Extra! Extra! The Ghosts of Inceville (Gladstone’s in Malibu)

October 31, 2012

Located on some of the most glamorous real estate around – right on the beach in Malibu – this restaurant is right where Sunset Boulevard meets the Pacific Coast Highway, though 100 years ago neither of those roads existed, and this was the center of Inceville.

Created and built by silent movie producer/director Thomas Ince, this purpose-built studio “city” eventually covered nearly 20,000 acres and started at the water’s edge before going up Santa Ynez Canyon and into the mountains. The streets were lined with houses of every type, and in every direction there were stages mocked up to look like countries from around the world. All of them were ready-to-go, and there were carpenters to build them if they weren’t.

The studio itself was where Gladstones is today, and back then there were also dressing rooms, offices, a canteen, roaming cattle and even a Wild West touring show that set up home here too. Inceville had everything a movie needed, and though actors came in from L.A. by trolley bus (can you imagine that today?) Ince himself lived in a house overlooking his empire. In 1913 alone over 150 two-reeler movies were shot here, and many of them were – unusually historically accurate – Westerns, which earned him the name “the Father of the Western”.

It was also at Inceville that the “shooting script” – a script that had directions for all the crew as well as the dialogue – was first developed, and by 1915 this was a complex production line similar to studios of today. Ince supervised more movies than he actually directed, and was the first to realize that you needed separate producers, writers and production staff: no-one could do it all by themselves. Ince became a veritable movie mogul, and when movies become longer and more expensive he joined forces with D. W. Griffith and Mack Sennett and moved operations to a new studio in Culver City, using Inceville for exteriors and the ever-popular Westerns.

Sadly, Inceville didn’t last. On January 12, 1916 an explosive fire broke out in the negative cutting room (film stock in those days was highly flammable) and eight workers were burned on the face and hands. Ince was badly injured too, having had to run through flames to escape, and ended up with a sling and bandages on his head. Other employees suffered minor burns as they fled, and the “picturesque” scene (“Not Staged” insisted the newspaper headline) saw “real” firemen mixing with actors and actresses in costume.

In 1918 Ince set up “Thomas H Ince Studios” on land at the Culver City studio, but his glory days seemed to be behind him and by now Inceville was “the Pompeii of ghost towns” – abandoned studios and sets dotted California in those days – and a Los Angeles Times article of May 29, 1921 reported as Ince visited for the first time since he’d left.

An Aztec Temple, stage coaches, a lighthouse, statues, and a church were rusting and rotting away, though the dressing rooms, stages and a whole Mission Town were still suitable for production. Despite further fires over the years the studio did carry on under various new names, and Ince noted:

“There was never a studio like it. I’ll never forget the days I spent here. We really lived then.”

Around the time he left for Culver City, there was a deadly accident at Inceville. The Los Angeles Times of November 22, 1918 reported that a set scaffold had collapsed, sending nine carpenters plummeting 40 feet down to the ground. Two men – Alvin Riggs and William H. Graham – died instantly of broken necks, with C.F. Kittredge dying the next day. The others were in hospital, two of them seriously injured.

Also, on April 15, 1929 it was reported that 16 year old Goldie Bigman had been killed when the vehicle she and several others were riding in went off the road at Castle Rock curve and plunged 15 feet into the water below. The group had been attending a “weenie bake” (cook out) on the Inceville beach – the one in front of where Gladstones is now – and were on their way home in the early hours of the morning. Several of the passengers were also injured.

Several years before on November 19, 1924, Ince’s own story came to an end during celebrations for his 42nd birthday, and his death was one of the most mysterious stories in Hollywood history.

He was on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s yacht Oneida with guests including Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies and newspaper columnist Louella Parsons when he fell ill and, though he had been in poor health and suffered further heart attacks and died later at home, rumors swirled back on land about what had “really” happened.

It was alleged that Hearst accidentally shot Ince in the aftermath of a confrontation with Chaplin, whom he suspected of having an affair with Davies, his actress girlfriend. The rumors sparked a short-lived official enquiry, and many wondered why Hearst gave Ince’s widow a trust find and allegedly paid off their mortgage. In 2001 a movie called The Cat’s Meow recreated that night, with Ince being played by Cary Elwes.

A movie pioneer whose legacy is in Sony Pictures’ Culver City Studios, Ince has a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood and a street named after him beside the studio, yet he’s best remembered as the subject of a scandal – a rather sorry end to his story.

Gladstones is now owned by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, and was more famous for its ocean view and the origami-like aluminum foil swans and rabbits you took your leftovers away in, rather than the actual food itself. The view is still the thing for now though, and huge windows and a massive deck of tables and chairs shaded under giant “Jumbrellas” (complete with heaters, speakers, lights and small TV screens) are now waiting for you – though with 700 seats it’s not necessarily the place for a quiet, romantic dinner.

As for the unusual “Gladstones 4 Fish” sign outside, it refers to the days when the telephone prefix for this area was 454. The first two numbers can equate to G and L on the dial, so the prefix could read GL4 – and of course, Gladstones was the place for fish!