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Stephen Schochet




Tour Guide Tells Hollywood Tales, From Reuters News Service


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Did you know that the name Hollywood was lifted from a summer cottage in Illinois? Or that the name Universal Studios was inspired by a pipe-cleaning company? Or that early silent filmmakers once secretly greased a city street to cause car accidents?

You would if you saw the sights of Tinseltown through the eyes of Stephen Schochet, a human fount of Hollywood history, lore and legend. Schochet has been collecting tidbits of Hollywood’s past for more than 10 years and sharing them with paying customers in a rapid-fire patter he delivers while squiring them around in a tour bus.

"I decided to get a full-time job doing that because I really liked telling stories," he said in an interview with Reuters. "Two kinds of stories I was interested in were origin stories - how things we take for granted came to be and funny anecdotes." Most of his accounts deal with the early days of Hollywood and many of them come in more than one version-as legend often does-though he does his best to authenticate his facts.

"If I meet someone who’s connected to someone famous, I try to get information," he said, citing Lucille Ball’s housekeeper as an example. "But mostly it’s hitting the books. I look for stories I can do something with orally.


Many of his stories have an apocryphal ring to them, but he insists they can be documented. For instance, Mack Sennet, creator of the Keystone Kops movies during the silent film era, was said to have clandestinely greases the surface of Sunset Boulevard, then surreptitiously filmed an ensuing nine-car pileup in front of a drugstore. Schochet said this money-saving production technique was even copied by other filmmakers of the day. "I found this in two different books," he said. And while it has been widely reported that actor Dustin Hoffman was on welfare after making" The Graduate," less well known is that silent film star Rudolph Valentino hunted rabbits for food in Beverly Hills during an eight-month career gap between "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and "The Sheik."

Charlie Chaplin, on the other hand, was so cheap he hired stage hands to build his house, which had a habit of falling apart from the inside. His neighbors, who included Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore, nicknamed the home "Breakaway."

Much of Schochet’s repertoire consists of anecdotes about how movie stars got their start. Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, for example landed the title role for "Tarzan The Ape Man" (1932) when director W.S. Van Dyke saw him jump into a pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel to save a drowning girl. After Van Dyke offered him the part, says Schochet, Weissmuller reportedly answered, " Me? Tarzan. . . ?" Another athlete, Marion Michael Morrison, turned to acting after losing his football scholarship due to shoulder injury suffered while body surfing at Huntington Beach. Director Raoul Walsh, who cast him in the 1930 Western "The Big Trail," is credited with inventing Morison's stage name, John Wayne.


The origins of Hollywood’s names provide some of the most interesting fodder for Schochet’s stories.

Hollywood itself began as 700 acres (283 hectares) at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains that real estate developer Harold Wilcox purchased in 1887. He originally named the area Prospect to appeal to conservative homebuyers from the East. The idea for calling it Hollywood came from his wife, who got the name from a woman she met on the train trip who mentioned that her summer home outside Chicago was called Hollywood.

Another early Hollywood legend, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, whose studio became part of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., changed his name from Samuel Goldfish by appropriating half of the last name by appropriating half of the last name of his former business partner, Edgar Selwyn. One of Schochet’s favorite yarns is how Carl Laemmle, whose reputation for nepotism earned him the nickname "Uncle Carl," dreamed up the name Universal Studios in 1915. As Schochet relates the story, Laemmle was puffing on a cigar and gazing out of the office window of his then-unnamed studio when a young employee entered the room. Without turning around, Laemmle said, "You know what we shall call this place? Universal Studios. You know why? Because we shall make pictures for the whole universe." Rushing in to congratulate Laemmle on his decision, the employee looked past him and out the window and saw what the studio owner had been staring at - a truck parked outside with the words "Universal Pipe Cleaning" on the back.

The imaginative Laemmle also is credited with creating the first movie star, a young actress named Florence Lawrence, Schochet says. He engineered her celebrity in an era when most movie actors were unaccredited; the studios did not want to pay them big salaries and many film players were also stage performers who wanted to keep their names off movies for fear their reputations as "legit" actors would be tarnished.


But Laemmle decided his films would benefit by publicizing the actors. After releasing Lawrence’s name and her $250-a-week salary to the trade press, he arranged for her disappearance, publicly accused his studio rivals of kidnapping her, then orchestrated her reappearance in St.Louis, complete with a crowd to greet her. The ruse worked and Lawrence became the first movie actress to get her name on the marquis, Schochet says.

He offers the following story to set the record straight on one of the most fabled discoveries of Hollywood stars: Contrary to popular myth, Lana Turner was not discovered at Schwab’s Drug Store. Schochet says 15-year-old Judy Turner was skipping a class at Hollywood High School in 1937 when she was followed into the Top Hat malt shop across the street by Billy Wilkerson, publisher of entertainment trade paper The Hollywood Reporter. Captivated by her beauty, Wilkerson offered to make her famous, and with permission from Turner’s mother he introduced her to Zeppo Marx, who left the Marx Bros. Act to start his own talent agency. The rest, as they say, is history. Schochet says the Schwab’s story started with gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky who was sitting in the drug store when a girl with a camera came in and asked where Lana Turner had been sitting when she was discovered. Not wanting to disappoint her, Skolsky pointed to one of the stools at the soda fountain. A legend was born, facts to the contrary not withstanding.



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