On The Town - Santa Anita Park
SANTA ANITA PARK AND HOLLYWOOD, A LONGTIME LOVE AFFAIR
And they were off!
On Christmas Day, 1934, Santa Anita Park Racetrack opened its gates and it was love at first sight between Santa Anita and Hollywood.
Hollywood royalty was not only in attendance, but one of Hollywood’s most prolific movie producers, Hal Roach, who started producing film in 1915, and lived till the age of 101 as a working producer, who brought comedy to America with Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy, Will Rogers, and so many more, was the money man behind the park.
Roach was so prolific, as Hal Roach Studios was producing 1500 hours of television shows per year by 1951, which was three times the number of films made in Hollywood, and he created so many of television’s greatest, was the first to create syndication. So many new works and manner of production were originated at Hal Roach Studios, it’s no wonder he drew on all the creative people in Hollywood to help with the park.
And help they did.
Bing Crosby, Joe E. Brown, Al Jolson, and Harry Warner were major stockholders and board members.
Santa Anita Park’s box holders in its early days included such luminaries as director/writer Frank Capra, actors like Fred Astaire and Jack Benny, and studio moguls Walt Disney and Cecil B. de Mille.
Santa Anita was the place to hang out, and still is, for if you pay a visit, you may encounter the ghosts of such fans as Astair, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Charlie Chaplin, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Edgar Bergen, Jane Russell, Cary Grant, Ester Williams,and even Marilyn Monroe, who enjoyed off days and weekends at the Park as regulars, as well as just about every star and supporting actor that worked in Hollywood, including screenwriters Arthur Miller and William Faulkner and John Steinbeck.
Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Alex Trebek, and MGM mogul, Louis B. Mayer, have owned horses that raced at the park.
Movies filmed there included “A Day at the Races”, the Marx Brothers classic, and the Marx Brothers jumped on horses, ran into the stands, and set the whole park on its end with hilarity.
Other films included “The Story of Seabiscuit,” with Shirley Temple.
It was the home of the stars, and if the public wanted stars, all they had to do was buy a Clubhouse ticket and mix with the biggest names ever in film history at Santa Anita, all for just a $2 bet.
And Roach, and his partner who ran the park for him, also had the park be the first to introduce the starting gate and photo finishes for every race, which became de rigeur in horse racing throughout the world. Roach said, “Movies are our business, we are using our trade to bring truth to the race.” Photo finishes became the standard of every track, as so much money was spent at race tracks, the rebroadcast of photo finishes is almost as popular as the race itself.
And it wasn’t only film royalty that inhabited the park. Seabiscuit, America’s great horse of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, raced there often and was a huge prize winner and caught the fancy of the American dream. Of course a film was made of Seabiscuit, and there is a statue of the horse on a show green, where all horses parade around before the races begin each day in his honor.
But while the park has been a favorite spot and watering hole for many years for Hollywood, it also had a dark side. During World War II years 1942-1944, the park was used as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans and had 17,000 living in horse stables, including a young George Takei, the actor most famous as Lt. Sulu who helmed the USS Enterprise in the television and film series of “Star Trek.” A plaque commemorates the events of those years, and there is a display of photos from the site.
Santa Anita’s close proximity to Hollywood, and its gorgeous location at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, has made it a backdrop for too many films, television series, commercials, and photo shoots to count.
But as you walk the ground, you will encounter statues of America’s greatest jockeys, including Johnny Longden, Willie Shoemaker, George Woolf, and LaffitPincay, Jr., all who appeared in so many films as jockeys.
In addition to a lifesize bronze of Seabiscuit in the walking ring at Seabiscuit Court there is also one of John Henry, America’s favorite till he retired in 2009.
And Trevor Denman, the voice of the track since the 1980’s.and whose now-famous voice has been used in many films and television shows, is instantly recognizable when he calls the gathering to attention and calls the race.
Even today, you will still be greeted by 90 year-old Paddock Guard, John Shear, who has been on the job since 1938!
And you may see anyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to George Clooney to Tony Bennett to Mel Brooks, as the love affair continues between Hollywood and Santa Anita Park.
Mark Sevi also contributed to this article.