Title

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

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
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.

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.

Aerial view of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, showing Rogers Airport, 1920
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.​
Aerial view looking southeast on crowds at Sid Chaplin's airport at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, 1920
1920 aerial view looking southeast on crowds at DeMille Field, 1920, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.​
Airplane parked at Rogers Airport with Rogers Aircraft Incorporated building in the background, ca.1922
Circa 1922 photo of an airplane parked at Rogers Airport, courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Story continues below

View of Hollywood south of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue looking west, (possibly at Rogers Airport), ca.1920
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, located at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Street, looking west toward the general office and hangars, 1922
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. 

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading