Silver Lake Bohemianism for Openhouse magazine

Published in Openhouse magazine, Vol. 5, 2016

In the first half of the twentieth century, Los Angeles’ artists, leftists, screenwriters, painters, Mexicans, vaudevillians and homosexuals flocked to the hilly enclave of Silver Lake, where, away from police boots and the mainstream dogma, they gave birth to a unique cultural bohemia that continues to quietly shape and influence the very fabric of American society, providing a launching pad for abstract notions of self that trickle slowly into the popular consciousness. In case you have not visited Silver Lake — imagine a landscape filled with Spanish, Moorish, Italian, and modernist architecture, towers abutting terraces, sweet working class bungalows neighboring palatial constructions, nonsensical pairings hidden in plain view among dense bushes of aromatic jasmine and gardena and pink bougainvillea in an undulating topography whose twisted and bent inclines are dotted with stairways that lead to magnificent views across Los Angeles, all the way to the Pacific. They used to say that this part of LA, back when it was a secret sanctum for gay actors and their lovers, “gathered the scent of scandal” …  this is where Jared Frank, an interior designer and former dancer, found his personal slice of bohemia and would eventually decide to share it.

Frank, who has an interior design company, Topsy Design, moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn five years ago, looking to reinvent himself. He stumbled upon a building in Silver Lake called Casa Larissa, a ten unit, Spanish revival colonial style structure dating to 1929 which had long ties to the “scent of scandal”. It is said that James Dean kept a male lover at Casa Larissa, as did Rock Hudson; rumor has it that the Rolling Stones kept mistresses here. Whether or not these stories are true, the building itself seems custom-built for private decadence. As the lines between bohemian and bourgeois become ever more blurred in Silver Lake, where rents are increasingly unreachable for the young and/or working class, Casa Larissa still carries some of that original, stubborn rejection of the bourgeois lifestyle by the bourgeoisie itself, its warm, cracked plaster walls emanating a distaste for the clean, over-curated consumer lifestyle peddled in the new developments, power yoga studios and over-priced juice shops that have sprung up all around.

Frank went to Casa Larissa for an estate sale — a long-time tenant, Lance Gaylord Klemm, had fallen ill and was moving out, and his sister was selling his furnishings. Klemm, born on July 21, 1945, had been a successful fresco painter and at the end of the working day, he would bring his paint brushes and his imagination home with him. Over the many years he lived there, he turned his his two bedroom apartment into a trompe l’oeil fantasy, painting the ceilings, walls and floors of his home in ornate neoclassical styles, turning each day in to a night at the opera. “I walked in and it was incredible; I had never seen a space like it before,” recalls Frank. Klemm had hung thick red velvet curtains from dusty brass curtain rods; the apartment resembled a set, replete with geometric floors, a vestibule dripping with Chinoiserie, an abundance of urns and peacocks and columns. “Carpe Diem” had been painted above an archway.

The landlord however, wasn’t sure what to do with the heavily customized, idiosyncratic home. Who but Klemm could live in his creation? Frank (who was born thirty-eight years and one night later, on July 22nd), apparently. He saw nothing but inspiration, and rented it. “I was so lucky with my landlord—he is not the Marxist definition of a landlord,” says Frank, “he’s a human being; he always chooses creative people, where a lot of landlords do the opposite. And when he met a young kid who said ‘I love it, don’t change anything’, he said OK great!” Frank moved in the day that Klemm officially moved out, and set about envisaging fresh drama for Klemm’s stage. Where Lance had painted a faux rope on the wall, he installed real rope, as homage. He hung parasols from the ceiling of the Asian vestibule. He had a lampshade custom-made from a gramophone speaker; turned a metal crucible into a planter, and made a coffee table from a stack of colorful vintage suitcases which perfectly match the multi-colored floors. There are African masks, a carved african horse head, masks from the Odd Fellows fraternity and an all seeing eye — things that suggest ritual and ceremony. The ambiance is haute flea market meets Bohemian Grove, a place where magicians and intellectuals and and heart broken lovers and Illuminati might share a Moscow Mule and sigh about Matisse and pretty girls. The work Frank does for his clients, he points out, is nothing like the work he has done at Casa Larissa. In designing his home, he channels Lance Klemm, his silent, but always present, client. “We are in a room right now in which he painted the walls, the floors, and the ceiling,” says Frank, over a Moscow Mule. “He’s hugging us. It’s interesting to have such a close relationship with someone i have never met.” (Klemm passed away in 2009, shortly after Frank moved in.)

As the home took shape, he realized more and more that there is no point in having a stage with no performance.  He looked at Lance’s floors and in his mind, he saw people dancing on them. This place wasn’t supposed to be a museum, it was meant for a feast of friends. So he started hosting dinner parties. The actor/comedian Taylor Negron, who lived in Casa Larissa until his death last year, would often come to them, late.  “He would sashay into the room and hold court, telling stories and everyone would shut up and listen.” The home seemed to draw performances out of its visitors, and Frank, yet again was inspired. “It was always a shame to me that the only way someone could see this house could be by knowing me,” says Frank. “I can’t just walk up to someone and say ‘hey, check out my house’. I wanted to allow more people to experience it.”

So, last year, he launched a monthly series of concerts at his home, contemporary parlor room gatherings that started with a performance by a local female harpist, Cristina Black. The evening was a resounding success, and several more took place in the following months. “Anything that requires a hushed form of concentration, and yet doesn't need a serious opera setting is perfect here.” One night in March, around 100 young people gathered at the apartment to for the fifth party, featuring a performance by surrealist comedy musician Reggie Watts, whose Dada-esque, freeform musical performance style is astounding to behold anywhere, but was especially psychedelic at Casa Larissa. Watts sang and beatboxed in front of a repurposed Panchinko arcade game board that has been turned into a light; young people sat on the floor, on each others’ laps, on the arms of couches, peeking in from the kitchen and from the patio that overlooks the twinkling lights of the facing hillside. Afterwards, a bona fide dance party erupted and one was reminded of the party scene in Antonioni's Blow-Up where Verushka takes a toke of her joint and declares “I *am* in Paris!” 

Case Larissa’ secret concerts have no doorman, no list, no promotion. The events have never been posted online, and there is no Facebook invitation. So far, after five months of concert, no one has broken anything, nothing has gone missing. The people who go to the Casa Larissa secret concerts are friends, and a growing circle of friends of friends.  And of course, the spirit of Lance Klemm, which one hopes is hovering around. “All the world's a stage” was a mantra Klemm lived by.  And now it seems his apartment is too. “The things that some people say after these events are so nice,” says Frank, who says opening his home to music and strangers is one of the best ideas he ever had. “"The people who come to these events say the nicest things.  Folks have actually told me that it's the best time they've ever had in LA.  When someone says something like that to you, well, it makes you want to just keep on doing it."