Part of a series on overlooked Malibu history
by Pablo Capra
Special to The Malibu Times
The “Yellow House” (later, the “Yellow Submarine”) is best remembered from Anthony Friedkin’s photo on the cover of Topanga Beach Experience by Paul Lovas (2011). Located near the current lifeguard tower, it was burned down in 1979 by surfers who wanted to spare this symbol of their neighborhood from being bulldozed when the beach became public.
The earliest known owners of the Yellow House, in the late 1930s, were Frank and Ruth Lacy, with their children Mary Alice, Katherine, and Billy Scott—of whom little else could be learned.
In 1940, the Lacys sold the Yellow House to Eduardo “Edward” Carrere (1906-1984), his wife Helen (1905-1979), and son Leon Robert “Bobby” Carrere (b.1935). Edward and Helen met at the Bullocks Wilshire department store, where she worked with his sister in the hat department. He’d emigrated from Mexico City with his family to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1919. She was born to Norwegian immigrants in Brooklyn and relocated to Los Angeles after visiting her older brother there in 1926.
Initially, the Carreres moved to the beach as summer renters in 1939 but decided to stay. Bobby shared pleasant memories from childhood, like his mother sending him up the creek to pick watercress for their salads. They also gathered the grunion that spawned on the beach at night. When his bucket was full, he’d jump in the ocean. “It felt like I was in a can of sardines,” he says.
On Wednesdays, Helen drove Edward, a draftsman, to work at Warner Bros. studio in Burbank so she could use the car to run city errands. When Bobby was on summer break from Roosevelt Elementary School, it was the one day of the week that he had to wear shoes.
Bobby’s best friend was neighbor John “Jack” Sykes (1935-2017). Instead of opening a lemonade stand, they found a novel way to earn a nickel by digging a channel into the lagoon and rowing their neighbors across. They made the water flow parallel to the beach houses, cutting off as many as they could from the ocean, but the neighbors didn’t mind because the channel brought firewood to everyone’s doorstep.
A great place to explore was Parker Mesa to the east. The boys reached it by a dirt road a quarter mile up Topanga Canyon. Claude I. Parker (1871-1952), a tax attorney with a large Hollywood clientele, had purchased the property in 1921 from Perfecto Marquez (1887-1942), a descendant of the area’s first ranching family. Claude and his brother Ivon belonged to the Elks club that threw a giant rodeo at Topanga Beach in 1923. They also owned cabins there that burned in 1926.
Near today’s Getty Villa, Claude and his second wife Blanche (1885-1936) built a mansion that they called La Casa Contenta en La Cañada Sentimienta (“The happy house in the sentimental glen”), rhyming on the canyon’s Spanish name. It had a movie theater, an adobe barbecue that could feed 500, a pool with a waterwheel, beds of prize-winning roses, and stables for breeding horses. On the Mesa, they cut riding trails, and planted avocado and citrus trees. Blanche, in poor health, died early of pneumonia. Claude sold the mansion to J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) in 1945, while Parker Mesa was sold separately to the Sunset Mesa housing development, which opened in 1962.
Further east, the boys discovered an abandoned palace, the Villa Leon, whose name sounds like it was built for Bobby. In fact, Jewish-Austrian businessman Leon Kauffman (1873-1935) built it for his wife Clemence (1886-1932) to fulfill her dream of having a castle by the sea. Kauffman made his fortune processing wool, and filled their home with every luxury, including statues, topiary gardens, frescoed ceilings, waterways with tiny boats, rare birds in cages, the first-ever central vacuum cleaner, a pipe organ, tables with golden angels for legs, an elevator, and a funicular railway to the beach. The castle was completed in 1928 but only briefly enjoyed, since Clemence and Leon both died a few years later. Caretakers oversaw Villa Leon until it was finally sold at auction in 1952. It remains a coastal landmark.
When Bobby and Jack explored it, they chanced upon an open window and decided to climb in. “I went first,” Bobby says. “I saw furniture all covered with sheets… real Halloween time! Then I turned around and realized that I was not going to be joined, so I quickly headed back out the window.”
In the summer of 1941, the Carrere family rented out the front of the Yellow House, and moved into two apartments above the garage. Their tenants were married actors Vincent Price (1911-1993) and Edith Barrett (1907-1977). Price had just made The Invisible Man Returns (1940), embarking on a career in horror that would include a monologue in Michael Jackson’s 1983 song “Thriller.” Barrett, a Broadway actress, would make her film debut that September in the noir Ladies in Retirement (1941), which also starred the couple who lived one house west, Ida Lupino (1918-1995) and Louis Hayward (1909-1985). Film columnist Hedda Hopper noted that Topanga Beach was becoming a junior Malibu Colony.
“At the mouth of Topanga Canyon, there’s a colony of actors, and they call the place ‘Junior Malibu.’ The Vincent Prices and Louis Haywards have cottages with balconies facing the sea. And during their after-dinner coffee, they chat back and forth to each other. They got in the habit of calling out whenever a woman walked by on the beach, ‘There goes Garbo!’ Last week one night just at dusk, when a woman strolled past, they repeated this—then looked suddenly at the woman, and b’golly, it WAS Garbo! They ran indoors as guilty as a couple of young kids who had tied tin cans to puppies’ tails.”
—” Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood,” Los Angeles Times 1941-08-19
Ida Lupino was Bobby’s favorite neighbor and would invite him and Jack in for cookies. She came from an English family that had acting roots going back to Renaissance Italy. By seven, she was writing and performing plays in her backyard. By 10, she’d memorized the lines of every female Shakespeare lead. At 14, she starred in the film Her First Affaire (1932).
An unfortunate consequence of coming to Hollywood was that she contracted polio in a swimming pool during a 1934 epidemic. Although she recovered, she decided that she needed a broader skill set. “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body,” she told Hollywood magazine in 1942. So, when not in front of the camera at Warner Bros., she studied how films were produced and eventually became the only woman to write and direct in 1950s Hollywood.
It may have been her idea to create the “Malibu Summer Theater,” which put on a backyard play (her hallmark!) with the children of Topanga Beach in 1941. Their performance of The Return of Noreen, about fairies and elves, was hosted by Don “Chick” and Sarah Dawson, who lived one house east (where bikers Terry and The Pirates lived in the 1970s). Helen created the costumes by dyeing the children’s underwear green. Admission was a dime and went towards ice cream and cake for the actors: Bobby, Jack, his sister Beverly, sisters Eve and Joneen Tettemer, Prudy Jackson, and Marion Heath. The cast also included two grown-ups: comic actress Ina Claires (1893-1985) and Broadway actor Alfred Lunt (1892-1977).
In the audience were Ida Lupino, Louis Hayward, Vincent Price, Edith Barrett, Ziegfeld Follies girls Ann Pennington (1893-1971) and Fanny Brice (1891-1951), Broadway star Sophie Tucker (1887-1966), and actors John Conte (1915-2006), Frances Robinson (1916-1971), and Richard Haydn (1905-1985). The women wore pants, and the men wore swim trunks to the casual event, yet their celebrity status ensured another write-up, in which a reviewer highlighted the fun of it all.
“Frequently, the leads acknowledged the presence of friends’ out front’ by grins and hand waving. One actress became so happy at seeing her mother in the back row that she stepped across the footlights and sat with her.”
—“A Play Premiere,” The Daily News, 1941-08-05
The play would be remembered as freezing a special moment in time, shortly before the US entered World War II, and everyone’s lives changed.
After the war, the Carrere family moved to Westwood, where Edward fulfilled his dream of building a house. In 1947, Warner Bros. promoted him to art director. He went on to win an Oscar for the musical Camelot (1967) and to design sets for over 50 other films, including The Fountainhead (1949), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and The Wild Bunch (1969). His younger brother, Fernando “Ferdie,” also became an art director, receiving an Oscar nomination for The Children’s Hour (1961) and working on other major films like On the Beach (1959) and The Pink Panther (1963).
Leon, who dropped his childhood name Bobby, grew up to work at Warner Bros. like his dad as a film and TV editor, with credits on the hit, shows Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981) and The X-Files (1993-2002). Today he’s retired and lives in Carpinteria.
Pablo Capra is the Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of Topanga Beach: A History (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.