The Roaring Twenties went out with a bang around Malibu: The year 1929 was a big one locally and in the bigger picture.
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1927 sparked the transition from silent movies to talkies, and that shook up the world of motion pictures and set a lot of Hollywood people on edge—much as the internet is doing now to retailers, book sellers and other industries.
Because of the talkies, an actor had to sound good as well as look good and a lot of careers went on the rocks because of lisps, stutters and unsexy accents.
In 1923, the United States Supreme Court shook up local heroine May Rindge’s world in Rindge Co. v. County of Los Angeles, declaring that a county government could use its power of eminent domain to take land from a private landowner to build a scenic highway.
Uncle Sam shafted Mrs. Rindge in glowing terms: These roads, especially the main road, through its connection with the public road coming along the shore from Santa Monica, will afford a highway for persons desiring to travel along the shore to the county line, with a view of the ocean on one side, and of the mountain range on the other, constituting, as stated by the trial judge, a scenic highway of great beauty.
After two decades of fighting, the federal government had given Mrs. Rindge the raspberry. She saw the writing on the wall, and worked with Marc Daniels (who came up with the master plan for Yosemite) to create a development plan for the 13,000-acre Malibu Rancho.
Construction of the Roosevelt Highway through Malibu took six years. On June 29, 1929, the Roosevelt Highway between Ventura County and Santa Monica officially opened. The Rindges didn’t want the ceremony held on their land—which was still private—so the ribbon was cut at Sycamore Canyon.
The road was through and so was the Rindge privacy. Wisely, Mrs. Rindge’s first move was to lease—not sell—properties along the beach between the Malibu Lagoon and the deep blue sea.
In 1927, Swedish film star Anna Q Nilsson was the first to lease a lot at Malibu Colony and build a beach cottage. Within two years, dozens of movie people and others were paying a whopping $33 a month ($490.07 in modern 2019 dollars) to lease beachfront lots.
Leasing a lot and building a beach shack in the Malibu Colony in 1929 meant you were a person who had the disposable income and flex time to build right on the sand, way out in the sticks.
And if you were the kind of person with time and money, odds were you attended the University of Southern California—or were connected in some way—and that you were a fan of their football team.
For the weekend of Oct. 26, 1929, a squadron of SoCal swells jumped on the train wearing bearskin coats and holding megaphones and partied north to the Bay Area to root “Fight on!” for the Trojans as they squared off against the Stanford Cardinals(coached by Pop Warner).
As the Trojans were lighting up the Cardinals on their home turf, back in Malibu, flames were lighting up the Colony.
Not for the first or last time in a Malibu autumn, fire wreaked havoc in the quiet seaside community.
According to James Cain who wrote “The Widow’s Mite” for Vanity Fair in 1933: “But then Mrs. O’Leary’s cow got into it. The fire started from defective wiring at No. 83, what is now John Gilbert’s house, on Oct. 26, 1929.”
Hard to imagine the construction of those beach cottages were up to fire codes—if there even were any fire codes—and that late October date suggests the Devil Winds were howling. Also hard to imagine Malibu had much of a fire brigade at the time and so the fire raged and took out 13 houses.
The good news was, the Trojans beat the Cardinals, 7-0, and went on to a 6 - 1 conference finish, while 10-2-0 overall.
The bad news is, those SoCal swells train-partied their way back to find their quiet, seaside community was mostly in ashes and shambles and carbonized rubble.
And then, as they were kicking around in the ashes, the really bad news: The stock market continued a devastating crash that had begun on Black Thursday, October 24. On Black Monday, October 28, the Dow suffered a record loss of 38.33 points, or 13 percent. The next day, 16 million shares were traded and the Dow lost an additional 30 per cent.
Those Colony houses didn’t have any windows to jump out of, and you have to wonder what the net loss in wealth was just in Malibu alone.
Looking close at the photo (on page B1), you have to imagine the angry-looking woman in the foreground was a leasee in the Colony, and she is probably talking to an insurance adjuster, or an attorney.
But this was the Colony and most were eager to rebuild. Even when the monthly lease was increased from $33 for leases that would expire in 1936, to $75 a month [about $1,114 in 2019] for leases that would expire in 1941—rebuilding began immediately.
By 1932, the Colony was completely rebuilt, most likely sped up during a time when citizens didn’t have to jump through years of expensive, flaming hoops to build in Malibu, and possibly aided by a lot of out-of-work Hollywood set construction people imported from the studios to the beach to rebuild paradise.