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The House That George Built

In the Hollywood Hills there's a house, and an owner, that defy description.

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Editor's Note: This is a house in a part of the Hollywood Hills that some call Hollywood, some call Studio City, and the owners have used both. But anyone driving in the hills above Valley View Elementary School knows that's a spectacular site. Studio City writer Irene DeBlasio explores the man behind the monument. Also check out.

 

There must be a magnetic force buried deep in the Hollywood Hills.  Why else would I get such a feeling of exhilaration and anticipation driving along those hilltop roads?

I love the bright sunlight, the scenery, the trees, the terrain and the houses up there. Sometimes I reflect on Maria, the character in Joan Didion's masterpiece Play It as It Lays—if only she could have driven high up here, she would have come to appreciate the majesty and beauty of Los Angeles.

One day I was gliding along when something twinkled and caught my eye. I slowed down and did a double-take. There was a house, a huge one, covered with mosaic tile. I eased to a stop directly in front of it and noticed an elegant man puttering around the floor of a carport.

I asked, "Is this your work?"

He approached my car and smiled, "Yep, been working on this for 44 years so far. Hope I've got another 40 years so I can finish the job."

I hesitated a beat, not wanting to interrupt him.

"Come on, I'll show you around," he said. And so my friendship with George Ehling began. 

How could I resist the offer of a personal tour by the artist in residence? He showed me his work space: a table where he cut scraps and squares of tile. He also rounds off the bottoms of Coke, wine and Heineken beer bottles for texture and color.

The mosaics are done in intricate patterns, some repetitive, others bursting with color and design. He has built archways throughout the house replicating Roman, Moorish, Byzantine and Renaissance mosaics. In two places he has created the illusion of small mosques. There are statues that resemble saints and madonnas as well.

One of his favorite features is an outdoor shower room that he built with the help of a young, aspiring carpenter who many years ago had lived across the street: Harrison Ford (yes, that Harrison Ford).

George would holler across the street, "Hey, kid, come here and help me lift this stone into place!" Harrison would run to assist George in whatever way he could. George jokes, "Can't afford him anymore."

George Ehling is now 84 years old, married to a loving Brazilian woman named Ivenia and a proud father of Otto, a virtuoso pianist who is a music student on scholarship at the University of Las Vegas. Otto played a difficult piece for me one day, showing the same intensity and skill as Gustavo Dudamel does while conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

George bought his house in 1967 and immediately began decorating the interior and exterior with mosaics. Amazing is the fact that he is self-taught and has never had training in this unusual art form. For years he worked as a carpenter at Universal Studios, enabling him use his immense talent off camera.

In his youth, he was a wrestler known as Cowboy Cassidy. Eventually he went to Rome and began acting in sword-and-sandal epics at Cinecitta, Italy's major film studio. This was the period in films known as Hollywood on the Tiber, a marvelous time in the history of movies. George has movie posters and memorabilia along with fantastic antique furniture that he had shipped from Rome.

As you absorb all the details of his past and present, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the energy, talent and recollections of this brilliant man.

I recall seeing an issue of Life magazine in the '50s with a cover photo of a handsome, bronzed, athletic man named Gardner McKay. Life proclaimed him a one-of-a-kind Renaissance man, a multitalented superstar.

I only wish the people from Life had met George Ehling; they would have realized that there were two of them.

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