Pets, Publishing, and the Palmer Building: A Piece of Hollywood History

Tag: Historic Hollywood

Liberals, reformers, and radicals once filled the hallways of the Palmer Building (6360-6362 Hollywood Boulevard), which became steeped in Tinseltown history when a pioneering pet club helmed by a movie legend had its headquarters here. But more on that later.

Historic photo of the Palmer Building from The Story of Hollywood by Gregory Paul Williams.

To fully understand the building’s legacy, it’s important to understand the might of the Palmer dynasty. As one of Hollywood’s earliest settlers and great empire builders, not much went on without Dr. E.O. Palmer’s involvement. Indeed he formed the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Dr. Palmer, who published History of Hollywood in 1938, “is the ground zero of Hollywood historians,” explains Hollywood Heritage co-founder Christy McAvoy. “All other historians revert back to him. He spent many years in the '20s and '30s compiling the most comprehensive history of Hollywood and its pioneers,” says McAvoy.

Back in 1911, Dr. Palmer arranged to have a young relative, Harlan G. Palmer, purchase the weekly Hollywood Citizen. Four years later, Harlan was elected a Justice of the Peace, a position he held until 1921 when his paper became a daily. Starting his first newspaper with a $150 down payment, Palmer published and edited the Hollywood Citizen-News for forty five years and went on to become president of the Southern California Editorial Association.

While the Hollywood and Vine intersection became known for its concentration of radio and movie-related businesses in the 1920s, what’s less articulated is Hollywood Boulevard’s pivotal role in the Los Angeles newspaper industry. But it all began here in 1921, when Dr. Palmer financed the Palmer Building at Hollywood and Cosmo Street. Harlan Palmer’s Hollywood Citizen moved in and began publishing daily with a printing press in the basement,” says Gregory Paul Williams in his award-winning The Story of Hollywood.

What’s rather confusing is that there are three buildings of printing related Palmer provenance: two on the Boulevard, one being across the street on Cosmo, and another on Wilcox. Our building, designed by journeying architect Edward T. Flaherty, is typical of Renaissance Revival structures of the post WWI, early 20s era. “This type of pared down Classical Revival building was very popular for office blocks in small downtowns before we moved into more ornate Art Deco and flashier Spanish Colonial Revival styles. You’ll see this type of structure in many downtowns across the States. You’re still in a more conservative architectural period when this was built,” explains McAvoy.

The Palmer Building today. (Photo by Richard Bence)

In 1929, the bottom fell out of the global economy but at first, Hollywood’s publishers thrived. The Hollywood News built a glitzier newspaper plant on Wilcox Avenue in 1930. But by 1932, the Depression hit the West Coast hard. Working conditions and wages in Los Angeles’ newspaper industry were some of the worst in the country. Palmer merged his paper with George Hoover’s Hollywood News to form the Hollywood Citizen-News which became the fourth-largest daily paper in Los Angeles. But a storm was brewing and Palmer could not have predicted what came next.

Palmer got caught in the crossfire of a bitter film community brouhaha that snowballed into an outpouring of support for the Los Angeles Newspaper Guilds’s ten-week Hollywood Citizen-News strike in 1938, spearheaded by the Communist Party. The paper, which primarily catered to Hollywood’s educated and liberal elite, and had at one time functioned as an oasis of reason and taste in Los Angeles, became an incubator for political activism. This in turn led to the formation of the Los Angles Newspaper Guild (LANG) in 1936. Roger Johnson, a young employee of Hollywood Citizen-News, became the Guild’s first president.

Known as a “liberal” for his support of the New Deal, Judge Harlan G. Palmer would become increasingly conservative, hardened by the strike. But it’s worth noting that he started out as a vigorous campaigner against crime, gambling and alleged police pay-offs. As editor, he devoted many of his editorials to attacks on the corrupt city administration of Mayor Frank Shaw.

While Palmer’s refusal to accept a union in his newspaper helped transform a unique but essentially minor strike into a cause célèbre, the Palmer Building continued to produce protégés that liked to court controversy. “The alley behind Western Union's Hollywood office in the Palmer Building, where messengers waited for assignments, became a hotbed of information (and a party zone),” explains Williams.

Another venerable journalistic institution that occupied the Palmer Building was the AP, which opened its L.A. bureau here in the 40s. Robert Joseph Thomas seemed destined to become an entertainment writer from his earliest days at high school when he wrote entertainment columns for the campus newspaper. But when he joined the AP in 1943, it was with aspirations of becoming a war correspondent.

Fresh from military service, he returned to the AP's L.A. bureau in the Palmer Building and was soon named its entertainment reporter. Thomas' career began in 1944, when Hollywood was still a small, centralized community, tightly controlled by a handful of studios, and continued well into the 21st century. During his nearly seven decades writing for the AP, Thomas reviewed hundreds of films and television shows, compiled hundreds of celebrity obituaries and wrote numerous retrospective pieces on Hollywood and how it had changed.

The building also has a link to the Boulevard’s heady retail heyday. The Hollywood Citizen-News had run the masthead “Shopping’s good in Hollywood” since 1925. Merchants pushed Hollywood as a world style center on a par with New York and Paris. “Hollywood-based retailer Betty Blanc Company ran five women’s stores in Hollywood: Nancy’s, Mimi’s, Henré’s, Marlene’s, and Betty Blanc’s. Each store handled entirely different clothing lines, with the main office in the Palmer Building at Cosmo were Nancy’s was located,” says Williams. “Hollywood stores made the most of their star connections. A Hollywood Citizen-News society columnist reported that Norma Shearer did her early-morning shopping in Hollywood.”

The Palmer Building has a long history of attracting organizations with a fine pedigree. Tailwaggers entered into the annals of Hollywood history when Bette Davis was elected as president of Southern California’s branch in 1929, which opened its headquarters here. Davis used her celebrity to share her passion for animals and help raise awareness of animal welfare issues. LIFE magazine covered one of her fundraising events at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1929 where she raised large sums of money from other famous animal lovers like Henry Fonda, Howard Hughes and Walt Disney.

Letter from Bette Davis on Tail Wagger Foundation of America letterhead, headquartered in the Palmer Building in Hollywood, circa 1938.

The confluence of Hollywood pizzazz, community pioneers and animal welfare harks back to those days when Davis was fighting on behalf of humanity's most devoted companion from her desk at the Palmer Building. This place matters because it serves as a repository of investigative journalism; in an age of dwindling newspaper circulations, it connects us to a pre-digital publishing past. It also acts as a missing link to an organization that championed justice for the underdog. The spirit of animal activism is embedded in its bricks, as is the institutional memory of a cause that is still achingly relevant today.

The Palmer Building was most recently home to iO West (formerly known as the “Improv Olympic West”), the Los Angeles arm of the world-famous iO in Chicago improv comedy theatre, which closed its doors in 2018. (Photo by Richard Bence)

The Palmer Building is ready for it's next chapter, as in 2020 it was announced that the building would be restored and renovated to become a hotel.

Updated March, 2020.

Los Angeles is both muse and home for British-born culture journalist Richard Bence. His mission is to chronicle and unearth the hidden stories of Hollywood with a special focus on its heritage. He has a passion for preservation, loves all things midcentury and enjoys getting close to nature on a canyon hike or lapping up the architectural riches of the city he calls home. He contributes to Monocle, Monocle 24 and United’s Rhapsody magazine.