Wilcox Hotel, Hollywood, corner of Wilcox and Selma, circa 1930s, Los Angeles Public Library photography archives
You cannot trigger a falling with physical coordinates alone. I think this is a common mistake people make with time travel. Visit the Tower of London and be whisked back in time to the beheading of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. It doesn’t work that way. It takes more than an address, more than longitude and latitude. Weather is involved as well, and time of day and angle of the light, and state of mind. And importantly, Mood. And more important still, Energy.
You must also be careful not to assume that every vacant lot you come upon was once the site of something historical, or that some interesting building had to be demolished to make way for something else, or for parking. Not in Los Angeles at any rate. There are empty lots in this town that have always been empty, without significance or consequence. So you should not stand in the tour bus parking area behind the El Capitan Theatre and try to imagine what older structures stood there when the theater was built in 1926. In 1926 real estate developer Charles E. Toberman (1880 – 1981, ten years younger than William, from Texas, his mother Lucy died in 1904) was in the process of making Hollywood into Hollywood, had already built the Egyptian (1922) and was in the process of completing the Roosevelt Hotel (1927) and Grauman’s Chinese (1927). And yes, although Hollywood Boulevard might have been an unpaved stretch of road through orange groves in 1904, it was definitely a city street in the 20s and in the 30s when William was living on Selma Avenue and walking or taking the streetcar on Hollywood Boulevard to the theater; it was not open country and buildings did get pulled down to make way for newer, bigger, grander structures. And yet you didn’t have to go far to get a sense of change, of a landscape in transformation, of a place being made for the first time.
I am trying to get better at seeing. I walk from Highland east on Selma, past the white pillared “New England” style Baptist Church at Las Palmas, on to Cherokee and Schrader and toward Wilcox, to 6526 Selma Avenue which The Los Angeles Voter Register lists as William’s place of residence in 1928 when he was one of the Henry Duffy Players and possibly where he was still living in 1933 when he was appearing in Bridal Wise at the El Capitan half a dozen blocks away at 6838 Hollywood Boulevard. 6526 is now a parking lot directly adjacent to the old Wilcox Hotel which is now the Mama Shelter Hotel, a chic hipster hotel and restaurant with German speaking visitors unloading luggage from a cab at the entrance at 6500 Selma while the doorman talks to another guest and one of the kitchen staff stands around the back side of the building, a young Latin guy, smoking and talking on his cell phone. I want to take a picture but I’m afraid he’ll think I’m photographing him. I turn around and face another empty fenced-in parking area across the street. In the adjacent lot to the north is a long two-story “Spanish” apartment building with tiled roof and arched verandahs on the second floor overlooking the lot, its front entrance on Schrader. I take a picture for no good reason. The right vintage, I suppose. Twenties. Not a careful or focused shot. I question what I’m doing. Nearly all the architecture of Hollywood should be described in quotation marks. “Spanish,” “Tudor,” “Gothic,” Egyptian.” The day is already hot. Nothing is happening.
I walk to the corner of Selma and Wilcox and look around, try to determine what would have been or not been here in William’s day. The Gilbert Hotel stands across the street from the Wilcox. To the north, The Mark Twain Hotel on Wilcox is undergoing renovation, draped in Christo fashion with net shrouds and scaffolding. I try to fill up the empty spaces around it with other structures. This was a sketchy part of town when I moved to L.A. in the 90s, a place to buy drugs and pick up hustlers or get rolled (the Spotlight was a dive a couple blocks further east, Selma at Cahuenga); now the neighborhood appears to be enjoying gentrification, a mini Times Square renewal except that back East the bad parts of town and urban decay exist in a twilight of shadows, dark alleys and gloom. Here there are no shadows; bougainvillea blooms on crack houses, palm trees sway in blue skies. I squint at the bright day, the façade of the Wilcox fresh white and blinding beneath a washed out sky, no clouds. I walk back and the kid is still on his phone, smoking.
Later I find a photograph of the Wilcox Hotel in its day, in the 30s, with a drug store on the ground level where I imagine William went to buy his Clubman talc in the green and white can with the man in tux and top hat on the front, and his toiletries and cigarettes (Did he smoke? Did you smoke?) and I wonder if the store had a soda fountain like Schwab’s on Sunset. And in the picture I see, on the very far right edge, where the guy from the kitchen was standing talking on his phone, just enough of the structure that stood next to the hotel on Selma, is visible: 6526, a two-story Spanish style building with tiled roofs and arched verandahs on the second floor overlooking the street. And I realize I was expecting an old wooden Craftsman bungalow converted to apartments, something with a low front porch and overhanging eaves. And I understand why I noticed the kid in the first place, standing where the front door would have been, and why I looked at the building across the way, similiar in every way, a good stand-in. I am getting better at seeing. I realize I need to pay more attention to what I notice. I am being told what to see by what I see.
I still don’t fall. Not here. It happens a couple days later, early in the morning when I’m still in bed, before I find the photograph of the Wilcox. I wake up to the sound of an old-fashioned cash register, a metallic ca-ching and thunk. I can smell lilac water and bay rum and sandalwood. It’s night and I’m inside, a wooden floor beneath me, warm light overhead. I am wearing a bowler hat. Moving lights swing by outside the plate glass windows filled with displays of merchandise, bottles, boxes, hand-lettered signage, the view fussy with neon. “Gussied up” with neon – I hear a voice inside my head correcting me. The candy colors of the neon reflect and blur the edges of the windows, trimming the blackness outside. It’s late. A boy in a white apron sweeps the aisle. His hair shines glossy black, combed back like a young Valentino sheik. Dark eyes and enviable cheekbones and lips in a pout, concentrating, aware that I am watching him and pretending not to notice, not wanting to meet my gaze too soon. We have seen each other before. I have been here before. I feel a little thrill of anticipation. I am excited to be alive.