December 10, 2018

‘Blueprint for Paradise’: A Nazi incursion in California

Few people may be aware that, during the weeks just before the United States’ entry into World War II, a Nazi compound intended as a training center and base of operations, under the assumption that Germany would be victorious and Adolf Hitler would come to rule the Western U.S., was under construction in Rustic Canyon. The 50-acre property, known as the Murphy Ranch, was purchased in 1933 by Jessie Murphy and developed by her daughter and son-in-law, Winona and Norman Stephens, who were sympathetic to the fascists.

A new play now at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood, titled “Blueprint for Paradise” and inspired by actual events surrounding the compound, depicts a wealthy couple originally from Chicago, Clara and Herbert Taylor (Meredith Thomas and David Jahn), who buy the property and take charge of seeing the compound’s construction through to completion in late November and early December 1941. Herbert hopes to get rich by doing business with the Nazis, and the couple plays host to a man named Wolfgang (Peter McGlynn), newly arrived in the United States and ostensibly a German businessman. However, we come to learn that he is actually an SS officer and a spy.

Playwright Laurel Wetzork said in a recent interview that she is very interested in World War II history and learned about the compound while researching other stories about the war. “So few people understand that Los Angeles, up until mid-1941, was pretty divided, and there was a strong German, pro-Hitler group. People don’t know that, and I think they should.”

She added, “My stepfather served in the Navy during World War II, and my husband’s grandfather served in the Army and died in the Bataan death camp and march. I’ve been interested in it for a long time.”

Executive producer Debbie Bolsky, who is Jewish, said members of her family also served during World War II, including her father. “He was actually in China. And my uncle served, and my cousin. None were Holocaust victims, but I had a lot of relatives that were in World War II. 

“You can never forget this stuff. Remember, there are people who still deny that there was a Holocaust. Never forget — because if you forget, you open it up to happening again.”

Bolsky believes the play is essentially Clara’s story, because she is the character who changes the most. When we first meet her, Clara is an enthusiastic member of the antiwar group, Mothers of America.

Wetzork described the organization. “They were about 10 million strong. They started out saying, ‘We don’t want our sons to go to war, like the sons we lost in World War I. We don’t want them to die.’ And then, gradually, the group was taken over by more and more fascists, and more pro-Hitler [members].” 

Clara, who is completely dominated by her emotionally and physically abusive husband, accepts without question his extremely bigoted view of Jews, Blacks, the mentally disabled, etc., and even approves of his membership in the Human Betterment Foundation, which was part of the eugenics movement that aimed to sterilize all those it deemed “contaminated” in some way, such as prostitutes, men of low intelligence, the mentally ill and habitual criminals.

“We did have a sterilization program in California,” Wetzork said. “We were the leading state in sterilizations of the unfit. And they did have a plan to sterilize 10 percent of the U.S. population at one time. It was the science of the time, too, I think. There was a very strong movement to clean up the gene pool.”

In fact, Wetzork stressed, Hitler’s racial policies were influenced by the American eugenics movement.

According to Wetzork, one of the catalysts for Clara’s growth toward independence and a clearer view of reality is the influence of Paul Revere Williams (Regi Davis), an African-American architect, whom she hires before knowing his race. The character is based on the real-life architect, who designed part of the Saks Fifth Avenue building in Los Angeles, as well as the homes of such celebrities as Bert Lahr, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Frank Sinatra.

The gate of the abandoned Nazi compound in Pacific Palisades known today as the Murphy Ranch. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

“He really came up from nowhere, as an orphan, and just overcame amazing obstacles to design and have built over 3,000, close to 4,000 buildings, especially in that time. I mean, he could not walk at night in the neighborhoods where he had homes built, and he learned to draw upside-down so he wouldn’t have to stand next to a white client.” Wetzork said.

Williams, who later wrote that he had no idea his work was intended for the Nazis, treats Clara with respect, praising her intelligence and her artistic sense. She responds by voicing her resentment toward her husband, and she begins to see fascism through clearer eyes.

Murphy Ranch was designed by architect Paul Revere Williams. Photo courtesy Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The group’s machinations end abruptly on Dec. 7 with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It becomes obvious that the United States will declare war on Japan, whose ally, Germany, will then declare war on the U.S. Wolfgang must hurry back to Germany, fleeing the FBI, which has been watching the compound and suddenly descends on the Taylor household. 

Wetzork said she hopes her story will encourage audiences “to learn more about history, and study history, and also to not judge people. I think that you really have to talk to people to see who they are. And don’t repeat the past.”

“Blueprint for Paradise,” Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. Through Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: (323) 960-4412