San Pedro has always been Hollywood’s favorite location for its proximity and versatility. Productions have dressed the town up, down, and every way in between to play a slew of far-off locations. The ingenuity of the crews is always astounding when the final product reaches our screens. Counted among these ingenious talents is a bit of opportunism where San Pedro’s developmental situation has been used to the benefit of the production. Like when a music video played up its post-apocalyptic aesthetic by using the boarded-up site of the building that burned on the corner of 6th Street and Pacific Avenue as a backdrop. As much as Hollywood loves to dress San Pedro up, it really loves playing in our ruins.
No doubt many of you have noticed that the only law being practiced in the long-shuttered downtown courthouse recently has been purely fictional. In 2018, the true-crime sensation Dirty John was filmed inside. Followed by TV shows like Bosch, Shameless, and The L-Word: Generation Q. Most recently, the courthouse was taken up by a Netflix production with a high-profile criminal at its center. Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a miniseries that will chronicle the life and crimes of the notorious serial killer.
Filming in a courthouse that’s in developmental limbo is relatively harmless, and the productions mentioned, especially Monster, did some great things for other businesses. The next couple of examples I will offer are a little more egregious because of the soreness of the subject, even fifty years later.
Fifty years ago, some of San Pedro’s most iconic buildings along Beacon Street were demolished as part of a massive urban renewal project that wiped out most of the town’s architectural heritage. The area was full of multi-story brick structures that had been built when San Pedro was still its own city. It was also one of Hollywood’s most used sets. Because of the early 20th century architecture, the Beacon Street area could take the place of any urban city in the country but was mostly used as a stand-in for New York. Hollywood was devastated by the redevelopment plans, but city officials made sure the industry got every last drop of filming Beacon Street could offer.
Made-for-TV movies were a huge hit in the early 1970s. Every channel had their own version of a movie-of-the-week that offered low budget cinema for the small screen with many of the stories centering on crime. In 1970, many of the buildings along Beacon Street were cordoned off as the tenants were removed. With the buildings set to be demolished, Hollywood was given more freedom than ever before. The 1970 movie The Old Man Who Cried Wolf, starring Edward G. Robinson in one of his final roles, took place in 1970s Harlem. At the time, Harlem was in the midst of racial uprisings with lots of fires, so some of the storefronts on Beacon Street were set on fire for the sake of authenticity.
The following year, in the movie Dead Men Tell No Tales, a travel photographer and his ex-girlfriend, played by Christopher George and Judy Carne, are chased into a fenced-off area at 6th and Beacon streets with some of the area’s most iconic store fronts. The pair gets trapped in the basement of the building and a young Mike Lookinland brings them peanut butter and jelly. During the course of the filming, an actual wrecking ball tears into one of the buildings. This could be some of the only video footage of the demise of Beacon Street.
Seizing opportunities is part of the creative process in Hollywood, and the point is not to vilify the production companies but to show how they’ve used San Pedro’s situations to their benefit. Of all the perceived local benefits of filming, the preservation of our history on film is by far the most advantageous. Building interiors are usually not documented, so the filming inside the courthouse will preserve that. Because of the increase in television and low-budget movie filming in the 1970s, a lot of Downtown San Pedro is captured on film, especially the buildings that no longer exist. Finally, the fact that they filmed actual demolition for this movie is extremely important. These buildings had no value to the citizens pushing for urban renewal, so video footage of its demise is even more of a rarity. As long as Hollywood keeps seizing filming opportunities in San Pedro, they will continue to capture our history in their work. spt