Even Amid the Red Scare, 1950s L.A. Was a Wonderland Without Fences for Young People

Author and screenwriter Erik Tarloff recalls childhood on Detroit Street—and crashing the gates of Samuel Goldwyn Studios

It was an oddly idyllic time and place in which to grow up. Los Angeles has become a world city in the intervening years, a gigantic, fast-paced, complex megalopolis, but in the 1950s, while undeniably huge in area, it was still largely a sprawling collection of self-contained neighborhoods with lots of undeveloped spaces in between waiting to be filled. There were vacant tracts so vast that, from a position amid the untamed trees and shrubbery occupying the center, you had no sense of the city streets beyond. There were bare hills, and on side streets, old wooden shacks resembling something out of a cowboy movie, many still occupied. No high-rises anywhere; there was so much land, people built out rather than up.

There was a downtown, of course, a busy commercial downtown like the downtowns of other big cities, with office buildings and traffic, and men in suits and ties, and women in hats and gloves. But no one I knew ever went there. The only trip downtown I can remember from my early childhood was taking a streetcar with my grandmother to visit my grandfather, who worked at something called the L.A. Nut House. I’m told I startled a fellow passenger, a sweet older lady who wanted to engage a small boy by asking him where he was headed, when I answered that I was on my way to visit my grandfather at the “nuthouse.” She apparently misunderstood. She didn’t realize it was a retail establishment that sold nuts.

My family moved into half of a dinky duplex in a working-class neighborhood in the Hollywood flatlands at the end of summer 1952, just weeks after my fourth birthday. Prior to that, we’d been reasonably prosperous; my father was a staff writer on a hit TV sitcom, I Married Joan. We’d lived in the San Fernando Valley for a couple of years, and then in a large old house in the Miracle Mile district, not far from where the then-nonexistent LACMA is now located. But with the House Un-American Activities Committee breathing down my father’s neck, the prospect of imminent poverty required some major economies. We’d spent the summer before the move on the top floor of a rustic cottage near Green Valley Lake; my sister, Julie, and I had been told we were going on an adventurous vacation, but I later learned the real reason for this adventure: My father wanted to forestall for as long as possible receipt of that looming subpoena. He knew the ax was going to fall, and fall soon, and he knew that once it happened, he would be unemployable and his writing career would be over, perhaps forever. The longer he could put off the inevitable, and the more frugally we could live in the meantime, the more savings he could salt away against the impending catastrophe.

Much of that summer is lost to memory, of course. I hadn’t even turned four yet! But there are a few traces left: my grandmother standing up in a rowboat on the lake and almost capsizing us; a large, frighteningly boisterous party made up of my parents’ friends, virtually all of whom, I realized in retrospect, had either just been blacklisted or were about to be; my sister and I banging pots and pans early one morning in order to wake up my mother, yelling “Rise and shine!” as we did so. This last incident was, I’m sure, at my father’s direction. It was his sort of prank, combining playfulness with malice.

But what I mostly remember from that distant summer is being frightened of other people. Not just shy, but almost pathologically terrified. Knowing what I know now, I have to think that was a result of my parents’ constant nagging fear of the process server’s unheralded arrival. Some hint of that must have been conveyed to me in some nonverbal manner that bypassed conscious comprehension. Even family friends with whom I was very familiar and of whom I was fond scared me so thoroughly that I hid from them when they came to visit. At that party I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I recall sneaking out of the living room and sitting alone on the stairs by the cabin front door to avoid dealing with anyone.

What I mostly remember from that distant summer is being frightened of other people. Not just shy, but almost pathologically terrified.

And then, when summer ended, instead of returning to our house on the Miracle Mile, we drove from the cabin on the lake to our new home, the southern half of a stucco duplex on North Detroit Street between Melrose and Willoughby avenues. It wasn’t a hovel—there were two bedrooms, a little work area for my father, one and a half baths, a small dining room, a smallish living room, a kitchen—but it was cramped and charmless. There was a tiny patch of brown grass in front, but otherwise no grounds to speak of. Soon after arriving, my father felt he should probably explain his situation to our duplex neighbors, since there was a good chance the FBI would be sniffing around and making a nuisance of itself. After a few pleasantries, it began to emerge, indirectly but clearly enough, that the man of the house next-door was himself a little shady, with some legally dubious enterprises going. When my father tried to explain his own situation to him, no doubt choosing his words with excessive care to avoid the possibility that this act of neighborliness might accidentally trigger a panicky phone call to the Feds, the man suddenly interrupted to say, “So wait, you’re telling me you’re not gonna rat, is that it?” When my father confirmed that this was indeed the bottom line, the guy extended his hand and said, “Then you’re all right in my book.”

Still, even having cleared that hurdle, my parents must have been despondent, despondent about the imminent blacklisting, of course, but also about the sudden comedown in their living situation.

But for my sister and me, it turned out to be glorious.

hollywood blacklist erik tarloff
An early ’50s portrait of the author with his sister Julie

Courtesy Erik Tarloff

This was 1952, and still, in many ways, the tail end of the postwar period. Many families had moved out west after the fathers’ demobilizations; Southern California, with its burgeoning economy and welcoming climate, was a beacon to people from other parts of the country, people whose connection to their roots had in any case been severed by the war. L.A. natives were thin on the ground; my sister and I were among the few kids on the block who had been born in California. And the baby boom was under way. Our new neighborhood was awash with kids. At war’s end, millions of adults finally had the long-delayed opportunity to go to bed with one another, and the predictable, whether planned or not, resulted. Now, some of the kids in our neighborhood were fatherless. In addition to the burgeoning birthrate, those years witnessed a rash of divorces after America’s soldiers, having recently returned from Europe and the Pacific, realized, along with their young wives, that they had nothing in common and possibly never did—nothing, that is, other than postadolescent lust and a pressing urge to act on it.

In any case, almost every house on our block contained children, and there was usually a mob of us out on the street. I was one of the younger kids, but there was a wide range. Wide enough so that when my mother bought me a Superman comic I still couldn’t read, I could go to a neighbor, who was going off to college in the fall, to read it to me. There was a wide range of behaviors, too. I don’t remember any serious delinquency—the neighborhood was working-class, but it wasn’t Needle Park or Skid Row—however, some of our playmates were considerably wilder than others. And for whatever reason—perhaps this is merely testament to how safe the neighborhood actually was, with nothing to give parents any basis for serious worry—there wasn’t a lot of adult supervision, so we got up to a fair amount of mischief. There was a park a couple of blocks away, on Willoughby—Poinsettia Park, which still exists, I believe, although its dinky wading pool, a summertime attraction, is now gone—but we didn’t need a park. The street was our playground.

The politics among us were complicated, and probably educational in a subliminal way, good preparation for the world we would encounter as we got older. I’m not talking Lord of the Flies; as I say, there was little outright delinquency. But with that many kids interacting together—somewhere between ten and 20 of us on a day when everybody was out—and with that range of ages, the alliances formed and dissolved, the pecking orders established and undermined, the bullying and defending, the strutting and submitting required constant alertness and considerable social adroitness. Especially if, like me, you were one of the younger kids. You were always conscious of your vulnerability, vulnerability that was social and rarely physical, but no less threatening for that.

Almost any afternoon when I got home from school (first a nursery school in the Cahuenga Pass, then my district elementary school on Melrose Avenue), there was a group of kids already assembled and already organizing some activity. And we’d be out there until our mothers called us in to dinner (with occasional breaks to watch cartoon shows on TV), and then, after eating, we’d venture out again. Often, my sister would flash our porch light on and off as a signal for the revels to recommence. Kids would pour out of their homes to join in the play. In summer, the Good Humor ice-cream truck would jingle by soon after our postdinner reappearance, causing a commotion (and no doubt, over time, extra dental visits). If Pavlov had lived on our block, he wouldn’t have needed to experiment with dogs; that annoying, jingling melody brought us all dashing out to the center of the street in a sort of early flash mob, salivating and howling for our Creamsicles.

And we would play: hopscotch (generally regarded as a sissy game, so I had to pretend not to like it, despite liking it quite a bit), mother-may-I, jump rope, statue-maker (an especially stupid game that for inexplicable reasons—perhaps because it required no special athletic skill—was my favorite), hide-and-seek (particularly exciting after dark, and after I discovered a fabulous and somewhat eerie hiding place where no one ever found me, and which remains my secret to this day), cowboys (Roy Rogers was a special favorite, as, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, were Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry, and running a decidedly distant fourth, Johnny Mack Brown), frontiersmen after Davy Crockett hit big (I had a coonskin cap and a toy flintlock rifle, and as a result was for a while the envy of every other boy on the block), various races on foot, on bicycles, and in our little toy vehicles, and any one of many games we simply invented on the spot.

The older kids were usually masters of the revels. Their dominance was never in question; rarely is hierarchy so unambiguous as when children’s disparate ages are involved. My sister was one of the older kids, along with her friend and almost exact contemporary Linda (they bullied me mercilessly, of course). Our next-door neighbor to the south, Stevie—we called him “Big Stevie” because there were two Stevies in the neighborhood (no points for guessing what we called the other one)—was, with the exception of the kid who’d read me the Superman comic, the oldest of us at maybe 11 or so. A tough kid originally from New York, he was fearless and commanding and mischievous, but with a surprisingly sweet temperament he couldn’t keep entirely hidden, try as he might. He occasionally got into trouble (and once or twice got me into trouble while managing to elude capture himself), but never for anything malicious. Unless you count as malicious throwing folded-up newspapers at the windshields of cars barreling down our street. That one actually brought him a visit from an LAPD detective and an ominous warning. But it wasn’t a typical Big Stevie escapade.

Our little block was like a small village. And like a small village, it had its share of eccentrics. There was a kid named Walter, for example, one of the fatherless kids, a latchkey kid before the term had been invented. There was always a sense of something a little dangerous and uncontrolled about him, something almost feral. He didn’t seem answerable to any rules; he never seemed subject to any adult supervision. Perhaps as a result, he exercised a sort of fascination for us, but it was a fascination closely allied with queasiness. Some hint of disorganization, of anarchy, trailed in his wake. He wasn’t particularly nasty, but he wasn’t terribly friendly either; there was an unsettling absence of affect about him. What we sensed, it seems to me now, looking back, was probably really there, some serious emotional disturbance that would remain with him his entire life. Uniquely in our little world, I never saw him with a parent, never laid eyes on his mother. I once had a snack in his house, and I recall his pouring what seemed like a ton of sugar on his cereal. It was the sort of thing no parent would stand for, and no kid with a strong parental presence in his or her life would dare do, even unseen. For a period of several weeks, he sported a Mohawk haircut, a rather shocking sight on a kid who couldn’t have been older than nine or ten (and wasn’t a member of that particular tribe). And to cap it off, he actually briefly had a pet monkey; that certainly seemed appropriately weird. We all maintained a cautious distance from Walter.

And there were two aging sisters who lived a couple of doors down from us, one of whom was so deep in dementia that she had long conversations with the plants in her little garden and sometimes yelled angrily at nothing at all. She terrified me; I equated her with the hag in the animated Disney film Snow White. She never offered me a poisoned apple, though. She never offered me anything. I didn’t feel deprived.

And there was Stanley, another kid raised by a single mother, a boy my age, who … well, let’s just say he was a fairly simple soul, famous among us for his credulity. Possibly, I realize in hindsight, undeservedly. To wit:

In the rear of our duplex were three garages: Two of them housed cars, our own and our duplex neighbors’. But one of them was used as an all-purpose storeroom. In that storeroom was a folding bed, a very old radio console, some aged tacky furniture, and a variety of obsolete appliances. A group of us—including my sister, her friend the aforementioned Linda, our next-door neighbor Larry, our neighbor Big Stevie, and me—earnestly assured Stanley that the garage was in actual fact a spaceship. He didn’t question this assertion and happily assented to join us on a journey to Mars. We took some official-seeming preparatory steps, closed the garage door, made sure Stanley was seated comfortably and safely, and began monkeying with some of the old appliances and dialing the knobs on the old console radio. Blastoff!

Stanley never questioned our ability to travel to an alien planet, and for years thereafter we all found great amusement recalling his simple-minded gullibility and the way we had tricked him. It’s only now, thinking about this so many decades later, that it occurs to me how unlikely it is that he was actually taken in. As far as Stanley was concerned, I’m now convinced, he was just playing along with our imaginary spaceship game. Not only was he not fooled, he probably didn’t even realize we were trying to fool him. He was just glad to be included in our play.

So it turns out we were the credulous ones. But regardless, it was a great day, and a source of great hilarity for years to come, even if the hilarity was misplaced.

Illustrations by Yann Kebbi

Our block was walking distance from a neighborhood movie theater, the Gordon. Across the street from the theater was a little burger stand, Pink’s by name, that has since become something of an L.A. landmark, a tourist destination. People from around the world actually make pilgrimages to Pink’s for reasons that puzzle me. We’re not talking Maxim’s here; it’s an unpretentious burger joint. It definitely wasn’t a landmark for us. It was just a convenient local place to grab a greasy bite before jaywalking across the street—I often had to wait for one of the bigger kids to help me dodge the cars and dash across La Brea, a major, quite trafficky thoroughfare—for a bleary-eyed Saturday afternoon at the movies. The matinees on Saturday were “kiddie matinees,” a full day’s worth of entertainment. Often, a large proportion of the kids in our neighborhood would make the trek over to the Gordon; we’d go as a mob or simply meet up there. Some of the older, more adventurous kids (yes, that would include Big Stevie) would sneak in through the rear exit, although I never had the guts or the inclination to try that. The ten-cent tab didn’t seem excessive. Under the direction of its manager, one Mr. Hart, the theater provided us with a cartoon, a short subject or episode of a serial, a newsreel, trailers, and a double bill. And there was usually some sort of audience contest between the two feature films. I don’t remember what the prizes were; I never won, despite four years’ worth of weekly attendance.

Even in the flatlands, show business was never very far away. I mean, hell, these were the Hollywood flatlands. We were all conscious, however dimly or naively, of the proximity of glamour. Sometimes at night, from our front porch, we could see those vertical lights piercing the sky in the middle distance, signaling a glitzy premiere at a movie theater up on Hollywood Boulevard. (I heard much later that those lamps were war surplus, available at rather cheap rental rates now that the threat of a Japanese air invasion was no longer deemed imminent.)

It was one of the most-frightening moments of my life. I truly thought we were going to be hauled off to jail.

There were two studios within walking distance of our block of North Detroit Street. One was the legendary, grandiose Samuel Goldwyn Studios—originally built by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, it had changed hands several times in subsequent years—and the other, the much-more-modest KCOP studios; KCOP was a local TV station owned by the Copley Press group, channel 13 on your dial, and it was pretty dime-store, largely producing cheapjack local programing. But it rented its facilities out to movie and TV production units as well.

We used to sneak onto both. The Goldwyn studio had security guards, but it was very large, and under the guidance and in the company of Big Stevie, I’d get through a fence in a remote section of the lot that was inadequately policed. We wandered the alleyways and the deserted soundstages and never got caught. I remember my excitement when we once chanced upon the shoeshine stand from Guys and Dolls, a movie I’d just seen. It was sitting unceremoniously in a narrow alley between two soundstages. I recognized the prop instantly. It was almost like chancing upon a celebrity. I half-expected Stubby Kaye to wander by, take a seat, and demand a shine.

Big Stevie and I hit pay dirt at KCOP one day. We snuck in—I can’t remember how, but it couldn’t have been easy, since the facility was small, with only one entrance, and a parking lot and a guard right in front—and quickly found ourselves on a darkened soundstage. Where, to our astonishment and combined elation and horror, a filming was in progress! Crew—a fairly large crew—lights, camera, and actors performing. We looked at each other, both holding warning fingers to our lips, and tried to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible.

They were shooting a western, which we eventually learned was an episode of the TV series Death Valley Days. The scene was set in a cowboy-style parlor where men and women in 19th century dress-up were cutting, serving, and eating a big frosted cake and talking about something or other. Big Stevie and I stood quietly in the darkened back of the soundstage and watched them shoot several takes.

And then we were discovered.

It was one of the most-frightening moments of my life. I truly thought we were going to be hauled off to jail. “Look,” somebody announced, pointing to Big Stevie and me, “a couple of Dead End Kids!” I didn’t know what that meant, but was pretty sure it didn’t augur well. Of course, I was only six years old. If I was a Dead End Kid, I must have been a pretty damned precocious one, and one about to be consigned to the less-than-tender ministrations of the police. For how long would I be locked up? What would my parents say?

And then somebody, presumably the director, said to us, “Do you think you kids can stay quiet?” Not sure why he was asking, we nevertheless assured him we could. There was a pause. Then he said, “OK, you can stay. But not a sound!”

It was shocking. It was the last thing we expected. We were in hog heaven. God knows how many insurance regulations the fellow was violating, but Big Stevie and I went from panic to exultation in less than a minute. Not only were we not on our way to indefinite incarceration, we could actually remain and watch.

During a break, when a camera was being repositioned, Big Stevie suddenly spoke up, saying to one of the actors, “I’ve seen you in a movie.” He was bold that way. And the man answered, “No, you’ve seen me on TV. I’m in Superman.” Of course! We both had that “Of course!” reaction simultaneously. It was Robert Shayne, who played the recurring character Inspector Henderson, Superman’s ally in the MPD. As soon as he said it, it was obvious.

Nirvana!

And as if all this weren’t enough for one day, after they wrapped, someone asked us if we’d like some of the cake used in the scene. I would have said yes like a shot—it looked delicious, a dense white cake with thick white frosting, pure sugar rush—but Big Stevie, for whatever reason, politely declined, and I thereupon felt compelled to do the same. His extra four or five years conferred that kind of authority on him. I’ve regretted the decision ever since.

Despite all the showbiz stuff, and despite the fact that we were living in one of the largest cities on the planet, it really did feel, and continues to feel in the rearview mirror, like we were living in a small town or hamlet. There were no fences or gates in front of anyone’s house, there were no locked doors. Every kid’s house was a welcoming refuge, every kid’s mother was prepared to take us in and make us sandwiches at the drop of a hat, and to discipline us, too, although never to the extent of corporal punishment. Everyone knew everyone else and, to all appearances, liked everyone else. My summer lemonade stand was well-patronized; trick-or-treating at Halloween was a community occasion; the neighborhood was a neighborhood in a virtually Platonic sense, its neighborhoodness perfectly realized.

After I finished with kindergarten, our elementary school was only two blocks away, and it was a regulation L.A. district school, not a one-room little red schoolhouse (I don’t mean to make my childhood sound like The Waltons). Every kid in the neighborhood attended it—except for one tough, ill-behaved future criminal whose despairing parents sent him to a military school, the very existence of which gave me the creeps. We had community paper drives and March of Dimes fund-raisers there, and even got our Salk vaccinations in the schoolyard once, lining up on an overcast day like Army inductees and pretending to be brave. We frequently walked to school together and walked home together, and began playing together almost immediately after arriving at either destination.

After a little less than four years, my family moved again, to a somewhat more upscale neighborhood in West Hollywood. The blacklist was far from over—it had, in fact, almost another decade to run—but my father had found ways to work without attaching his name to his scripts. Writers under the McCarthyite proscription had it a little easier than actors and directors, who by the very nature of their work couldn’t function anonymously or pseudonymously.

Our new house was larger and much more attractive, the new neighborhood greener and more expansive, our new school better maintained and better equipped. But there was only one other kid on our block. Opportunities for play were severely restricted. The move was a major step up for my parents, no question, but for my sister and me, it was the opposite. I have a storehouse of happy memories from the new location, but North Detroit Street was and remains my Combray, the idealized and idyllic Eden of my childhood.


Erik Tarloff is an award-winning TV writer known for All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, and many others, as well as a playwright and New York Times best-selling author. His fourth novel, The Woman in Black, set in 1950s Hollywood, is out now. He lives in Berkeley with his wife, economist Laura Tyson.

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