Detail, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, Ca., 1939 by Elmer Johnson (Copyright 2012 Jeffery C. Johnson)

Hollywoodland Pt.2:

So, Elmer was seeing this dreamland at a very pivotal time, both in the industry and in his life, for he was in love with a young South-Sider named Genevieve Malatesta.

It was to Genevieve that he related his travels to in letter (such as one postmarked Feb. 28th, 1939) and mentioned, quite offhanded, how beautiful the “Wee Kirk o’ the Heather” church at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles “where more than 7,000 couples have been married” and that “It is a really beautiful place to get married in and the only charge is $10 for the services of different people.” He goes on to describe the specifics of the church including “a garden of beautiful flowers with canary birds to add to the atmosphere.”

Clearly, Elmer was pushing hard to interest his sweetheart (and future wife) in to starting a life together in Los Angeles. And in order to interest her more, he describes some of the surroundings, but as he does, he has a hard time hiding his excitement at being at the center of the film world:

“We spent three hours with a map and addresses looking at the different homes of the movie stars. We saw almost 100 different ones- and they were swell. I took a photo of myself in front of Wallace Beery’s magnificent home. We saw Marion Davies’ and Mary Pickford’s mansions along with many others. After that we rode around the 20th Century Fox studio. You could see parts of make-believe streets and farms on their huge lot.”

Later in the letter, he gushes like a fan that yearns to be a part of the action: “After that we drove down Sunset Blvd.- swell road all the way- nice shops and homes. On this street are located NBC’s Radio City and Columbia stations. I stopped at both places and arranged to get tickets for future broadcasts. As I was coming out of Columbia’s studios Eddie Cantor was just arriving for his broadcast. I walked within 2 feet of him. Isn’t that something!”

When I read all of this, I see a 26-year-old man, very good at working with film, cameras, and stories, who is excited to be at his dreams doorstep. He sees the fancy of moviedom swirling all around him and he can see himself a part of it, passing stars when running in to studios here and there, leaving the dark, sharp, realism of Chicago for the soft, sunny, fantasy of Hollywood.

(Fade Out)

(Fade In)

“Two Years Later…” While he did his best to sell Hollywood to Genevieve, it would be to no avail. For when they decided to elope and marry 2 years later, Elmer already had steady employment at the Chicago Daily News (he had worked on the school newspaper at Tilden High), his new wife was not all that interested in leaving her close-knit family in Chicago to chase after an uncertain future.

So, Elmer chose to create a family of his own with Genevieve and to follow the burgeoning dream of owning his own newspaper. Elmer loved the newspaper business and his still photography quickly took on the attention, detail, and innate talent that had started with his early filmmaking experience. However, he soon found that although he was basically self-taught in photography, like his filmmaking, his commitment to the medium was total.

In photospeak it could be said, “Elmer had an eye.” Yet, no matter how easily Elmer found it to tell a story with a picture, Elmer was one who also believed that being a good photographer was more than just having “an eye”. Good photographs were about preparation, deep dedication, and pride…all things, that when exercised at all times, could eclipse a lazy photographer relying only on great talent.

Now, it’s easy, after all of these years, to look at a life and see where one thing led to another or veered off on the fork. But it must be remembered that moments often happen in a person’s life all at once, soaked with emotion, tainted by timing, and with the belief that there will be time to turn back. It should be said that I never once heard any talk, from Elmer or passed through family lore, that Elmer was anything but proud, creatively challenged, and content being a newspaperman and photojournalist.

His subsequent 50 years of work in photography and news remain as proof of this fact.


*I have all of those old reels of 16mm short films that Elmer made as well as his Bolex and his editor. They’re sitting there waiting to be transferred to the digital age and exposed to the wider world.