Written by Jen Brown


Hotel California

As our week-long look at unusual living situations continues, Jen Brown raises a cocktail glass to her extraordinary apartment complex home: a place laden with kitsch and showbiz nostalgia and where, if you listen closely enough, “you can hear ghosts breathe.”

'Coral reef' signFour weeks ago I moved into Horace Heidt Estates in Sherman Oaks and I have not looked back. I’ve looked over my shoulder a few times, behind me and in front of me, but always, without exception, I see the most interesting folk looking back at me: extraordinary folk, living extraordinary lives in the quirkiest of places. Reviewers say Horace Heidt Estates is one of California’s hidden gems. I say it is the shiniest jewel in the housing crown and that it’s an almighty thrill to wake up here each morning.

I fondly call my new abode ‘Fake Hawaii’. This has everything to do with the unapologetic Hawaiian theme that invariably puts a spring in my step; and the divine kitschness that never fails to plaster a grin on my face. This apartment complex is nothing less than a holiday camp, a jolly fairground ride, and I love the place to bits.

Horace Heidt Snr.

Horace Heidt Snr.

It has its own museum and, the other day, Horace Heidt Jnr kindly showed me around. I was blown away by a wonderland of photographs, posters and artefacts from a bygone age, when Horace’s father was one of Hollywood’s greats.

Horace Heidt Snr was considered by many in the Swing Era to be the premier bandleader of his day. He started out in 1923 with a five-piece band and went from playing the vaudeville circuit to developing a ‘Smooth Dance and Show Band’. He had 50 hit records and from 1937 to 1945 dominated the airwaves.

Heidt looked after his band members well and built the estate to house them. The idea being that if he had them all in one place, he would have his musicians on hand when it came to rehearsals. The Hawaiian theme, I assume, was to help them feel relaxed – like they were on their jollies.

There is a sense of anticipation around these dwellings, something in the air, and if you listen hard enough, you can hear it. It’s like a mass intake of breath. It is the breath of ghosts, marvelling in unison at their glittering heyday. There is the feeling that something is about to happen, any minute, and more often than not it does.

Last night as I drank my cocoa (that’s a lie – it was a rum and pineapple cocktail), I looked out of my kitchen window to see a TV company setting up. I saw handsome, telly-type blokes inches from my door. They erected bright blue canopies so that background artistes would be shaded from the sun. Craft services set up a table not far away, for the feeding of said artistes. Huge cameras and lights dominated my plaza and I felt the evening was set to be star-spangled. As it happened, I didn’t spot any stars; but as is my wont, I remained excited. Our window had become a giant TV screen and my daughter and I were avidly enjoying the show.

That’s what ‘Fake Hawaii’ does to you.

“It’s all going on at Horace Heidt Estates and everyone, it seems, has a story to tell.”

I have it on good authority that the scene being shot was in Jean’s house and that it was for a new television series called The Colony. Jean is a neighbour I’m yet to meet but whose house, I am told, has been used many times by film companies. Rumour has it that it’s because she has a splendid view of the pool but I reckon it’s because she’s a game sort who likes to make a dollar or two – and why the hell not? Go Jean!

Horace Heidt Estates has a breakfast club where I go to have a natter. My first visit to the breakfast club was a memorable one. When I asked for directions to the bathroom, I was pointed to a place beyond a shimmering gold curtain. As I wended my way I heard someone quip, “Mention my name, darling, and you’ll get a good seat.” First impressions are important and I was impressed as all hell with this ‘bog standard’ repartee.

Ninety-two-year-old ex-trumpeter Bernie Menaker.

Ninety-two-year-old ex-trumpeter Bernie Menaker.

Chatting to the inmates (a term I use with great affection), is a grand way to start the day. Some of my neighbours are in the business, some are not; others once were – like Bernie Menaker, a spritely 92-year-old, who became a professional trumpeter at the age of 15. His five-piece band toured Los Angeles in the 1940s and his career spanned six decades. He began playing the trumpet for the USA Air Corps and at one of those gigs Mickey Rooney sat in on drums.

Another notable resident is Hank Garrett, a comedian, gentleman and scintillating conversationalist. Hank went from being a professional wrestler to an actor. He is famous for his role as Officer Ed Nicholson in Car 54, Where Are You? a popular American sitcom in the early 1960s. In the 1970s he had roles in Death Wish, Serpico and The Amityville Horror. Nowadays, he’s still an actor, plus a producer and standup comedian.

Then there’s Marje, from a few doors down. A lovely lady, originally from York, who used to be married to one of the writers of the TV classic Lassie. Oh yes. It’s all going on at Horace Heidt Estates and everyone, it seems, has a story to tell.

“There is a sense of anticipation around these dwellings, something in the air, and if you listen hard enough, you can hear it. It’s like a mass intake of breath. It is the breath of ghosts, marvelling in unison at their glittering heyday.”

Today, the most famous resident, apart from HH Jnr that is, is a lady Oscar nominee. She lives just around the corner from me. (Everyone lives around the corner.) It would be wrong of me to name names but I will say this: she is famed for her ‘cemetery skirt lift’ in a great movie made in 2013. I haven’t met her yet but sincerely hope that honour will come. I’m not pushy, I can wait.

To say I adore where I live is an understatement. Who wouldn’t love falling out of their house every day to four swimming pools, tennis courts, crazy golf, a recording studio and production company? Not to mention a gym and health spa. My fantastic new living space boasts all of these amenities and more; and if I chance to get lost while exploring this playground there are lots of cute little signs to keep me on track.

I know well enough that this sort of accommodation would not suit everyone and concede that I am a ‘newbie’. I accept that one day I may not be so new-fangled, but for now, I am happy to shout about my new residence and more importantly, my new residence’s residents.

I raise my glass high to the memory of Horace Heidt Snr for building this little paradise – and to his son for keeping it going. In so doing, he has sprinkled my ‘today’ with a little bit of stardust and given me a magical homestead in which to hang out. A girl can’t ask for anything more.


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Written by Jen Brown

A Hollywood based Geordie pensioner living on her wits. Affectionately known as Nano to her granddaughters. Instantly likeable. (Daughter's words!) @MmePcato