The ocean and the beach were constants in the lives of the Alley Kids and introduced them to new people, even those from Hollywood.
One day, cries for help were heard from Oak Street Beach. A man was struggling in the surf. Mert was indoors eating breakfast in front of the big window looking out to the ocean. Hearing the cries, he ran to the beach, throwing off his clothes. He fought through the surf reaching the man who had ceased to struggle and was floating face down in the water. Pulling him toward the shore, Mert was then assisted by Laguna Beach Lifeguard Bud Cochran, who had just arrived at the scene.
The struggling swimmer was character actor Grant Mitchell. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, Mitchell gave up his law practice and made his acting debut at age 27. He appeared in many leads on Broadway, but his Hollywood screen career took off with sound films. He appeared in more than 125 movies, including The Life of Emile Zola with scenes filmed in Laguna (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). By his quick action, Mert made a new friend, and so did the neighborhood. Mitchell and his Hollywood friends would come down to Oak Street to enjoy the beach and join in the wiener roasts. They were real people just like the Alley Kids.
The Alley Kids knew everyone at Oak Street Beach. Each new face would elicit an introduction. As reported in the Bugjuice Bulletin, Michael Curtiz “famous movie director was on our beach Sunday … and he told them about several stars and different things about the movies. He is very nice.” A Hungarian-born film director, his career spanned 1912 to 1961, directing 181 films. In 1926, he accepted a Warner Bros. offer to come to the U.S. Four of his films (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce) have been inducted into the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute includes both Casablanca (#3) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (#98) in its list of the 100 greatest American films.
Another day the Alley Kids met other strangers on the beach. They were actor Jackie Cooper and his friends. Cooper was only 15 years old at the time. His film career started early and by 1929 he was a member of “Our Gang,” a comedy series produced by Hal Roach. At 9 years old, he became the youngest person nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the 1931 film Skippy. The year he met the Alley Kids, his movie Newsboys’ Home, a crime film with the Little Tough Guys (later billed as the Dead End Kids), opened. He also appeared in the 1934 film Treasure Island with Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, filmed in part at Laguna’s Goff Island.
Volleyball also brought the Alley Kids to the stars. Volleyball courts could be found on the beach downtown, near Oak Street beach, further south at Arch Beach or Wood’s Cove. Nelson, Gifford, Walt and Mert often formed a team. They were seldom bested. At Arch Beach, one end of the volleyball net was attached to the sea wall fronting the home of Bette Davis and her husband William Sherry. They never saw Miss Davis, but Sherry often joined their volleyball games.
In the 1920s and 30s, Laguna became Hollywood South. Relying largely on local newspapers, local historian James Sleeper identified at least 500 films shot in Orange County between 1910 and 1930 (“… 495 more than anyone else has turned up,” he noted). Emerald Bay became a Sicilian fishing village for The Blonde Saint (1926), Arch Beach exotic Polynesia for The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1922), Three Arch Bay for the Caribbean shore of pirate Captain Blood (1935) directed by Michael Curtiz. Parts of movie sets were still around when the Alley Kids roamed Laguna and their imaginations ran free. Would they chance upon a Polynesian maiden or a swashbuckling pirate?
Annlia is a 50-year resident of Laguna Beach and married to a fourth-generation Lagunan. Having walked nearly every street and alley in town, she has observed firsthand the artistic charm and imagination of residents. Annlia’s introduction to Alley Kids can be found in the July 7 edition of the Indy.