A hefty amount of motion picture film has been exposed in and around San Diego. Over 700 feature films and television series are known to have originated around the bay since 1898, when a Thomas Edison Company crew caught a streetcar making a downtown curve and horsemen looking to shoot rabbits near the Hotel del Coronado.
But it was Hollywood, an unlikely real estate development a hundred miles north, that became the undisputed world capital of the movies.
The attraction, at first, was the weather. When the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce advertised 350 sunny days per year, Eastern entrepreneurs paid attention in those days when sunlight was the preferred illumination for filming. In 1907 a director and cameraman working for the Selig Polyscope Company and filming The Count of Monte Cristo came out to Los Angeles and La Jolla to finish the film they had started in Chicago. After filming Selig stayed in Los Angeles and established a western branch. Soon after, the Bison Company and then D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Company troupe arrived in Los Angeles. By 1911 Bison, Biograph, and Selig were operating in Los Angeles. This was the same year the Allan Dwan and the American Film Manufacturing Company established a foothold in Lakeside and La Mesa. Not only was the weather better out West but the scenery was more interesting and the work could be carried out far from the squabbling patent wars. Patent wars were attempts to keep movie picture production and distribution within the confines of a few companies.
During this time, battles still raged among inventors claiming basic patents for the new medium. It had only been since 1893 that Thomas Edison exhibited the first moving pictures to an audience, at a music hall in New York. Already movies were everywhere, in storefront theatres, on vaudeville bills, at carnivals, and through the aperture of peep shows called “nickelodeons,” because they charged just a nickel. By 1908, there were 8,000 to 10,000 of these around the country.
How did San Diego fit into all this? Quite comfortably, with studios sprouting in Lakeside, La Mesa and Coronado. And the opening, in 1915, of the Panama-California Exposition, brought to Balboa Park an assortment of architecture and landscapes irresistible for fantasy of all sorts, then and now.
By the time the exposition grabbed the world’s attention, though, Hollywood had become the undisputed capital of the new art, in America if not the world. One lived in Beverly Hills, one played in Santa Barbara or San Diego, but one worked in Hollywood.
What happened? Probably the same thing that led the man-made port of San Pedro to surpass gorgeous San Diego Bay as the preferred stop for cargo in Southern California: A combination of rail access, more metropolitan amenities and a savage streak of civic boosterism.
When film workers began forming unions in the Depression, they formalized Hollywood’s status in negotiations with the producers, establishing the Zone, an area within a 30-mile radius of La Cienega and Beverly Boulevards, where the producers had an office. Inside the Zone was home territory. Outside was the rest of the world. One might as well shoot in Seville as San Diego; per diem had to be paid. And the Zone still rules the rules today.
Off-duty film folk loved heading south. La Jolla’s La Valencia Hotel was widely known as a trysting nook for sexual adventures. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood social lions in the early days, bought a ranch in the North County. And, during Prohibition, the nearest legal drink was in Tijuana, right through San Diego.
There were reasons to justify the added bother and expense of packing a production unit down to San Diego, too. While there were plenty of downtowns, waterfronts, beaches, mountains and even deserts within the Zone, there also was a growing metropolis filling them up. San Diego offered more room, fewer improvements and new vistas.
The grand old Hotel del Coronado was a major attraction to film scouts, even though the best movie ever shot in San Diego, Some Like It Hot, used the hotel as a stand-in for Florida.
Balboa Park might have turned into a major Hollywood satellite if only the city’s Board of Park Commissioners hadn’t been so careful and wise in passing out permission to use the city’s principal jewel. And the city’s military installations have proven and continue to prove a true bonanza for Hollywood, an easily-controlled location with lots of thrilling hardware and stalwart fighting men not doing much else between wars.
Like most of Southern California, San Diego has always had an easy relationship with the movies and their makers. Unlike most of the other Zone neighbors, though, the city in the southwest corner might have provided a genuine alternative site for the Zone’s center.
But the spark was never struck.
The city has passed on to the movies plenty of handsome and talented performers — from Faye Emerson to Annette Bening, from Harold Lloyd to Benicio del Torrio — but never a major creative force. That’s not unusual, though, for San Diego, a city which seems incapable of generating authors, composers, choreographers, playwrights or poets.
Maybe it’s the air or the gentle beauty of the setting. Perhaps it’s the lack of character-building challenges, or a benign atmosphere. Whatever the reason, San Diego has always enjoyed the movies without seeing much reason to exert itself. So Hollywood became Hollywood and San Diego stayed San Diego.
Welton Jones recently retired from the San Diego Union-Tribune where he wrote about the arts and history for 35 years.