A Ready-made Bohemia: Week of December 25th, 1920

Oliver Morosco

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a story about every Los Angelean’s favorite subject, real estate:

A sublimated Greenwich Village and a real Bohemia are to be built in our very midst by Oliver Morosco, according to the far-visioned theatrical magnate, who yesterday gave out full details of his remarkable plans. The new enterprise is to be a city within a city, to be known as Morosco’s Greenwich Village and located at Melrose and Western Avenues on a twenty-acre plot just purchased. It will be a building enterprise unique in the city’s history and perhaps in that of any country.

It will be a home or artistic expression through the theater, music, painting, dancing and allied arts, but it will also be a real dwelling place for artists, in homes designed for comfort as well as beauty. Already a number of writers, painters and musicians have signaled their desire to live there.

The Bohemian feature will be seen at its best in a labyrinth of underground chambers to be used as odd atmospheric cafes—some Spanish, some Italian, some French as of the Latin quarter, and in the cabarets and bazaars where articles will be sold.

Morosco also planned to build an art museum where all the artists would exhibit their work, and a swimming pool that was a duplicate of a Roman bath. His development would feature a shopping district with gowns direct from France and “no cheap dance halls of other shoddy amusement features.” He said got the idea while driving around L.A. in the summer, and he thought the existing architecture was “unimaginative, lacking in distinctive color.” So he wanted to copy buildings from other places, with streets duplicating distinctive blocks in France, Italy, Spain, Russia and New York City. He also wanted to use those streets as permanent sets for his proposed new Oliver Morosco film studio. He announced that he already had millions of dollars from “active business leaders” of Los Angeles behind him, and building was to begin the first week of January. The article concluded: “In short, Morosco’s Greenwich Village will be a dream city within its own walls; and it should prove a splendid art center for Los Angeles, as well as a unique place of entertainment and high-class business resort.”

Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro

You’ve probably already spotted a big problem: Bohemias grow from cheap rent, not developer’s plans, and replicas like Epcot and some Las Vegas hotels have no pretentions to art. A cranky and unsigned opinion piece appeared in the L.A. Times two days later pointing this out:

Oliver Morosco and his millionaire backers will probably succeed in building a Los Angeles replica of Greenwich Village on their twenty-acre tract out at Melrose and Western avenues; it will be a dilettante’s paradise, not a new Bohemia. For the real Bohemia has no more in common with opulence and luxury than sculpture with street cleaning. Bohemia is not a suburb and cannot be…Successful artists might incline to a life in a Greenwich Village and dilettantes might swarm there like files to a honey pot, but there are not enough millions in the Federal Treasury to build in Los Angeles or elsewhere a “new Bohemia.”

Despite this drawback, the project seemed to go well at first. On February 27th, the Times reported that while building hadn’t started yet, they had opened a sales, leasing and rental office on the corner of Western and Melrose. The syndicate of Oliver Morosco and unnamed “Los Angeles capitalists and merchants” had signed two contracts to construct commercial buildings: a store on the corner of Western and Marathon, and a series of artist’s studios based on Parisian Latin quarter studios. The article said they’d had 125 applications for space from “merchants and amusement purveyors,” and they had plans to build a Swiss chalet and a woman’s club building. The name of the development had been changed to Moroscotown.

Vanity Fair, September 1921

However, by September, still nothing had been built. That month, ads ran in Vanity Fair for stock in the company (Morosco’s business associates were later jailed for mail fraud because of this) and they sold off a prime parcel to restaurateur Morrie Rauch. On November 6th, Morosco announced that he wanted to sell the rest of the land. From New York, he ordered his business manager via telegram: “Close out my present Moroscotown holdings immediately as tract is not big enough for greater and more magnificent Moroscotown.” So the project never got far enough off the ground to be part of the fantastic Never Built L.A. museum exhibit.

Oliver Morosco

Oliver Morosco had such a track record of success, it’s not surprising he thought he could make Moroscotown work. Born Oliver Mitchell in 1875, when he was six he became an acrobat to help support his family after his father deserted them. He was discovered by San Francisco theater owner Walter Morosco, who became his foster father and gave him a job in his ticket office. With the his financial support, in 1899 young Morosco took over the struggling Burbank Theater in downtown Los Angeles and made it a huge success by producing new plays instead of old standards. He was able to send the successful ones, like Peg O’ My Heart, to the east coast, which earned him the name “The Oracle of Broadway.” In 1908 he started acquiring a chain of theaters along the West Coast, beginning with the Majestic, also in downtown. In 1913 he built one himself, calling it the Morosco, and in 1917 he built another namesake theater in New York City. He also founded a film production company in 1914, the Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company, which became a subsidiary of Famous Players-Lasky in 1916.

Unfortunately, 1920 was the pinnacle of his career; he went bankrupt in February 1926. The New York Times reported that the failure of Moroscotown was only part of his problems. He’d lost 2 million dollars in that stock swindle, “as well as long drawn out and costly marital troubles, ventures in theatrical productions and real property for theatrical purposes, along with an occasional display of poor judgment concerning the value of a play, were the causes, it was said, of his complete financial smash.” In conclusion: “for the last four years practically everything attempted by Mr. Morosco to raise his fallen fortunes has failed.”

After he went bankrupt, he tried to write and produce plays, but nothing succeeded. He died August 25, 1945, after being hit by a streetcar in Los Angeles.

Surprisingly, nobody has written a biography about him. Such a rags to riches to rags story seems ripe for the telling.

 

“Active Work to be Started,” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1921.

Morosco, Oliver. The Life of Oliver Morosco: The Oracle of Broadway Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers,1944.

“Morosco Bankrupt, His Debts $1,033,404.” New York Times, February 19, 1926.

“Morosco Soon to Build,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1921.

“Novel Café for Western Avenue,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1921.

“Plan Expansion of Greenwich Village,” Los Angeles Herald, January 8, 1921.

Rasmussen, Cecilia. “A Three-Hankie Tale of Dashed Dreams,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1998.

“To Sell Out Interests in Moroscotown,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1921.

 

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