At Will Rogers Beach, Will A Favorite Film Location Become Home To The Homeless?

Film shoots are up and running again on Will Rogers State Beach, that slightly magical stretch of coastline between Santa Monica Canyon and the very private Bel-Air Bay Club, along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Location managers love the spot, because it actually looks like people think Los Angeles looks. Long breakers. Clean sand. Palm trees, of course. And plenty of parking, for a variable fee that ranges from $4 to $12, depending on the season and demand.

On Thursday morning, the north parking lot was jammed, in a nice way, with 30 or 40 blue canopies and dozens of production vehicles from rental lots all around town. A security guard said it was a commercial shoot, quiet for the moment, but obviously poised for action later in the day.

Before the pandemic, Will Rogers was a regular stop for feature films, television series, commercials, student projects, and the occasional sexy photo shoot. This is legacy. The lifeguard headquarters long made a trophy of its bright yellow Baywatch boat. You’ve seen this beach on so many screens, you might think you’ve been there. Actually, you probably have been there, as it’s a refuge for locals, tourists, and a county-wide crowd of visitors who come looking for a break from the traffic, density, and worrisome blight that, as we all know, define how Los Angeles really does look. Even Harry Perry, the roller-skating Sikh from battered Venice, runs on the bike path up this way.

All of which could soon get a lot more complicated.

In one of the hotter controversies raging on West Side of Los Angeles, city council member Mike Bonin has floated a plan to put temporary housing for the homeless in the beach parking lot—presumably just about where the production vehicles were arrayed this morning. Nothing is settled yet. Bonin has argued that the homeless must be given access to controlled, safe spaces. Many of those who know and love the Will Rogers beach have asked why one of those spaces should be the prettiest, freshest public place on the Los Angeles coast.

Without getting too deeply into the argument, I can only point out that the 12 prohibitions posted on every lifeguard station—no drinking, no camping, no dogs, no fires—would be history if a couple hundred temporary shelters were moved onto the lot. So would much of the filming. As would the already fragile security and sanitary status of the pedestrian tunnel that provides access beneath the highway to the only locally available groceries and alcohol.

Paradise would indeed be lost.

It’s useless to wonder what Will Rogers’ widow Betty would have said about the plan. Having inherited the beach and a nearby ranch when her husband died in a 1935 plane crash, she left it, in turn, to the State of California.

Will, a movie star, but also a homespun kind of guy, had preserved the properties more or less in spite of himself. Just before the Wall Street crash of 1929, Rogers had asked his friend, the financier Bernard Baruch, to get him into stocks. Baruch chased him out of the office.

“You go home and pay your debts,” he told Rogers, according to Will’s newspaper column of January 8, 1931.

Baruch was referring especially to the mortgage on the Rogers’ unimproved real estate in Los Angeles. So Will scurried home, got busy with the payments, and missed the crash. “That’s the nearest I ever come to owning stock,” he wrote. “(I mean outside of a few Horses, and cattle.)”

In 2007, Will Rogers, “Actor, Philosopher and Cowboy,” got a bronze plaque in a rock at the beach that bears his name. This year, he may get a “Hooverville” to go with it. Baruch’s advice notwithstanding, The Great Depression has finally caught up.


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