Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Something to Look At

Here's a photo:

Front and center we see a Cigar Store, UNITED CIGARS, with a busy shop window that looks like it sells a lot of stuff. Film, cigarettes, probably candy and pens and envelopes. To the right, a marquee for a theater of some sort, showing "My Friend Irma Goes West" whatever that is. Above that, a blade sign advertising something ending in "MOUNT."

There's some sort of strung-up fluttery crap that seems to come from the blade sign down to the theater marquee, but I cannot make any sense of it.

The sidewalk in front of the theater is crowded, people appear to be crossing the street on the extreme right of the frame, but nobody crosses the street in the foreground. A striped awning suggests another small storefront behind the cigar store, but before the theater entrance.

Above the sign for the cigar store, a sign for Marigold Cafe which evidently serves Chop Suey. To the left of the cigar store, a shop that buys diamonds and "old gold" whatever that might be.

Other details: the street in the foreground has rails, perhaps for streetcars in each direction. The clothing of the people is consistent with 1950s America. The shutter speed is slow, perhaps 1/8 of a second or so, sufficient to render people walking moderately toward the camera fairly sharply, but someone hurrying to cross the street is a blur. There is a man looking directly at the camera who may be hollering, talking, or perhaps his mouth is just hanging open.

There may be a cat in the doorway to the cigar store. There is some sort of newsstand or similar at the base of the street lamp at the right of the frame.

A little research along with the information which accompanied the photo (which gave the location) tells us this is a view from Los Angeles, looking across Hill St, and down 6th St, facing to the southeast. The theater is the Paramount, which did not require a lot of hard guessing, and it was showing a movie released in 1950 (July 4 according to one source), a Dean Martin/ Jerry Lewis vehicle, a sequel to "My Friend Irma."

This dates the photo to, probably, summer of 1950. The Paramount was shuttered in 1960, so this is certainly prior to that date. United Cigar was a going concern in this entire era, as were LA street cars.

This intersection was a major one in the LA streetcar system, with the Hill Street rails carrying cars for both the active systems. 6th Street also carried street car traffic. Close inspection of the upper part of the photo shows aerial wires, possibly for the streetcars (which were electric in the 1950s). This suggests, but does not prove, an early 1950s date as the streetcar lines began to convert to buses in 1955.

The frame dimensions suggest a 4x5 negative, although of course anything can be cropped. This might be some sort of Graphic Press Camera held with a steady hand, or something tripod mounted. It seems a peculiar size for this sort of photo on this date, but certainly people were running around with both Speed Graphics and View Cameras at the time.

The Marigold Cafe seems to have been a going concern pre-war, to the extent that one web page claims the US Military were banned from entering the establishment. One wonders why, but not very hard. It appears to have continued its operation into the 1950s. The attentive will note that the sign seems to suggest that it is either across 6th street or around the corner behind the cigar store. There is lettering that begins "Entrance ..." which presumably ends with either "across street" or "around corner" but I cannot tell which. The striped awning noted above might well be the Marigold. The prewar address of 329 West 6th seems to be consistent with that location.

The entire Paramount building with its associated small storefronts was evidently razed, and in its place now stands one of those weird "Jewelry Mart" complexes that one always suspects are in fact vast money laundries, somehow, that sell a bit of jewelry on the side for cover.

The fire hydrant seems to have been replaced, and moved a little to the right, although it's still that same weird style. The street lamps, regrettably, are now contemporary ugliness.

I am irrationally fascinated by the left-to-right pedestrians hurrying to cross 6th, in contrast with the pedestrians sauntering toward us to cross Hill. I half-imagine a street car just out of frame, moving right to left, about to mow down any foolish walker who tries to cross Hill. I can imagine our camera man, waiting patiently for the traffic to clear, and seizing this singular instant when no streetcar or automobile obstructs the view. I have shot across a few streets in my time.

The fellow looking at us might be wondering how it's going, or yelling at the cameraman "don't take my picture!" or who knows what?

In the end, it's not a particularly interesting photo, is it? It's just a sort of slice of life, the framing is wonky. Is it a picture of a cigar store (get closer, then!) or a picture of an intersection (turn to your right, then!) and once you see it, you cannot unsee the idea that it's actually one of those rare split seconds when the street is clear, and therefore falsely appears to be deserted.

Anyway, this was posted by the LA Public Library as "date unknown," retweeted by Dr. John Edwin Mason, and this whole mess started when I thought "I could probably date that" and so I did.


  1. The white terracotta building a couple blocks down 6th on the right, along with the streetlamps, lead me to think it's some place I've lived. But surely every 50's North American city had that very building, the big department store downtown. I see this one in LA is at 6th and Broadway, nominally a block from the one here in Portland.
    And ... 'Irma' just seems unfairly a funny name.

    1. I knew an actual Irma in Nova Scotia, a co-worker/friend's mom. She was an artist, and quite a good one. The family was Irish AF.

  2. Artist Tom Phillips (whom I revere) has written (if that's the word) an entire experimental opera "Irma", an offshoot from his lifetime work "A Humument".



  3. You probably know about it, but is a fascinating website devoted to just this sort of thing

    1. There's such a domain, but nothing hosted?

    2. Pretty sure he means which is indeed quite the treasure trove! I think the photos are generally somewhat better than this one!

    3. Oh right. It is a cool website.

  4. I was a photographer on our high school's yearbook staff 56/59, We had 4x5 Speed Graphics with which we had to photograph everything from sports to class photos. I had a 35mm SLR as my personal camera, and that made life a bit easier! :]