Sunset Boulevard - The Christie Brothers

In the residential neighborhoods of Beverly Hills, change is the one constant. Houses—regardless of their architectural pedigree or historical value—are frequently remodeled, enlarged, or demolished. The grand showplaces of earlier eras are routinely razed and replaced by newer and ever-grander showplaces.

On some of Beverly Hills’ oldest streets, three different houses have stood on some lots in fewer than one hundred years. One of Beverly Hills' few great 1920s residences to remain in near original condition is on the north side of Sunset Boulevard, the former Christie Brothers/Richard Barthelmess estate. Here, a grand Tudor-style mansion stands hundreds of feet back from Sunset Boulevard on a gently sloping grassy lawn at the northwest corner of Hillcrest Road.

The Christie brothers—Al and Charles—were authentic Hollywood pioneers. In 1909, Al Christie entered filmmaking, working for David Horsley’s Centaur Film Company in Bayonne, New Jersey. Two years later, lured by Southern California’s year-round sunny weather, Horsley and his company members, including Al Christie, moved to Los Angeles. As general manager of the Nestor Film Company, Al oversaw the construction of the first film studio in Hollywood, on the site of a former tavern at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. In 1915, Charles Christie joined his brother in Hollywood. A year later, they launched the Christie Film Company, which specialized in short comedies. Scripts were minimal. Sets were rudimentary. Most of the action and the gags were improvised.

The earliest Christie films were “one-reelers,” their colleague Pat Dowling recalled years later, “which, meant they had to be 1000 feet of film, no more and certainly no less, or the exhibitors would scream.” Each week, the fledgling Christie Film Company would start filming an “eastern picture”—that meant a society costume drama. When that one-reeler was complete, the actors and actresses changed costumes and made a one-reeler “western” by the end of that same week.

Whatever their artistic merits, these shorts were a resounding hit with audiences. The Christie Film Company started churning out comedies. Over the next decade, Al Christie was the producer, writer and/or director of more than two hundred films, while brother Charles ran their ever-gowing studio’s day-to-day operations and supervised their real estate investments.

By 1923, Al and Charles Christie, then living on North Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, “traded up” in real estate parlance. In August that year, they purchased from the Rodeo Land & Water Company the four-acre lot suitable for an estate at the northwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Hillcrest Road.

According to the purchase terms, no more than two residences and “customary out-buildings, including a private stable or private garage” could be constructed, and each had to be valued at no less than the then-princely sum of $30,000 each. The deed also included the standard racial restrictions of the time.

Rodeo Land & Water Company president Burton E. Green—who was living half a dozen blocks away on Lexington Road—probably wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of nouveaux riche movie people becoming his Beverly Hills neighbors, particularly ones who’d gotten rich on farcical one-reelers that particularly appealed to working- and middle-class big-city (read: immigrant) audiences.

Nonetheless, Green sold the land to Al and Charles Christie. Rodeo Land & Water Company had just opened up Sunset Boulevard east of Alpine Drive to development, so it had land to sell. The Christies certainly had the money Rodeo Land & Water Company put restrictions on the size and quality of the house that could be built on the site.

Green need not have worried that the Christie mansion would detract from its Sunset Boulevard setting. The two brothers soared way past the $30,000 per house minimum cost limit. Their budget was $150,000. Immediately after the 1923 land sale, workers set about grading the site and landscaping the grounds. By late 1925, “actual building operations” had commenced on the mansion, which was designed by Leland F. Fuller. “The plans call for a house of the English manor type of two stories with an exterior brick, stone and half-timbering, containing a large living room, reception room, library, dining room, private office, and two-story entry hall,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

The second floor included “accommodations for seven master bedrooms and baths with sitting rooms and a guest’s gallery,” said the newspaper. The five acre grounds included a clubhouse, swimming pool, and a luxury dog kennel so large that it required a building permit from the City of Beverly Hills.

Waverly—as it was called—was completed in early 1926. Its first address was 501 Sunset Boulevard, under the original house-numbering system in use in Beverly Hills for the east-to-west streets. That numbering system was discarded in the late 1930s, and major streets like Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards were given new numbers that conformed to the county-wide system. East-to-west streets that ran in Beverly Hills only, like Lexington Road, kept their original numbers.

The Waverly mansion totaled just over 12,000 square feet—which was a big house even by Beverly Hills standards. But it had to be large, and not just to make a statement to the world about the Christie brothers’ success. Waverly was a family compound whose residents included Al and his wife, Shirley; Charles, who never married; their sister, Anne; and their mother, Mary. Christie comedies and the Christie brothers were a smashing success in the 1920s. They released dozens of films, including some of the first talkies.

“Christie Comedy Output Will Be [Sound] Synchronized,” announced the Los Angeles Times on June 26, 1928. The brothers invested heavily in Los Angeles’1920s real estate boom, and they built Hollywood’s first luxury hotel, known as The Regent, on Hollywood Boulevard. Little could upset the Christie brothers’ success. In July 1928, actress Alys Murrell filed three lawsuits against Charles: one for breach of promise to wed, for a breathtaking $1 million in damages; a seduction suit, for $750,000; and a breach-of-contract lawsuit regarding a film role, for $97,500.

Or a grand total of $1,847,500, according to the cleverly headlined July 29, 1928, Los Angeles Times article, “Actress Sues for Love Balm.” Charles’ attorney proclaimed the assault “just plain blackmail,” and the lawsuits were settled out of court the following month. “The attorneys refused to divulge the figures of the settlement,” noted the Los Angeles Times, primly this time.

But far worse was yet to come. The 1929 stock market crash, followed by the Great Depression and the collapse of the Los Angeles real estate market, wiped out the two men. In 1932, the Christie brothers lost their studio. The following year, they sold their Waverly estate to actor Richard Barthelmess, who purchased the mansion so that he could live next door to his long-time friend William Powell on Hillcrest Road.

Since Barthelmess sold the estate in 1941, Waverly has had ten owners. And none more newsworthy than shoe manufacturer and lifelong playboy Harry Karl, who became known as “the Marrying Man” due to his five marriages, including two to the curvaceous actress Marie McDonald—who married seven times herself, and who included among her lovers the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, a founder of Las Vegas as a gambling center. “Karl’s marriages to McDonald were spiced with violence, arrests, and an alleged kidnapping of the actress,” said one article. “At one point, she claimed that (Karl) was behind the abduction, but she later retracted the charge.”

Throughout all the mayhem of the Karl-McDonald marriage—he purchased the house after their second marriage in 1954—Waverly escaped unscathed. Subsequent owners, including talent agent Arthur Lyons who represented Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, and Lucille Ball, among others, respected the mansion’s Tudor style. Neither did the owners sell off any portion of the sweeping five-acre grounds, which had happened with so many other nearby estates after World War II. At one time, Waverly was easily visible from Sunset Boulevard.

Today, however, this estate is hidden from view behind a tall hedge: a verdant Eden that evokes memories of 1920s Beverly Hills and the heyday of the Christie brothers in the silent-film era.