Successful Suicide Leap from the Famous Hollywood Sign

Some landmarks are so iconic that the association with their city or place is instant and automatic. The Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance, are immediately recognized as symbolizing New York. Similarly, the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower evokes the City of Chicago. One of the most recognizable such structures is the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee in Los Angeles, California. This week’s blog is about the famous sign and the part it played in the death of a young actress.

The Hollywood sign in 2015 (Thomas Wolf)
The Hollywood sign in 2015 (Thomas Wolf)

Origin of the Hollywood Sign

You might not know it, but the sign that’s become synonymous with Hollywood and movie-making didn’t start out saying “Hollywood.” Instead, real estate developers Woodruff and Shoults erected it in 1923 to advertise a new housing development: Hollywoodland. The original Hollywoodland sign included about 4,000 light bulbs. The lit sign spelled out “HOLLY,” “WOOD,” and “LAND” in individual segments, then the three segments together as “HOLLYWOODLAND.” A searchlight near the base attracted even more attention.

Surveyors standing east of the sign on top of Bronson Canyon measure the Hollywoodland sign with Mulholland Highway visible beneath it.
Surveyors standing east of the sign on top of Bronson Canyon measure the Hollywoodland sign with Mulholland Highway visible beneath it.

When first constructed, the individual letters in the Hollywoodland sign were 50 feet high and 30 feet wide. Woodruff and Shoults planned for their glorified billboard to stand for only a year and a half. But in that time, the sign became an internationally recognized symbol of the American film industry, so it stayed.

The Suicide of Peg Entwistle

Millicent Lillian Entwistle (she went by “Peg”) was born in Wales. She came from a theatrical family: her father was an actor and her uncle managed actor Walter Hampden. Peg and her father ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio and then New York City around 1913.

Peg Entwistle
Peg Entwistle

In 1925, Walter Hampden gave Peg an uncredited part in a Broadway production of Hamlet (she carried the king’s train and brought in the poison cup). For the next seven years, she acted in numerous Broadway plays, the last in 1932.

Peg was in Los Angeles in May 1932 with a role in the play The Mad Hopes. When the play closed, she won her first and only credited film role. She played Hazel Cousins in the Radio Pictures (precursor to RKO) film Thirteen Women.

Peg Entwistle (Image scanned from a Broadway playbill for "Just to Remind You" by James Zenuk, Jr.)
Peg Entwistle (Image scanned from a Broadway playbill for "Just to Remind You” by James Zeruk, Jr.)

On September 16, 1932, Peg made her way from her Uncle’s house where she was staying to Mount Lee. From there she made her way to the top and to the Hollywoodland sign. She leaned a workman’s ladder against the giant “H,” climbed to the top, and jumped. Two days later, a woman hiker found Peg’s purse and a shoe near the Hollywoodland sign. She then saw Peg’s body about 100 feet below. In her purse was a suicide note: “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.

The Hollywood Sign in Later Years

As the years passed, the sign designed to last 18 months deteriorated a lot. The “H” was destroyed in the 1940s when, according to the Hollywood Sign Trust, heavy winds knocked it down. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted to have the sign repaired. However, they had the “LAND” removed so the sign reflected the district and not the real estate development. The Chamber also decided not to replace the 4,000 light bulbs because of the expend of illuminating the sign.

The Hollywood sign in its most dilapidated condition shortly before the 1978 restoration (Bob Beecher)
The Hollywood sign in its most dilapidated condition shortly before the 1978 restoration (Bob Beecher)

By the 1970s, the sign had deteriorated again. The Chamber solicited donations and in 1978 replaced the sign with a more permanent structure. The new sign had letters slightly smaller than the original but was made of metal instead of wood. In 2008, workers stripped the letters down to the metal and repainted them white.

More About Peg Entwistle

James Zeruk, Jr. wrote a biography of Peg, Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography. Another take on the Peg Entwistle story is H.P. Oliver’s The Truth Be Told. In this book Oliver claims that Peg didn’t commit suicide but was murdered by a Hollywood drug dealer.

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Carl Switzer: The Truth About Alfalfa’s Death

Last week’s blog featured George Trepal, a man with a genius-level IQ who poisoned his neighbors. This week, I’m going to tell you about the death of Carl Switzer. You probably known him better as “Alfalfa” in the Our Gang comedies, later released on television as The Little Rascals.

Carl Switzer, Child Star

Carl Dean Switzer was born on August 7, 1927 in Paris, Illinois. On a vacation to California in 1934, his family toured the Hal Roach Studios. In the studio café, six-year-old Carl and his eight-year-old brother, Harold, performed an impromptu song-and-dance number. Producer Hal Roach saw the duo’s performance. It impressed him enough that he signed them both to appear in the Our Gang series of short films. Harold had two nicknames, “Slim” and “Deadpan,” while Carl became “Alfalfa.”

Carl Switzer as "Alfalfa"
Carl Switzer as “Alfalfa”

Both Switzer brothers appeared together for the first time in the 1935 short, Beginner’s Luck. With his freckled face and sporting a prominent cowlick, Carl was a natural attraction. By the end of the year, “Alfalfa” was one of the main characters while Harold’s “Slim” and “Deadpan” faded into the background. However, Carl developed a reputation for being abrasive and difficult on the set. He played cruel jokes on the other actors and often held up filming.

George "Spakny" McFarland, Darla Hood, and Carl Switzer as "Alfalfa" in Our Gang Follies of 1938
George “Spanky” McFarland, Darla Hood, and Carl Switzer as “Alfalfa” in Our Gang Follies of 1938

George “Spanky” McFarland was the nominal star of the Our Gang series. But by 1937, Carl’s “Alfalfa” had become the more popular of the two. Although Carl and George got along fine, their fathers argued constantly over salaries and screen time.

Life After Hollywood

Hollywood is notoriously unkind to former child actors after they have grown up. When Switzer’s stint with Our Gang ended in 1940, he continued to act but not frequently and often in uncredited bit parts. He married Dian Collingwood in 1954. They had a son together but divorced in 1957.

Carl Switzer with cowboy star Roy Rogers
Carl Switzer with cowboy star Roy Rogers

By the late fifties, Carl Switzer had few acting jobs. He supported himself by bartending, guiding hunters, and breeding and training hunting dogs. He also had a run-in with the law. In December 1958, he cut 15 pine trees in the Sequoia National Forest to sell as Christmas trees. He was sentenced to a year probation and paid a $225 fine (about $2,040 in 2021).

Carl Switzer guesting with George Burns on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

Also in 1958, Carl agreed to train a Treeing Walker Coonhound for friend and sometimes business partner Moses “Bud” Stiltz. The dog ran away while chasing a bear and Stiltz insisted Switzer either return the dog or pay him its value. Switzer didn’t have the money to pay for the dog. So, he took out ads offering a reward for the dog’s safe return. Someone found the dog and brought it to the bar where Switzer was working as a bartender. He rewarded the rescuer with $35 in cash and $15 in drinks.

Carl Switzer Shot to Death

Carl Switzer was unhappy with being out $50 since the dog was not his but belonged to Stiltz. Switzer and a friend, photographer Jack Piott, went to the Stiltz home in Mission Hills to demand payment. It was January 21, 1959.

Stiltz described the ensuing events as follows. He said Switzer pounded on the door and demanded Stiltz let him in. Otherwise, he threatened to kick the door in. One of the men, either Switzer or Piott, hit Stiltz over the head with a glass-domed clock. Stiltz then retreated to his bedroom and returned with a .38 caliber revolver. Switzer and Stiltz struggled for the gun and it went off. Switzer then pulled a hunting knife and threatened to kill Stiltz. Stiltz then fired a shot that hit Switzer in the groin and damaged an artery. The former child actor bled out and was dead when he reached the hospital. Piott backed Stiltz’s story and the shooting was determined to be in self-defense.

Although the self-defense verdict tied up Switzer’s death with a nice, neat bow, there were problems with it. For one thing, the “hunting knife” turned out to be a penknife. Investigators found it under Switzer’s body at the crime scene. For another, Tom Corrigan, Stiltz’s stepson, told a different version of what happened on that Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

Carl Switzer's grave on August 7, 2012, the 85th anniversary of his birth
Carl Switzer’s grave on August 7, 2012, the 85th anniversary of his birth

Another Version and Controversy

On January 24, 2001, Bud Stiltz’s stepson, Tom Corrigan, came forward with another version of Switzer’s death. Corrigan said that an intoxicated Switzer knocked at the door and said, “Western Union for Bud Stiltz.” When Stiltz’s wife opened the door, the two men entered, and Switzer threatened to beat up Stiltz. Stiltz confronted them with the revolver, which Switzer grabbed while Piott crowned Stiltz with the clock. During the struggle, the gun accidentally went off. The bullet went through the ceiling and a fragment hit Corrigan in the leg.

At this point, Switzer seemed to realize things were out of control. He and Piott started to leave. It was then that Stiltz fired a second shot. Switzer slid down a wall with a surprised look on his face. Stiltz then shoved Piott against the kitchen counter and threatened to kill him, too. Corrigan said his stepfather (and Piott) lied to the coroner’s jury.

Corrigan further said that an LAPD detective interviewed him and asked if he would testify at the inquest. He agreed but was never called. “It was more like murder,” Corrigan told reporters in 2001. “He didn’t have to kill him.”

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Fatty Arbuckle Throws a Wild Party with Disastrous Consequences

After reviewing Monster City last week, I decided this week to present an infamous scandal from the early days of Hollywood. Fatty Arbuckle may not be a familiar name today but in Hollywood’s silent film era, he was a top star.

Silent Film Star

Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle got into pictures at a time when the film industry was just beginning to establish itself in California. Early production companies established in New York or Chicago found the climate of Southern California ideal for making motion pictures. The abundant sunshine provided natural lighting for outdoor filming. Also, the landscape made for exotic backdrops and a perfect setting for Western dramas.

Photo of Fatty Arbuckle ca. 1919
Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle ca. 1919 (Public Domain)

Fatty Arbuckle quickly became a regular at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. There he worked with such top silent stars as Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd. Despite his 300-pound bulk, Fatty Arbuckle was remarkably agile and acrobatic. He was also fond of the classic “pie in the face” gag. The studio frequently paired Arbuckle with Normand and their films were exceedingly popular.

Mabel Normand, Arbuckle's frequent
Mabel Normand, Arbuckle’s frequent co-star, in 1916 (Public Domain)

The Party

Over Labor Day weekend in 1921, Arbuckle took a break from filming and drove to San Francisco with two friends. Their they took three rooms in the St. Francis hotel, one of which, 1220, was the “party room.” Despite prohibition, alcohol flowed freely, and several women were invited.

Room 1221 at the St. Francis Hotel shortly after the party
Room 1221 of the St. Francis Hotel shortly after Arbuckle’s party (Public Domain)

One female guest was a young aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe (pronounced rap-PAY). Partygoers found Rappe seriously ill in suite 1219 and called the hotel doctor. The doctor assumed her symptoms were from intoxication and gave her a shot of morphine. Two days later, Rappe went to the hospital. She died a day later from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder.

Virginia Rappe. When she died a few days after the party, Fatty Arbuckle was accused of killing her.
Virginia Rappe ca. 1920 (Public Domain)

The problem for Fatty Arbuckle was that the woman who accompanied Virginia Rappe to the party, one Bambina Maude Delmont, told Rappe’s doctor that Arbuckle had raped her friend. Doctors found no evidence or rape. Indeed, it later developed that Delmont had a criminal record and was involved in prostitution, extortion, and blackmail. However, the police were more credulous. Ambitious district attorney Matthew A. Brady (he wanted to run for governor) decided to prosecute Arbuckle for manslaughter. Ultimately, Brady would take Fatty Arbuckle to trial three times.

Bambina Maude Delmont was the one who accused Fatty Arbuckle of raping Virginia Rappe
Bambina Maude Delmont

Three Trials

The trial that began on November 14, 1921 at the San Francisco city courthouse was lurid. Prosecutor Brady presented witnesses whose “evidence” was questionable, including a “criminologist” who breezily concluded that Rappe had tried to flee the hotel room and that Arbuckle stopped her by putting his hand over hers as she grasped the doorknob. There was also testimony that Rappe suffered from chronic bladder infections and hints that she may have had a recent abortion. The jury deadlocked at 10-2 for acquittal and the judge declared a mistrial.

Fatty Arbuckle with his defense team at the first trial, November 1921.
T. M. Smalevitch, Milton Cohen, Gavin McNab, Charles Brennan, Roscoe ("Fatty") Arbuckle, and Arbuckle's brother at trial, in San Francisco, of Arbuckle on manslaughter charge. He was charged in the death of a 26-year-old aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe. This photograph is from the first of three trials in the case.
Arbuckle with his defense lawyers at the first trial, November 1921 (Public Domain)

On January 11, 1922, Brady tried again. The prosecution, defense, and even the judge were the same; only the jury was different. Unlike the first trial, Rappe’s history of promiscuity and heaving drinking featured prominently. Also, the defense discredited some major prosecution evidence. Arbuckle’s attorneys were so confident of an acquittal they did not put him on the stand. This was a mistake. Some on the jury (improperly) took Arbuckle’s not testifying as a sign of guilt. This jury deadlocked 9-3 for acquittal, resulting in another mistrial.

Autographed photo of Fatty Arbuckle in 1919
Autographed photo of Fatty Arbuckle in 1919

Fatty Arbuckle’s third trial began on March 13, 1922. This time, his defense attorney, Gavin McNab, left nothing to chance and mounted an aggressive defense. This jury returned with acquittal after deliberating for only six minutes. They spent five of those minutes writing out a formal apology statement.

A number of authors have written books on Arbuckle and the trials, including Brad Kronen and Andy Edmonds.

Epilogue

Regardless of the acquittal and apology, Fatty Arbuckle found that exhibitors refused to show his films, and no one would hire him. There was a determined effort to destroy copies of many of his films. Many of his important pictures have no remaining prints. His wife, actress Minta Durfee, filed for divorce. Unable to find work, Arbuckle retreated into alcoholism.

Eventually, the man known as Fatty Arbuckle was able to find work as a director using the pseudonym of William Goodrich. Later, in 1932, Warner Brothers signed him to star in six two-reel comedies. Then on June 29, 1933, Arbuckle signed a contract with Warner’s to star in a full-length feature film. Celebrating with friends, he reportedly told them, “This is the best day of my life.”

Fatty Arbuckle died of a heart attack in his sleep that night.

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