There’s a short alley in Hollywood, running east-west between Cahuenga Boulevard and Cosmo Street, which currently has more than 100 five-star reviews on Google. One user describes visiting the street as “akin to a Catholic entering the Vatican”. Another calls it “the Holy Grail of Hollywood sites” and others have hailed it as “iconic”, “legendary”, “of monumental significance” and “sacred ground”.
There is a reason for these glowing reviews of a tiny strip of Hollywood real estate. This passage is featured prominently in three silent classics: Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922) and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923). Film historian John Bengtson is leading a campaign to have the street named Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley and the recent surge of Google reviews is the latest move in his crusade.
Bengtson has been identifying the Los Angeles locations used in silent movies since 1995. He offers tours and lectures, and has published the details of scores of film locations on his website Silent Locations. He usually works by consulting aerial photographs of Hollywood from the 1920s and comparing them against film scenes. In this case, a festival screening of another silent film, The Last Edition (1925), tied a few unsolved cases together.
“That movie filmed many scenes at the alley, from many different angles,” says Bengtson. “I nearly fell out of my seat. Finally, the pieces all fit, it all made sense.”
The alley had also been used by directors Lois Weber and Cleo Madison, and star Harry Houdini, before Chaplin spotted it. “It was close to the studios. It faced south, so it was lit by the sun most of the day,” says Bengtson. “So it makes perfect sense film-makers knew this was the place to go.”
Chaplin chose this alley, about a mile from his Hollywood studio (now owned by the Jim Henson Company) to shoot the scene in which he discovers an abandoned baby in the opening scenes of The Kid. In Cops, Keaton stages a phenomenal stunt there – grabbing one-handed on to a speeding car that drags him, feet flying, out of the frame. The alleyway can also be seen multiple times in Lloyd’s thrill-comedy Safety Last!, best known for the sequence in which the star climbs a department store building and finds himself hanging from a clock face.
Over the years there have been many reasons cited for changing street names in LA. In the 1880s, the residents of Charity Street objected to living “on charity”; their home is now called Grand Avenue. Last May, Rodeo Road was renamed Barack Obama Boulevard, joining a selection of other local streets named after former presidents. Despite a significant amount of opposition, in 1996, a section of the street near the Church of Scientology was officially named L Ron Hubbard Way.
There are several LA streets named after film stars, too. You’ll find Astaire Avenue and Garland Drive in a new suburb built on land that was once the MGM studio lot, for example, but renaming existing roads can be trickier. After comic star Edward Everett Horton’s death in 1970 the city renamed a street in the shadow of Ventura Freeway as Edward Everett Horton Lane. The section covered land that Horton had sold to the city when the freeway was built.
Notoriously, singer Rudy Vallée petitioned to have the section of Pyramid Place near his home in Hollywood Hills named Rue de Vallée. The city rejected his proposal after locals objected. Dismissing his neighbours as “disgruntled pukes”, Vallée erected a similar sign on his driveway instead.
Giving a strong precedent for Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley, Silverlake is now officially home to The Music Box Steps – scene of Laurel and Hardy’s unforgettable piano-shifting calamities in the 1932 movie.
In 2018, a historical marker was placed outside the site of the studio on Lillian Way that was used by Keaton in the 1920s and Chaplin from 1916-17, though the studio itself was demolished in 1931. Six blocks north of there, the section of Cahuenga Boulevard just south of Hollywood Boulevard, where you’ll find the alley, occupies a special place in Bengtson’s research. According to his studies, Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd shot more films on this stretch of road than anywhere else in Hollywood.
“If someday this alley is named in their honour, if someday silent-film fans visit here from around the world because people know about this alley, it would be beyond humbling and gratifying,” says Bengtson. “History is everywhere, if we only know where to look. Somehow this alley was meant to be remembered, it deserves to be remembered, and that’s why I’m lobbying on its behalf.”