The Hollywood Museum: The Story of an LA Icon

The lobby of the Hollywood Museum
Photo: Hollywood Museum

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, silver screen leading ladies flocked to the Max Factor Building on Highland Avenue for their signature looks. Everyday women could venture into the building as well, perhaps to pick up a package of pancake make-up or a tin of lip pomade. Today, the landmark building is home to The Hollywood Museum, a multi-level showcase of film and television history filled with costumes, props, autographs and more.

This is where the Max Factor cosmetics magic happened. In fact, it’s likely how you’ll start your tour. Step inside the pink-and-gold lobby, restored to look much as it did in the 1940s, and peer through the display cases to see vintage products, then go behind-the-scenes into the rooms on the ground level of the building.

The Max Factor Beauty Calibration Machine at The Hollywood Museum
The Max Factor Beauty Calibration Machine at The Hollywood Museum | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Max Factor, who was born in Poland and launched his cosmetics career in Russia, initially set up shop in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. As the film industry developed in the city, Factor’s talents became in-demand. He created “flexible greasepaint” - face make-up that looked better on camera than the theatrical cosmetics of the time. He was also the first to use the term “make-up,” and began marketing the products to the public.

Meanwhile, Factor famously designed the looks of a number of screen stars in the 1920s and '30s, perhaps the most iconic of which was Jean Harlow’s platinum blonde hair. Among his many innovations was the development of the “color harmony” method of selecting hues that work well with one’s hair color and skin tone, which would become essential as color film came into use.

Max Factor's Brunette Make-Up Room at the Hollywood Museum
Max Factor's Brunette Make-Up Room | Photo: Hollywood Museum

The story of the Max Factor Building, its former owner and Hollywood all come together in the historic make-up rooms. The four rooms, each designed to suit specific hair colors - Blonde, Red, Brunette and “Brownette” - are among the most popular exhibits at the museum. They’ve been restored to look just as they did when stars like Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe stopped by the salon.

Each of the make-up rooms was designed with the color harmony theory in mind, so you’ll see avocado green walls in the space for redheads and shades of pink in the one for brunettes. "All the colors that you see in the makeup rooms were called out on the original set of plans," the museum’s owner and preservationist, Donelle Dadigan explains, noting that the paint colors were selected by Factor himself.

Wander through the maze-like first floor and you’ll see Max Factor’s history intertwine with that of Hollywood. Vintage make-up ads, celebrity autographs and photos of stars like Jayne Mansfield and Mae West line the hallways and rooms filled with film history displays. Keep your eyes peeled for fun easter eggs like a stained-glass skylight fixture in an old freight elevator shaft that was made by actor Tony Curtis and previously hung in Owlwood, the famed Holmby Hills estate where he once lived.

Marilyn Monroe's honeymoon dress on view at the Hollywood Museum
Marilyn Monroe's honeymoon dress | Photo: Hollywood Museum

The Hollywood Museum’s incomparable Marilyn Monroe collection includes everything from personal items and wardrobe to her make-up chair and limousine. Marilyn Monroe’s million-dollar honeymoon dress is one of the most memorable items on display at the museum. Monroe wore it on her honeymoon when she married Joe DiMaggio, as well as when she entertained the troops in Korea in 1954. She continued to wear it as her personal dress, making it a truly unique artifact compared to typical Hollywood wardrobe items.

Hannibal Lecter’s jail cell from "The Silence of the Lambs" displayed at the Hollywood Museum
Hannibal Lecter’s jail cell from "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991) | Photo: Hollywood Museum

This is where your traditional museum experience may end. Once you’ve explored the sublime ground level, creep down the stairs to the Dungeon of Doom. Nearly a century ago, during Prohibition, this basement was a bowling alley and speakeasy. Today, it’s home to the museum’s horror movie displays, including the prison corridor set from The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which features Hannibal Lecter’s jail cell and props from the Oscar-winning movie. The set was a gift from Dino and Martha De Laurentiis and is another one of the museum's most popular exhibits.

"Batman" TV show exhibit at the Hollywood Museum
"Batman" TV show exhibit | Photo: Hollywood Museum
"Back to the Future" exhibit | Photo: Hollywood Museum
"Back to the Future" exhibit | Photo: Hollywood Museum

Your tour isn’t finished when you leave the basement. There are still two more packed floors to explore, so head back to the lobby, past the garage that houses Cary Grant’s Rolls Royce, and up a winding staircase lined with movie posters towards the Hollywood Museum’s upper levels. The eclectic mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions spans decades of film, television and music history. Costumes, props - including legendary prop cars - vintage film equipment, and even an original piece of the Hollywood Sign fill these exhibits.

One of the more unusual displays, Roddy McDowall’s Powder Room, is a tribute to the award-winning character actor’s penchant for entertaining guests at his home. Known for hosting rip-roaring parties that fueled gossip at the time, the re-creation includes photos the late actor took and autographs that were given to him. "At one time, this bathroom was the keeper of many secrets," says Dadigan.

Max Factor's Brownette Make-Up Room at the Hollywood Museum
Max Factor's Brownette Make-Up Room | Photo: Hollywood Museum

Initially, building the museum’s one-of-a-kind collection came with its challenges. "I started attending auctions," Dadigan recalls. "I started talking to the stars themselves. Their fan clubs, their heirs, their offspring."

As for the location, Dadigan loved the building, but it wasn’t for sale in the 1990s, when she was ready to begin her concept for a Hollywood museum. She learned that the building was owned by Procter & Gamble, which had purchased the famed make-up brand. “Little by little, I talked them into selling it to me,” she explains. It took two-and-a-half years to seal the deal, then the restoration work began - Dadigan and her team ultimately won preservation awards from the California Art Deco Society and the State of California.

“It’s one of the best tributes to the Hollywood Regency, Art Deco style,” says Dadigan of the building. To bring authentic Hollywood glam back to this historic location, she secured the original plans by famed architect S. Charles Lee, renowned for designing hundreds of theaters, including the iconic Los Angeles Theatre in Downtown LA and Fox Theatre in Westwood.

In addition to tourists and curious locals, The Hollywood Museum draws students from cosmetology, costume design and film-making classes. “I never thought that would happen, so I’m thrilled to see it,” says Dadigan. Professional hair and make-up artists have also stopped by to check out the historic make-up rooms. Dadigan notes that even Gwen Stefani came to the museum when she was cast to play Jean Harlow in The Aviator.

“It was a real labor of love,” says Dadigan of The Hollywood Museum. “I’m so thrilled to give this love letter back to the community.”

The Hollywood Museum
1660 N Highland Ave, Hollywood 90028
(323) 464-7776