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In 1965, during the first of my six years studying for a Ph.D. in History at Harvard, I lived in an on-campus residential complex that housed around 600 students. Perhaps one-third of them were at the Law School. I soon noticed that, each weekday evening from 5 to 6 pm, nearly all of the Law students were gathered in the residence hall common rooms to watch the mesmerizing trial lawyer Perry Mason on the small black and white television sets provided there. Then, a few minutes after 6, with Perry Mason’s courtroom legerdemain concluded, the law students proceeded, as in a herd, to the nearby cafeteria for dinner, animatedly discussing the just finished episode as they walked.

In conversations with those students, a large number admitted that Perry Mason was their reason for wanting to become attorneys. From a young age they had watched the TV show and they wanted to pursue careers inspired by his example.

This was the start of my own interest in Perry Mason. I didn’t want to be an attorney, but I was fascinated by the Perry Mason cultural phenomenon.

Erle Stanley Gardner
Erle Stanley Gardner

The creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970), was born in Malden, Massachusetts. At the time of his death he was the best-selling American author of the twentieth century. Gardner is best known for the Perry Mason stories, but he also wrote many other successful crime stories under pseudonyms such as A. A. Fair and Robert Parr, and travel essays about Baja California, a region that fascinated him.

Gardner’s father was a mining engineer who moved the family from place to place as jobs required. Gardner eventually landed in Palo Alto where he graduated high school in 1909. Gardner then enrolled in law study at Valparaiso University in Indiana but left after one month because of poor grades, caused in part by too great an interest in boxing. He moved back to California, got a job as a secretary at a law office in Oxnard, studied at night, passed the state bar exam in 1911, and married in 1912. He opened a law office in Merced in 1917, and then in 1921 joined a law firm in Ventura where he worked until 1933. In 1937 he moved to Temecula where he lived for the rest of his life.


Gardner liked trial work but was otherwise bored by law practice. In his spare time he wrote for the many pulp magazines of the era, such as Black Mask, Argosy, and Dime Detective, publishing his first story in 1927. In the early 1930s, Gardner wrote a series of six stories for Black Mask about a crusading defense attorney; these were probably the basis for the Perry Mason character. The first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, was published in 1933. The Mason series eventually ran to more than 80 novels and gained a very large international readership. Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels enjoyed sales of more than 100 million copies during his lifetime. Gardner wrote with amazing speed. In the early days he typed out his stories using two fingers. Later he dictated to a team of secretaries. He was, nevertheless, a careful author. He worked out every novel in longhand outline before starting to write.

Many authors, including Rex Stout, regarded the Perry Mason stories as hackwork. But some writers disagreed. For example, the English author Evelyn Waugh declared approvingly that Gardner was the best living American writer, and the famed detective story writer H. R. F. Keating thought very highly of Gardner’s work.

The character of Mason has undergone many changes over the years. Mason was hardboiled at first but in some later stories was softened by Gardner so that the novels could appear in serialized form in the family magazine The Saturday Evening Post.

Large modifications occurred when Perry Mason appeared in a series of Hollywood movies produced by Warner Brothers in the 1930s and 1940s. One distracting element was the almost total lack of awareness of a sense of place, noticeable in the first two films, The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) and The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) starring Warren William as Mason.


Weak awareness of place was conspicuous as well in The Case of the Black Cat (1936) with Ricardo Cortez as Mason and in The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937) with Donald Woods as Mason. There is very little in the films to convey the fact that Mason operated in Los Angeles. Mason works out of a tall office building that is indeed in downtown Los Angeles, but feels more like an office building in 1920s Manhattan. When scenes shift to more suburban locations, the story feels incoherent, as if it is missing one of its major characters, namely the city of Los Angeles itself.

The films also stray from the novelistic emphasis upon the steadfastness of the Mason character. Warren William seems like a playboy and constantly flirts with his secretary Della Street, who is a girl Friday and good friend in the novels. In one of the films Mason even proposes marriage to Della. Ricardo Cortez coveys too much of an ethereal quality and relies too much on his haunting voice, making Mason overly mysterious and not at all solid or logical. Donald Woods as Mason is overly clerical, hard to distinguish from the bishop mentioned in his film’s title. Given such drawbacks, it is easy to see why Erle Stanley Gardner never liked the way Warner Brothers treated his creation.


Perry Mason was the lead character in a very popular radio program, which ran from 1943 to 1955. Mason also appeared in a popular comic strip from 1950 to 1952. In both formats the character was generally faithful to Gardner’s original conception.

An old time radio, probably from the 1940s, with a Perry Mason paperback, probably from the early 1950s
An old time radio, probably from the 1940s, with a Perry Mason paperback, probably from the early 1950s

The TV series began in 1955 and continued to 1966. There have been reruns continually ever since, along with expansions into DVD and other formats. Raymond Burr originally auditioned for the role of District Attorney Hamilton Burger in the TV series, but Gardner persuaded producers to cast him as Mason. Burr had begun acting in the 1930s, appearing first in stage roles and then in films ranging from Biblical epics to film noir productions to science fiction offerings. Burr had the stocky body of a Turkish wrestler, haunting eyes, and a deep, resonant voice that could convey both compassion and menace. He also projected a quick, powerful mind. Fans loved him.

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street
Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street

The TV series of the Burr years very much conveyed the sense of place that had sometimes been lost in earlier versions of the Mason stories. One knew that one was unmistakably in the Los Angeles of the late 1950s and early and mid-1960s. Mason’s cases take him to aircraft factories in the area, Hollywood-style mansions, the Navy base at nearby Long Beach, small businesses in the downtown area, local restaurants, and cabins and lakes in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains that were known to be frequent weekend getaway spots for Los Angeles residents. In almost every episode there are establishing shots of the Los Angeles County Courthouse, where Mason works his courtroom magic and also sometimes visits his clients in jail. And Mason’s office is definitely in the Los Angeles of the era. We know this because of the view through his office window, which shows a skyline of new, boxy, steel and glass buildings of the kind being hastily constructed all over Southern California at that time. Nor should we forget the buxom women, the hunky men, and the sleek, long cars dripping with chrome that evoke Hollywood as it was back then.

Los Angeles County Courthouse
Los Angeles County Courthouse

After conclusion of the Burr-based Mason series in 1966, a TV revival, entitled The New Perry Mason, ran from 1973 to 1974, with Monte Markham as the title character. Markham conveyed intellectual penetration but lacked the stolidity that viewers had come to expect from Raymond Burr’s interpretation. His series did not last.

After his first stint in the Mason role, Burr began a new TV show, Ironside, in which he plays a wheelchair-bound detective based in San Francisco who mentors and directs a team of younger assistants. The series ran from 1967 to 1975 and was a hit worldwide.

Raymond Burr as Ironside
Raymond Burr as Ironside

After Ironside ended, and in response to continuing demand, a series of 26 made for TV movies, beginning with The Return of Perry Mason, and starring Burr in the title role, ran from 1985 until Burr’s death in 1993. For this series the locale was moved from Los Angeles to Denver to save on production costs. The Denver backdrop was scenic but added little to the atmosphere of the stories. Filming the show in color may also have been a problem. The black and white format of the original TV series had a Manichean feel that the Denver stories lacked. The series was successful mainly because of the legendary status by that time of both Burr and his co-star, Barbara Hale, who continued in her role as Della Street. Other major actors from the original TV show (William Talman as Hamilton Burger, Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, and William Hopper as private detective Paul Drake) were by that time deceased.

The Perry Mason novels continue to sell well, and the TV shows are re-played around the world. I do not know if young law students still turn to Perry Mason as their career model. And yet, over the years, every time I have had dealings with an attorney, I have, in the manner of Perry Mason, had my suspicions.



Los Angeles-area freeway

(In this second post, the focus moves from northern to southern California, and the time shifts from 1961 to 1973 when I was looking for work after completing graduate school at Harvard, returning to California, and, because of the scarcity of job openings in academia, finding nothing promising up north. I didn’t locate suitable work in southern California, either, and I eventually went to Washington DC where I worked for several years thereafter.  But I did learn some fascinating things while I was in southern California, as the post explains.)


I thought I might find work in Los Angeles. I left Monterey County, where I had been living and working for three years after graduate school, and drove down south and stayed for a month with friends. The Los Angeles region was energetic and infinitely interesting.  I lived in Santa Ana with a friend, Robert, who was a professor of philosophy at one of the local colleges.  He, his wife, and two daughters, ages four and seven, lived in a quintessentially suburban house dating from the early 1950s. They were kind hosts and welcomed my stories, each evening at dinner, of the things that happened as I explored greater Los Angeles trying to decide whether it was the right place for me.

One of the things I wanted to do while in Los Angeles was to visit a few movie studios. I thought I might try to get a job as a screenwriter. This was an unrealistic goal, an example of the habit I had inherited from my migratory family, of thinking I could enter into any new world at any time.

The famous Hollywood sign

I reasoned that I ought to begin my quest with a tour of a movie studio. Some of the old lots, I discovered, were no longer around. For example, the old Twentieth Century Fox complex had been torn down and developed into the Century City real estate complex. The old MGM lot in Culver City was still there. It was almost abandoned, though, and not open to the public. The Paramount Studios, just a few blocks from the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, was fully operational but did not offer tours to the general public. I stood outside its ornate, neo-Moorish entrance for several hours one day, taking in all the ceremonial comings and goings. A tour was available, and very widely advertised, at the big Universal City complex, a couple of valleys away from town. But, judging from the ads, the tour there would have been too mob-oriented for my tastes.

Warner Bros. Studios, Hollywood

The Right Fit

Fortunately, the old Warner Brothers studio, in Burbank, offered  just what I was looking for. Each tour group was limited to ten people, and you were assured that your guide would be someone who knew the movie business well. For my group, the guide was a longtime member of the studio staff who had once been the private secretary to Jack L. Warner. He was about forty years old, thin but muscular, of average height. He talked in a quick, animated manner and made lots of artistic flourishes with his hands. At the same time, he had what I thought was an overly formal manner. He wore black, heavy-brimmed glasses and a green blazer with a tie. He must have been uncomfortable in the outfit in the summer heat. He seemed proud that the Warner Brothers tour was more reflective than the ones given by other studios, and yet he could not quite attain the scholarly demeanor, or even the mannerisms of a movie critic, that he was striving for.

Our tour began at the main entrance – a neo-Spanish, stucco, tan colored gateway with red tile roofs and porter’s lodges on each side. The gate was beautifully situated under a grove of palm and eucalyptus trees that cast their dappled shadows over the area and cooled the air. Across the small, quiet street there was a tiny group of old storefronts. One was the first stop on the tour. Supposedly it was the pharmacy with the soda fountain where Lana Turner had been discovered while wearing a tight sweater and sipping a cold drink. The overt sexuality of the story was so appealing that we all wanted to believe it whether it was true or not.

From the drug store we went onto the studio grounds and toured a couple of sound stages. They looked like big hangars for airplanes. Inside, we saw a courtroom set where Ben Gazzara was starring in a made for television film about persecution of Jews in the Second World War. In another studio we walked through a set that was an elaborate replica of the interior of a Japanese thermal bath and health club. The set was made of fragile plaster of paris and papier mache, but it was visually convincing. Robert Mitchum was scheduled to act there in a few days in the concluding, very violent scenes of The Yakuza, a movie about gangsters in Tokyo. The scenes to be filmed were so violent that the Japanese government had refused to let them be made in Japan. The set was going to be demolished as soon as filming was concluded. I was startled by the way a place could be copied on demand – placelessly, as it were – with no regard for permanence or actual location.


I experienced the same shock when we left the sound stages and went out to the back lot. We passed through an area of scruffy bushes, trees, and bamboo, called “The Jungle,” which served as the all purpose locale for movies about exploring in Africa, war in the Pacific, and gunfights in the American West.

Depending on camera angles and adjustments to the vegetation, “The Jungle” could be made to seem to be all these things. Not too far away, we came upon a set that was, our guide told us, the exterior of the house made famous by the TV series “The Waltons,” about a closely knit farm family in Virginia in the 1930s. The house had no interior and only one side: the front. All the interior scenes were done on sound stages. The voiceovers by the narrator, in his rich, archaic, very local Virginia accent and phrasing, were recorded separately. And not too far away from the Walton’s house we found ourselves at an outdoor set that was a copy of a street in an American city of the 1920s. In the middle of the block was the façade of a movie theater that, we all suddenly realized, we had seen in many films, ranging from “Al Capone” to “Give My Regards to Broadway.” The feeling of disorientation was even greater by the time we left the outdoor sets and went into a big building that was a prop warehouse. Here, our guide showed us a room that contained several hundred chandeliers. Some were on the floor in boxes; some were on big shelves; many were hanging close to each other from the ceiling. Our guide pointed to one of the chandeliers that had been in several Bette Davis movies and had also been part of the room décor in some of those war movies where Nazis are always taking over tastefully decorated European mansions.

Hollywood Everywhere

Hollywood had a way of permeating everything in Los Angeles. I saw this vividly one Saturday when my friend Robert, the college professor, invited me to go with him to visit his father, who lived about an hour’s drive east of Santa Ana near Riverside. Bob’s wife and children stayed home. They had been out to see Bob’s father just a few weeks before, and saw no need to make the trip as often as Bob. We got in Bob’s old Volkswagen van and drove out to Riverside. We kept the windows open as we drove to prevent asphyxiation. Bob did not have much money and had not yet replaced the broken muffler. In Riverside, I was surprised to find that we did not stop in the downtown area or even in one of the suburbs. We continued east and were probably beyond the city limits although still in Riverside County. We were almost as far east as the beginning of the desert. The topography was hilly, strewn with boulders of all sizes. The ground was very dry and there were few trees. Most of the vegetation was cactus and mesquite. The landscape was purgatorial. I realized I had seen it as the background in hundreds of Hollywood westerns.

Postcard view of Riverside farmland and nearby mountains, c. 1910

Knowing I would have questions, Bob explained a bit about his upbringing. His father, who was Irish, had married a Mexican woman, Bob’s mother, who was deceased. Bob had been raised on the outskirts of the city of Riverside and had been educated in the public school system. He was bright and won a scholarship that started him on his way through the University of California all the way to his Ph.D. in Philosophy. His parents respected education but had little formal schooling. Bob’s father was an itinerant mechanic, carpenter, and ranch hand. The father could not have afforded to pay Bob’s way through college. After the death of his wife, and with his son securely in college, Bob’s father moved farther away from the city. He was still able to earn a living. But, Bob explained, it was just a matter of time before Bob and his family would have to take the father in.

Turning off the paved, two lane, county highway, we made our way up a dusty, winding road and parked near a complex of about ten mobile homes that rested, weather-beaten, on a low, small mesa that was surrounded by boulders. I felt as if I had come upon a tenuously constructed community – the kind that renegades would create. We went into one of the mobile homes and I was introduced to Bob’s father. He was a short, wiry man with skin so tanned and wrinkled that he looked like a Native American. His movements were quick and agile. His eyes were alert. His voice was strong and animated. He had obviously lived an intense life, but did not look aged enough to be Bob’s father. He did, however, look as if he had spent his bodily capital rashly – on cigarettes, alcohol, and fistfights.

For the next couple of hours, the three of us drank beer and talked. Bob’s father was an intelligent listener and questioner. He was soon up to date on his son’s activities and also learned a great deal about me. We didn’t need to ask questions to learn about him. He loved to tell stories and launched into them with no prompting. There were stories about the hippies who had recently moved into the two trailers at the top of the hill. There was a story about an escaped prisoner, hiding in one of the trailers, who had been caught recently. The longest story — oddly and yet not so oddly — had to do with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. In the 1930s and 1940s, apparently, there had been a Mexican bar a few miles down the road where the two celebrities used to go when they wanted to take a break from shooting their movies scenes. Few people at the bar ever recognized them, and there were no reporters around. Hope and Crosby could say “fuck” as often as they wanted to, and get drunk and play cards. As I listened to the stories Bob’s father told, I decided that I had wandered into some kind of weird Catholic morality play. Hope and Crosby, pursuing their profession as purveyors of fantasy in Hollywood, had discovered this locale in the desert – a place that seemed so unreal to me – and had come to it again and again for the chance to let off steam and get away from the constrictions of the roles that Hollywood required them to play.

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in Road to Bali, 1952