In the same block on Hollywood Boulevard where would-be Jean Harlows and Mickey Rooneys once toted their dreams to central casting, sits an oversize, circular Polynesian hut with a roof of blue tiles topped by what looks like a monstrous maraschino cherry. A silvery green sequined banner informs passersby that this is the home of the Velaslavasay Panorama, one of Hollywood’s most curious—and most endangered—works of art. The building is slated to be bulldozed within a few months to make way for a supermarket.
Inside, Sara Velas, 27, the creator of the panorama—a 360-degree landscape painted on a 60-foot-long canvas—sports a tailored blouse and paint-spattered Mary Janes. Her intense brown eyes and severe braids suggest a subject in a 19th-century daguerreotype, but her voice is friendly and her laugh infectious. “It’s kind of a composite,” she says of her work, “even though we’d like you to feel like you were in one spot.”
Down a hallway draped in orange curtains, an open door leads to the panorama itself. Called The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes, it’s a rendering of the Los Angeles Basin as it might have looked 150 years ago: a few brittle spires of sunbaked chaparral push their way out of parched ground, wildfires erupt in the distance and a single hacienda is poised on an arid plain. The painting’s imagery came from photographic scraps Velas tracked down in the Los Angeles Public Library—blurry images of the Tujunga Wash and the Santa Monica Bay, a folded and torn photograph—or was it a drawing?—of the hacienda. Velas also turned to histories of Los Angeles to conjure up the idealized California of the mid-1800s. “On the East Coast at that time,” Velas says, “there were so many rumors and ideas of what it was like out West. And what people didn’t have direct access to, they invented.”
Patented by Irishman Robert Barker in 1787, the panorama form, with its gigantic canvases, flourished in Europe and the eastern United States in the 19th century, placing viewers at the very epicenter of pitched battles and elaborate gardens. Panoramas were not meant for sober viewing on museum or art gallery walls. Rather, they functioned as mass cultural experiences, and the often grand rotundas that housed them served a purpose not unlike that of a movie theater.
The Velaslavasay Panorama is one of only three in the United States on display in rotundas. The other two, which both date to the 19th century, commemorate bloody Civil War conflicts: Paul Philippoteaux’s The High Water Mark at Gettysburg (1884) is in Gettysburg National Military Park, and William Wehner’s Battle of Atlanta (1896) is in that city’s Grant Park. Velas’ panorama was completed in early 2001.
Many other surviving American panoramas have long since been disassembled, their canvas panels relegated to deep storage. Since Velas must vacate her rotunda later this month in anticipation of the building’s demolition, hers could well meet the same fate.
Velas grew up in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles. Her mother, Laura, loved dragging Sara and her two younger sisters to such historical sites as Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, or Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts. Trips to Disneyland came courtesy of Velas’ father, Joseph, a lighting manufacturer who provided the bulbs for the theme park’s former Main Street Electrical Parade. Velas’ interest in painting began, says her father, as soon as she could hold a brush. Her fascination with historic Los Angeles and Victoriana took root later, during high school, when outings to crumbling turn-of-the-century mansions downtown led her to value the past. “In L.A., there are only a few remnants of Victorian buildings,” she says. “Because there’s so little left here, it seemed more interesting. If I had grown up in San Francisco, I don’t know if I would have felt the same way.”
At Washington University in St. Louis, which she attended on a full scholarship, Velas “started doing wider and wider paintings, because I became more and more interested in peripheral vision.” And her passion for Victoriana continued to grow. “There’s just something weird about that time period,” she says, “particularly because it’s the furthest back that was heavily documented in photographs.” By her senior year, Velas’ preoccupation with the 19th century and her thirst for ever wider canvases had led her to the panorama, which married the Victorians’ love of art and technology into one great spectacle. “It wasn’t just the painting,” Velas says. “It was about everything that goes along with it. Those crazy round buildings that housed them. The pamphlets they’d give you, where the writing was so overblown.” For her senior project, Velas stretched her Nocturnal Panorama of a Desert Landscape across four sides of a rectangular gallery. Then, upon graduation, she departed for a “panoramic” tour of Europe, where the greatest number of 19th-century rotundas, less than ten, survive. One of her favorite works was The Battle of Bergisel in Innsbruck, Austria. “There was this 3-D sculpture of a fallen soldier in front of the painting,” she says, “which further extended the reality.”
Although Velas had driven past the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue dozens of times without noticing the circular building strewn with garbage and overflowing with weeds, it was not until March 2000 that she set her eyes—and her hopes—on the Polynesian-style structure, which in various incarnations had housed a Chinese restaurant, a travel agency and a pizzeria. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what an amazing building.’ It looked so much like those panorama rotundas I’d seen.” She signed a lease, and after ten months of hauling trash, pulling weeds and building the interior walls on which to mount The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes, she held a gala opening; a juggler, two fortunetelling cats and an organ grinder with a sock-puppet monkey entertained the guests. Velas set a $2 suggested admission fee and filed for nonprofit status. Actress Diane Keaton has proved an especially generous donor, and Brad Pitt has called the place “a little oasis in Hollywood.”
Velas cites two main artistic inspirations: the 19th-century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and flamboyant circus showman P. T. Barnum. “I love the way Barnum could get away with saying almost anything to get people into his entertainments,” she says. In his spirit, Velas has hosted old-fashioned ice-cream socials, an Ides of March celebration and an annual séance series, at which silent-movie vamp Theda Bara recently showed up, in a rather foul mood.