By Hillel Aron
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By Patrick Range McDonald
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By Jill Stewart
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Determined to get a piece of the nostalgia action, Nudelman then fixed his sights on the old Max Factor building. He hooked up with developer Dadigan as her prospective curator, but once she had raised the capital, Dadigan and Nudelman had a falling-out; he quickly moved on to the rival Hollywood Heritage Inc. as vice president for preservation issues.
At the same time, Nudelman has become a sharp critic of what he considers Hollywood’s boondoggles — including several of Grant’s favorite projects. Now, when confronted with official inquiries, or critical stories in the press, Grant’s first instinct is to accuse Nudelman of meddling, or worse. Their mutual disdain has become a running sideshow for Hollywood insiders.
The forum for that match now is Hollywood Heritage, which Grant joined just last year — some say just to keep tabs on Nudelman. In recent months, Hollywood Heritage has come under fire from Grant’s Chamber of Commerce (Grant himself keeps mum on the question) for alleged mismanagement and mishandling of memorabilia.
The travails of Hollywood Heritage Inc. may best serve to illustrate the unique combination of hucksterism and earnest do-gooding that seems to attend each of the film capital’s preservation projects.
The group was launched in 1982 to take on the operation of the aging building that once housed the Lasky/De Mille Feature Play Company. The goal of Hollywood Heritage was to manage this building, known as the Barn, with little reliance on public funds. A year later, control of the Wattles Mansion also fell to Hollywood Heritage.
With a board composed of Hollywood restorationists, memorabilia collectors and industry types, Hollywood Heritage was regarded as a prestige organization, friend to august industry families like the Laskys and the De Milles. But on the inside, the organization came to be plagued with power plays between factions seeking control of the board, giving rise to allegations of misappropriated funds, privateering at memorabilia auctions, and lease violations.
Cecil B. De Mille’s granddaughter Cecilia was an early donor to the group, and soon became an early critic. She stopped donating, she says, when it became apparent to her that members were pitted against each other. She also questioned the handling of her grandfather’s money. "I gave artifacts and money, but I felt that the Barn wasn’t being run straight," De Mille said in an interview. "I divorced myself from them. I deal with nonprofits all the time, and most are well-run and professional. This is an exception."
Another Hollywood heavy decamped after the Heritage board decided to change the formal name of the museum housed within the Barn from the Hollywood Studio Museum to the current Hollywood Heritage Museum. To Betty Lasky, daughter of filmmaker Jesse L. Lasky, the name change violated the terms of the lease and represented historic blasphemy. "The importance of the museum and what it represents is lost. They have historians on their board, and they should have recognized the importance of the name and the recognition that comes with it," said Lasky. "They are throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars of free publicity they received over the years."
Former Heritage president Birchard responds that the name was changed to clear up confusion. "It was changed because, over the years, people driving by thought it was a production company," said Birchard. "It was clear to us that it wasn’t clear to the general population."
Lasky, who for years received a stipend from the nonprofit through a donation from producer Don Sartel, has now affiliated herself with the soon-to-be-open Hollywood History Museum (in the old Max Factor building) as the director of educational programming.
Other dustups stemmed from private auctions of film memorabilia, held under Hollywood Heritage auspices and involving some members of the board. On several occasions, critics say, pieces from the museum’s collection were offered on the selling block. According to Birchard, there was nothing inappropriate about the events, which brought together collectors and private persons; Hollywood Heritage Inc. received a percentage of the sale price. However, the allegations prompted the city to remove its collection of memorabilia from the museum; those pieces are now in storage.
Animosity between board factions reached a new peak last July, when former Heritage member Denton commissioned Santa Monica lawyer Michael Homeier to review the group’s nonprofit status. Homeier concluded that the change of the museum’s name represented an impermissible lease violation, and that the group had failed to produce accurate financial statements. Hollywood Heritage Inc. is in "grave danger of losing its certification as a charitable organization under federal tax law and its status as a nonprofit corporation under California corporate law," Homeier alleged.
The turmoil at Hollywood Heritage has drawn the interest of several government agencies over the years, but to little effect.
Prodded by complaints from former board members about operation of the Wattles Mansion, the city Recreation and Parks Department in 1995 conducted its first audit of Hollywood Heritage. The results were dismal. Auditors uncovered slipshod bookkeeping practices and more than $126,000 in missing revenues — some from government grants, the rest from rental fees that sometimes topped $1,600 a day. The auditors concluded, "It is our opinion that the unaccounted funds which were substantially claimed to be salaries and wages and overhead and booked under transfers account represented misappropriation of Wattles Mansion’s funds." Hollywood Heritage Inc. claimed that only $30,000 was unaccounted for and that the auditors only went back as far as 1989, not 1982 as they claimed in the audit report.