By LAUREL BUSBY
Special to Circling the News
Violent extremism not only burst through on Jan. 6 at the Capitol, it also hid at a beautiful 50-acre estate in Rustic Canyon before World War II.
The Murphy Ranch, which is the subject of the radio play “Annexing the Palisades,” was acquired by Nazi sympathizers from Will Rogers in 1933. Seven years later, on the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, their compound was raided by authorities and dozens of staff were detained.
Alex Goldberg’s play, produced by the Antaeus Theatre Company, explores an imagined incident at the ranch featuring owners, Winona and Norman Stephens, and a fictional craftsman who they wish to hire for a balustrade on their compound, where they planned to build a four-story mansion and had already spent $4-million on an infrastructure featuring a power station, hundreds of stairs, and fruit, nut and olive trees.
“It’s a bizarre, bizarre place,” playwright Goldberg said. In the play, “there are a lot of facts that are taken directly from its history. The Stephens couple did exist.” Frank Lloyd Wright was involved in creating initial blueprints, and well-respected African-American architect Paul R. Williams’ firm did design the front gate and create further blueprints.
The Stephens “may have been Nazis, but they had impeccable taste,” Goldberg added. “They came into L.A. with a ton of money. They attended parties in the Palisades with well-to-do neighbors, obviously not about the Nazi movement,” but they found designers through these events.
His play, which is part of a series of six short radio-style Zip Code Plays, each featuring an L.A. neighborhood, can be found at https://antaeus.org/plays-events/zipcode-plays/. Annexing the Palisades, directed by Ann Noble, features vivid vocal performances by actors Nike Doukas, Harry Groener and Adrian LaTourelle, and has been well-reviewed and popular since its premiere in November.
Within the first month, “it had been listened to more than 20,000 times over five continents,” Goldberg said. “We had a bigger audience than we normally have for an entire season” at the Glendale theater.
The success of the series, which also includes plays set in South Central, Santa Monica, Westwood, Sun Valley and downtown, has meant that a second season has been planned featuring six more L.A. neighborhoods.
The series is an outgrowth of Antaeus’ Playwrights Lab, which had to move online due to the pandemic. Goldberg mentioned that, during the past year, he has missed the in-person labs and the chance to see his plays produced on stage, but on the other hand, the Zip Code Plays would not have existed without Covid.
Writing Annexing the Palisades also gave him a chance to explore the story of Murphy Ranch, which he first learned about before Donald Trump ran for office. A history major in college, Goldberg had found the story of this anecdote intriguing.
“I thought it was such a weird outlier,” said Goldberg, who grew up in Washington, D.C. and spent a decade in New York City before moving to Los Angeles. “Of course, there were anti-Semites and racists since before World War II, but I didn’t know there were so many Nazi sympathizers.”
Goldberg researched not only the property, but also the language of the time by watching classic movies set in 1939.
“I wanted to get the cadence of the dialogue right,” he noted. “They were definitely of a different era.”
His play presents a slice in time, an imagined moment long before the compound was raided. He touches on Winona Stephens’ fascination with the supernatural and the influence of the mysterious Herr Schmidt, a German immigrant who sought to find support for the Nazis and who influenced the couple’s goal of creating an off-the-grid estate.
Goldberg said he was unable to discover what the ultimate goal of the compound was, so he made an educated guess based on the information he was able to uncover. The compound never became operational, and the couple was apparently only detained, but never arrested or charged with a crime.
Throughout the ‘40s, the Stephens continued to live at Murphy Ranch, although public fury over Pearl Harbor meant their “movement vanished overnight.” So instead of the wealthy heights presented in the play, they lived in comparative poverty in the garage, never building their mansion, before selling the property in the 1950s.
Murphy is now a ramshackle, graffiti-adorned space still regularly visited by hikers, although it is cordoned off due to safety issues.