VISTA — Growing up next to a film star isn’t something everyone can experience, but Vista resident Kamal “Kam” Shelhoup did, and he has fond memories.
As a kid, Shelhoup, whose family owned the local department store, Shelhoup’s and the original AVO Theater in Vista, lived next door to silent screen star Margarita Fischer in the mid-1950s.
Fischer was born on Feb. 12, 1886, in Missouri Valley, Iowa. As a child performer, and later as an ingénue star of the stage, Fischer, was well-regarded in stock company groups of the Pacific Coast. Her father, John, was a noted minstrel. Fisher made her stage debut in Portland in the famous child role of Adrienne in “The Celebrated Case.”
She became quite popular, which led to her father forming the Margarita Fischer Stock Co. The theatrical group toured the Pacific Coast for several years. During this time, she met soon-to-be husband, film director Harry A. Pollard, when they played opposite each other in San Francisco stock.
Fischer appeared in several Hollywood silent films from around 1910 until 1927. Her first screen appearance was with the American Co. There followed three years as a leading woman for Universal. In 1913, she starred in “How Men Propose.” She is well-known for her role as an African-American slave girl in the Harriet Beecher Stowe three-reel epic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She was also co-featured with Pollard in the Universal feature. Thanks to her role as Eliza, Fischer land a long-term contract with the American Film Co. in Santa Barbara.
Additionally, she earned international acclaim as the “American Beauty” of the screen, and her face was shown in the heart of a rose, which became one of the movie’s trademarks. Aside from Uncle Tom, the actress’ motion pictures include “Lost: A Union Suit” (1914), “A Joke on Jane” (1914), “The Quest” (1915), “Robinson Crusoe” (1917), “Impossible Susan” (1918), “Trixie From Broadway” (1919), “The Thirtieth Piece of Silver” (1920), and “Any Woman” (1925).
In April 1916, Fischer and Pollard formed the Pollard Picture Plays Corp., and its first production was “The Pearl of Paradise.” It was staged in Los Angeles, Honolulu and the South Sea Islands.
During World War I, Fischer changed her last name from Fischer to Fisher due to the anti-German sentiment in America. She is sometimes credited as Margarieta Fischer, Margarite Fischer, and Margurita Fischer. She died of heart disease in 1975 at the age of 89 in Encinitas.
Said Shelhoup: “I would go over to her house and watch TV; she was the only one in the neighborhood that had a TV set. There was a man who took care of her cars and her business; kind of like a house manager. I would go over and watch him do auto detailing and then I’d go inside and spend time with her, watch her old movies. She was gracious, attractive and very lovely. I must have been around 12 years old. It was cool.”
Prior to living in the Vista neighborhood next door to Shelhoup, Fischer and Pollard took up residence at the Rancho Buena Vista property from 1931 to 1951. The adobe was originally built in 1845, according to Jack Larimer, director of the Vista Historical Museum, and Vista Historical Society and Museum.
In 1845, Felipe Subria petitioned Pio Pico for the Buena Vista land. He had squatted there for the previous 10 years. In 1846, he received 1184.9 acres that became Rancho Buena Vista. This area was nestled between Rancho Guajome and Rancho Vallecitos de San Marcos. He erected a spartan residence near a small stream of water, according to Friends of the Rancho Buena Vista Adobe archives.
Subria erected a small adobe and a three-sided barn for his horses. He raised cattle and sheep and had a small garden. Nothing of that structure stands today.
After several owners the property was eventually sold to Pollard and Fischer in 1931.
Dressing it up
That same year, the Pollards invested $150,000 to upgrade the interior of the adobe. Tiles from Mexico were laid in many rooms, and tiles from Italy were imported for the bathroom remodel. In each bedroom wall, they added clothes closets, in the form of cupboards. Heavy wooden doors were hung between each room. Expensive furnishings, Spanish tapestries, silver crosses, iron, brass and gold-plated pieces, antique furniture and items gleaned from churches throughout Europe decorated the home.
The composite roof was replaced by hand-hewn shingles, concrete filled damaged adobe bricks, and professional landscaping including a badminton court completed the atmosphere. A new three-car garage housed luxury vehicles, all according to the archives of the Friends of Rancho Buena Vista Adobe.
On July 6, 1934, Pollard died; however, Fischer continued to live in the adobe until 1951. In 1944, she sold part of the land and then sold the rest of property unfurnished, including 8.5 acres, for $85,000 to Mr. and Mrs. Fredrick Reid. Although she loved the adobe, it was too much maintenance for her.
She had a new home built in Vista — which could have been the one that she lived in next door to Shelhoup — in a similar hacienda style and remained there for the rest of her life. She stayed active in Vista society and became the founding director Vista Rancheros Historical Society, according to the Friends of Rancho Buena Vista Adobe archives.
City steps in
Several more owners followed, most making minor changes to the structure but upgrading and modernizing the plumbing and electric. The final owner offered to sell the adobe to the city of Vista. The City Council began hearings and voted to approve escrow on July 10, 1989, buying it for $1 million, with a loan of $2,150,000. After the purchase, a core of volunteers built a museum from scratch. It was proposed to use the property as a wedding venue, and for other events, for most of the income to offset maintenance costs, the Friends of Rancho Buena Vista archives state.
To this date, the volunteer nonprofit group Friends of Rancho Buena Vista manages the gift shop and museum for tours. Additionally, a colorful mural of Fischer was commissioned by the city of Vista for its new downtown area.
According to docent Nancy Koller, “Margarita was quite before her time. She did all kinds of major expensive renovations to the adobe from bringing in a famous landscaper from Hollywood Arthur Fields, who added a fountain in the front of the property. Her bathroom was quite extensive and modern for that time, it had a dual sink, expensive fixtures and more.”
The couple also built a guest house that had two bedrooms and housed her famous friends when they came down from Los Angeles to Vista.
“She would invite all her famous friends to the home when she lived here,” Koller recalled. “Joan Crawford donated the magnolia tree that is in the front of the courtyard; lots of other stars were visitors, too. Margarita was the epitome of a silent screen actress from that time.”
Today the Rancho Buena Vista Adobe is considered a historical site and is open to the public three days a week depending on the season. During the winter hours: Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Both Pollard and Fischer are buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.