What do Howard Hughes, James Ellroy, and James Cameron Have in Common?

Apparently,  a lot.  I was making my way through James Ellroy‘s “The Big Nowhere,” and, not too far in, Howard Hughes appears, along with his head of security, a crooked retired cop named Turner “Buzz” Meeks.  Meeks works at Hughes Aircraft, and it takes him an hour to drive to Studio City for some dirty work in pre-405 1950.  Trying to do the math, I recalled the giant Playa Vista residential development just a few miles from my house.

A couple of years ago, I took some dogs walking down the Westchester Bluffs on the South side of the Playa Vista property.  There were a couple of long drab buildings at the base of the bluffs, as well as a narrow service road.  Someone told me the buildings were film studios.  Another person told me they were part of Hughes Aircraft.

So I did some research and found this amazing website.  The gist of it is, this property was not only the headquarters for Hughes Aircraft, it was also Howard Hughes’ private airport. First constructed in 1940, Hughes Airport sported the world’s longest private runway at nearly 2 miles, first unpaved and then eventually paved.  The photos on the website show the area decades ago, including Jefferson Boulevard, Culver Boulevard, parts of Culver City, and, later, Marina del Rey to the northwest.  For those whose knowledge of Howard Hughes is limited to the film “The Aviator,” some of the most important events depicted in that movie (which used some actual footage) took place right here at Buzz Meeks’ workplace.  This includes Hughes’ takeoff in his XF-11 experimental airplane, which he crashed into a home in Beverly Hills, as well as the construction of one of the most famous, or infamous, airplanes of all time, the giant wooden Hughes H-4 Hercules military cargo plane, a/k/a the “Spruce Goose.”

According to the website, the buildings I spotted while walking the dogs are building numbers 45 and 15, the hangar and the Hercules assembly building.  They are reportedly designated as historic buildings, and hopefully therefore cannot be torn down.  However, I did a quick scouting mission there the other day (access via Campus Center Drive off Jefferson Boulevard), and found that the construction workers building an office park on the Eastern portions of the property are using them.  According to this website, the hangar which held the Hercules is 315,000 square feet in size, and, along with other nearby buildings, was indeed used as a sound stage for the making of “Titanic” and other films.  The office park’s website also indicates that James Cameron’s “3D Tech” used to film “Avatar” was developed in these buildings.  (IMDB also indicates that separate Hughes Aircraft facilities at 909 N. Sepulveda Blvd. in El Segundo were used).  This seems fitting, given that Howard Hughes was also a somewhat high-tech movie maker of his time.

The websites I found are excellent starting points for those, like me, who enjoy researching Los Angeles area history.  As you may know way better than I, the Hughes Airport property has more recent history as part of the Ballona Wetlands, including an ill-fated attempt to build the Dreamworks SKG studios there.   This entire area may one day be covered with thousands more housing units, in addition to those which have already been constructed on the property’s Western portions.  At that point, virtually all traces of Howard Hughes’ involvement will be gone, save for a couple of buildings that may no longer be visible from Jefferson Boulevard.  Coincidentally, this week’s local Argonaut newspaper indicates that phase 2 construction of the Playa Vista project, which was put on hold by the courts last fall over environmental impact concerns, may get the green light by L.A.’s Land Use and Planning Committee today.  And I read just yesterday about a new Rockstar video game coming out which depicts Los Angeles in the 1940s and which is entitled, appropriately, L.A. Noire.

All of this leaves me wanting to know more.  For example, I want to find out why the Spruce Goose was painstakingly trucked all the way to Long Beach Harbor (depicted, as I recall, with real footage in “The Aviator”) for its first and only flight, when the Santa Monica Bay is just a couple of miles away.  On a patch of land where fiction and reality are separated by a fine line, perhaps that’s a story in which Buzz Meeks was involved.

4 thoughts on “What do Howard Hughes, James Ellroy, and James Cameron Have in Common?”

  1. The goose was taken to Long Beach harbor because it has much more room, calmer water, etc than the santa monica bay. It needed it. Marina Del Rey marina is pretty small.

    All the Avatar motion capture scenes were shot there at the Hughes sound stages.

  2. What an awesome post. I expect Long Beach Harbor was chosen because its calmer waters were more conducive to a successful take-off than those of Santa Monica Bay’s.

    On a side note “Buzz Meeks” is also found in Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential where he’s become a dirty cop who I believe jacks a heroin score and meets a bad end with his rat-eaten remains found under a house somewhere out in the inland empire.

  3. Thanks Will, you Ellroy spoiler you. J/k, I’m sure most people, like me, have at least seen the movie. Interestingly, I recall that Meeks’ first name was changed to Leland for the film version. More importantly, since I know you bike near this area very often on the Ballona Creek bike trail or other local roads, I figured you would have an interest in or knowledge about this story.

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