Rick Castro is telling me he sees ghosts all the time.
“As far as I’m concerned, all of Hollywood is haunted or has spiritual presence. Every square mile of old Hollywood has some kind of notoriety and infamous event from years gone by. If you allow yourself to be still you can feel the energy of souls from the past,” says Castro, the owner and curator of Antebellum Gallery in Hollywood.
A couple months ago, when I told him that Creepy LA would be gearing up for another Halloween season, he suggested he give me a tour of his haunted world.
As he took a break from preparing for SPLATTER, his next exhibition of art at Antebellum, inspired by the horror film genre, I met him at the gallery, which he said was the first stop on the haunted tour.
“I believe Antebellum Gallery still has the presence of the former tenet, Red Stodolsky, the owner of Baroque Books, which was in this space before the gallery.
“Charles Bukowski was his good friend and drinking buddy. He would create handwritten books on the premises and they would have impromptu book-signings whenever they felt in the mood.
“Red’s spiritual presence is a very positive force. I can always tell when Red approves or disapproves of the goings on at Antebellum. If he is displeased, he slams the door shut. If he is content, the people are drawn in and linger for a very long time. They also buy more.
“Sometimes Red rings the door chimes. He doesn’t like a lot of light in the office area. Overhead track lighting never works back there.
“I was told by a former neighbor that Red’s last wishes were to have his ashes scattered on the front sidewalk of Baroque Books.”
Next on Castro’s list was the Vogue Theater on Hollywood Blvd., not too far from his gallery on Las Palmas.
“It was built on the former site of an elementary school that burnt down in 1901. Twenty-five students were killed along with their teacher,” he told me. “After the theater was built and when it was still open for business, ghosts of children were often seen playing in the aisles. People also have seen ghosts of a projectionist and another guy who worked there.”
His favorite site is nearby, also in Hollywood, but it’s not in clear view.
In 1914, department store magnates the Bernheimer brothers built an exact replica of a Japanese palace on a hilltop in Hollywood to house their Asian art collection. They also constructed a 300-foot private cement staircase that went down the hill from the property into the back of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
In the late 1920’s after the death of one of the brothers, the art collection was auctioned off and the palace served as the headquarters for the exclusive “400 Club,” created for Hollywood’s burgeoning movie business elite. It became Tinsel Town’s first celebrity hang-out, with all of the glittery chaos that such a concern would attract.
The building now houses the Japanese restaurant Yamashiro, accessed from Sycamore Avenue.
All that remains of the steps is the top portion and the Asian-style architectural adornment in the form of a covered patio. Castro says the missing steps are ghosts of a sort too. He imagines the the stars of the day and their entourages traipsing up and down them. He closes his eyes as he stands on the steps. “I can feel them; they’re here right now,” he claims.
I asked him what it was like to feel their presence. He said, “They’re kind of sad that current times seem so repressed culturally, compared to when they were alive. The 1920s were a culturally explosive time too but with the way things are going now, they feel sorry for us.”
We hiked up Ivar St. to the Alto Nido apartments as he went over the grisly details of the Black Dahlia murder case, allegedly the victim’s residence although it is argued it was not.
Later we stood on the corner of Hollywood and Argyle as he told me about Bela Lugosi’s wayward coffin with a mind of its own during the funeral procession from the now demolished Utter-McKinley Mortuary that stood there.
Not too long past noon, we slipped into Gold Diggers, the bar in front of the former Ed Wood sound stage on a downtrodden strip of Santa Monica Blvd. The horror film director spent much time unwinding there after shooting classics like Plan Nine From Outer Space.
As we stepped from the sun-drenched sidewalk into a cool, dark, mirrored room, I felt like we were transported into the middle of a David Lynch movie. Our eyes adjusted and from the darkness a portly stripper faded into view, delicately shimmying in a G-string and pasties as if she weighed 40 pounds less. A moment later, through the quiet throb of dance music, a brittle voice called from behind the bar. “Would you like a drink?” We said we would return as we slipped past the thick rubber curtain into the vestibule and back out to the piercing sunlight and heat.
Castro was quiet as we drove to Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I mentioned that I hadn’t been there since the Day of the Dead event last year. He said, “Everyday is the day of the dead, as far as I’m concerned. Time is just an illusion to keep us from seeing that. Death is an obstacle we overcome to gain that awareness.”
We wandered among the graves and through the mausoleums on a day of sweltering heat that even kept the tourists away.
In the Columbarium, he paused in front of the cremains of Tomato du Plenty, the lead singer of the LA punk band, The Screamers. “I knew Tomato, ” is all he would say.
Across the room were the cremains of actor Lana Clarkson, her life cut short while in the company of music legend Phil Spector, who will soon be standing trial for the second time for her murder. “So sad,” murmured Castro.
Once we were outside among the gravemarkers again he seemed to brighten and regaled me with stories of the sex lives and alcohol and drug fueled hi-jinks of the interred famous. Clifton Webb, Joan Hackett, Rudolph Valentino, Virginia Rappe, Peter Lorre, Jayne Mansfield– he talked as if he had heard the stories directly from them. For all I know, that may well have been the case.
SPLATTER – Murder, Monsters, Mayhem & Gore; Opening night gala, Thur. Oct 30th, 7 – 10 PM. Antebellum Gallery 1643 N. Las Palmas Ave. Hollywood 90028; $10 admission, $5 if in costume. Exhibit runs through Nov. 30th.