How a Hollywood Director Almost Launched L.A.’s First Commercial Airline

In the early 1960s, Walt Disney proposed a Polynesian-themed restaurant featuring a musical floor show with trained birds. With technology purchased from the nuclear weapons program, mechanical performers would make Disney’s vision a reality.

Cecil B. DeMille had already pioneered one Los Angeles industry, and in 1920 he was on the cusp of launching another. As president of the newly formed Mercury Aviation Company, DeMille was pursuing the ambitious goal of inaugurating regularly scheduled airline service between Los Angeles and other West Coast cities.

Mercury’s headquarters: a barley field at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Fairfax (then Crescent Avenue) where the company had cleared a primitive runway, built a hangar, and opened a filling station that refueled airplanes on one side and automobiles on the other. The aerodrome doubled as a shooting location for aviation stunts, but the real stars here were Mercury’s fleet of Junkers-Larsen monoplanes. Built of lightweight corrugated aluminum, the planes could soar to altitudes of 20,000 feet, propelled by a single 185-horsepower engine. And thanks to a sealed cabin, passengers could fly without goggles and other special gear.

Advertisement for Mercury Aviation Company, located at DeMille Field, ca.1925, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
Advertisement for Mercury Aviation Company, located at DeMille Field, ca.1925, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

To demonstrate the comfort and convenience (not to mention safety) of air travel, DeMille staged a round-trip flight to San Diego with a few of Los Angeles’ titans of industry. On September 9, 1920, DeMille and his guests took off from the Mercury airfield at 12:25 p.m. and touched down at 1:35 p.m. in San Diego – a trip that then took four hours by train or five by automobile. The party then lunched at the Hotel Coronado before reboarding the plane and returning to Los Angeles by mid-afternoon. DeMille’s demonstration flight avoided mishaps, but an alternate fate might have created a local power vacuum; among DeMille’s passengers were Times publisher Harry Chandler and the presidents of Southern California Edison and First National Bank.

1920 aerial view of DeMille Field (later Rogers Airport) at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, showing the oil wells of Rancho La Brea in the distance, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​
1920 aerial view of DeMille Field (later Rogers Airport) at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, showing the oil wells of Rancho La Brea in the distance, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​

 

1920 aerial view looking southeast on crowds at DeMille Field, 1920, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​
1920 aerial view looking southeast on crowds at DeMille Field, 1920, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​

 

Circa 1922 photo of an airplane parked at Rogers Airport, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
Circa 1922 photo of an airplane parked at Rogers Airport, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Ultimately, DeMille never succeeded in creating L.A.’s first commercial airline – an idea that was probably ahead of its time. Just a year after his demonstration flight, DeMille and his associates sold Mercury Aviation to Emery Rogers. What had been DeMille Field became Rogers Airport, and by the 1930s the city’s burgeoning Miracle Mile district had absorbed the onetime airfield.

View of Hollywood south of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue looking west, (possibly at Rogers Airport), ca.1920, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​
View of Hollywood south of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue looking west, (possibly at Rogers Airport), ca.1920, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​
View of Rogers Airport in 1922, looking west toward the general office and hangars, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​
View of Rogers Airport in 1922, looking west toward the general office and hangars, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​

This article first appeared on Los Angeles magazine’s website on January 22, 2014. It has been updated here with additional images.