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Building a beach town on Hollywood's favorite desert set

How the film industry's Arabian desert stand-in became the perfect setting for a Hollywood-themed resort

At first it seems like just another quirky, laid-back beach community in Ventura County. Children ride low-slung bikes past a sea of tightly packed vacation homes of varying architectural styles, and friendly dads drink beers while working on tricked-out cars and golf carts. Even though it’s only 50 miles from Los Angeles, it feels like a million. But there are familiar street names: Los Feliz, Sunset, Cahuenga. There are also a few Spanish Revival cottages, featuring tile inlays and clay roofs, which were so popular in 1920s Los Angeles. Behind a cottage called Casa Valentino are small, picturesque sand dunes that stretch to the ocean. It was these dunes that first attracted Angelenos to this rural ranchland almost 100 years ago, and it was developers from Los Angeles who would eventually give this community its name: Hollywood Beach.

In the early days of the film industry, moviemaking was a highly portable business. Silent movie production required little more than an actor, a camera, and natural light. America was in the midst of an obsession with all things “exotic” or “other” and this pop culture flame was fanned by the nascent movie business, which rapidly churned out fantastical films supposedly set in Asia, the South Seas, and the Middle East. Location scouts from Los Angeles, searching for an appropriate approximation of the Arabian Desert, soon discovered the neighboring waterfront ranches of Leon Lehmann and Dominick McGrath in agriculture-heavy Ventura County. By the late 1910s, numerous ragtag production crews were driving up from Los Angeles, plopping papier-mâché palm trees among the dunes, setting up makeshift tents as housing, and filming their epics of blood and sand on the sleepy shore.

Kids riding bikes on a street with family homes.

In 1921, Rudolph Valentino, then a relatively unknown Italian dancer and actor, arrived at Lehmann’s ranch, home to the largest dunes in Ventura, to film Paramount’s adaptation of Edith Maud Hull’s bodice-ripping novel The Sheik. The film, and Valentino, became huge sensations, particularly among female fans. Tourists from all over California began to visit the virtually deserted dunes to see where their Sheik had once stood. They stayed to vacation, impressed by the area’s beautiful beaches and temperate climate.

Back in Los Angeles, gallery owner and developer William Lingenbrink had the ingenious idea to capitalize on the Ventura area’s ties to the silver screen. Lingenbrink, who would later develop Calabasas’s famed Park Moderne artist commune, saw an opportunity to turn the unspoiled Ventura beaches into a middle class vacation community, offering Hollywood glamour at Ventura prices. In 1924, Lingenbrink and his wife Frances partnered with real estate developers William and Alma Dunn to develop a swath of beachfront on the old McGrath ranch. They listed 502 small beach cottage-ready lots, only 35 feet wide and 65 feet deep, for sale. Streets were laid out, with Los Angeles names like La Brea Street and Las Palmas Street, “so the stars wouldn’t get homesick.” And just to make sure there was no confusion about his intentions, Lingenbrink christened the new neighborhood Hollywood Beach.

An aggressive sales campaign, touting the movies filmed at Hollywood Beach, began that summer in Los Angeles County. “Beach Haunt of Films” was the headline of a Los Angeles Times article that sounded suspiciously like a press release. Hollywood Beach, “frequently selected by motion picture producers for location,” was heralded thusly:

A number of the most famous pictures have been made there … The beach has a great expanse of unspoiled ocean front, picturesque sand dunes and fresh-water shallow ponds fed by artesian wells. A wonderful place to take the kids, where they can be turned loose to play in the shallow waters and romp to their hearts’ content over the clean sand dunes. Hollywood Beach is more than a mile long. The magnificent property is part of the McGrath estate and until recently was closed to the public. The tract has just been purchased and is being subdivided into beach lots by the Hollywood Beach Sales Company, 7064 Hollywood Blvd. The company states that campers are welcome, camping sites adjacent to the ocean will be provided free of charge and that there are plenty of fresh water and accommodations.

More inventive ways of advertising were also used. According to writer Miguel Bustillo:

Flyers placed on porches throughout Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley advertised the affordability—$200 a lot—of owning a vacation home where "The Sheik" was shot. By the end of that summer, all 502 lots had been sold, and Lingenbrink had taken in $100,000.

Since realty companies often inflated sales numbers, and since there were many empty lots in Hollywood Beach for years, the true success of the venture is unknown. But the development did well enough that in 1925, Lingenbrink and Co. bought 85 additional acres of beach land slightly south of Hollywood Beach and named the development Silver Strand. They put 876 small parcels of land on the market. And once again, streets were named after prominent places in Los Angeles County.

The beach, with a sailboat in the distance.
Two homes in Hollywood beach, a more modern style and a Spanish style.

A year later, another Los Angeles developer got into the act. Developer Fred J. Cutting bought 80 acres of Leon Lehmann’s dune-covered beachfront ranch, which separated Hollywood Beach from Silver Strand. Over 100 lots were put on the market and an artificial lake was installed. The subdivision was proclaimed to be “Hollywood-by-the-Sea.” Cutting followed Lingenbrink’s lead and promoted the area’s ties to filmmaking in press releases and ads:

Douglas Fairbanks worked on these dunes in “Bound in Morocco.” Rudolph Valentino spent several weeks on the Hueneme Desert when filming “The Sheik.” Theda Bara as Cleopatra wove her charms about Marc Anthony also on these sands. “Burning Sands” is the title of another widely-known picture, featuring Wanda Hawley. Tom Mix is another popular movie hero who spent days here. Helen Ware appeared in the picture called “Garden of Allah.”

Ironically, the dunes that had drawn moviemakers to the area were largely destroyed to make way for the new communities. In 1925, the Los Angeles Times reported on the dune destruction at Hollywood Beach:

The location formerly was nothing but sand hills, but with the aid of scrapers, road-makers, builders and others it has been transformed into a community. Over fifty beach cottages were erected at the beach during the recent summer months.

A year later, there was destruction on an even grander scale at Hollywood-by-the-Sea:

The great sand dunes of Leon Lehmann’s old ranch near Hueneme will soon be a memory only. Some dozen teams of four horses each are today levelling the sand, taking down the dunes and filling in the holes. In a few days, these sand dunes will appear like the rest of the seashore. And in a few weeks, lots will be sold and seashore cottages will cover the spots where once the great stars of the movie world did their stuff.

By 1927, there were 110 beach houses in the three communities, mostly small Spanish-style adobes and wooden beach cottages. On the Fourth of July, the Los Angeles Times reported that the beaches were flooded with “capacity crowds,” the shore “dotted with tents, automobiles, gaudy umbrellas and what not.”

The dunes’ destruction and the construction on the beach drove away film crews, but drew some of the industry’s wilder members, who would come up for the weekend to party.

This influx of daytrippers brought a new problem to the once quiet area. It was the age of Prohibition, and contraband liquor began to flood the beaches. A duck hunter found five-gallon barrels of alcohol floating off Hollywood Beach, and bottles of concoctions with names like “Breath-of-Hollywood-giggle-soup” were found hidden in the sand. In February of 1927, the local sheriff set up an elaborate trap to catch rum runners, taking advantage of the area’s supposed ties to the film industry:

Sheriff R.E. Clarke, following a month of careful preparation, last night arrested eleven alleged rum runners of Oxnard and Hueneme, and confiscated ninety-seven gallons of liquor, one truck and five automobiles, as the men drove blindly into the trap arranged for them on the “location” of a pseudo-company, the “Velasco Film Production,” at Hollywood Beach near Oxnard. Not a single shot was fired in capturing the eleven men. So carefully was the scheme prepared by Sheriff Clarke and District Attorney James C. Hollingsworth over a period of several months that there was not a hitch in the proceedings as the alleged rum runners drove blindly into the trap with their loads of liquor, supposedly to supply a gay party of film celebrities, and were taken from their cars by the Sheriff and his deputies. Sheriff Clarke and District Attorney Hollingsworth had employed a special officer to handle the “film company” end of the deal, under the guise of “Mr. Fontain, location manager of the Velasco Film Productions.

With the opening of the Roosevelt Highway (now roughly Pacific Coast Highway) in 1929, it seemed the Hollywood Beach area would continue to grow for years to come. The day of the opening, celebrations were held all over Ventura. The screen actor Edward Everett Horton was feted in the Burnham home at Hollywood Beach. But the Depression soon brought construction to a halt.

Hollywood Beach continued to draw a few celebrities, like Clark Gable, an avid duck hunter who owned a home in the area, but it was primarily a vacation community for middle class people from LA County and central California. After World War II, many new homes were built in the area by Army and Navy personnel stationed at nearby military bases.

A painted fence outside of some homes.

The construction of the Channel Islands Harbor, which opened in 1965, destroyed much of Hollywood-by-the-Sea, and separated Hollywood Beach and Hollywood-by-the-Sea from Silver Strand.

Today, the tight-knit community still celebrates their film industry roots, although they believe them to be rather overblown. In this casual community, where nearly everyone who passes by waves at you and smiles, tales of past grandeur seem a little pretentious and beside the point. “I've heard a lot of fanciful tales,” longtime resident James Bennett laughed to the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of the movie people came out here and partied, but I think the majority of it is concocted. One gal—she's dead now—swore that the ghost of Robert Taylor walked in her home.”

Though the stardust has long worn off Hollywood Beach, it has been replaced by something else—a real sense of unpretentious community, and a feeling that you are more than welcome, whether you are a movie star or not.

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