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Keystone Nostalgiacs

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

At the Wattles Mansion, L.A. Cultural Monument No. 579, located at the western terminus of Franklin Street in Hollywood, cracks in the foundation below the pillars riddle the entryway, while the inside ceilings and walls show obvious signs of water damage. Out back, a sandbag berm has been erected to stanch the mud brought down by winter rains.

Five blocks away on Highland Avenue stands the Hollywood Heritage Museum, L.A. Cultural Monument No. 554. Distinguished as the shooting site for The Squaw Man, Hollywood’s first feature-length Western, the 2,000-square-foot museum has been closed since a 1996 arson fire scorched the attic and an interior wall.

At a time when politicians and developers are betting millions in public and private dollars on convincing the world that Hollywood Is Back, the neglect of two of Hollywood’s most historically significant buildings stands as testament to a more tangible truth: Movie nostalgia draws plenty of enthusiasm but precious little know-how.

Both buildings are operated by Hollywood Heritage Inc., a nonprofit known for its commitment to preservation — the group was active in the drive to save the Cinerama Dome — but beset internally by bitter infighting. The Wattles Mansion is owned by the city and the Hollywood Heritage Museum sits on ground leased from the county, yet inquiries into how they are operated are steadfastly ignored. Board president Eric Stogo declined to comment for this story, referring all questions to an attorney, who curtly refused to answer any questions.

Former member Ken Denton was one of the few willing to comment, and he said he was bitter about his experience at Heritage. "These are people who are in charge of millions of dollars worth of public trust," said Denton, who left the nonprofit in 1996. "These are supposed to be people who are here for one reason and one reason alone — for Hollywood heritage — but instead it is a control thing."

They’re not alone. A prior, unrelated preservation project, the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, has devoured close to $3 million in public funds over the course of a decade while producing a handful of lackluster exhibits located in a rented space in the basement of the Galaxy Thea ter — itself an early Hollywood redevelopment boondoggle.

In the view of one sharp-tongued critic, attorney and Hollywood activist Jerry Schneiderman, "The museum is a bleeding sore on Hollywood’s behind, and no one wants to lower its pants to expose it."

In the coming year, yet another clique of quasi-professional movie buffs plans to launch yet another venue for the display of Hollywood knickknacks, costumes and still photos from long-ago sets. The Hollywood History Museum is to be situated in the old Max Factor Makeup Studio, which was purchased in 1996 by Beverly Hills developer Donelle Dadigan with the aid of $1.5 million from the Community Redevelopment Agency.

That project, like other Hollywood happenings, enjoys the enthusiastic endorsement of Johnny Grant, the glad-handing unofficial "Mayor of Hollywood" and a member of the board of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. But the new museum may share the same drawbacks as its predecessors: It’s being run by several defectors from Hollywood Heritage and, according to critics, is already sinking in debt.

Grant, 75, himself is one of the original standard-bearers of the Hollywood preservation clique, a mercurial Mickey Rooney look-alike whose enthusiasm seems boundless, but also seems stronger for projects in which he has a hand. The Hollywood Walk of Fame, controlled by yet another set of nostalgia mongers, the Hollywood Historic Trust, is one of his projects; another is that annual hybrid of B-grade entertainment and seasonal schlock, the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

For a professional booster, though, Grant can be hard to get ahold of. It took four calls to get through to him for comment on this story, at which point he declined to speak until he met this reporter face-to-face. He finally agreed to sit down over a glass of lemonade at his Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel headquarters, but continued to dodge questions on any of the groups vying for the leadership role in Hollywood preservation. Some suggest that Grant fears official attention — he had to intervene in 1991 when the chamber itself was sued by the state attorney general over misallocation of funds. Others say Grant’s caution reflects his anxiety about Robert Nudelman, his longtime rival for the mantle of screendom’s most enthusiastic preservationist.

A soft-spoken counterpoint to Grant’s vaudevillian bluster, Nudelman is known for being passionate to the point of obsessive. "We call him the Wizard of Was," says local gadfly and activist John Walsh. In pursuing his passion, Nudelman likes to give impromptu tours of Hollywood Boulevard, reciting detailed histories of each building — along with a running commentary on the failures of Grant and his Chamber of Commerce, the MTA, and anyone else with a hand in the film district. When subjected to tough notices in the media, Grant now complains that he’s been skewered by the "Nudelman school of journalism, whose motto is ‘Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Hatchet Job.’"

 

The scion of a wealthy Arizona physician, Nudelman, 43, staged his first foray into preservation politics in 1984 when he ran the short-lived Hollywood Museum on Hollywood Boulevard. Billed as "the largest display of memorabilia ever done," the museum went bust within a year; an attempted sale fell through, and federal agents later opened an investigation into the prospective buyer.

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.

"It’s the biggest feud in town since Fred Allen and Jack Benny 50 years ago," Walsh said. Added former Hollywood Heritage president Bob Birchard, "There’s no question it’s a grudge match."

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.

More important, the audit expressed concern that the nonprofit was not doing what it was commissioned to do all along: to restore the mansion.

"The big-ticket repairs have not been taken care of," said Linda Barth, senior management analyst with the city’s Recreation and Parks Department. "All the money they generated beyond expenses was supposed to go back for these big-ticket restorations. Our concern is that whatever the dollar amount was, it didn’t go back to the mansion." Some estimate that at least $1 million in repairs is still needed to restore the 1907 mansion.

Continued board skirmishing eventually drew the attention of the county auditor-controller, who last year commissioned his own inquiry. This time the results were more ambiguous: No wrongdoing was substantiated, but the report conceded that no audit was undertaken and no bank accounts were examined. "Any audit or investigation by our office, or by contracted auditors, assuming we would have the authority to conduct an audit of a private corporation, would be too costly in light of any perceived potential benefit," the report stated.

An inquiry from the state Attorney General’s Office was conducted along similar lines and reached a virtually identical conclusion in December. In the end, nothing was laid to rest, because critics had grounds to dismiss both of these reviews as superficial.

To former Heritage member Denton, both inquiries represent a failure of government accountability as much as the preservationists’. "This is a state-designated landmark, and the county has a fiduciary duty to the citizens to make sure this treasure is protected," he said. But, Denton added, "The county doesn’t want to be stuck with this. If they push these people too hard, they will end up having to run the outfit, and they don’t want to."

According to Steve Sylvester, the live-in manager at Wattles Mansion, the accusations of mismanagement fail to take into account the magnitude of the job that Hollywood Heritage has taken on. Over the years, Sylvester said, he has battled termites, graffiti artists, dry rot, old plumbing and a number of other expensive repairs that have closed the museum for sometimes lengthy periods of time. "Every time we have a disaster, it hurts our ability to make income," he said. "It is just never ending. Every day is another surprise."

"I felt it was an insult," Sylvester said of the city’s critique. "Not only for what I have done for Wattles but for what the organization has done. Knowing the track record of the city, I thought how could this be. I don’t begrudge them. I just know what it takes to keep this place up. I just never expected a kick in the ass."


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