Go! Go! Nanette!

Actress Nanette Fabray at her home under construction on Swarthmore, which is within walking distance of the village.
Actress Nanette Fabray at her home under construction on Swarthmore, which is within walking distance of the village.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

Who would have thought that actress Nanette Fabray has been moonlighting all these years as a real estate entrepreneur? Yes, the award-winning former Broadway and television star, who has won three Tonys and three Emmys, has been buying, fixing and flipping property in the Palisades for more than 40 years. We found her sweeping sawdust off the floor of her latest project, a 3,100-sq.-ft. house two blocks from the village. ‘This house is for when I’m no longer able to get around easily,’ says the 83-year-old star, who last week was supervising the installation of the hardwood floors (oak) and the kitchen cabinets (natural maple). ‘There’s everything I need right here on the main floor, including a bedroom and a bathroom, which is wheelchair-accessible, in case there’s ever a need for that.’ Fabray, a former honorary mayor of the Palisades (1967-69), started her stage career at age 3 at the old Million Dollar Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Her greatest success came in the 1960s when she worked on “Your Show of Shows” starring Sid Caesar, which was broadcast live. ‘Those were wonderful, magical years working with Sid and writers like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Mike Nichols, and Woody Allen,’ she says, ‘One thing I learned from them is you can’t learn funny. You either are or you aren’t.’ Not so funny was Fabray discovering in her 20s that she had a genetic ear defect, which led to her involvement in the passing of the American Disabilities Act. She also worked to bring sign language and captioning to television and in the last year has made dozens of appearances on behalf of the disabled. These days, however, Fabray is busy completing the two-story contemporary home on Swarthmore that is being built to her exact specifications, right down to where her pool table will go in the open living/dining/kitchen area, which features a fireplace that opens to the back patio. The house, located at the corner of Hampton, is environmentally friendly, with skylights, retractable screens, and solar panels that will eventually provide 60 to 70 percent of the house’s electricity needs. There is also a fire sprinkler system indoors. ‘This house is ‘beyond’ code,’ jokes Fabray, who bought the lot two years ago, tore down the existing structure and has been involved in every aspect of construction. ‘Seriously, this being a corner lot it did present some challenges. For example, the entry to the two-car garage, which was on Hampton, is now on Swarthmore, which requires a new curb cut. It all takes time.’ While the project is taking longer than expected to complete (occupancy is now projected for June) and ‘cost at least a third over the original estimate,’ Fabray is pleased with the results, from the custom-made stained-glass front entry doors featuring a leaf-and-vine motif, to the wrap-around balcony on three sides of the second floor, to the extra storage space in the attic. ‘Nanette is very hands-on,’ says her contractor Danny Giagni, owner of Distinctive Builders. ‘She is always making lists and walks around with a measuring tape in her hand. We have a tough time keeping her off the scaffolding!’ Six years ago Giagni and Fabray tackled a property on Northfield, which presented an even bigger challenge. It was only after tearing down the existing house on the irregularly shaped lot that the foundation was found to be unstable. ‘It was a huge lot with such beautiful trees, but then I had to spend $80,000 just to shore it up before we could even think of building,’ Fabray says. When the house was complete ‘I had the good fortune of renting it out to the German Embassy for four years before selling it last April. It was an excellent investment.’ Fabray says she became involved in developing real estate after her husband, screenwriter Randy MacDougall (‘Mildred Pierce,’ ‘Cleopatra’), passed away in 1973 and she was left to raise their young son Jamie, who was 14 at the time. The couple had bought their first house together in 1952 in Beverly Hills, which was part of the former Mary Pickford estate. When they needed more space they bought Dinah Shore’s house, also in Beverly Hills, which they renovated extensively. Then, in 1963, on a Sunday afternoon drive along Sunset, they discovered an old ranch house sitting on half an acre on the edge of Rustic Canyon. ‘It was once a real working ranch, so it had a great iron stove and a drying room for the workers’ clothes,’ recalls Fabray, who promptly renovated the dilapidated house, adding on an Art Deco-style bathroom worthy of a star. ‘My idea for this bathroom started when I found this gorgeous Persian marble somewhere in downtown L.A. I purchased all they had, which wasn’t much, and then had the bathroom built around that.’ In the ’90s, Fabray subdivided the lot, selling off the main house and keeping the guest quarters for herself. By this time her son had moved to Manhattan Beach, and wanting to see him and his growing family more, she purchased a derelict three-story beach house, a block from the Strand. ‘It needed a lot of work. Not only was it ugly and smelly, but there was a fireplace blocking the ocean view. Now it’s stunning. Because the living area is on the top floor, I added a small elevator which is very convenient.’ Fabray then went to work looking for a suitable commercial property with enough parking for her son’s growing dermatology practice. She found exactly what she was looking for on Manhattan Beach Boulevard. ‘I just walked in and made a deal directly with the owner. He even agreed to carry back the mortgage!’ Fabray had the one-story building torn down and a new facility built to Jamie’s specifications. The actress currently divides her time between the Rustic Lane property and Manhattan Beach, where she enjoys visiting with her two grandchildren, Kylie, 8, and Ryan, 5. Asked when she plans to move into the Swarthmore house, she says she doesn’t know. ‘My plan right now is to rent it out for a while and get some income. It’s definitely not for sale.’ Fabray says there is no secret to her real estate success. ‘Really, it’s location, location, location. I guess I have a good eye and I’m willing to pay a fair price. In fact, I can’t understood people losing a property over a few thousand dollars, which is exactly how I came to own Swarthmore. The owner was tired of haggling with another buyer, who had already made an offer, so he sold it to me instead.’ Asked what her next real estate purchase will be, Fabray says she’s not sure. “But I’m always looking. Let me know if you hear of anything.’

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