Hidden Hollywood: An Explorer's Guide to - Atlas Obscura

An Explorer's Guide to
Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

It's not as imposing as it looks. Rozette Rago
Nature for Nerds

1. Hollywood's Favorite Man-Made Cave

Kick things off with a light hike just a stone’s throw from Hollywood’s main drag. Head up Canyon Drive, park near the playground, and then turn right, on foot, when you see Smokey the Bear. You’re trekking to Bronson Cave, which is roughly 0.2 miles up a gentle slope. The tunnel, at the southwest edge of Griffith Park, dates back to the early 1900s, when it was dug as a quarry for city streets. Rugged and close to film studios, this landscape was too convenient for Hollywood to ignore. Soon, the cave was ready for its closeup: The Batmobile zooms out of the cave in the opening sequence of the 1960s-era Batman TV series.

It takes creative camera angles (or a dash of special-effects magic) to make the cave look deep and dark. In reality, you can walk from one opening to another in less than a minute. When you do, you’re unlikely to see any bats—but you may spot dozens of crows and ravens crouched on the rock walls, or prowling the sky in pursuit of a snack. The birds’ airborne athleticism is captivating, and so are the shadows they cast as they dip and soar. Linger in the rock labyrinth at the mouth of the cave, from which you’ll also have a clear view of the Hollywood Sign, absent any selfie-snapping crowds. Listen to the birds’ caws and the swishing sound of their wings, and forget that there’s a whole city just moments away.

What does a "Bat Cave" sound like offscreen? Listen to the audio postcard below to discover the sounds of Bronson Cave.

3200 Canyon Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90068

Sculptures everywhere you look. Foster Snell
Spectacular Sculptures

2. A Dazzling Hodgepodge in the Hills

When the artist and collector Robby Gordon moved into his home six-and-a-half years ago, there was little landscaping to speak of, just a few shrubby plants and a steep slope of naked dirt. Today, every inch of his property—inside and out—is a medley of paintings and sculptures in metal, plastic, and stone, by more than two-dozen artists. After a few tumbles, Gordon and his collaborators built a staircase and railings, and anyone can stroll the garden on a self-guided tour to appreciate the eclectic installations, which include a 1,000-pound dragon, a turtle made from a bent wok, and spindly, spiraling flowers fashioned from mesh screens and strips of air ducts. (Also: Don’t sleep on the killer view of downtown L.A.)

If Gordon is home—and he often is, scurrying around with artists who work in studios scattered throughout the house—visitors can ask to come indoors. Do it, because the whole place is a canvas. Gordon might hand you a pair of 3-D glasses; put them on and see layers of acrylic paint pop to life all around you, on remote-controlled window shades, on blazers and shirts and ties, on railings, and directly on the wall above the fireplace mantel, where Gordon applied eight gallons. For all its verve, the art’s not exactly slapdash: To make sparkly geological behemoths, Gordon glues gemstones together one at a time. Outside, it took two months to pour and decorate the intricate cement steps, which are inlaid with patterns made from smooth stones, bricks, and keys. The work is ever-evolving, so there’s always a new place for your eye to land. Wind your way back down the coiling streets until you’re at Bronson and Franklin.

2430 Vasanta Way, Los Angeles, CA 90068

Covert Hideout

3. The Hidden Forest at Bourgeois Pig

The front half of this charmingly ad-hoc cafe is full of screenwriters whittling away at their prose. Eavesdrop if you must, but then grab an iced tea or cold-brew coffee and head to the back, where you’ll find a forest glen—dark and quiet, with groves of thick tree trunks and branches. Perch yourself on one of the low-slung couches or inside the cozy, two-seat treehouse and dim your phone or computer to keep your light pollution to yourself. Once your eyes adjust, watch for the owl roosting beneath the moon lamp and panels of flickering lights, looking every bit like zillions of trapped fireflies.

5931 Franklin Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90068

The historic apartment building is still standing, even as construction booms around it. Rozette Rago
Scenic Route

4. Two Buildings With Stories to Tell

Give your feet and lungs a break with a quick bus ride over to your next stop. Board a DASH Hollywood bus at the Northeast corner of Franklin and Bronson. The short trip will only cost you $0.50, and you’ll get to savor some sights as you fly past. On the south side of the street, just before Argyle Avenue, you’ll get a great view of the Hollywood Tower apartments, the off-kilter building that was one of the inspirations for Disneyland’s Tower of Terror ride. And just beyond it, you’ll see the headquarters of Capitol Records. Let your eyes wander up to the spire, where a red light blinks out “Hollywood” in Morse code. Exit the bus at Highland and Franklin, and continue west on Franklin.

6200 Franklin Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90028

The collection is open to club members and curious visitors. Rozette Rago
Movie Museum

5. Classic Camera Collection at the American Society of Cinematographers

As you approach Orchid Avenue, you’ll notice a mansion cordoned off from the sidewalk by thick hedges. Just in case the turrets didn’t give it away: This is the famous Magic Castle, L.A.’s most vaunted haunt for magicians. Scoring an invite requires a bit of contortion—and even if you are granted entry as a guest, fees are steep. Skip that spectacle for now, and stop in to a somewhat less-mysterious clubhouse across the street. The American Society of Cinematographers moved here in 1936—17 years after its founding—and renovated the home of the silent film star Conway Tearle as a den where male cinephiles played poker and puffed cigars when their workdays wrapped. Now, the clubhouse opens its doors to anyone who wants to take a look around; just call ahead to make sure there’s no members-only event going on.

All around the plush chairs and sofas in the organization’s main lounge, you’ll find a camera collection that traces the history of moving pictures—from a lantern-like projector that beamed a single image to the 1890s-era Edison Kinetoscope, in which a penny rolled 50 feet of film. (This one is mid-restoration.) Other highlights include early, 30-pound digital cameras and the Mitchell BNC 2 on which Gregg Toland captured Citizen Kane. The walls are sometimes lined with evocative still photographs, too. 

1782 N Orange Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90028

It's a long way up. Rozette Rago
Architectural Oddities

6. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samuel Freeman House and the High Tower Elevator

To experience these architectural wonders on foot, you have to get a little winded. When you leave the ASC, turn right on Franklin, and then head straight up Hillcrest before jogging right on Glencoe. Your first destination is at the end of this winding residential block. Meet the Freeman House, a squat, textile-block building by Frank Lloyd Wright, and now in the custody of USC’s School of Architecture. Built in 1924 from square, concrete slabs made from hillside sand, it looks like a hybrid of a modernist shower stall and an Egyptian tomb. Many of the blocks are imprinted with distinctive shapes—though scholars haven’t agreed on exactly what they are. Work to repair old earthquake damage and insulate the structure against future rumbles has been somewhat fitful, and the home is currently closed to the public. Still, there’s plenty to appreciate from the outside. Look for the ways that the sandstone and the green call your attention to the surrounding landscape, like the cacti and the canyons, far below and also baked into the house’s very foundation.

You can get to the next stop on foot, or view it from a distance by driving to the intersection of Camrose Drive and High Tower Drive. If you're walking from the Freeman House, continue along Glencoe until it dead ends at a stone staircase on your left. Take it and veer right, and you’ll find yourself on a winding passageway shaded by palm fronds that dapple the light. When you reconnect with the asphalt, you’ll see the century-old High Tower Elevator off in the distance. This five-story machine—modeled after Italian campaniles, or bell towers—spares the residents of this hilly neighborhood from having to hoof and huff up hundreds of stairs each day. For a closer view, follow the bend until you can turn right on Yeager Place. Then, get ready to climb. You’ll have plenty to distract you as you navigate your way up: Darting lizards, bursts of bougainvillea, the serrated edges of aloe leaves the size of your arm. When you make it to the top, you might get to see it in motion if a resident is taking a ride—they're the only ones with access. Otherwise, enjoy the secluded retreat, glimpse the buildings far below, and then start your descent.

1962 Glencoe Way, Los Angeles, CA 90068

The museum compiles decades of Hollywood history, in the form of miniatures, menus, props, and more. Kevin Jordan
Hollywood Heritage

7. A Barn With a Glamorous History

In the early 20th century, Hollywood was sleepy and pastoral, a patchwork of orchards and stables. The film industry was still centered in New York City, and West Coast auteurs were reluctant to spring for purpose-built construction. They made films wherever they could, and that’s how Cecil B. DeMille came to use a barn at the corner of Sunset and Vine as a set for The Squaw Man, a feature-length Western, and the first full-length motion picture made in Hollywood. The crew ponied up $250 per month, and, at first, the equine tenants weren’t evicted—the filmmakers just worked around them, shooting under natural light (eventually, they even ran the film over to an on-site lab for developing). But as the industry grew and DeMille’s operations expanded, the barn hit the road: Loaded up on a truck, it rolled to Melrose, and then Hollywood Boulevard, before landing on this site in 1985.

That’s why you’ll find it here, when you leave the High Tower Elevator, at the intersection of Vine and Camrose. These days, it’s the Hollywood Heritage Museum, whose exterior has been restored to highlight the barn’s various functions over the years—as a set, as an office, as a gym where would-be stars trimmed down and bulked up. If you catch it on the weekend, go inside and marvel at salvaged theater seats, menus and ashtrays from the Brown Derby, and a smattering of props (a spear from DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, from 1956, is still sharp). If the museum is closed, check out the interpretive plaques, and if you happen by on a day when there’s a show at the nearby Hollywood Bowl, you might just find an array of picnic tables on the lawn, inviting you to sit awhile.

2100 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

One martini, please. Andy Guest/Alamy
Luxurious Meal

8. Dine Like an Old Hollywood Star

The Musso & Frank Grill claims to be Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, and it has some strong evidence in its corner. There’s the princely dinnerware and the attentive waiters, looking smart in crisp suit coats. There’s the martini, served with two plump olives and a sidecar chilling on crushed ice. There’s a pair of handsome phone booths where, even with the ringers dead, it’s easy to imagine someone taking a call about a big break. And then there’s the food, the likes of which are rarely seen this side of the 1960s. If you stop in for a late-afternoon tipple, you’ll beat the crowd and be able to hear ice cubes clinking alongside jazz tunes. Sidle up to the bar and tuck into jellied consommé, iceberg wedges with bleu cheese, a shrimp cocktail the size of a goblet, or celery stuffed with Roquefort and cream cheese and flecked with olives and paprika. Now you’re eating like a tastemaker of yore.

6667 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

Marvelous Murals

9. Hieroglyphs in the Egyptian Theatre Courtyard

When the movie impresario Sid Grauman prepared to open the Egyptian Theatre, in 1922, the theme was no accident: It capitalized on the frenzied race to find and open King Tut’s tomb. (Following years of combing the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptologist Howard Carter cracked open KV62 just a few weeks after the theater’s first screening.)

The courtyard featured tall palm trees, hulking busts of pharaohs, and enormous murals inspired by hieroglyphs—and today they’re holding up well, after a $500,000 restoration underwritten by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 2016. The work included repairing water damage that left the portico crumbling, patching up cracks that fractured the murals, and refreshing the paint (sponges helped imitate the patterns of sandstone). Even if you don’t go in to watch a special screening, the quiet courtyard is worth a visit. The bases around the palms are a great place to get your bearings, and—if you ignore the visible billboards and the the signs peddling soup and panini—the murals will transport you back in time.

6712 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

The century-old film set was even more opulent than the reproduction. Rozette Rago
Larger-Than-Life Installation

10. A Long-Lost Set, Brought Back to Life

On a passably warm evening, you might see hundreds of people milling around the shopping center at Hollywood and Highland, popping in and out of Victoria’s Secret, Hot Topic, or Dave & Buster’s. The scene looks like something plucked from any slick suburban mall... until you notice that people are walking across a soaring gate flanked by massive pachyderms. This is Babylon Court, and it’s a replica of the set of D. W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance, which filmed nearby on Sunset Boulevard. When the movie wrapped, the colossal set (its walls were nearly 100 feet tall) was left to fall into ruin. It was eventually torn down.

In a posthumous essay in the Paris Review, the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury took credit for the idea of reviving the design. When a planning group approached him about creative ways to freshen up the strip, he said he persuaded them that some version of the Intolerance set should be front and center. “People from all over the world come to visit, all because I told them to build it,” he wrote. “I hope at some time in the future, they will call it the Bradbury Pavilion.” For now, it’s a monument to the mammoth ambitions of early filmmaking.

6801 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

An artistic spot for a dip. Hemis/Alamy
Splash Zone

11. Retro Pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

When this 1920s-era hotel renovated a few years ago, after periods of hard-partying shenanigans, the pool stayed intact. That’s because it’s a literal work of art: In 1988, the painter David Hockney, known for his highly saturated depictions of light rippling through water, went to town on the bottom of the pool, marking it with slews of blue squiggles. From the deck, they look like melted, mutated apostrophes, but to swimmers, the L.A. Times wrote, they seem to “come to life, weaving and dancing and shimmering.” You don’t have to be a hotel guest to hang out by the pool (though you are relegated to the deck, not the water or the loungers)—so follow the signs for “Tropicana Pool,” grab a drink, and decide for yourself.

7000 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

Building on the Brink

12. The Old Hollywood Pacific Theatre

As you loop back from the pool, look for a building on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard, topped with two old radio transmitters. This is the former Warner Hollywood Theatre and onetime home of the radio station KFWB, and it has some fun architectural Easter eggs (along with an uncertain preservation future). Look closely at the letters marching down the towers, and you’ll see that one sides reads “Pacific” while the other says “Warner,” because it wasn’t changed when the building changed hands from Warner Bros. to Pacific Theaters in the late 1960s. When the original theater opened in 1928, it could seat 2,700 people, but it was badly bruised in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. It has been largely vacant since, save for sporadic screenings and a stint as a church. For now, it’s in limbo.

6433 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

Ready for your closeup? Rozette Rago
Beautiful Bank

13. Mosaic Movie Montages

This Chase bank branch is worth a visit even if you don’t need to withdraw any cash. Long before it was a financial institution, it was the site of scenes in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man, filmed in 1913. When it became a bank, in 1968, this movie and many others were immortalized in mosaics and stained glass panels, which you can see whether the tellers are open or closed.

1500 Vine St. Los Angeles, CA 90028

Finish the day at the Frolic Room. Robert Landau/Alamy
Decades-Old Dive

14. Frolic Room

This 84-year-old bar might as well have assigned seats. On any given night, you may find regulars installing themselves on the red stool of their choice, buying packs of cigarettes from a neon vending machine, or ponying up for $4.50 beers and $2 popcorn freshly made in an old-school Dun-Hot machine. Legend has it that this watering hole was once a speakeasy for visitors entering from a secret entrance in the Pantages theater, next door. Now, anyone can enter through the front door, beneath a wild neon sign, and check out a mural by the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who illustrated a cast of famous characters wailing on trumpets, puffing on cigars, or sipping on drinks. Look for Marilyn Monroe, mid-giggle, or Harpo and Groucho Marx, gawking at the action from behind a column. Introduce yourself to the bartenders, and you might get your drink with a splash of local lore.

6245 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

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Coachella Valley Preserve.

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A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

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The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

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