It was early summer, 1938 and the entertainment industry was abuzz. The talk was not of the latest premier or on-set romance. It was of the almost completed Hollywood Park Racetrack in Inglewood, set to open June 10.
“Like all of Hollywood, I’ll be right there watching the sport of kings for the kings and queens of the cinema,” gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote in the days leading up to Hollywood Park’s opening. “The studios have declared a half-holiday… Now our visitors wonder whether we’re producing pictures, racehorses or both.”
Hopper’s prying eyes would not be disappointed.
Claudette Colbert, Dolores Del Rio, and Joan Crawford were just a few of the movie stars watching the inaugural races, while famous entertainers Pat O’Brien, Jack Benny, George Burns, and Gracie Allen broadcast the day’s events live from the stands. Thus, began a love affair between celebrities and Hollywood Park that would not end until the track closed for good in 2013.
The seeds for Hollywood Park were planted in 1933, the same year prohibition was repealed nationally. That year, California voters approved Proposition 3, becoming one of the first states to legalize pari-mutuel gambling for horse racing.
Santa Anita was the first Southern California track to open in the winter of 1934, followed by the Del Mar track shortly after. Seeking a track closer to Los Angeles, a group of stockholders, including prominent Hollywood moguls like Jack Warner, formed the Hollywood Turf Club.
In 1936 they bought more than 100 acres of undeveloped land in Inglewood, near the Potrero Country Club for around $250,000.
Inglewood was chosen because of the availability of flat rancho land and the ocean breezes, which made it significantly cooler than inland Los Angeles.
It was a middle-class community, dotted with small family homes and expansive agriculture and aerospace tracts—and some residents feared the new track would bring a questionable element into their quiet town.
Those who opposed it vigorously protested the track’s construction, going so far as to send the following wire to the head of the California Horse Racing Board saying that 200 residents had assembled in a “mass meeting” to register their “vigorous and emphatic protest” to any kind of horse racing track in their community.
They urged the board to revoke the track’s permit.
But the Turf Club eventually prevailed. On October 23, 1936, it broke ground for the new Hollywood Park in Inglewood. It was backed by 600 stockholders, including movie stars Al Jolson, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, Joan Blondell, and Bing Crosby.
Warner was named the chairman of the board. The unflappable J. F. MacKenzie, who had worked with the 1932 Olympics and collegiate athletics, was hired as general manager of the new plant.
The construction of Hollywood Park would be a massive undertaking. Shortly before it opened its first 33-day season in 1938, MacKenzie estimated that 6 million feet of lumber, 2,200 tons of steel, and 43,046 sacks of cement had been used in its construction.
Some of Hollywood Park’s most commented upon features were the plantings, artificial ponds, and waterfalls that dotted the property.
“The stands are wonderfully spacious, the view is excellent, arrangements for the public are as fine as anyone could imagine, and they’ve even got a chain of lakes out in the infield with swans paddling about in the dignified manner of their kind and setting a fine example of placid contentment to the jittery two-dollar bettors,” columnist Bill Henry wrote.
Adopting the motto “the public be pleased,” Hollywood Park also boasted “five soda fountains divided between the clubhouse and grandstand,” so that those who didn’t “go for hard liquor” could enjoy sundaes and milkshakes between races.
There was a “privacy driveway” for the chauffeured cars of movie stars and high rollers and a plush clubhouse that could seat 500 gamblers at a time.
On the rainy opening day, June 10, 1938, Hollywood Park, employing a staff of 1,500 people, was dedicated to its patrons. “And now ladies and gentlemen, Hollywood Park belongs to you,” said racing announcer Joe Hernandez.
The most exclusive boxes and private rooms were filled with some of America’s most famously beautiful people, who had been eagerly awaiting this day for months.
Tens of thousands of “everyday” Southern Californians stood in the stands, eager to catch the first day of horse racing at the expensive plant, which critics claimed was architecturally “beautiful almost beyond description.”
So pretty in fact that it almost seemed unreal.
“In keeping with the name, the place is reminiscent of some gigantic motion picture set, but it’s all very real because the stockholders have spent more than $2,000,000 to make it so,” the Los Angeles Times wrote.
A horse named Valley Lass won the first race, though the Park’s “goose girl”—an attractive young woman dressed as a shepherdess and who hung out in the infield with the ducks and swans—would garner a great deal of the crowd’s attention.
Hollywood Park offered a massive $350,000 in purse money, making it one of the most “lucrative programs then known to racing.”
This large purse meant class-A horses were brought to the park from all over the country, including Lawrin, the winner of the 1938 Kentucky Derby. The legendary Seabiscuit would win the Park’s first lucrative Gold Cup.
But park patrons were often more interested in those watching the races than those running in them.
“You could see a celebrity just about every time you looked up into one of the boxes,” Howard W. Koch, the movie producer-director, remembered.
Regulars included Barbara Stanwyck (who owned a successful horse farm with Zeppo Marx in Northridge), racehorse owners Fred and Phyllis Astaire (Fred’s second wife would be the successful jockey Robyn Smith), Cary Grant, George Raft, Mickey Rooney, Greer Garson, Sam Goldwyn, Errol Flynn, and Darryl Zanuck. Del Mar founder Crosby was a fixture, often running his prize-winning horse Ligarotti.
“It is hard to get a good photo finish at any Southern California racetrack, because the horses have associated with actors so much that they insist on looking at the camera,” writer Irving S. Cobb joked.
Movie-industry folks would go to great lengths to get to the park on race days, using tricks of the trade to sneak away. According to columnist Lee Shippey:
One writer at Warner Brothers is having the makeup department perfect him a disguise so that Jack Warner won’t recognize him when they meet at the races every day. Warner is said to believe that somebody around a studio should keep on working, even when races are on.
All this fun would come to a standstill with America’s entry into World War Two. In April of 1942, MacKenzie, the park’s longtime general manager, became assistant director to the South California office of Civilian Defense. Racetracks and most other forms of public sporting land were leased or taken over by the government; their large plants used to aid the war effort.
Santa Anita was turned into a way station for Japanese-Americans awaiting internment. Hollywood Park’s war service would be much more benign, quartering soldiers and being used as a storage facility for the North American Aviation Company.
In 1944, the California Horse Racing Board permitted Hollywood Park to hold a new charitable season. The board approved an “extensive war relief program,” and, in both 1944 and 1945, Hollywood Park would raise more than $1 million for charities and schools.
In 1949, a newly renovated Hollywood Park debuted, boasting $1 million of upgrades, including fresh paint and a luxurious new clubhouse. But like a gambler’s lucky streak, the new Hollywood Park’s reign would be remarkably short-lived.
On the night of May 5, 1949, pilots flying into the Los Angeles Airport (now LAX) began to call in suspicious flames rising in Inglewood. Around the same time, Hollywood Park’s night watchman was making his rounds on the top deck of the facility when he discovered the fire.
Even as he pulled the emergency alarm, the fire was spreading to the 8-story elevator. Soon the wooden roof, seats and benches were in flames, the metal grandstand melting and twisting as it fell to the ground.
It was later hypothesized that the fresh paint on the grandstands also added to the fire’s quick spread. Like rabid movie-goers, an estimated 100,000 spectators from all over Inglewood and Hawthorne gathered to watch the flames and the devastation they left, jamming roads and blocking emergency vehicles.
Luckily, the wind saved all of the over 600 horses stabled at the park. As ever, general manager MacKenzie (who had returned after the war) was calm and stoic.
“We’re burned out, but we’re not licked,” he stated.
Rebuilding began almost immediately. Arthur Froehlich, who had designed Hollywood Park’s 1949 clubhouse and the grandstand extension, was hired to design the new plant. It was reported that only fireproof materials would be used.
Amazingly, the rebuilt Hollywood Park opened on time for its 1950 season. The park continued to attract celebrities under the leadership of succeeding general manager James Stewart, who ran the track from 1953 to 1972.
“We have to put on something much more than great racing,” he said. “We have to stage a show.”
During the ’70s and ’80s, the park plugged along, leading the way in many racing innovations. It slowly lost its luster as the place to see and be seen, although occasionally you could still see superstars like Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson popping in to catch a race.
TV stars like Tim Conway and Jack Klugman were still regulars and horse owners to boot. “Horse racing, gives celebrities an opportunity to spend the inheritance before the kids grow up,” Conway joked.
In 1991, the plant underwent a $20-million reconstruction. It was during the mid-’90s that the idea of building an NFL Stadium on the now 298-acre park was first floated in the media. In 2005, Hollywood Park was bought by the Bay Meadows Land Company from Churchill Downs for $260 million.
A year later, it installed the first synthetic track surface in California. But attendance plummeted as horse racing fell out of fashion.
The writing was on the wall, and it was announced that Hollywood Park would close after its last day of races in December of 2013.
On closing day, December 22, 2013, television star Dick Van Patten, who attended the track almost every race day, shuffled into the Hollywood Turf Club. His eyes filled with tears when he saw the longtime ticket taker and remembered the days, long ago, when “the name ‘Hollywood Park’ meant Hollywood.”
On May 31, 2015, the Hollywood Park track was imploded in 30 seconds—a spectacle watched by dozens of NFL fans chanting “L.A. Rams.” They hoped that the implosion would lead the way to an NFL stadium in Inglewood.
The fans got their wish. A new 80,000-seat NFL stadium is now rising where Hollywood Park once stood.
The show must go on.