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“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.