Italian Villa Pt 1
Buster Keaton's Italian Villa
To be Restored
Article by David Weddle
first published in Variety, 1999
re-published here by special permission.
 
Good news for those who treasure historic Hollywood landmarks: Buster Keaton’s Italian Villa, one of the last silent movie star mansions still in existence, has been saved from the wrecking ball. Keaton built the 10,000- square-foot Mediterranean palazzo in Beverly Hills shortly after completing his masterpiece, The General, in 1926. The comedian sold the estate in 1933 and it was subsequently occupied by a number of other owners, including Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Hutton and Cary Grant, and finally, James and Pamela Mason.

After Pamela’s death in 1996, her daughter, Portland, put the villa up for sale. Time had taken its toll on the once breathtaking home: the roof leaked, the pipes rattled, the plaster walls were blistered, the wiring frayed. The first realtors to tour the property told Portland that the only thing marketable was the dirt--most buyers would probably want to tear the mansion down and rebuild. But Mason had grown up in the house, knew its unique history, and was determined to hold out for a buyer who would restore it to its former glory. “It took several years to find the right people,” says Marc Wanamaker, archivist for the Beverly Hills Historical Society and a friend of Portland’s, “but she finally sold it to John Bercsi and Christopher Bedrosian, a couple of young men who specialize in restoring old estates and then reselling them for a profit. They were very excited to have the opportunity to work on a house that belonged to Buster Keaton and James Mason.”

The Keatons on the terrace in 1926.Bercsi and Bedrosian purchased the one-and-a-half-acre property for just under $5 million and are pumping several more million into renovating the villa. Bercsi has restored a total of 11 historic homes in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles and is currently working on five other houses. But the villa is the biggest property he’s ever taken on and he’s personally supervising every detail of the reconstruction. A new roof is being put on the house, but the original Spanish tiles have been saved and restored to their natural red color. Cork floor coverings, installed in a number of rooms by the Masons in the 1950s, are being pulled up to expose the peg-and-groove hardwood beneath them. The exterior grounds will be landscaped to recreate the rolling lawns and exquisitely manicured gardens that graced the original estate, and the weathered stone work and fountain of the sprawling back patio will be overhauled to recapture its former majesty. Bercsi’s construction crews have made a couple of fascinating discoveries in the course of their work. When a set of bookshelves were removed from a recessed wall in the game room, which also served as Keaton’s private theater, Bercsi found Buster’s original movie screen hidden in a slot in the wall. The soiled and tattered white fabric was mounted on a handsome wood frame that slid out of the slot on a set of rollers. “It gave me a chill when I found it,” the developer admits. “When you think that some of the first screenings of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. took place on that screen, it kind of takes your breath away. We’re going to restore it to its original condition.”

In the Villa’s entryway, Bercsi found an oak-framed, beveled mirror that a Keatonographer later identified as part of Buster’s original bedroom set. It was a piece close to his heart, for Keaton made a point of mentioning in his autobiography that he designed and built the mirror himself at the woodshop in his studio. “Somehow that mirror stayed here in this house through 70 years and four different owners,” says Bercsi. “At some point someone painted it white and hung it in the entryway, and apparently no one remembered where it originally came from.”

Bercsi had to tear down the tool shed that housed Keaton’s private cutting room because the roof had rotted, but he will preserve the vault where prints of many lost Keaton films were found by James Mason in 1955. “I wouldn’t think of touching that,” Bercsi says. “It’s a historic landmark.” Bercsi and Bedrosian plan to finish their restoration and put the villa back on the market by the spring of 2000.

 
1926 postcard of the Villa, courtesy Victoria Sainte-Claire
 
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