by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s pretty difficult not to focus on music as a major topic for our interpretation when you walk into La Casa Nueva’s Music Room. A gorgeous and well-preserved 1893 Steinway piano dominates the room, with a curved ceiling evidently done so for acoustics. Five sets of French doors include etched and painted glass portraits of famed classical composers from Bach to Liszt to Wagner. In a corner, a non-functional radio and phonograph player still magically emits music thanks to an iPod tucked in the back, but which has playlists of Christmas music and spoken word performances and tunes recorded in Los Angeles or by bands from the area from 78 rpm recordings in the Homestead’s collection.
The Temple family was, in fact, highly musical. Walter Temple was, purportedly, an excellent guitar player. His wife, Laura Gonzalez, was a piano teacher in Boyle Heights before her marriage to Walter. Their three sons all played instruments, with the eldest Thomas doubling on violin and piano, and the younger boys, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, proficient on saxophones.
The star of the family, however, was daughter Agnes, who was a stellar pianist, but also played a panoply of other instruments, including harp, violin, and more. In fact, Agnes frequently gave recitals on piano through her high school (St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles) and college (Dominican College in San Rafael, north of San Francisco) years and major in music (with a minor in Spanish) at Dominican. Her son once told me that his mother could well have been a concert pianist had she chosen that route.
Today’s “Striking a Chord” entry highlights a couple of artifacts pertaining to greater Los Angeles music during the time Agnes was pursuing her music degree. These are a pamphlet and program for the Hollywood Conservatory for Music and Arts, which opened in 1922.
Founded by Gladys Littell, the school was apparently very successful, especially given its proximity to the film and recording industries that proliferated in the area near the conservatory. Born Gladys Beck in January 1893 in the mining town of Lead City, South Dakota, she migrated with her family to Los Angeles after 1900 where her father worked for a gas company. She married Francis Littell, an iron worker and mechanic, and the couple had a daughter.
By the onset of World War I. Littell was a piano teacher and then went on to become a manager of a music studio, leading her to open the conservatory, which was situated on Hollywood Boulevard near Western Avenue. Littell soon had one of her instructors open a Van Nuys branch, which remained in operation for some years. The original location was at 5444 Hollywood Boulevard, but that site was only used for about three years.
The pamphlet in the museum collection is from before late 1925 when the conservatory moved just a bit to the east at 5400 Hollywood and includes a photo and brief sketch about Littell, with pages showing portraits and providing information about the faculty in a wide range of musical, dramatic and other arts.
Among the faculty were the Van Nuys branch director, Hazel Penny, and other women, including violinist Lizeta Kalova and instructor on ukulele, Hawaiian guitar, banjo and mandolin Virginia de Santos. Male instructors included Modest Altschuler, a well-known and regarded conductor and Roy Harris, a young composer whose family migrated from Oklahoma to Covina in 1903. Harris, who’d written his first symphony and which was mentioned in his entry in the pamphlet, would garner significant attention for his body of work, including twelve symphonies, of which the third, composed in the late 1930s, is the best known.
The collection also has a few programs for student recitals in 1925-26, including a Christmas performance and a couple others that followed afterward, one of which, from October 1927 and listing students, their teachers, and the pieces performed, is shown here.
Littell and her husband resided at the complex, but had an address on a side street. Notably, the 1930 census enumerated them and their 19-year old daughter, but the household also included fifteen boarders, including teachers and staff and a few singers and dancers. Ten years later, however, the census only listed the Littells in their household.
Despite the difficulties generally during the Great Depression years, the conservatory not only continued, but an academic school opened for the education of musicians, actors and others in the artistic community. By the 1940s, Littell bowed out of active involvement in the organizations and then sold out in 1944. The new owner continued operating the professional school, but phased out the music and arts conservatory.
A notable footnote to Littell, though, is that she was among the Grand Jury that deliberated over the notorious Black Dahlia case in 1947, in which 22-year old Elizabeth Short, a recent transplant to Los Angeles was found murdered and her corpse mutilated and cut in two at the waist.
As to the Hollywood Professional School, successor to the conservatory, it was operated by Bertha Mann for about four decades, offering a full complement of academic courses from first grade through high school as well as “special classes,” including music, drama and art. The list of well-known performers at both the conservatory and the professional school is pretty lengthy and includes:
- Betty Grable
- Mickey Rooney
- Mitzi Gaynor
- Gloria DeHaven
- Donald O’Connor
- Ann Miller
- Natalie Wood
- Andy Williams
- Julie London
- Connie Stevens
- Piper Laurie
- Annette Funicello
- Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum
- Tuesday Weld
- Brenda Lee
- Peggy Lipton
- Peggy Fleming
- Melanie Griffith
- Valerie Bertinelli
- Val Kilmer; and
- several of the children from “The Brady Bunch”
The school’s enrollment declined significantly over the years as the way child actors were educated changed greatly and was very low when Mann died in late 1984. The school, operated the last year by her niece, closed and the building sold the following year and demolished about a decade later. Newer commercial uses are on the site now.
For an interesting look at the history of the conservatory and professional school, this website has some great information and photos.