When Robin Murphy moved to LA, her new place became a source of frenzied fascination.
Listen to the story as it was told at The Watercooler, or read on.
The opening scene I’ll steal from Mulholland Drive: Naomi Watts is walking up to her aunt’s apartment complex with this big smile that’s half naive and half-disbelieving and totally overacted - but that’s the point. That’s me walking up to what I hoped might be my first flat in LA. Except it’s nowhere near the Hollywood Hills, although it is Hollywood, just down on the flat part, behind Sunset Boulevard, just back from an Old Western themed strip mall called Gower Gulch with a Denny’s in the carpark.
I had been house hunting for a week, totally exhausting my one LA friend’s hospitality and patience by sleeping on his couch and having him drive me to shady sublet after shady sublet across the city. He drops me off at this viewing and I’m so sure it’s going to be the last one - because the building is so it, so perfectly this LA cliché. The sign at the corner names it as the ‘Afton Arms’, which is spectacularly cheesy and ye olde. I recognise the building from the photo on Craigslist, an amazing vine-covered mission-style complex - it’s so cohesively overdesigned and so completely of its aesthetic that it seems artificial.
I recognise the building from the photo on Craigslist, an amazing vine-covered mission-style complex - it’s so cohesively overdesigned and so completely of its aesthetic that it seems artificial.
As I walk up the steps there are all these little fairy lights strung over everyone’s balconies, plus tropical palms and a big wrought iron fence and behind it a little courtyard. You can hear a fountain and music streaming out of the apartments.
So I’m standing the gate having my cinematic Naomi Watts moment when one of the residents comes up behind me looking very suspicious as I peek through the gates and grin. When I try to explain I’m there to look at an apartment and I give him the street number he very politely points me not inside, but to the shabby pink stucco duplex next door.
I guess I’m disappointed but I’m also very desperate, so I give my potential new flatmates the benefit of the doubt – maybe they just added a picture of the Afton Arms to their ad for like context, I don’t know, but I need to get off my friend’s couch so I’m willing to be generously gullible at this point. So I gladly take the place.
And besides, Hollywood, right? If you’re going to move to LA you might as well live in the locus of its weirdness.
For the first month or so my impressions of the building were built around the sounds of its residents filtering through the scarves that served as my curtains. A lounge singer belting out phrases of Beyoncé songs and the occasional furious monologue of someone practising their lines were the clearest reminder of what I’d gotten myself into by moving to Hollywood.
At night there was the occasional party or argument that turned into dramatic screaming matches between the windows of the Afton Arms and my building. During the Superbowl our buildings were temporarily allied by the synchronised rumbling that turned into a roar as - I think - our team won.
Still, I felt like I was living next to a black hole, like something compelling but totally inaccessible was emanating from the building. It was the same feeling I’d get whenever I saw someone wearing sunglasses inside the supermarket, like they must be someone, but I’m not sure who. Every morning on the way to the bus stop as I rounded the corner towards Sunset I’d pass the Afton Arms and move through this movie set feeling that got briefer every time.
Eventually, one night, I went into a fit of curious googling and found an LA Times article that vindicated me, that proved that the place is pure magic. Albeit a cheap and weird magic. At first I thought the article was a hoax, a deliberate attempt at Hollywood myth-making, as it opens with a description of the writer arriving at the building for a brunch to find a resident washing blood off the walls from a stabbing the night before. Of course there are murders in the story; it’s Hollywood - a few blocks up on Sunset there is a shop-front that advertises ‘Hollywood Death Tours.’
Of course there are murders in the story; it’s Hollywood - a few blocks up on Sunset there is a shop-front that advertises ‘Hollywood Death Tours.’
It’s as if the building consciously took on the role of serving as a metonym of the phases and fads that Hollywood moved through. It was built in the Golden Era and housed numerous directors and actors who worked at the studios nearby, and on top of that, the persistent rumour is that the motive for its construction was to house Joe Kennedy’s affair with the starlet Gloria Swanson who lived upstairs.
At the height of McCarthyism, when communists were thought to be hiding in all facets of American life, especially in the entertainment industry, it became a meeting place for the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who were accused of promoting Communism by such insidious means as depicting Russian people as happy in their films. Later it became the headquarters of the Los Angeles Free Press, until the publisher was accused of storing explosives in the basement, although his claim was that the chemicals were purely for the practise of alchemy.
However, as the 70s turned into the coke-fuelled 80s, the building became notorious for its parties and drug use, culminating with the overdose of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist, Hillel Slovak in 88. At the time of the Times article, the building had been rehabilitated by a dedicated manager. There’s been no solid press about the building since; the most I could find online were a few one-star Yelp reviews and a photoset of images of an aspiring actress lounging across the fountain.
In the 70s, the building was renamed the Happy Malaga Castle by the manager at the time, who, in perfect keeping with the times, was a satirical anti-Vietnam War protester who called himself General Hershey Bar, and who became somewhat of a legend in his own right, leafleting Hollywood Boulevard in a military uniform covered with plastic jet planes and anti-war badges, handing out pamphlets with headlines like ‘United States Armed Farces, Gen Hershey Bar's dubious achievement award a liar son of a bitch incredible President Reagan is Raygun is preying on the Constitution.’
In fact, despite the building sounding totally notorious, there’s really not that much about it in the numerous blogs dedicated to unearthing bizarre LA histories. It occasionally gets mentioned on fan sites for various obscure stars whose names I don’t recognise and gets honourable mention in a post about how in the 30s Marilyn Monroe lived at the end of the street with her mother, just opposite the Sunset-Gower studios where they filmed the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, upon which most of my understanding of Los Angeles was based for a large part of my life.
I left the neighbourhood after three months, but would pass back through Hollywood on the bus every day and often get deja vu around how it felt to live there, the unreality of it and the way that things began to feel detached, unhinged and temporary, like I was camping out on a back lot or living someone else’s storyline.
This story was originally told at The Watercooler, a monthly storytelling night held at The Basement Theatre. If you have a story to tell email firstname.lastname@example.org or hit them up on Twitter or Facebook.
Illustration: Lucy Han
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