Tag Archives: Early Hollywood

The deMille Chair

9 Feb
My father’s birth certificate, 1927

In recent weeks, my sisters, in acts of decluttering, have been sending me all kinds of family documents: photos, wills, school certificates, and official papers from my parents and grandparents. I have become, by default, the family historian. Amid all of these items–including my father’s report cards and spelling tests from the 4th grade!–I found his birth certificate, something I had never seen before. As all genealogists and archivists can tell you, even the most mundane of old documents can sometimes lead to exciting discoveries, forgotten facts about one’s own family. In some cases, these discoveries can either disprove or substantiate anecdotes that have entered family lore through oral transmission, the truth of which has been lost or never thought about one way or the other once the older generations have passed. And so it was with my father’s birth certificate and the story of the deMille chair.

Some background: my father was born in Los Angeles in 1927, the second son of two new immigrants. My grandfather Robert Jacob Esau was Prussian, from Mennonite family and already in his late 20s when he left Germany in 1910. He was 41 when my father was born. He seems to have spent some years back East and in Florida, and we don’t know exactly when and how he came to California. My grandmother Sofie Overgaard came from Norway via New Mexico and Arizona, arriving in L.A. in 1920. The city was just beginning its phenomenal growth, boosted by the establishment of the film industry in Hollywood; jobs of every sort were there to be had. My grandparents found work in the homes of the newly rich movie moguls, who needed staff to support their lavish lifestyles. According to memories recounted to us by my mother–the only one to ask my father’s parents anything about their past–they met when Sofie worked as a cook in one of these homes, and my grandfather was a chauffeur. Since my uncle, their first-born, arrived in 1924, their meeting must have happened in about 1923, if not earlier. While details are now lost, the family elaborated on this story to claim that their employment had something to do with the residence of Cecil B. deMille. deMille, of course, was the famous early director of silent films who continued to reign in Hollywood into the 1950s, when his spectacles such as “The Ten Commandments” extended his popularity into my generation. The material symbol of my grandparents’ linking to this movie legend was THE CHAIR.

In my grandmother’s tiny Santa Barbara house lived a chair that was proudly identified as one that the grandparents had somehow acquired from the deMille house. I remember it clearly; it had purple upholstery and was rather gaudy to my child’s eyes. I could only find glimpses of the chair in a few photos of the living room at their West Figueroa house, a place that was the touchstone of my and my sisters’ childhood years. 

My sister’s memory of the story includes the tidbit that the chair came from deMille’s mother’s estate. I hadn’t remembered that detail, but my sister spent more time later in life with my grandmother than I did. While we had all incorporated this story into our family lore as children, none of us had ever thought to follow up on the truth of the chair’s origins, or really knew anything about what our grandparents had done when they were younger and lived and worked in Los Angeles. By the time we knew them, our grandfather was totally infirm (he died in 1955), and we just loved our grandmother and never asked her anything about her past (she died in 1985, three weeks after my father, her youngest child, had died, only 57). So the story of the chair just remained a vague anecdote without any possibility of verification.

Until now! My father’s birth certificate revealed one tantalizing clue that opened up a whole thread of speculation.

Under the section listing my father’s father’s occupation, the certificate states “Property Man, Lasky Studios.” That single line “Lasky Studios” led me right to the origins of Hollywood. Jesse Lasky (1880-1958) was one of the founders of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, having formed the Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913 in New York, along with Samuel Goldfish(Goldwyn) and Cecil B. deMille (1881-1959). The group came West in 1914 to make the epic Western, The Squaw Man. Lasky’s sister married Samuel Goldwyn, and Lasky was introduced to deMille by deMille’s mother, who was already a well-known entity in the theatrical world. They decided to stay in California, setting up one of the first film studios in Hollywood. Shortly thereafter, deMille’s mother Beatrice (1853-1923), the successful playwright and literary agent, moved to California as well. By the mid-1920s, Lasky Players had merged with Adolph Zukor’s Players, to become Paramount Pictures, although Lasky still ran his own branch of the company as Lasky Studios.

The film-making group had tremendous success, and by the early 1920s were living in luxury in the burgeoning neighborhoods near their Hollywood studios. deMille had built an elegant villa in 1916 in what was called Laughlin Park (south of Los Feliz Blvd.), next to the home of Charlie Chaplin. His vivacious mother, to whom he was devoted, lived nearby. Lasky, on the other hand, became one of the earliest residents of Belair, the exclusive neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills to the north of what is now UCLA but was then only beanfields.

Back to my family’s chair: that my grandfather is listed as a “Property Man” for Lasky Studios in 1927 seems to substantiate that he was indeed working for Jesse Lasky, the first “movie mogul,” and probably had worked there when he met my grandmother. We had always heard that he was a chauffeur for someone in Hollywood, and such a task may have been understood in the phrase “property man.” My grandmother, too, then, must have worked either for Lasky or for his close associate Cecil B. deMille. In 1927, Lasky Studios actually ceased to exist, as Lasky’s properties and film rosters were now merged to form Paramount Studios, but my grandfather would have still referred to his place of employment as Lasky Studios.

And now the plot–and the speculations–thicken: Beatrice deMille–another woman who should be given more due for her role in early motion pictures and theater–died in 1923, just about the time my grandparents were setting up a household together. (When their children were born, they lived on what looks like a homestead out in the wilds of Thousand Oaks!) In my imagination, then, I can envision some kind of estate sale or even just an open house for employees of the Lasky-deMille group, whereby they could choose an item from Beatrice’s home’s furnishings for their own.

Voila! A possible verification of a family anecdote that we grandchildren took with a grain of salt. I now so wish that we had asked more questions of my grandmother, and spoken to my mother, who had shown an interest in my grandfather’s tales, to learn about their adventures in early Hollywood. But as children, most of us just aren’t interested in what the old folks have to tell us. This may seem like a trivial “discovery,” but for me and my sisters, it’s an exciting piece of a forgotten puzzle. And what fun to do this kind of research!