On April 24, 1923, approximately 850 residents of Beverly Hills took to the ballot box and made a decision that would change the course of the city’s history. When given the choice between being annexed into Los Angeles and remaining their own city, the people picked independence.
Now, exactly 100 years later, the Beverly Hills Historical Society released a documentary called “The Stars Who Saved Our City,” which celebrates the significance of this vote and the eight movie stars who rallied residents to preserve their beloved town. These celebrities were some of the first to build estates in the city and remain some of the biggest names in movie history to this day. They are Will Rogers, Mary Pickford, Fred Niblo, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Conrad Nagle, Rudolph Valentino and Tom Mix.
It is due to their campaigning that Beverly Hills was able to preserve an independent identity, create its own school system, run its own services, control the local water supply and chart its own destiny.
“These Hollywood pioneers who were visionaries; they understood what the impact would have been had the residents voted to simply annex themselves to Los Angeles,” said Councilmember John Mirisch in the documentary. “We would maybe be a somewhat upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles, maybe. Instead, we have our town.”
The documentary was screened in partnership with the city of Beverly Hills at several different locations from April 23 to 27 including at the Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market, Roxbury Park and Greystone Mansion. It can also be viewed online for free at: tinyurl.com/TheStarsWhoSavedOurCity
The documentary was created by long-time writer and producer Phil Savenick, who is the president of Beverly Hills Historical Society and a lifelong resident of the city. It was produced by Robert Anderson, who is a direct descendant of the founding proprietors of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Margaret Anderson and Stanley Anderson.
“Our mission really is to preserve and present and entertain and educate and inform people with all the great stories and legends of our little town,” said Savenick. “When we grew up here it was a little village, it was a movie colony, it was a different feel and we are trying to preserve what that was and save it for the future, if not physically then at least in videos.”
Savenick first stumbled upon the story of the 1923 independence vote when he was producing a film for the city’s centennial celebration. He was amazed by how the movie stars banded together to retain control over their community and thought it important to bring the tale to light.
The story itself is movie-worthy with themes of greed, stardom, sacrifice and deceit.
Ultimately the story revolves around water, which has been central to the community of Beverly Hills since the Tongva people originally settled in the area and called it “El Rodeo de las Aguas” or “Gathering of the Waters.”
In the 1920s the Rodeo Water and Power Company, which owned most of the land of Beverly Hills, sought to have the city join the city of LA, so that they could have access to its water supply. Beverly Hills had more than adequate well water to supply its growing population, the company just didn’t want to make the investment to retrieve, clean and distribute it.
The campaign for the annexation vote quickly turned dirty as those in favor of joining the city of LA employed all sorts of tricks to try and get voters on their side.
Headlines were made across the nation by a false claim that supporters of the independence movement had mailed a bomb to a local newspaper editor. And, on election day, the pro-annexation movement deposited a bottle of dirty water on everyone’s doorstep saying it was the water that voters would be stuck with if they voted for independence.
Nevertheless, the pro-annexation argument was defeated by the star power of the celebrities who went door-to-door explaining to residents why they should vote for independence.
“It was the first time celebrities existed and the first time celebrities got involved in the electoral process and showed their influence,” said Savenick. “The birth of Beverly Hill is tied to the birth of celebrity politics.”
When election day came around 90% of the city’s 1,000 residents turned out to vote. The election was close, but the celebrities prevailed, and when all was said and done 337 people voted for annexation and 507 voted against it.
Savenick recommends that those interested in learning more about Beverly Hills’ history check out the resources and self-guided tours available both on the historical society’s website and on their mobile application “The Beverly Hills Experience.”