The Archaeology of Hollywood, Traces of the Golden Age. By Paul G. Bahn. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2014. Hardback, 280 pp. ISBN 978-0-7591-2378-6.
Hollywood is a district within Los Angeles where major motion pictures are made, but it is also a place with a significant and underappreciated past. Many have visited Hollywood to take bus tours that highlight celebrity homes and to stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A substantial number of publications have been produced on the intrigues and history of tinsel town, but none have addressed the archaeological sites buried under razed buildings and concrete sidewalks. Although Paul G. Bahn hints at this potential in this book, he instead shares the district’s history and threatened built environment. Embracing the role of preservationist, Bahn accuses Hollywood, and the region at large, of forsaking the aged homes, watering holes, and studios of the first movie stars. In an attempt to demonstrate the significance and uniqueness of these threatened places, Bahn invites the reader to consider how an “alien archaeologist” would interpret this unique material culture. Indeed, this Golden Age civilization, like Teotihuacan, had residential spaces, commercial zones, and even ritual areas that have been forgotten.
One of the most popular tourist destinations and archaeological sites of the Los Angeles area is the La Brea tar pits. Bahn uses this site to remind us that the archaeological record of Los Angeles stretches thousands of years into our past and is represented by human and faunal remains as well as ritually killed artifacts. The author briefly mentions the historic period as he rushes through California’s Spanish history and mid-nineteenth century homesteading.
Something few of us have considered is why film producers would choose a barren wasteland to create movies. How did this dessert come to be named Hollywood? Like a beacon, the California sun has always drawn people to its coast. In the mid-1840s, for example, emigrants like the Donner Party sought out the west for not only land, but for its curative climate. The allure of a dry and warm location with cheap real estate continued into the next century. Here, Bahn provides a solid history of the events that transformed this place into a major motion picture Mecca. This history includes an influx of people from a variety of economic backgrounds including prosperous entrepreneurs such as Max Factor as well as starving actors.
The economic growth of Hollywood (a place needing large banks for big budget films) expressed itself in beautiful, multi-story buildings, elegant homes, and some interesting structures inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamen. Here, the reader will find one of the few references to archaeology when Bahn shares the excavation of an Egyptian movie set from the 1920s—a token, cough medicines, and other items lost and discarded on set were recovered by archaeologists in 1985.
The heart of the book focuses on the industrial, entertainment, and residential zones where the neglect of the buildings and the impact of development have transformed old studios, restaurants, and homes into parking lots, stores, and multi-family housing. Much of this story is told through photographs. Although some of these images are dark, many are fabulous photos of historic buildings and stills from Laurel and Hardy. In addition, Bahn shares an interesting backstory to the Hollywood sign, the significance of movie stars’ hands and feet in front of the Chinese Theater, and our fascination with the Walk of Stars. He closes by discussing the resting place of the “movie greats,” careful to point out the size and style of the tombstone does not always reflect the status of the individual inside—possibly misleading the alien archaeologist. The final curtain to the book is an appendix listing names of dead celebrities and the cemeteries where they are buried.
The Archaeology of Hollywood has almost nothing to do with archaeology. Instead, Bahn uses the lens of an “alien archaeologist” to encourage the reader to forget everything he/she knows about Hollywood and to see the value of what remains as if from a different place and time. In order appeal to a wider audience, the publication would have benefitted from the inclusion of architectural terms and a deeper investigation into the buried past. Despite this, Bahn is a solid writer and will keep his audience engaged with his passion for early movies and through sharing his personal experiences with Hollywood. Although many will be disappointed not to learn about the archaeology in and around Los Angeles, the reader will come away with a greater appreciation of the early days of film and, even better, a respect for historic preservation.
Julie M. Schablitsky
Cultural Resources Section, Maryland State Highway Administration, Baltimore, USA