The new HBO Perry Mason series takes place in Los Angeles in late 1931-1932 when the Depression was reaching it height and Prohibition was still the law of the land. 1931 saw the completion of the landmark Southern California Edison building at the northwest corner of Fifth & Grand and the new Title Guarantee & Trust building at the northwest corner of Fifth and Hill; the Roxie Theater opened in the 500 block of Broadway and the Los Angeles Theater in the 600 block; and Clifford Clinton opened his first LA restaurant in a defunct Boos Brothers cafeteria at 618 S. Olive Street. In 1932, Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympic Games and even gangsters like Spike O’Donnell and Bugsy Siegel played tourist.
The fictional lawyer created by Erle Stanley Gardner first appeared in print in 1933. Warner Brothers released a series of Perry Mason films between 1934 and 1937 starring Warren William, Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods as Perry.
Perry was also on the airwaves as a radio show on CBS from 1943-1955. The CBS television show starring Raymond Burr aired 1957-1966 and is fun to watch for its Los Angeles on-locations shots. A new Perry Mason series debuted in the 1970s and there were made-for-tv movies in the 1980s and 1990s.
The 2020 Perry Mason series does pretty fair job of recreating early 1930s Los Angeles. Some persons and locations are highlighted below. No spoilers here!
The funicular railway opened in 1902 next to the 1901 Third Street Tunnel. It climbed Bunker Hill from Hill & Third to the upper terminus at Olive Street. The railway closed in 1969 and was stored until being reassembled at a new location a block south of the original.
The Elks did once have a lodge (No 91) in buildings at the top of Angeles Flight on Olive Street and just below it. The Elks built a new building at 8th & Flower in 1921 and in 1925 moved out of the buildings here, which were taken over by a Moose lodge.
Several scenes in the HBO Perry Mason brought to mind the 1949 film noir Criss Cross, with Angeles Flight passing by just outside an apartment window.
The Angelus Temple
Sister Alice McKeegan, played by Tatiana Maslany, radio evangelist of the Radiant Assembly of God, is clearly based on Aimee Semple McPherson of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, headquartered in Echo Park. Sister Aimee was pioneering in her use of radio to reach more parishioners. Her disapearance in 1926 caused a massive scandal. You can read my previous post on Sister Aimee here.
Though the Angelus Temple still stands, exterior scenes of the fictional Radiant Assembly of God were filmed at the 1910 Art of Living Center (formerly the Second Church of Christ, Scientist) on West Adams Blvd.
Most of the interior scenes were filmed in the Trinity Auditorim aka the Embassy Hotel on S. Grand Avenue, originally built for Trinity Methodist Church in 1913. The church was unable to meet its financial obligations and had to move out in 1919.
Christmas Decorations, Downtown Los Angeles
The downtown street decorations seen in the 2020 Perry Mason are typical of those seen in early 1930s Los Angeles.
The character of Lupe Gibbs, played by Veronica Falcón, who runs the small airport next to the Mason family dairy farm, reminds me of Florence “Pancho” Barnes, a pilot who operated the Happy Bottom Riding Club in the Antelope Valley, especially with the “Bottoms Up” signage painted on the side of one of the buildings. Set in Glendale, these scenes were reportedly filmed in Thousand Oaks and the runway created for the series.
The Rosslyn Hotel
I wrote about the Rosslyn Hotel and the Rosslyn Annex, located on opposite corners of Fifth and Main streets, in a previous post, here.
The exterior of LA’s 1928 City Hall is much featured in the 2020 Perry Mason. I wrote about City Hall in a previous post, here.
Oddly, though, in this Perry Mason, the courtroom scenes take place here, at City Hall; it’s also implied that the jail is located in the building. In 1932, LA still had its 1890s red sandstone courthouse, as well as the 1926 Hall of Justice, where most trials took place. I wrote about the Hall of Justice in a previous post, here.
The County Jail occupied the top floors of the Hall of Justice. Prisoners awaiting trail or on trial were typically held here if not out on bail. It replaced the old County Jail across the street on Buena Vista.
The City Jail was for years located behind the old Central LAPD station near First and Hill streets; Old Central also housed some jail cells for high-security inmates as well as a female ward on the second floor; due to overcrowding, from 1928 to 1931 the City rented space in the Couny Jail for women prisoners. “Trunk murderess” Winnie Ruth Judd was held on the 13th floor of the County Jail in October 1931 after her arrest at a Bunker Hill funeral parlor, pending her extradition to Arizona.
On December 29, 1931 (just 3 days after the fictional events depicted in HBO’s Perry Mason begin) the new City Jail opened in Lincoln Heights and the jail facilities at Old Central were converted to other uses. The new jail could accomodate 644 men and 152 women inmates.
I’ve never heard of a jail or courtrooms at City Hall. The Hall of Justice has recently been beautifully restored, so not sure why this location was not used, other than maybe the producers thought it looked better to film mobs of people and reporters pouring down the steps of City Hall?
Devil’s Gate Reservoir
Located in La Canada/ Flintridge, the dam was built in 1920 by the LA County Flood Control District.
Musso & Franks Grill
The long-running restaurant is located at 6667 Hollywood Boulevard.
Several scenes take place at the gentleman’s club of lawyer E.B. Johnson, played by John Lithgow. The interior-only shots were reportedly filmed at the Ebell of Los Angeles but are typical of the city’s prestigious men’s clubs such as the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the Johnathan Club and the California Club.
Los Angeles County DA
Maynard Barnes, played by Stephen Root, is a fictional character. The Los Angeles County DA at the time was Buron Fitts. Fitts, as a Deputy DA had successfully prosecuted his boss DA Asa Keyes for bribery in the Julian Oil scandal and was sworn in as Keyes’ successor in December 1928. Despite allegations of corruption (including one case in which he was accused but acquitted, of having accepted an orchard as a bribe in exchange for letting off wealthy real estate developer John P. Mills on an underage girl morals charge) or lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting certain criminals, he remained DA until 1940 when he was voted out on the coattails of the reform effort led by Clifford Clinton that saw mayor Frank Shaw recalled from office in 1938.
Some final notes
Ptomaine Tommy’s depicted in the series was reportedly filmed in San Pedro on Sixth Street. The original restaurant of that name was located on North Broadway in Lincoln Heights.
The Warner Grand Theater seen in the series is also on San Pedro’s Sixth Street and opened in 1931.
Frank Nance was a real person who served as County Coroner from 1921 until his retirement in 1945; as such he precided over many of Los Angeles’ sensational murder cases. I’m not aware of an LA City morgue. There was much talk of the need to create one but could not confirm in my research that it ever happened.
The case has some similarities to the real life 1927 Hickman case, mentioned by a character in one episode. In the Hickman case, the LAPD detectives (which included future bombing victim Harry Raymond, who was up to his neck in the Jacobson case that same year) were faulted for letting Hickman get away and it was even suggested that they did it on purpose to collect the reward offered for Hickman’s capture. See also the Collins case, which I wrote about here.
The infant Charlie Lindbergh, son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was kidnapped in March 1932. In the aftermath, Congress passed the “Lindbergh Law” making kidnapping a federal crime when the victim is taken across state lines.