The Long Beach earthquake struck at around six p.m. on March 10, 1933. With a magnitude 6.4, it caused extensive damage in the port city and across Southern California and as many as 120 fatalities. Thirty years later, Sheilah Graham interviewed people who were living at the Garden at the time.
Ward Morehouse was living at the Garden while working as a screenwriter. He was on hiatus from his daily newspaper column in New York, “Broadway after Dark.” He was asleep when the quake struck that evening. “Everything was shaking and I was knocked all over the place,” he recalled, “I thought the roof was going to fall at any minute. All the pots of geranium smashed to the ground.” He’d had enough. He called his wife and told her was coming home. She encouraged him to stay for the money, but he returned to New York as soon as he could.
At her home in Beverly Hills, Ouida Bergère, the actress, screenwriter and wife of Basil Rathbone, was also thrown from her bed. She remembered that in her startled, half-awake state, she’d believed her husband – who would later portray Sherlock Holmes in 13 films – had pushed her onto the floor.
Actress Liz Allan was also at work on a soundstage at MGM. “The scenery on the set fell all over us, and I was shoved under a table,” she told Sheilah Graham. “The lights went out and the big doors wouldn’t open. You can imagine how panicky everyone was. They finally got the doors open and told us to go home.”
Allan’s husband, film agent Wilfred “Bill” O’Bryen had been walking back to the Garden. As sometimes happened, O’Bryen didn’t feel the impact of a quake outdoors. “I thought it was a little strange that so many people seemed to be running out of their houses,” he said, “I climbed up to our first-story apartment and opened the window and noticed that the pool was lapping backwards and forwards and overlapping.”
When Liz Allan got back to the Garden, she found Bill calmly reading a book. “Didn’t you feel the earthquake?” she asked, incredulously.
“Oh, it was an earthquake?” he said. There were small tremors for the next two months. “It was rather uncanny to be lying in bed and awakened by a rolling motion,” Bill recalled.
The agent Willard Keefe was having drinks with Robert Benchley’s great friend, the actor Charlie Butterworth. “There was a sort of rippling movement of the floor, and a dousing of lights,” Keefe remembered. “Presently there were cries of panic from outside, and guests charged out of their homes and made quite a crowd. When the danger had a passed, all the guests joined in one big party. It was not a relaxed party. It was an excuse to find comfort in a crowd.” Among those huddled outside with Keefe and Butterworth were Benchley, actor Louis Calhern, Ward Morehouse, screenwriter Eddie Mayer, and Lela Rogers, whose daughter, Ginger, was still at work at RKO Studios.