As history loving Angelenos enter our sixth trying month of shuttered archives and libraries, the Getty Research Institute just dropped a thrilling bombshell with the release of the Research Collections Viewer, an online access tool to high resolution scans of thousands of texts and images in its reference collection.
We clicked the link so fast, it hurt. Were Ed Ruscha’s streetscapes included? They were!
Starting in 1966, and at regular intervals into the 2000s, Ruscha has used his camera (first manual, then motorized) to document the built environment along some of Los Angeles’ most important commercial corridors. He didn’t just shoot beautiful buildings or remarkable vistas, he shot everything, from the same neutral angle. And that means he captured the mundane, the weird, the forgotten, the lost, the everyday magic of the city.
Los Angeles is enormous, and most natives will never see a large body of historic photographs documenting the section of the city that they consider home. But by focusing on Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, Ed Ruscha picked landscapes that are a familiar second home.
Music fans know the Sunset Strip from shows at the Whisky or shopping at Tower, readers haunted Hollywood’s Book Row, barflies got sloppy around Hollywood and Western, and if you ever went Downtown or to UCLA, you probably took the Number 2 RTD bus the length of Sunset. You don’t even have to be an Angeleno to know these streets, since they figure so prominently in film and television location shots.
The first publication to come out of this project was Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), an accordion-style artist’s book that is a landmark in minimalist and conceptual art. It also has the distinction of including a photograph of a tiny, nautical-themed nightclub called the Sea Witch, one of our minor obsessions.
We’ve never been able to find another image of the Strip’s first rock and roll club, where Eddie Cochran hung out with his songwriter fiancé Sharon Sheeley in the mid 1950s, where The Doors, the Seeds, Them and The Yardbirds performed, and which is rumored to have inspired Donovan to write “Season of the Witch.” The club was a casualty of the 1966 law enforcement crackdown on youth culture: the County revoked its teen dance permit, and the FBI busted club manager Donald C. Ward, 20, for failing to report for draft induction.
Ed Ruscha’s camera caught the Sea Witch just before it vanished forever.
But that photograph, rendered postage stamp sized in the artist’s book, was as frustrating as it was revealing. Use a magnifying glass, and the finer details are lost in the halftone printing process. The Getty has digitized two frames showing the Sea Witch, and the scans are wonderfully crisp. Now we can see that blues revivalists Canned Heat were on the bill, the club welcomed patrons from 18 to 80, and the wooden slat façade could have been salvaged from a sunken ship. Zoom in here to see for yourself.
We expect to spend many hours exploring lost Los Angeles through Ed Ruscha’s lens. Just dipping our toes in, these gems splashed into view.
At 5901 Sunset, current Netflix HQ and long a vacant lot, a Streamline Moderne palace of auto insurance once stood. The E. Broox Randall firm survives under new ownership, with a gorgeous night view of the lost building on its website. (Zoom in here.)
North side, 6700 block of Hollywood Boulevard. The buildings survive, but the incredible Hal’s Nest neon dive bar sign with its monocled mascot is long gone. Johnny Weissmuller’s American Natural Foods stores helped to popularize healthy eating in Los Angeles and beyond. (Zoom in here.)
North side, 5100 block of Hollywood Boulevard. Beloved burlesque house Jumbo’s Clown Room is flanked by Aroon and Sankutala Seeboonruang’s Tepparod, one of the first family-run restaurants to serve Thai cuisine in the neighborhood that in 1999 was designated Thai Town. “Thai” is actually in quotes on the sign, and more familiar Chinese fare is also available. (Zoom in here.)
East side, 1700 North block of Western at Hollywood Boulevard. Detail of the layers of exuberant and discordant signage that has all been lost: Pioneer Chicken, Time To Shop, Jason’s Adult Books. (Zoom in here.)
South side, 7200 block of Sunset. A rare view of a Pioneer Chicken restaurant under construction, with custom fencing acting as a free billboard. Fun fact: Kim grew up down the block; The Oriental was her local movie theater. (Zoom in here, and dig those Cuban heels.)
South side, 6700 Hollywood Boulevard. The handsome Art Deco building from 1930 survives as part of the Musicians Institute campus, but without Miller’s Books and Stationary’s striking oversized STATIONERS lettering or its fluted underscores. The building looks sad without it. (Zoom in here.)
North side, 8500 block of Sunset, where literary agent H.N. “Swanie” Swanson made life changing motion picture and television deals for clients like Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Zoom in here.)
In front of Hollywood High, a chilly trio of Ronettes fans demonstrate their mile-high hairspray technique. (Zoom in here.)
And so much more! The Star Theatre at 5546 Hollywood is screening Performance (the building burned in 1976)… Ants ‘N Pants boutique at the Hollywood Roosevelt hopes Robert Crumb isn’t feeling litigious… Residents of the Angelina Hotel never lack for entertainment, nor residents of the Hastings for company… The Gap is an exclusive distributor of Levi’s products… a barfly leaves Dante’s and grimaces at the unforgiving sun… Beach bums gape at a cowpoke at the Continental riot house… Al the Tin Man hustles ducts… and Rodney’s English Disco shakes off another night’s glitter tornado.
The Getty invites you to take your own time travel trip with this remarkable new contribution to the study of Los Angeles. There are more than 71,000 images, and unimaginable discoveries to be made. Below you’ll find links to that point to specific streets. Once you’ve picked your year and destination, scroll down the page to find the useful “Previous Object” and “Next Object” buttons and the map. As you explore, we hope you’ll share the things that blow your mind in the comments below.
Hop in, Angelenos. Ed’s driving. Let’s go home!
• Sunset Boulevard, 1965-2010, undated (58,167 digitized items)
• Hollywood Boulevard, 1973-2005, undated (4,292 digitized items)
• Santa Monica Boulevard, 1974 (4,956 digitized items)
• Melrose Avenue, 1975 (3,724 digitized items)
• Pacific Coast Highway, 1974 (not yet digitized, check back later)
Update 9/22/2021: If you’ve been reading the comments on this blog post, you may have run across some from Marguerite Guineheux, who was living with her family on Sunset Boulevard at Hobart in the 1960s, when Ed Ruscha cruised by with his custom camera set up. You can scroll down to read her comments.
Now take a moment to marvel, as the flat, anonymous streetscape that the artist captured on his way to the next block comes alive, in rich retro color, and 11-year-old Marguerite strikes a pose with her poodle Bijou and the family’s 1957 Ford Fairlane in the snapshot below.
I asked if there was anything else she wanted to share with others who are clicking around Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles, but maybe don’t have her intimate relationship with the landscape.
Marguerite says, “finding Ed Ruscha’s shoot of Sunset Blvd. is like a visual post script. I don’t have personal photos of all those places that were childhood landmarks of the mind, but here these shots of the 1960s along Sunset Blvd. sit online, in plain view, after all these years! The area looks great, life looks easier and everything has so much style! It’s almost like a Google Maps streetview type of thing, though very limited of course. Almost everything from those images is long gone, being that it’s Sunset Blvd and a major thoroughfare. It was bound to be. This happened all over Los Angeles.”
She’s right: you can use the real 2021 Google Maps streetview to see the generic mini mall that replaced her handsome apartment house here. What was once just called Hollywood is now the borderline of Thai Town and Little Armenia. The palm tree, at least, is still the same!
We’re thrilled that Marguerite was able to book a ticket in her own personal time machine after reading this blog post, and honored that she shared such a wonderful photograph. It would be a cool picture under any circumstances, but placed alongside Ed Ruscha’s view of the same car in its regular parking spot, it somehow makes every frame of film in his enormous project feel as if it might at any moment come to life, or as if we might click a little harder, and fall right into the past. And that’s a piece of Hollywood magic better than anything the studios can dream up.