The Studio That Never Was: The Story of “Big Bill” West

As we prepare for Hollywood’s biggest night of the year, enjoy this wonderful write-up from Sherri Salmans about an object in our collection that caught her eye when she was a visitor on a tour back in 1994. A docent at the Homestead since ­­­­2009, Sherri is a retired elementary school teacher and a genealogist, so researching people and their stories is right up her alley. Her entry is a testament to the ability of objects as simple as an old brochure to draw us in and take us on an exciting adventure! Thanks for the sleuthing, Sherri.

It was while on my first tour of the Homestead Museum back in 1994 that I saw an interesting brochure on the dresser in Walter Temple’s bedroom in La Casa Nueva, the 1920s home at the museum.  It pictured what it called “The Studio-Castle” and the facility was to be built on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. It was to be a palatial building housing a ballroom, art gallery, various shops, and room to film several movies at the same time. It intrigued me, as I had never heard of it before, so I asked for a copy of the brochure. I briefly looked into the studio by asking some of my friends with Hollywood connections, but learned nothing more. Recently I was reminded about this brochure and decided to look into it again.  What I found was fascinating!

Studio castle schematic
The floor plan for a theater in West’s Studio-Castle Athletic Art Club, 1920s. From the Homestead Museum collection.

A key player in this venture was William L. West, aka “Big Bill” West, aka Lionel West.  William was born in 1890 in Woodville, Georgia. As he grew he decided he wanted to be a locomotive engineer. He pursued this until his family persuaded him to attend college. He attended Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and played football (he was known there as Big Bill).  He ended up in California after attempting several unsuccessful majors while at Mercer. He attended The University of California and again played football, but did not finish school.

He then became a used car salesman. When trying to sell a car to a director from Universal Studios he was asked to be a double for Jim Corbett in a serial. He was six feet, two inches tall; handsome; charming; and athletic. William, now known as Lionel, had some modest success in movies. He traded upon this success hoping to become a director, but instead he became a con artist.

In 1921 he established Lionel West Photoplays, Inc., in St Louis, Missouri. He said he was going to make motion pictures there and began selling stock in his new company.  The Kansas City Star wrote a glowing piece about him and his venture.

Next, West moved his motion picture company to Dallas, Texas, and was selling stock in the company there.  He had been holding “talent contests” in the surrounding area picking girls to be brought to Hollywood to be groomed for stardom. Later he was accused of fraud for taking $15,000 from the mother of one of the “winners.” He then moved his company to Chicago, with city council backing, to find a lucky bride and groom so as to film their wedding, which was to be shown in theaters. In 1926 he was in Tampa, Florida, and was again staging acting contests.

West ran afoul of the law in 1923, when he was arrested in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and extradited to Denver, Colorado, where he was wanted for fraud and car theft. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine for stealing a car.

The year 1927 found Lionel back in California and working on his newest con: “The Studio-Castle.”  The brochure listed many notable, respected Los Angeles citizens of the era as allegedly involved in the project. Yet, by the end of the year the Los Angeles Times reported that West was indicted for fraud.  He advertised he had put $250,000 of his own money into the venture. It was more like $100. I have not been able to find out if he went to trial and what the outcome was.

Studio castle text
Description and conceptual drawing of “The Studio-Castle,” 1920s. From the Homestead Museum collection.

The last I found of Lionel West is in 1944 in Havana, Cuba, and he was up to his usual cons. One of his business partners was on trial for fraud. He testified that West was offering acting lessons in Havana for $35, and he had asked this partner to write a bogus letter saying that new actors were needed in Hollywood. This bogus letter was intended to take the heat off of West, as he was taking people’s money and offering no acting classes to his suspicious “students.”

The next 20 plus years are undocumented, but I found that William L. West died here in Los Angeles in 1966. A simple interest in what appeared, at first glance, to be a flyer for a legitimate film-related project turned out to be something of a mystery that I was eager to learn more about. Museum artifacts have a way, sometimes, of introducing twists and turns in their stories that we don’t know about until we do a little poking around.

2 thoughts

  1. I found a bag filled with 1920’s vintage newspaper clippings and keepsakes from my wife’s grandmother. In a torn envelope I found two letters signed by Lionel West inviting her to come to Los Angeles to audition for consideration in future productions in the ‘great new Stusio-Castle.’ [sic]
    My wife informed me that one of the families most treasured stories is the rebuff of the Hollywood Director!

Leave a Reply