Thursday, March 8, 2018

Boris Deutsch: Modernist Artist in Boyle Heights in the 1920s

Here are excerpts from a Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum blog post about Boris Deutsch, an artist in Los Angeles, who was best known during the 1930s and 1940s.  From his arrival in the city in 1919 until the early 1930s, he lived in Boyle Heights.

S. Boris Deutsch (1892-1978) was a modernist artist (principally painting, but also a creator of ceramics and drawings) of some renown, especially during the 1930s and 1940s.  His figurative works are held in the collections of such prominent museums as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Norton Simon Museum.

Among his most prominent works are a series of murals painted in the Terminal Annex of the Los Angeles post office, an exuberant Spanish Colonial Revival structure opened in 1940 next to the newly completed Union Station.  He also was director of a 35-minute experimental film called Lullaby, created in 1929.

Los Angeles Times, 27 March 1921.
Born to a Jewish family in Krasnagorka, Lithuania, Deutsch was largely self-taught, though he spent some time studying at academies in Riga, Latvia and in Berlin.  In 1916, during the depths of the First World War, he migrated to the United States, living for a few years in Seattle.  By the end of the decade, he was residing in Los Angeles, specifically in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, where many Eastern Europeans, including Jews, resided.

Deutsch 1924 directory
Los Angeles City Directory, 1924, showing Deustsch as living in Boyle Heights in the Prospect Park area.
Deutsch quickly gained attention in the area, including for his portraits of film stars like Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin.  His works were also exhibited locally in galleries and at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (note the order!), now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  Traveling exhibitions took his work throughout the west and across the country.

The artist went on to receive further acclaim for his work in Los Angeles during the remainder of the decade, including an interesting 1929 review in the Los Angeles Times that highlighted as work depicting Jews in a way that led the writer, Arthur Millier to state that Deutsch "emerged from the obscurity of Hollnbeck [Boyle] Heights Jewry a few years ago" to become a "painter-genius."  Millier claimed that the artist was "the antithesis of everything the average laymen expects of painting" with a restricted color range of black, white, brown, yellow and dull red "and he uses the paint as a language to express his feelings about the life of his own people."

The critic went to add, remarkably, that

an American only sees the Jew  who developed and manipulates the modern financial system, the Jew who belongs to his own clubs.  Of the rank and file of the racial religious community of Judah he knows nothing.  It is this community Deutsch interprets with masterly skill.

This was because Deutsch was a student of the Talmud and prepared to be a rabbi in his youth and had a fundamental understanding of the deep religious traditions of Judaism.  This included the "dearly-clutched fruits of faith" of the "obscure orthodox people whom he paints with a love" that included "irony and morbidity."

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Sep_22__1929_ (2).jpg
Los Angeles Times, 22 December 1929.
With the onset of the Works Progress Administration, which hired many artists for projects in public buildings erected by the government agency, Deutsch received many commissions, though his work was not as well-known after World War II.  Still, he continued to pursue his art, including printmaking and monotypes and lived to be in his mid-eighties, dying in Los Angeles in 1978.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A January 1923 issue of "The Siren" from Boyle Heights Junior High


Here are excerpts from a post on the blog of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, which has several issues of The Siren, the school newspaper of Boyle Heights Junior High, soon renamed Hollenbeck Junior High, from the 1922-23 school year.  A couple of issues of the paper have been highlighted on the Boyle Heights History Blog previously.


Today's highlighted artifact looks at one of about two dozen issues of the school newspaper from the first volume of the publication during the 1922-23 school year at Boyle Heights Junior High, which was renamed Hollenbeck Junior High a couple of years later and which the school is still called.  The paper is an interesting window into the lives of young adults nearly a century ago.

A major school activity covered in the issue was the student council election.  Most of the positions had five candidates, giving students plenty of options.  Some of the nomination statements were printed in the paper, including this one for Walter Pollock, who was running for president:

He has proved that he is a good scholar, a good athlete, an honest person and one who can be trusted.  His teachers will all vouch for his scholarship and popularity.  The pupils who know him will surely vote for him . . . make it your business to search out Walter and see what he looks like.  If you see and also talk to him, you will find the kind of a boy whom we should have for our president.
Three girls signed a statement promoting the candidacy of Genevieve Petticrew for chairman of Girls' Self-Government, starting off by saying:

There's no need of saying a lot about the girl . . . because when you hear her name you'll know all about her.  But she sure is swell!  Lots of fun, jolly, fair and square, and everybody's friend.  There's an old proverb which says, "Wisdom comes with years."  But as there's an exception to every case, there's one in this.  My candidate isn't so terribly old, but she IS terribly wise.
Another notable article on the front page had to do with an auto accident that took place the prior morning at the intersection of Soto and Sixth streets right in front of the school.  According to the piece, student John Osepian was driving an Essex (there's a make most of us haven't heard!) and claimed that, to avoid hitting some youths riding bikes in the street, he had to accelerate.  Losing control, young Osepian "swerved around the corner suddenly, scraped the telephone pole, and leaped over the curb upon the lawn."  The account concluded, though, with "witnesses, however, claim that he was going at an excessive rate of speed all along Soto street."


Most of an inner page was devoted to "Ye Classroome Gossipe," with news from the various rooms denoted by number.  Classroom 215, for example, called itself the "wonder classroom" and no wonder!  After all, half of the sixteen-member (that would be eight for you math majors out there) were on the staff of The Siren.  The room boasted more members of the glee and dramatic clubs than other classrooms and reeled off other impressive accomplishments.

By contrast, Classroom 209's correspondent noted that "since almost everyone else seems to be boasting, I think it is time that I do, lest you think we have nothing to boast about."  Two students in the orchestra, three in the glee club, and another in the drama club were highlighted, leading to the conclusion "so you see we have quite a few representatives from good old 209."


Sports always comprises a major part of any newspaper and this was certainly the case with The Siren, including intramural (meaning contests between classrooms) basketball and volleyball contests.  It is interesting to peruse the scores, compared to, say, my glory days when my junior high team won the Huntington Beach city championship in 7th grade and lost by a mere two points the following year.

Scores were in the 30s, 40s, and 50s in those games from forty years ago, but the Boyle Heights games included a high score of 30 by classroom 106 which did not allow 107 to score a point.  Room 215 outdueled Room 6 in two contests, 24-6 in the first and 19-0 in the second.  Otherwise, teams had a hard time making shots with scores like 11-2; 8-3; 6-0 and the very low tallies of 3-3, 3-2, 2-1 and 0-0.


Another common feature of school papers was the joke column, called here "Rib Ticklers."  For example, get a load of these examples:

"He makes a nice living from his pen"
"Ink or pig?"
"What does this picture bride business mean?"
"They call it that when someone else has picked your bride."
A couple of short examples of fiction and a piece about stamp collecting are other examples from the same page.  Elsewhere there is a cartoon depicting a young man in the stocks with a sign nearby reading "This boy wore his cap in the hall."  An infraction of a school rule like that today probably would not be expressed in quite the same way!

What is not likely to be found in today's counterparts, if they exist at the junior high level and are still in print form, are advertisements from local businesses.  But, The Siren is full of them, including those that are more pertinent to the interests of young adults and those that aren't.


For example, it's more than a little strange to see an ad for an undertaker, but there is one from Bede Johnson's funeral parlor, located on Whittier Boulevard, just over the city boundary in East Los Angeles.  Or, there's the National Paint and Varnish Company's ad.  It is likely that the ads had to do with parents of students at the school, though.

Otherwise, there are ads for George's Cafe, imploring pupils to "Eat Your Chicken Dinner Saturday and Sunday" at the eatery, also situated on Whittier near Euclid.  Also of interest to young adults would be the latest flickers at the Poppy Theatre at the corner of Breed Street and Brooklyn Avenue, now C├ęsar Chavez, or at the Olympus, on 1st Street where the Boyle Station of the United States Post Office stands today.


More issues of The Siren from the Homestead Museum's collection will be featured here, so look for those in the future.

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.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

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

We continue with part four of the series by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez on Russian Molokans from the Flats and their use as extras in the Hollywood film industry.

On March 21, 1928, the day of a melee outside its gates, Paramount Studios arranged to have a busload of Russian extras brought in from the “Boyle Heights Russian colony” for their expensive new film with the working title, High Treason. Directed by future highly acclaimed director Ernst Lubitsch and based on the 1801 assassination of Tsar Paul I of Russia, the film was released later that year as, The Patriot. 

Except for a couple of articles, what happened that day outside the studio’s gate went largely under reported by the local press. This might have been attributed to the newspapers desire to avoid local stories about labor unrest and/or their ongoing focus on the aftermath of the St. Francis Dam tragedy that occurred in the Santa Clarita Valley the week before on March 12, 1928.

An article in Variety on March 28, 1928 provided most of the details, though Paramount Studios likely, and self-servingly, provided most of them. The story claims Nicolas Kobliansky, the technical advisor to the film, convinced Paramount executives they could cut costs if they by-passed Central Casting and hired the needed extras directly from the east side’s Russian neighborhood, requesting that the extras bring their own “costumes.” With the assistance of two local Russian Flats “go-betweens,” John Nasiedkin and Walter Creger, Paramount approved the hiring of 289 people. Each was to be given a special studio work pass and then transported from Boyle Heights to the studio in Hollywood in two sightseeing buses Paramount would provide. 

According to the article, “Creger took it upon himself to employ about 250 more people,” and then, supposedly disregarding the requirement for mandatory passes, everyone made a “grand rush to pile into the busses.” When those without work passes were not allowed beyond the studio gates, the crowd quickly became angry, and, according to Variety, “the near revolution started, and the police arrived at the studio gates to disperse the wild mob.” Exaggerating the size of the protesters, several articles, including one by the Los Angeles Evening Herald, proclaimed, “Paramount Studio was the target of a stoning bee last week by 1,000 Russian extras.” 

A two-page advertisement for Sold for Marriage, starring Lillian Gish, from Motion Picture News, 22 April 1916.  The film used a considerable number of extras from the Russian Molokan community living in Boyle Heights.  Click on any image to see them expanded in a separate window.
Nevertheless, given the supposed total number of people that reported to the two waiting buses, and the vehicles own space constraints, the size of the crowd would barely be half that size. Surprisingly, no arrests or injuries were reported.

However, the next day a number of the protesting Russian immigrants appeared in front of a hastily convened Labor Commission hearing to investigate the circumstances of the disturbance. Those who attended claimed they were all summoned for guaranteed work, but many, including those with work passes, were ultimately turned away without the legally mandated compensation for transportation fare or minimum pay for their time and were then demanding the labor board ensure they receive just compensation.

According to the L. A. Evening Herald, “studio officials denied the extras were called and blamed an actors’ agent. When only a few of the extras were chosen, the others started throwing stones and police were called.” Of the two local agents involved in procuring the extras for the studio, only Walter Creger was present at the hearing.

A description of a Russian funeral in the Flats of Boyle Heights from Film Spectator magazine,, 17 November 1928.  Note the description of Mexicans in the neighborhood as "a laughing, happy throng of Felipes and Juanitas, playing blithely and oblivious in the sunshine."
As reported in Variety, Chief Deputy Commissioner Thomas Barker, who conducted the hearing, was unable to arrive at a ruling due to “inconsistent statements made and nearly all of the Russians were bearded or wore moustaches and could hardly talk English.”  At the conclusion of the hearing, Baker claimed he was withholding his decision for further evidence and more witnesses. However, beyond the initial news reports on this protest, there were no follow-up stories, and records or transcripts in the city or state labor archives could not be found. Any archived written police reports, are inaccessible, if they exist at all.    

However, problems continued on the High Treason/The Patriot set involving Russian extras.  With the headline, “Russian Extras ‘Rebel on Lot,’” the Port Arthur News reported on April 1, 1928 about a large group of Russian extras working on a studio set covered with artificial snow and lit with a number of powerful Klieg lights. The lights made the artificial snow blindingly bright, and many of the extras began complaining that after several hours on the set, it began affecting their eyes.  According to the article, “just before the final scenes were taken, the Russian extras began rioting and the Hollywood police were called. The disturbance was quelled, with several persons slightly injured,” but, again, with no arrests reported.            

As for the fate of the film itself, The Patriot was considered a “bomb” at the box office. It was the last silent film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in the silent film era, as that chapter of film making was quickly coming to an end.
However, the report about the protest melee at the gates of Paramount Studios did raise some interest about immigrant Russians employed as extras in Hollywood films. On November 7, 1928, “a special dispatch” to the Montana Standard and the North American Newspaper Alliance described a reporter’s visit to a Hollywood studio set to observe a group of Russian extras from Boyle Heights.

A brief description about the 1917 film, The Legion of Death, and how "Russian women were secured for the scenes [of a capture of Germans by Russian women in a battle] from the local Russian colony," meaning the Flats.
According to the article, “the Russian group live in a shabby part of town called Boyle Heights. They contribute atmosphere to the innumerable Russian stories, which have been the vogue these last few years. From Boyle Heights come the tremendous and tortured faces that flash across the camera eye now and again. I watched a group of Boyle Heights atmosphere players reacting to the congenial influence of a warm meal, the studio lights, the gayety which numbers engenders in the sturdy middle and lower middle class.”  

With the Russian extras wearing their traditional native dress and in a festive mood, “a man with an accordion strikes a tune” as they gather in a circle and begin to dance and clap.  At the director’s signal, the lights are turned on and the cameraman begins to film the impromptu dance. As soon as the Russians realize they are being filmed, they become “camera shy” and slowly stop as the director attempts to encourage them to “Keep at it!” The Russians continue to dance in a more subdued pace, “with a circle of Boyle Heights men and women spiritlessly clapping along. Finally, the director with a weary gesture orders them to cut. Another few hundred feet of film destined for the wastebasket.” 

Come back next week to read the fifth and final entry in the series . . .

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

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

This third part of the series by Rudy Martinez on Russians in Boyle Heights and their role in early Hollywood looks at some of the films in which so-called Molokans and fictional representations of the community appeared.

In the summer of 1915, Majestic Studios released the first film to acknowledge the presence of a Russian community in Los Angeles. The “two-reeler” was titled Her Oath of Vengeance, starring one of the most popular actresses of the period, Teddy Sampson as a young Russian girl named Sophia. Sampson had just recently played the sister of Pancho Villa for the Mutual Film Company’s semi-fictional film, The Life of General Villa (1914) featuring Pancho Villa as himself.

According to the Motion Picture News of August 28, 1915, Her Oath of Vengeance “pertains to life in the Russian colony in Los Angeles, where many of the people are employed in canneries.” The plot includes a worker’s foiled scheme to plant a bomb and incite a strike in the canning factory (this was five years after the infamous bombing of the Los Angeles Times building). Beyond a brief plot description, there is little information about this production, and it appears this film is now lost, so it’s unknown if the filmmakers filmed any scenes in The Flats itself.   

A screen capture of a scene and title of the 1916 film Sold for Marriage, starring legendary actress Lillian Gish, second from left in the scene.
By 1916, The Flats was ready for its close-up. On January 13, the L. A. Times reported that Lillian Gish, who starred in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation the year before, was preparing for a role as a “Russian peasant girl” for her next film. According to the article, she even visited “the Russian colony in Los Angeles and was presented with a shawl by a comely Russian girl.” Recalling her role years later, Gish admitted she did absolutely nothing in preparation for the role except read the script and show up to the set.

In the 55-minute film, Sold for Marriage, Gish plays a young girl who aggressively resists her parent’s attempts to “sell her” into a pre-arranged marriage - first in their home village in Russia, and then, after they emigrate, in their new home in the “Russian city in Los Angeles.” The film is notable in that there are a number of exterior shots that appear to be filmed in the Russian Flats neighborhood itself; one scene clearly takes place at the Union Pacific train station opposite The Flats neighborhood on the other side of the Los Angeles River, near the old First Street Bridge. Another notable scene is a brief exterior shot of the Hollenbeck Police Station on First Street, which at the time was called the “Boyle Heights Station.” This might be the earliest example of this police station on film! 

In 1918, Metro Studios released a relatively large-budget film, Legion of Death, based on actual events in 1917, when the Russian Provisional Government organized several all-women combat battalions, including the so-called Women’s Battalion of Death, to fight alongside men on the Russian front. Elaborate scenes of “Russian Battalion women on horseback leaping over enemy trenches” were filmed in the San Fernando Valley.   

Another title from Sold for Marriage, referencing actor William A. Lowery's character of "Uncle Georg," fictional leader of the Boyle Heights colony of Russian Molokans.
On November 4, 1917, the L. A. Times reported that director Tod Browning, future director of the 1931 Universal Studios horror classic Dracula, reportedly “scoured the local Russian colony for real Russian women and men, so they weren’t the regular extras. Seven interpreters were employed to give the director’s orders.”  The Motion Picture News for Nov/Dec, 1917 also reported, “The women’s regiment for the film was made up of Russian women who were secured for the scenes from the local Russian colony.” Unfortunately, this film too, also appears to be lost.

Like the story of Lillian Gish visiting the Russian colony, the hiring of Russian women from The Flats to portray the film’s female regiment could simply be manufactured studio publicity; there is no way to confirm the claim. Nevertheless, it suggests the Boyle Heights Russian community was by then significant enough to prompt some early Hollywood filmmakers to associate their Russian-themed films with the Russian Flats neighborhood to confer authenticity.  

By the 1920s, the motion picture business entered a crucial period in its industrial development as the industry consolidated into a handful of major movie companies headed by “studio moguls” who exerted powerful business and political influence. Bigger film productions also demanded quick access to larger numbers of “movie extras,” who were ready and “on call,” since shooting schedules could be abruptly changed or cancelled. If a producer demanded a large number of movie extras with a specific racial or ethnic profile, studios would turn to the production’s “film advisor,” who had connections to a particular neighborhood, and literally bring in a busload of extras for the shoot. Attempting to save production costs and skirt around labor laws, this kind of casting call would even extend to the Russian Flats community. 

An advertisement for Metro Pictures' 1918 release "The Legion of Death," starring Edith Storey, who acted in over seventy films before her retirement in 1921.  Tally's Broadway Theater, in the southern end of the theater district below 8th Street, was demolished in 1929 for an expansion of the May Company (formerly Hamburger's) department store, which was next door. 
Unionizing efforts by movie extras in L. A.’s open shop climate was generally met with blatant hostility, as exemplified in a 1919 L. A. Times article that reported in an almost gleeful tone about an independent casting agent who “delivered a punch straight to the jaw of a Mexican agitator.” In 1923, a skirmish at a downtown Los Angeles casting office over commission fees demanded by agents, resulted in an armed guard shooting into a crowd and wounding five actors (the office was located where the Mayan Theater stands today). Nevertheless, attempts at unionizing had begun as early as 1916, for example, when the International Workers of the World, or The Wobblies, organized the short-lived International Union of Photoplayers of America. For their part, movie studios continued to promote the romantic allure of working as a movie extra to ensure a continuing union-busting surplus of extras.

By the mid-1920s, the California Industrial Welfare Commission had investigated numerous labor violations by the studios that included, demanding extras be on the set 12 to 15 hours straight, or forcing them to wait several hours before being told the shoot was cancelled, then dismissing them without any kind of compensation. Extras often complained their pay only included the time they were on-set but not for the hours they spent in makeup or wardrobe. It’s very possible that local Russians were hired to work on some of the films noted earlier under conditions that violated state labor laws or local ordinances, if any were possibly enacted, or could be enforced, under the city’s robust open-shop environment.      

Check back next week for the fourth part of the series!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

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

This the second in a series of posts about the Russian (known commonly as Molokans) immigrant community that settled in the Flats area of Boyle Heights and often served as extras in the Hollywood film industry.  Author Rudy Martinez, Advisory Board member of the Boyle Heights Historical Societies, gives an excellent overview of the Flats in this post.

Before developers renamed it in 1876, Boyle Heights was called Paredon Blanco 
(white bluff). The area of the Flats is bounded by the eastern edge of the Los Angeles 
River and Boyle Avenue (the bluff side), and from Aliso Street (largely replaced by the 101 Freeway) to 4th Street.  Initially verdant farmland and vineyards and then subdivided, but never developed, as a potential fashionable residential district, the Flats was, by the early 1900s, an area of small modest homes built by railroad and lumber companies for low-wage workers and recent immigrants. The San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad depot sat at the edge of the (usually) dry, white-graveled riverbed, while small industrial enterprises and livestock-related businesses were established in the area.

The headline of a Los Angeles Times feature, from 27 January 1924, of "Holy Jumpers", as Molokan Russians were sometimes called, becoming "Americanized" at Boyle Heights.

As early as 1903, the hardscrabble Flats was known as “Boxcarville” because it was home to a large number of traqueros, Mexican immigrants earning poverty-wages working mainly for the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar system.  Many of the workers and their families lived in self-built wooden shacks, commonly known as “Cholo Courts.”  Some of the first Russian families to settle in this Mexican immigrant enclave also lived in these simple dwellings. Continually used by the most hard pressed of the working poor, these makeshift structures remained a fixture in the Flats for several decades as Russians and Mexicans became the two dominate groups in the area. 
Through deliberate spatial planning that furthered the city’s seemingly sprawling east-west class divide, the Los Angeles City Council passed two landmark zoning ordinances in 1908. These reserved the west side of Los Angeles primarily for residential development and concentrated industrial zones in the southern and eastern areas of the city, including Boyle Heights. This, along with racially restrictive covenants, confining people of color to southern and eastern areas of Los Angeles, compelled many non-white migrants and the working-class poor to settle nearer these industrial corridors.   

A photo by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles overlooking Aliso Village in the Flats with downtown Los Angeles in the distance to the west, 6 September 1941.  From the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Online Archive of California.

By 1920, the growing multicultural area of The Flats was commonly being referred to as the Russian Flats as Russian immigrants soon achieved the highest rate of home ownership in the neighborhood. Some earned extra money renting out rooms to local non-Russians while a number of others established their own stores and churches on some of the more commonly known area streets, such as Clarence, Gless, and Anderson. While the younger children attended Utah Street Elementary School (Russian students were 40% by 1915), young Russian girls worked in the area’s biscuit, candy, and nut factories and the older women worked in the canneries. Men often found jobs in lumberyards or trash hauling. Incidentally, Utah Street Elementary School was one of the most important neighborhood institutions for the Russian immigrants. Many of the adult Russians in the area eagerly signed-up for evening classes offered at the school to learn English.  

By January 27, 1924, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy article, with elaborate sketches, about the swift “Americanization” of the “happy” Russian Molokans, or “jumpers” of Boyle Heights. A number of articles in this vein were periodically published in an attempt to calm any public fears about revolution-minded Bolsheviks in Los Angeles. It also served to differentiate them from another local, and often referred-to “Russian colony” of immigrants that began to establish itself in the Hollywood area just after 1920. Most of these more recent emigres were either artists or former members of the Russian military and aristocracy who fled after the Russian revolution. However, the two immigrant communities appeared to have had little to do with one another.

Though reserved, the Boyle Heights Russian Molokans maintained a fondness for their traditional native dress, multi-family feasts, and large processions. Because of the common sight of Russian men with beards, many riders recall the Pacific Electric trolley conductors calling out “Beards Town!” when the crowded trolley made a stop in The Flats. 

The razing of Aliso Village dwellings in preparation for the construction of public housing projects (which were removed not long ago for current housing projects), also from the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles and in the holdings of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Online Archive of California.

Speaking of crowded trolleys in The Flats, the area became a popular destination for baseball fans in 1920. That year the black semipro team, the Los Angeles White Sox, one of the best teams in the west coast Negro league, began to play their home games at the new 3000 seat Anderson Park (or White Sox Stadium), located at Fourth and Anderson Streets. The team continued to play in The Flats venue until they relocated to a new stadium in Compton in the late 1920s.

By 1930, this vibrant and crowded family neighborhood was thriving in what was essentially, an industrial zone. While the first-generation immigrants from The Flats lived almost cheek by jowl in somewhat ramshackle homes, some former residents recalled many homes had well-tended gardens, and several others were simple, but neatly kept. Overall, a harmonious atmosphere of cordial respect prevailed in this diverse community.

In her landmark 1935 book about the Boyle Heights’ Russian Molokans, The Pilgrims of Russian-Town, sociologist Pauline Young vividly described her observation of the Flats:
The atmosphere in the Flats is heavy. Factories, warehouses, small industrial plants of all kinds and description contribute their share of pungent smells. Industrial establishments hem in the district to the north, south and east, while a network of railroads defines the west boundaries. Noisy engines, clanking over a maze of tracks, puffing steam and emitting black smoke spread a pall over the region.
Wave upon wave of immigrants have invaded the district and have settled here…. Japanese, Italians, Negroes, Russians, and Mexicans have all settled here. Negro workmen, Jewish merchants, Armenian truck drivers, Japanese gardeners, barbers, tradesmen, all contribute to the community of life in the Flats.
On the other hand, progressive reformers, city officials, and the press primarily had a much more negative view. Since the early 1900s, they continually viewed this working-class immigrant area as a civic embarrassment, often referring to it as a “slum,” perhaps the first area in Los Angeles to be termed as such. In short, this was an area to be eradicated and its residents relocated. The efforts by the city’s urban reformers culminated when the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) razed almost the entire “old Russian Flats” neighborhood for the development of the Aliso and Pico public housing projects in the early 1940s.  In the process, most of the original inhabitants were denied an opportunity to return.

A photo taken 8 November 1932 by Anton Wagner and showing a section of Clarence Street north of 3rd Street in the Flats.  From the California Historical Society Digital Library.

However, during the 1930’s The Flats had already begun to see signs of change. As a run-up to its future relocation efforts as part of its mandate to “cleanse” the area, when Los Angeles County initiated their repatriation program against the city’s Mexican population in the early 1930s, The Flats area of Boyle Heights was the single largest target for repatriation efforts in the entire county.  In addition, by the late 1930s many of the second-generation Russian Molokans began to move further southeast, to cities such as Montebello, Downey, Maywood and Southgate. Nevertheless, they were still the two dominate groups when the city’s rehabilitation program for The Flats began in the early 1940s.

Check back in next week for part three in this series and the Boyle Heights Historical Society wishes you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

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

Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez continues his series of posts on early Boyle Heights history, including its ethnic and racial diversity, with this remarkable multi-part post on the "Russian colony" of the Flats area of the community.  Check back weekly for further installments and enjoy!

Angry at the indifference to the injustice committed against them and the refusal by a new growing power in their midst to make amends, the angry crowd of about a hundred began to storm the gates, shouting their demands. Some reportedly began throwing stones at the armed security force summoned to subdue the “angry mob” of mostly bearded Russian men. Tension and agitation had been openly simmering between two opposing forces throughout the city for some time, but on this day, the violation was too flagrant to ignore.

An article on the "Russian Revolt" from Variety, 28 March 1928.
This skirmish occurred in 1928 and the crowd of protesting Russians were actually compensation-demanding movie extras who had gathered outside the now-iconic arched gateway entrance to Paramount Studios in Hollywood – one of the largest and most successful movie studios in the world. The “gate-crashers” were Russian immigrants who lived in a section of Boyle Heights known as the “Russian Flats.”  This unscripted expression of labor unrest occurred during a period when Los Angeles civic and business leaders boasted that the local economy produced plenty of jobs and newly built homes, all surrounded by picturesque citrus groves. However, city leaders also supported housing segregation based on race and ethnicity while enthusiastically promoting Los Angeles as the capital of open shop, or non-union labor.

For several decades beginning in the 1920s, the historic and long-gone Russian Flats district in Boyle Heights was home to the largest immigrant “Russian colony” in the United States. Much less widely-known today is that, while the fledgling local movie industry was well-established as an entertainment and economic juggernaut, filmmakers and this unique, vibrant eastside community interacted several times during Hollywood’s silent era in interesting ways, to say the least.  The incident described above will be revisited with a little more detail later in this multi-part post, but let’s start with a brief overview of the Russian immigrants in the Flats in Boyle Heights, and some of the early connections between Hollywood and this little-known community.

Coverage of the "riot" in the Los Angeles Herald, 22 March 1928
    The first wave of Russian immigrants and the first pioneering filmmakers arrived in Los Angeles only a few years apart at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1907, the Chicago-based Selig Polyscope Company came to Los Angeles to film the final scenes of The Count of Monte Cristo on a crudely built outdoor set in downtown Los Angeles and at the shoreline in Santa Monica. Though the film camera had been introduced to Los Angeles as early as 1897 when a few operators occasionally shot some documentary-type shorts, this 1907 production would be the first time an actual motion picture company shot scenes in Los Angeles.

Seeking to escape the almost monopolistic hold that inventor Thomas Edison had on the emerging camera/film technology patents (and the licensing fees he demanded) other eastern-based film outfits would soon relocate to the west coast as they also discovered that year-round filming was easier with Southern California’s mild climate, varied geography, and relatively weak labor unions.

A Bain News Service photo from the Library of Congress showing Russian "Molokanes or Milk Drinkers" in Los Angeles, undated.
Meanwhile, as early as 1893, the Los Angeles Times reported on a small exploratory “committee of Russians” in the Los Angeles area looking for suitable farmland to “locate a Russian colony now based in Canada.”  On July 17, 1904, the Los Angeles Herald published the first account about Russian immigrants in Los Angeles: “six families of Russians from the Kars district of the Transcaucasian territory who are living in a single dwelling on South Utah Street.”

The new immigrants were members of a close-knit sect of the Russian Orthodox Church known as the Brotherhood of Spiritual Christians. Sometimes called Holy Jumpers because of their reportedly frenetic exuberance during religious services, (initially causing neighbors to protest to the local ward council about the unsettling “loud noise”), today they are commonly known as Molokans, which means “milk drinkers” because of their refusal to abstain from dairy during Orthodox fast days. Steadfast pacifists, many fled Russia after 1900 to escape compulsory service during the Russo-Japanese War and during the early stirrings of revolution against the autocratic regime of Russian Tsar Nicolas II.   

The first area of settlement by the Molokan Russians along the west bank of the Los Angeles River near today's Union Station, with boundary lines and landmarks superimposed on a 1909 map of the city.
 At their highest period of immigration between 1904 and 1912, almost four-thousand Russian Molokans immigrated to the United States, via Canada, with a majority moving to Los Angles. Florida industrialist and sympathetic Russian immigrant, Pytor Alexeyevitch Dementyev, better known as Peter Demens, a “founding father” of the Florida city of St. Petersburg, underwrote many of the early expenses for the California-bound Russian Molokans. (Demens passed away in 1919 in Alta Loma, California where the historic Demens-Tolstoy home still stands today).

The earliest Russian Molokans to arrive settled in the immigrant-crowded industrial section of Los Angeles in the area around Aliso and Vignes Streets near today’s Union Station.  Located along the western edge of the still-unpaved Los Angeles River, this site was surrounded by rail yards, gas tanks, and the prostitution or “crib district” on Alameda Street. Initially sleeping in horse stables and cooking outside, they eventually met Congregationalist minister Dana Bartlett, a devoted social reformer and “a friend of the immigrant poor.”   Bartlett also provided the Russian immigrants with free lodging, meals, schooling, and accommodations to hold religious services at the nearby Bethlehem Institutional Church Settlement and the Stimson-Lafayette Industrial School.

A pair of photographs of Molokan Russians in the Flats area of Boyle Heights, from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.
By 1907, most of the Russian Molokans started to relocate over to the floodplain area of Boyle Heights – the Flats – on the east side of the river. A few moved further east to the small hillside enclave of crude shack housing known as “Fickett Hollow,” centered at 7th and Fickett Streets. In addition, after a brief stay in Boyle Heights, a small contingent immigrated to Baja California’s Guadalupe Valley in 1906, establishing an agricultural colony that lasted until the mid-1960s. 

We hope you've enjoyed the first part and come back next week for the second installment in the series!