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It can be said that comedic actors in Hollywood rarely resemble the persona they portray on the screen, and zany actress ZaSu Pitts was no exception. The inspiration for Olive Oyl in the Popeye series, with her high-pitched voice and incessant hand wringing, Pitts began her film career as a silent screen actress with Mary Pickford in Pretty Ladies. From vaudeville to Broadway and finally to film and television, Pitts made a name for herself as second banana to a host of stars. Perhaps best known as Elvira Nugent, the chipboard beautician on The Gale Storm Show, she ended her career as the switchboard operator in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She was like everyone’s favorite aunt.
Although married to real estate broker John Woodall, it was clearly Ms. Pitts who commissioned Williams to design her dream home. This Georgian-style house, inflected with a touch of Hollywood Regency, is an excellent example of Williams’s penchant for mixing styles to suit his client’s desires. With its impressive entrance, set back from the street, the home I a stately, yet warm and comfortable, an oasis in a neighborhood that had long been a favorite of the entertainment industry. In fact, Shirley Temple lived next door.
Entering the home, restored by Tichenor & Thorp Architects, one is greeted by a series of graceful arched doorways and Williams’s signature curved staircase. Arches greet the visitor at every turn, drawing one into the rooms off the main hall. The sunroom, or “Morning Room” as it is called on Williams’s plans, has remained a favorite of the house’s many owners for its quiet beauty and exquisite sunlight, a perfect spot for a quiet conversation, to lose yourself in a good book, or to stop the world for an afternoon cup of tea.
The formal dining room, distinguished by extensive moldings, offers views to the garden through its elegant curved windows. The adjacent living room, with its beautiful beamed ceiling, continues to be the current owners’ favorite room for entertaining. The exquisitely detailed moldings on the fireplace mantel are characteristic of Williams’s designs of the time. Off the living room is the loggia, a relaxing outdoor room with columns and curved stairs that make the rear façade as inviting as the front. Perhaps the house’s most intriguing feature is the hidden staircase concealed behind one of the den’s wood-paneled walls and leading up to secluded loft.
Pitts was an excellent cook and asked Williams for a large kitchen, unusual for homes of the day that more often than not had smaller kitchens with butler’s pantries fit for the household staff. Pitts collected candy recipes and compiled a book, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, published posthumously in 1963. The kitchen, which today is almost exactly the same as it was when it was built in 1936, features niches created to house Pitts’s extensive cookbook collection, and her kitchen was the core of her beloved home.