Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Kimball Sanitarium Part 5 – Hollywood Stars

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the  Crescenta Valley. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

As I’ve said before in these columns, patient confidentiality hinders our knowledge of who was a patient at Kimball’s. We have some pretty murky local lore referring to Kimball’s as being the “Screen Actor’s Hospital” even though the actual Motion Picture and Television Hospital has existed in Woodland Hills since 1942. I suppose it’s possible that Kimball’s subcontracted with them, perhaps due to the overload of mental illness in the movie industry?

One local legend is that actor Bela Lugosi had been treated for his famous morphine addiction at Kimball’s, portrayed very unflatteringly in the movie “Ed Woods.” Everything I have read says that Lugosi suffered chronic intense pain from injuries he received in WWI. After years of being prescribed morphine-based pain killers, he attempted to break his accidental addiction and in 1955 had himself committed to the state hospital in Norwalk. A couple of unreliable Internet sources say that he initially received treatment at the Motion Picture Hospital and was later transferred to Norwalk. However the website of the Motion Picture Hospital doesn’t list him as having been a patient.

I went to our valley’s go-to guys for local history, Joe and Linda Rakasits, with this rumor and they put in some phone calls. They reached a friend and former nurse at Kimball’s, a Mrs. Chatterton, who clearly remembered Lugosi being at Kimball’s for a short time. She vividly remembers him being very grumpy, as he naturally would be during drug withdrawal.

One star whose time at Kimball’s is well documented is Frances Farmer. Farmer had a meteoric career in film and stage starting in the ’30s and ending spectacularly during WWII. She had always been strong-willed and outspoken, and as alcoholism crept into her life she began to have problems with the law. She was ticketed for driving with her lights on in a blackout zone in WWII Santa Monica. She failed to pay the fines and an arrest warrant was issued. Picked up by the police at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, she participated in a spectacular knock-down brawl, which escalated the next morning at her hearing. After throwing an inkwell at the judge and knocking down a couple of policemen, she was sentenced to 180 days in jail. As they carried her away she was screaming, “Have you ever had a broken heart?!”

Farmer’s family was able to get her transferred to the psych ward at County General and from there to Kimball Sanitarium. Frances spent nine months at Kimball’s. Her attending psychiatrist diagnosed her as paranoid schizophrenic and prescribed insulin shock therapy, a common treatment for schizophrenia in the ’40’s and ’50s.

Insulin shock therapy was labor intensive, and required a highly trained staff. The patient was given injections of 100-150 units of insulin – sometimes as high as 450 units. The patients often convulsed before and after the treatments. We see a graphic portrayal of Frances Farmer having a seizure during treatment at Kimball’s in the movie “Frances” starring Jessica Lange. Sometimes electroshock therapy would be included in these sessions. A coma lasting an hour or so would be ended with a dose of intravenous glucose. This went on every day for several months. Patients were typically nauseous, sweaty and restless between treatments.

After nine months of this, Frances Farmer escaped from the minimum security Kimball’s. She walked 20 miles to her half-sister’s house where her mother gained custody of her and moved her to Seattle. There she was again committed to the Western State Hospital. That hospital was, according to Frances Farmer’s autobiography, a brutal prison where rapes and abuse were common. She probably wished she hadn’t walked away from Kimball’s!

After a couple of years there, she was released and began to rebuild her life, even enjoying a comeback in the ’50s and ’60s. She had most likely been nothing more than an alcoholic yet had spent years in insane asylums.

Farmer’s shocking story, played out in part right here in La Crescenta, was an indictment of the mental health system at that period when nearly anyone could be declared insane.