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The Bel-Air Circuit
“The Bel-Air Circuit” was once among the most inside-y of showbiz insider terms. Technically, it exists in no Hollywood rule book, but it’s one of the most important invisible, little known social networks of the film industry. For a century, the Bel Air Circuit (with or without the dash) has referred informally to envied members of the Los Angeles-based film industry so elite that they have professional projection facilities in their own homes, tiny but fully equipped 35mm movie theaters, to screen their own films as well as those of competitors. This was once incredibly rare.
Even today, these charming, oversized 1920s-to-’50s houses, these fake English manors and Versailles chateaus, keep coming up on the real estate market. They are worth far more because four discreet projection view ports cut high into the living room wall are silent testimony of the long-ago presence of glamour: Barbara Stanwyck, Irving Thalberg, Humphrey Bogart, or Ava Gardner.
It’s hard for us to imagine a time, less than 50 years ago, when no matter who you were, you basically couldn’t have a movie of your choice each night, to see in your home at a time of your choosing. You flat out couldn’t buy a copy of a feature film no matter how much money you offered. Even wealthy people in America’s other great cities and industries—Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, you name it, even haughty New York—didn’t have that privilege. By contrast, in Hollywood, once you were “in”—part of the so-called Bel Air circuit, you just placed a phone call, and a studio delivery man would bring you whatever current film you wanted for home viewing, no charge. This was elite privilege at its most rarefied.
Top actors and directors imitated their bosses and built their own home screening rooms once they had the money, or could bludgeon the studio into it. No matter what branch of show business you were tops in, the elite of five and ten and 15 years before were still clawing for influence, and sometimes regaining it. They’ve all got home screening rooms, too, a status symbol that nobody wants to surrender voluntarily.
On the negative side, it was also a pitiless mark of status, or the lack thereof: the week after you got sacked by Warners, you humbly learned what it was like to wait on the phone line on endless hold—you!—as if you were just some ordinary schmuck!, merely to find out whether or not Disney will still let your kids see Cinderella on Saturday. After all, it takes to become part of the Bel-Air circuit, it was tough, usually socially painful being nudged back out of it.
Let’s say: Harry Cohn at Columbia wants to see Metro’s Singin’ in the Rain Wednesday night. He’s on the list; he gets the movie. (Which, BTW, has a key scene in the home theater of a studio boss in Bel Air, the fictional first screening of a sound film.) Frank Sinatra wants to see The Best Years of Our Lives this weekend. Sam Goldwyn initials an OK and two heavy metal cans of film are dropped off at the kitchen entrance of Sinatra’s house.
No charge for the movie, anyway: actually screening it for family and friends cost a pretty penny. This was extremely expensive, so building home theaters and paying the projectionist who ran the machines was written into executive and star contracts. Few of the big shots complained, because few of the big shots paid for the screening room out of their own pockets. The studio picked up the tab. It was considered work, not fun.
For the top dozen executives at each of seven major studios and the entertainment divisions of each of the (then) three major networks, besides those prestigious evening screenings, it meant a daily hour of catching up on raw footage of yesterday’s filming, usually at 6 a.m. each workday morning. From roughly 1920 through the end of the century, this meant a projectionist had to come out to the house and run the machinery, often in two odd shifts: early morning and evening.
As noted, New York and other cities had plenty of exalted rich people too, but relatively few of them had this particular perk. New York screening rooms tend towards small and utilitarian, not sumptuous and in people’s living rooms. Because extremely few individuals owned 35mm copying or film laboratory equipment, and their work was so easily traceable, studios could operate on a trust system, lending films among themselves freely, with the certainty that bootleg copies would not be made.
Smart Hollywood social climbers like Sammy Davis, Jr., and young TV actors like “Rawhide” star Clint Eastwood learned to fake it a little, creating less formal home theaters in garages or other outbuildings, using 16mm projectors (no union operators, easy to use, reasonably pro-looking on a small enough screen) for an entertainment effect that impressed friends and girlfriends.
The latest films currently in theaters were exclusively in 35mm, but by the late ’50s, studios were making 16mm reduction copies for the armed forces and television. It required fewer and lesser studio connections to borrow these merely semi-pro film copies. Seeing any film at home that was in theaters only months ago was still impressive in an era decades before home video. Watching Never on Sunday in the cabana next to Sammy’s swimming pool might not have had quite the cachet of seeing Gone With the Wind in Clark Gable’s living room, but it still meant you were a member of the insiders club.
In the ’80s and ’90s, my wife worked for Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., and saw both sides of the Bel-Air circuit; the exclusive home theater that his father had built, and Goldwyn’s endless line of show business contacts who exchanged films with each other. Every Christmas, our household was blessed with veritable mountains of gifts from various celebs who appreciated the access my wife granted to Goldwyn films. Robes, gift cards, bottles of champagne, blankets, and other hundred-dollar trinkets, most of them no doubt also showing up in the offices of VIP handlers at every other studio in town. All part of the intangible goodwill that kept the Bel Air circuit going.
Gradually, the mystique of having a home screening room faded as cheaper technology made it available to more people. In the ’70s, audio manufacturer Advent marketed a novel projection TV for the home. (Some of the following history was covered in TV History: HDTV) The idea of a home theater for the masses—i.e., you and me—took hold. But classic TV wasn’t high definition, and without special technical tricks, those video screens didn’t even pretend to match film quality.
The Bel-Air circuit exists today, though vastly less even of elite Hollywood’s life revolves around 35mm film, the gorgeous but aged prima donna of the moving image. It no longer requires a union projectionist entering through the kitchen at 6 a.m. while a maid makes breakfast. On the other hand, there’s a much higher concern about illicit copying than there was in Hollywood’s golden era. In 2020, anybody with wall space and a thousand bucks can enjoy home screenings technically equal to anything a mogul had back in the day. That’s the change wrought by the blessings of better and cheaper technology.
But the ancient Hollywood sense of privilege, of power over the images to shape the emotions and minds of hundreds of millions of people; that hasn’t changed. Studio executives still rise at 5:30 to see all of the previous day’s filming and begin their round of browbeating phone calls.
The final decisions of what you see on screen will always be in the hands of a mere handful of people who guard their exclusive status carefully. And they’ll often be exerting that power at dawn, sitting in their bathrobes, sipping coffee, frowning, and making notes in the flickering light: Who to hire that day. Who to stroke. Who to badger and snipe at threateningly. And who to fire.Published in General
Reminds me of the Player by Robert Altman and the Larry Sanders Show.
Many thanks, Mr. Bitcoin!
I love stories about old or classic Los Angeles
I think Barry Gordy still lives in Bel Air. I think the tv show, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was loosely based on Barry Gordy.
Me too. Just before the lockdown I was trying to get a projector for my own house. I’m not a gadgety person so I find it very hard to make decisions. All I’ve got at the moment is a screen.
Another masterpiece, Gary. Hope you are well. It’s 6:30 but rather than watching the yesterday’s takes, I read ricochet.
I like reading about the old movie business and the shenanigans that the stars and the studios got up to.
Good post, Gary.
By the late 70s the Advent projection TV system was being sold at audiophile outlets across the nation. But the beams had to be in perfect alignment on the screen or the image ended up looking something like the old 3-D color movies with the red and blue images off-center and in need of special glasses to make it work. The store I first saw it at in NYC also gamed the system a little more by using a cartoon (specifically, a Tex Avery cartoon featuring his “Red” character) as the demo, because the projection TVs also tended to wash out the color, and the vibrant colors used on Technicolor theatrical cartoons offset that problem a little bit.
Wonderful. Makes me wonder whether the powers that be are sleeping in these days, or whether they are still up early, worried about losing their old habits, and maybe wondering about the wisdom of their governor.
Another great and interesting behind-the-scenes post!
Gary, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the last remaining intact home of a “Golden Age” studio exec is the Jack Warner Estate. It was purchased by David Geffen in 1990 from the estate of Ann Warner (Jack’s widow) at the unheard price of $47.5M. And Geffen recently unloaded it to Jeff Bezos for a cool $165M.
Other properties survive but subsequent owners have changed them significantly.
Were you ever such a protectionist? Or were you strictly in New York?
The 1961 Chevy I bought from my father was not a Bel Air. Those had more chrome and were more expensive. I don’t think they had projection systems for their dashboard or seatback screens, though.
Always enjoy these glimpses behind the Hollywood curtains. Thanks.
Very interesting. TY.
From the early 50s on, the Chevy Bel Air was a special trim model. Most cars display their fancy stuff on the outside; Bel Air was noted for jazzy interiors–checkerboard black and white vinyl seats, for instance.
Strictly in New York. In the period I’m writing about, mostly pre-1960, there were many more movie theaters in every city, including L.A., which had about 200. So on any given night, there were 200 men working the theaters, and another 200 making the same money showing films to vastly tinier, richer audiences.
My appreciation for the Chevy Bel Air — specifically for the 1963 model — was that we were on vacation down in Texas and my aunt and uncle from California arrived with one that was (gasp!) air conditioned. Driving around in the August heat in Texas in an air-conditioned car was an amazing luxury, even for a kid who was OK with sticking his head out the window in everyone else’s car.
We had a ’67. Pretty boring by then. Blue with a white top (not vinyl, that wasn’t out yet), with blue fabric seats.
Ireland and the UK used to have a marvelous tradition of amateur filmmaking and miniature home theaters in 8mm and 16mm. (They also shared Europe’s odd 9.5mm gauge, which didn’t make it over to the States). Collector clubs used to hold screenings for each other. These were mostly silent films. Quite a few hobbyists became adept at playing phonograph records in improvised synchronization.
That’s the same way porn used to work.
You’re probably right; if I had any pals who were realtors I’d be able to get an answer. Home theaters came back into vogue with big screen video, but in the intervening years plenty of the grander screening rooms were remodeled out of existence.
There’s a YouTube website (and there are probably more elsewhere) that has tons of old 9.5mm European films and some 16mm ones that have been transferred to video. Some of the 16s do seem to be non-original versions struck in the 1950s as TV prints.
Thanks for your kind words, Hang! (It doesn’t seem right to call you “ho”). If Bethany or exjon was perusing Ricochet at 6:30 am, it would be very much like the situation I describe: “What the hell was this last night? Why didn’t the mods catch this? This thread is a mess. Usual suspects. Damn, why did we take their money? Not worth the aggravation. And the next thread is almost as bad! Make a note–Quit selling membership to trolls. No, wait, that’s not practical. Okay. Quit selling memberships to active trolls. Yeah, that’s the ticket…”
If I may extend this conversation even further abroad, I’d be interested in your take on the Russian film series, Однажды в Ростове (Once Upon a Time in Rostov) from about 8 years ago. There are something like 24 episodes, and I have not seen them all. But the opening credits all show a projection room in a Rostov movie house, and one of the main characters, though not the lead character, is a projectionist there. The projection room is also the place of a number of other scenes throughout the series. I’m curious as to whether you recognize any of the equipment in use, and how realistic it might all be.
The first episodes are based on the Novocherkassk massacre of 1962. One thing I hadn’t realized until recently was that the rest of the story, about local gangsters, is also alleged to be based on what was happening in Rostov about that time. That history is not written down anywhere that I’ve heard of, but was remembered by somebody who was associated with the film. Actually, much of the original massacre story was hushed up, too. The Soviet soldiers hosed down the streets, removed the bodies, and hauled the wounded out of hospitals to help keep the whole thing hushed up at the time, though some vague news of it did leak out to the west soon after it happened.
I’ve recently been (re)watching some of the episodes on dailymotion.com, but they aren’t all there, and they aren’t all from the same source. Some of those have Ukrainian subtitles. I don’t remember whether I’ve ever seen English subtitles for any of the episodes, but there may be some somewhere. I’d be glad to pay to get that series on Netflix or another online service, but I haven’t found it anywhere, nor have I found a DVD set for sale anywhere I could get at it.
But I think of you each time I see the projection equipment. The hairstyle of the female lead is not from 1962, but maybe the projection equipment is from the 60s.
Really? I had no idea. My family thought I was just being contrary when I decided against getting a TV for my house. Once the screen was installed and it looked so neat it was like they came up with the idea themselves 😀
I want to be able to bring it outside for summer evenings so I wanted to take my time over choosing one. We’ll get there eventually.
I’ll look it up. One Russian film with a perfectly accurate projection booth was The Inner Circle, with Tom Hulce as Stalin’s projectionist.
No matter what country a film is from, the women’s hairstyles are almost always a blend of historically accurate and whatever was the style at the time of filming. It is one of the most consistent flaws of period films. (Check out any Biblical epic. Or Bonnie and Clyde, for that matter.)
Funny you should mention that. Collectors of classic old films and collectors of porn had some things in common, particularly when it came to making illegal copies (Copyright made the status of collector prints dodgy at best, and porn was illegal because it was, well, porn.) You basically couldn’t copy a “real”, 35mm movie, but you could copy a 16mm one with a couple of hundred dollars of equipment and a developing tank.
By the 1950s, laws and customs in Britain allowed filmed nudity but not sexual activity, so they had a fad for nudist “documentaries” with titles like “Sons of the Sun” (for gays) or “Venus Without Shame”. This wasn’t true in the less permissive USA.
Every time I read Gary’s bits about being a projectionist, I imagine him working for Rodney Dangerfield.