Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

 

Almira Hershey – Hollywood Hotel”

THE LADY IN THE SHADOWS.

By

Delores Hanney

 

 

 

Edited by Marilyn Slater

photos added

Looking-for-Mabel

July 30, 2015

  Miss Almira Hershey arrived in Los Angeles from Muscatine, Iowa in 1894, a redoubtable, well-educated maiden of fifty, with mountains of money inherited from her rancher-cum-lumber-baron father -- along with a bank to keep it in.  Cosmopolitan and cultured, she spoke French and German fluently, painted in watercolors and oils, and was an accomplished pianist with a penchant for belting out bits of Bach on a whim.

 

Ensconced straight away at the Melrose Hotel, a grand affair planted on chi-chi Bunker Hill, Hershey found her inspiration and immediately set herself to the design of homes on this hill that was the epicenter of upper crust Angeleno society, the first one being her own fashioned after a chateau.  Her designs fetched instant approval. As the houses were built they were swiftly claimed by the city’s super-solvent and socially salient, bathing her in a satisfying splash of success. 

 

During a visit to her hometown she felt moved to finance the construction of a badly needed hospital.  In a snit upon learning of her charity, on January 14, 1901 The Los Angeles Times published a snotty editorial disdainful of her choice to build a hospital where she no longer lived, when her new home city was ever so kindly enriching her and had many crucial needs of its own, most specifically a library.  It was in response to this attack that Almira Hershey slipped into near invisibility.  She also deleted Muscatine from her munificence list for its braggadocios faux pas in spilling the information regarding her gift.

 

One morning in 1903, whilst reading the newspaper, her attention was caught by an ad for the new Hollywood Hotel and dining room.  By late afternoon she had checked in and was almost as quickly a shareholder.  Within a couple of years she was launched on a whole new career path as the hotel’s sole owner.  Whipping out her sketchpad, she celebrated by planning an expansion enthusiastically embellishing it with cupolas, balconies, arches and awnings inventing as she went a style one might call “Victorian-Mission.”  The new wings allowed for her own personal quarters, a ballroom, a chapel and a really swell music room, the whole of it surrounded by green lawns and gorgeous gardens.

 

          In her natal years as a hotelier, Hollywood was a languid little village of occasionally eccentric homes snuggled amongst mustard fields and lemon groves.  The hotel was the heart of its civic life, serving as the gathering spot for community functions and the launching site for sales spiels and tours by local developers. Some of the hotel’s visitors had been lured by direct mail promotions promising “the broad Pacific may be seen from the veranda” and inviting the distant recipients to come partake of the hotel’s “unusually attractive accommodations” and “cool ozone-laden breezes.”

 

By 1910 film folk began moving in and it became the favorite caravansary for moviemakers, including Mabel Normand, Alla Nazamova and Rudolph Valentino, above whose customary dining tables glittered stars emblazoned with their names.  The hotel was sometimes turned into a movie set.  One of those occasions came in 1914 for the first feature-length comedy film, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, starring Mabel, Marie Dressler and Charlie Chaplin[1]. 

 

While the wide veranda was fancied most especially by more mature residents for their congenial gossip and brag fests, younger guests were attracted to the hotel’s Thursday afternoon tea dances at which Valentino sometimes thrilled with the tango.  No Irene Castle, Almira Hershey was nevertheless keen about dancing; what she lacked in rhythm she made up in zeal.  In judicious response to duty, all the young men lined up to twirl her about the dance floor from the first tune to the last, cranked out by a three-piece ensemble[2].

 

Around the turn of the twentieth century, leaking out from the city’s core on it’s 16-mile swoop to the sea, Wilshire Boulevard was the new area of choice for L.A.’s elite, boasting mansions of leading citizens and retirees from the East.  Here, located near lush Westlake Park where band concerts and boat rides provided pleasing entertainments, in 1907 Hershey’s second hotel became the street’s first commercial building.  

 

Outside, the Hershey Arms was an English Renaissance glory with semi-tropical gardens; inside it was airy and exotically furnished, a package that proved popular with winter visitors and society women.  Miss Hershey never actually operated the hotel. Rather it was leased out to another commanding woman: vociferous animal activist Helen Mathewson, fresh from her gig managing L.A.’s Coronado Hotel, which had been destroyed by fire due to defective wiring.

 

Hershey’s third hoteling venture was in some ways the most intriguing.  On the outskirts of Long Beach, a-swirl with canals, Naples Island was a lovely, Italianesque offering similar to Abbot Kinney’s Venice-of-America -- sans its amusement park aspect.  It was potentiated by access to Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric trolley line -- the same Huntington was president of the Naples Company and had a hand in a multitude of other real estate schemes.  Hershey invested in numerous lots, among them the most desirable: an outsized property with a 180o view of the water, approachable by the Colonnade Canal.  Huntington was gleeful to learn the lot had been purchased by a hotelkeeper and undertook to convince her to build one on Naples.  She was less than rhapsodic at the prospect.  Miss Hershey was, however, well able to hold her own with the transportation tycoon and in the end she struck a savvy bargain. 

 

On its face, the Napoli Hotel bore a resemblance to its Hollywood Hotel sister: a pale-toned stucco edifice capped by a roof of red tiles.  It was distinguished by fine woodworking details and beneath its twin cupolas reclined a large loggia from which perch the expansive vista might be enjoyed.  The interior was an orgy of swanky 1909 elegance. But the hotel never took in paying guests!

 

Huntington seated Hershey on the Naples Company Board of Directors and leased the Napoli from her through 1917, along with its adjacent Pompeian Cafe.  When the lease expired, he extended it via a payment of more Naples Island lots, many of them waterfront.  In addition to serving as a focal point for the palmy resort subdivision, the Napoli Hotel made a fine investor-enticer prominently featured on sales brochures and used as the venue for Naples Company soirees. She sold it in 1927.

 

Always as peppy as the Energizer Bunny, Almira Hershey not only managed her considerable assets and ran a busy hotel; she was endowed with a sharp sense of civic obligation and sturdily burnished her adopted community through activities with various organizations.  One of them was reform-minded Caroline Severance’s Friday Morning Club, the special interests of which were women’s education and suffrage.

 

She also held lifetime memberships in Charles Lummis’ groups: the Landmarks Club was concerned with the repair and conservation of the California missions, the Sequoya League provided food rations to Indian people, and the Southwest Society (which segued into the Southwest Museum) to which she made hefty donations in facilitation of purchases of important collections still under museum preservation, was dedicated to the American Indian.  In her correspondence with Lummis, Hershey made it clear that her bounteousness was to be kept private, and she sometimes used an alias: Mrs. Moore.

 

She created housing for Normal School students, the first being her own Bunker Hill chateau when she assumed permanent residency in her Hollywood Hotel apartment. She was stirred to respond to Hollywood’s need for a local hospital after a guest of the Hollywood Hotel became so ill he couldn’t make it to the nearest hospital -- located at some distance in Los Angeles-- and instead had to be taken by the house doctor to a nearby insane asylum for treatment.  She was the originator, designer and chief funds provider of the Los Angeles Women’s Club, built at Tenth and Figueroa on two lots she already owned. 

 

 

 

 

 

Miss Hershey played a significant role in the genesis of the Hollywood Bowl.  Her hotel functioned as headquarters for the Hollywood Bowl Association, and during the Bowl’s formative days was the scene of a good deal of verbal action. Hershey made fifty acres known as Daisy Dell, which enfolded the natural amphitheatre, available to the association for just $20,000.00.  It took $27,000.00 to obtain from others the remaining nine acres needed for the project.  Here, again, she kept a low profile and some histories of the Hollywood Bowl’s formation make little or no mention of her, or else she is referred to as “anonymous.”

 

          Philanthropic and formidable, Hershey’s tireless respectability was balanced by a certain disheveled klutziness, evidenced by broach disguised gravy spots on her dresses, the sheer number of which lent her an air of a lavishly war-medaled general.  The monthly misplacement of her Ohio Electric car when visiting her downtown attorney was another example of doddering dignity.  When her business with the lawyer was nearly complete, his secretary would simply put out a call for the police to go find the missing vehicle.

 

On March 6, 1930 Almira Hershey died at her beloved Hollywood Hotel.  Her benevolence towards Los Angeles persisted in death.  In her will, along with a whole passel of artwork, she bequeathed the sum of $300,000.00 to UCLA for the building of the university’s first dormitory, stipulating it was for use by women students.  She left UCLA another $100,000.00 to fund student loans; while another $200,000.00 was given in varying amounts to the Southwest Museum and numerous social service organizations.  The remainder of her two million dollar estate went to her niece – she had previously settled upon her three grandnephews a plethora of valuable real estate.

 

It wasn’t discovered till after her death  that some five years earlier Hershey had been the financial founder of an affiliate of L.A.’s Good Samaritan Hospital.  Good Hope Hospital was named in memory of an Oklahoma oil field that had blessed her most bountifully.  She clandestinely furnished 2343 shares of Weyerhaeuser Company stock, worth about two million dollars, for the provision of aid to people of moderate incomes faced with the need of imperative but unaffordable medical services.  Recipients of this revolutionary form of assistance were expected to pick up a sliding-fee share of the tab. There was speculation, at the time of this finding, of additional acts of altruism that might forever remain secret.

 

Usually identified as Mira or Myra, though none presumed to address her in any way but “Miss Hershey,” for her time and her gender Almira Hershey lived a large life. It seems long overdue to draw her out from the shadows, to at last begin receiving the recognition she deserves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1]  His year at Keystone culminated with the first feature-length comedy film, “TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE” starring Marie Dressler with Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand ). 

 

[2] 1952, Hopper, Hedda, FROM UNDER MY HAT “The Thursday night dances at the hotel were almost as famous as those at the old Sixty Club in New York.  People came from all over town to watch them do their stuff.

The hotel was owned by a maiden lady named Hershey, a member of the chocolate family.  She ran things in a haphazard manner, and it was years before she caught onto the fact that actors sometimes will enter actresses’ rooms.” 

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photos of the Hollywood Bowl site are from, Kirsten Anderberg & Bruce Terrence website