A tour of L.A.'s rich rail history

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

It didn't take much, by modern standards, to dazzle the first movie audiences. Some of the earliest films were simply footage of trains running along their tracks.

The locomotives were vast and dramatic, churning their wheels and spewing steam. As the trains roared toward the camera, looking as if they were about to burst through the screen, panicked moviegoers were said to have screamed and fled the theater.

The 12-minute-long "The Great Train Robbery," released in 1903, "was the 'Titanic' of its day," says Marc Wanamaker, a Hollywood historian who owns and curates the Bison Archives, a production and research consulting organization. "Going all the way back to the beginning of the film industry . . . many films had plots that involved trains or used trains for crucial scenes. There's a constant fascination with trains. In some films, the train itself was the star."

Such movies will be the focus of a Tuesday presentation, led by Wanamaker, in conjunction with the debut of the new exhibit "Hollywood -- Trains, Streetcars and the Movies" from the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. The night starts about 5 p.m. at Philippe's, in the rear dining room (a.k.a. the train room), where the exhibit -- a 16-foot long display case filled with 14 archival pictures and 26 models of freight cars, passenger cars, street cars and locomotives -- is located. That will be followed by a 7 p.m. presentation at the MTA Metro Board Room in downtown L.A.

As one of the few railroad enthusiast organizations dedicated to public outreach, the foundation has installed similar displays at six other locations in Los Angeles and Orange counties over the past decade.

"Ten years ago, no one in Los Angeles was reaching out to the public about railroads," president Josef Lesser says. "And the movies are one of the most common places, especially nowadays, that people see trains."

Nowhere did the mythography of America's railroads come into sharper focus than in Los Angeles. While trains hauled in lumber that was crucial for building the burgeoning city isolated by desert, sea and mountains, L.A.'s nascent film industry cemented the train as a symbol of adventure and freedom. All that iconic potential came to a head in the city's train and trolley stations...

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