Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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

This is the short, but sweet, fifth and final part of the post on the interesting history of Russian Molokans from the Flats of Boyle Heights and their intersection with the Hollywood film industry.  Author Rudy Martinez, a member of the Advisory Board for the Boyle Heights Historical Society, did a great job pulling together this little-known aspect of the history of multi-ethnic community during a particularly interesting time.  At the end of this post, the editor has pulled long quotes from a November 1928 newspaper article located by Rudy and which has remarkable statements worth presenting on their own.

By the end of the 1920s, Hollywood began noticing a declining interest by the Boyle Heights Russians to work as movie extras. An article in Variety on December 25, 1929, reported many of the eastside Russians were no longer responding to casting calls, and their numbers drastically dwindled as they realized, according to Variety, it no longer made personal economic sense for them to continue to accept work as film extras. Many of the Russians who were taking work as film extras already had steady jobs “in small factories of various kinds.”

A screen shot from the 1916 film Sold for Marriage shows actors and a car parked in front of the Hollenbeck station of the Los Angeles Police Department in Boyle Heights.
Initially, many were attracted to the $7.50 per-day film work offered compared to the $4.00 they were offered, at best, doing factory work. But according to the article, “the result was that the small factories closed for lack of workers on the first [casting] call and crippled by layoffs the second time. Factory bosses posted signs saying: ‘Anybody who takes work in the movies is fired.’ The Russ [sic] weighted that occasional $7.50 against that regular $4.”

Here are other photographs showing the Hollenbeck police station in 1916, left, and twenty years later, right.
Entering the 1930s, it appears the “Hollywood connection” between the Boyle Heights Russian Flats and the Hollywood studios was over. And ten years later, the Russian Flats neighborhood would be gone, replaced by government housing projects and hemmed in by multiple freeway interchanges. However, it should be noted, one neighborhood institution that was critically important to the residents of The Russian Flats, and remains relevant today, and operating for over one-hundred years in the same area, is Utah Street Elementary School.

Lasting just over fifty-five years, the Aliso and Pico housing projects were demolished in the late 1990s, as HACLA undertook another rehabilitation effort in the old Russian Flats area. The “old Also-Pico projects” were replaced with a new public housing development that occupies most of the area today called, Pueblo del Sol.

A lengthy article published in The [Butte] Montana Standard and copyrighted by the North American Newspaper Alliance about Russians used as extras in the film industry.  The article is so remarkable that excerpts are included at the bottom of this post.
Today the neighborhood often finds itself featured in the news, both locally and internationally, as a focal point in a spirited debate about creeping gentrification into the area and other parts of Boyle Heights. Many long-time residents fear they will inevitably soon be displaced as higher-income earning Los Angeles residents look to the area for more affordable housing, and developers, again, begin to look to the area as a potential fashionable residential district. 

Editor's note:  Here are some particularly interesting passages from the image above of the "Hollywood in Person" article, appearing in the [Butte] Montana Standard of 7 November 1928 by Mollie Merrick, whose syndicated columns on movies appeared in many American newspapers:

Colonies of every conceivable nationality have clotted about Studioland.  Perhaps most interesting of these is the Russian group.  These live in a shabby part of town called Boyle Heights.  They contribute atmosphere to the innumerable Russian stories which have been the vogue for pictures these last few years.  From Boyle Heights come the tremendous and tortured faces that flash across the camera eye now and again.  The haunted eyes.  Twisted lips.  Eloquent lines etched by the acid of a nation's torture.  This Russian colony isn't full of star material.  The potential star has a smoothness of countenance that bespeaks a smug existence. . . the other night, I watched a group of Boyle Heights "atmosphere" players . . . a ring of Russian in Astrakhan caps and vivid smocks fastened tightly about their swarthy throats sat in a circle, their brown hands smoothing the creases of boots that had grown shapeless with much dancing.  Women with bright kerchiefs tied under their chins.  Full skirts beneath which peeped red and green and blue leather boots; soft and shapeless.  Dancing feet.  A man with an accordion strikes up a tune.  Into the circle springs a young cossack.  A boot dance begins.  Wild cries go up.  An insistent rhythm in the handclapping urges him on.  A girl comes into the cleared space.   She balances on the heels of her well-turned feet, hands on hip.  Her head is thrown back and her eyes glow. 
[After a description of how the director encouraged the nervous Russians to keep with their dancing while being filmed, Merrick continued:] On with the music.  The dance begins.  A camera-shy lad going through the gestures of a Russian boot dance.  A circle of Boyle Heights men and women spiritlessly clapping their hands.  A girl, no longer electrified by youth and rhythm and the transforming sensation of race, awkwardly tries to balance on her heels with the toes turned out, in the Russian fashion.  The cameras grind.  Lights sputter.  The young assistant director calls order, "Snap it up, for the love of Mike."  Finally the director with a weary gesture orders them to cut.  Another few hundred feet of film destined for the wastebasket.  Yet it might have been a delicious bit of Slavic beauty.  A study in the genre of joy.  When you turn the cameras on a Hollywood extra, and flood him with the white light of the studio lamps, you make him conscious of opportunity.  And to hit his stride he must be conscious only of life and the rhythm of joy.

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