russian Orthodox Church known as the Brotherhood of Spiritual Christians. Sometimes called Holy Jumpers because of their reportedly frenetic exuberance during religious services, (initially causing neighbors to protest to the local ward council about the unsettling “loud noise”), today they are commonly known as Molokans, which means “milk drinkers” because of their refusal to abstain from dairy during Orthodox fast days. Steadfast pacifists, many fled Russia after 1900 to escape compulsory service during the Russo-Japanese War and during the early stirrings of revolution against the autocratic regime of Russian Tsar Nicolas II.   

The first area of settlement by the Molokan Russians along the west bank of the Los Angeles River near today's Union Station, with boundary lines and landmarks superimposed on a 1909 map of the city.
 At their highest period of immigration between 1904 and 1912, almost four-thousand Russian Molokans immigrated to the United States, via Canada, with a majority moving to Los Angles. Florida industrialist and sympathetic Russian immigrant, Pytor Alexeyevitch Dementyev, better known as Peter Demens, a “founding father” of the Florida city of St. Petersburg, underwrote many of the early expenses for the California-bound Russian Molokans. (Demens passed away in 1919 in Alta Loma, California where the historic Demens-Tolstoy home still stands today).

The earliest Russian Molokans to arrive settled in the immigrant-crowded industrial section of Los Angeles in the area around Aliso and Vignes Streets near today’s Union Station.  Located along the western edge of the still-unpaved Los Angeles River, this site was surrounded by rail yards, gas tanks, and the prostitution or “crib district” on Alameda Street. Initially sleeping in horse stables and cooking outside, they eventually met Congregationalist minister Dana Bartlett, a devoted social reformer and “a friend of the immigrant poor.”   Bartlett also provided the Russian immigrants with free lodging, meals, schooling, and accommodations to hold religious services at the nearby Bethlehem Institutional Church Settlement and the Stimson-Lafayette Industrial School.

A pair of photographs of Molokan Russians in the Flats area of Boyle Heights, from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.
By 1907, most of the Russian Molokans started to relocate over to the floodplain area of Boyle Heights – the Flats – on the east side of the river. A few moved further east to the small hillside enclave of crude shack housing known as “Fickett Hollow,” centered at 7th and Fickett Streets. In addition, after a brief stay in Boyle Heights, a small contingent immigrated to Baja California’s Guadalupe Valley in 1906, establishing an agricultural colony that lasted until the mid-1960s. 

We hope you've enjoyed the first part and come back next week for the second installment in the series!