When Swoosie Kurtz and her parents moved to Toluca Lake in 1960, they had never settled in one place for more than a year or two. “We’d lived all over. I went to 13 schools or something; I’d lost count,” she remembers. She simply hoped to stay put long enough to finish high school, but it turned out that in Toluca Lake the Kurtz family had found the home they’d been dreaming of. Her parents would reside there for the rest of their lives, and the community remained a base for Swoosie as she built a distinguished career on the stage and screen.
While the Emmy- and Tony-Award-winning actor is well-known for her professional achievements, fewer people realize that making headlines runs in her family. Thanks to talented parents who earned fame for their accomplishments in the World War II era, Swoosie Kurtz has been making history literally since birth, and she continues to honor their legacy as she thrives in the neighborhood that welcomed them home.
Her father, Frank Kurtz, was a champion diver who won a bronze medal in the 10-meter platform at the 1932 Olympics and placed fifth in 1936 (he qualified in 1940 as well, but the games were canceled due to the war). As if that weren’t enough, he’d begun flying airplanes as a teenager and had already set the national junior transcontinental speed record, among other feats, by the time he joined the U.S. Army to train as a pilot. He would become the most decorated Army Air Force pilot of World War II, famed for his Pacific theater exploits in a B-17 Flying Fortress that he and his crew named The Swoose — short for “half swan, half goose” per a popular song at the time, because its battle damage had been patched up with parts salvaged from other aircraft.
Just as Frank’s heroism captured the public imagination during the dark days of the war, so did his romance with his wife, Margo. In her 2014 autobiography, their daughter described her mother as “the model wartime bride in the 1940s: industrious, beautiful, capable, the perfect combination of stiff upper lip and fire-engine red lipstick.” Margo toured extensively with Hollywood stars to sell bonds to support the war effort, and in 1945 she published a captivating memoir called My Rival, the Sky about her partnership with her husband and life on the home front. When she gave birth to their child in 1944, while Frank was deployed overseas, newspapers published pictures of her and the day-old baby. The couple named their daughter Swoosie, in honor of the plane that had helped Frank survive and fight on.
Frank continued his military career after the war, which meant a nomadic childhood for Swoosie. When he retired from the Army, she was about to enter high school and hopeful it might be her “last first day” in a new place. Her parents had fallen in love with Toluca Lake after visiting friends who lived on Valley Spring Lane, Frank and Harriet Bireley (Frank was the creator of a popular drink called Bireley’s Orangeade, produced at a plant in North Hollywood starting in 1923). After renting a house on Biloxi Avenue (which they had to leave to make way for the construction of the freeway), the Kurtzes bought a home at the corner of Moorpark and Placidia, the first they had ever owned. “My parents, being very modest Midwesterners, would always tell people, ‘It’s a tiny little house across from Bob Hope’s,’” Swoosie laughs. “They wanted to make sure that nobody thought we were in a mansion.”
Asked what attracted her parents to the neighborhood and kept them there, Swoosie says, “I think they felt this sense of calm and peace and community that would be not only good for them but for their daughter who was about to enter high school.” And fittingly, her memories of the neighborhood are an only-in-Toluca-Lake mix of small-town and star-studded. She waxes nostalgic about the ice cream at Lakeside Pharmacy and the coffee and frosted cinnamon rolls at the Tick Tock restaurant. The Kurtzes got to know the Hopes and attended events at their home over the years, including one unforgettable anniversary party in the 1990s where, Swoosie says, “Dolores was playing the piano, Rosemary Clooney was singing, and I found myself standing between Gene Autry and Gerald Ford, thinking, ‘How did I get here?’” She also recalls how residents gathered to watch President Richard Nixon’s helicopter land on Bob Hope’s lawn in 1970 so the two famous golfers could play a round at Lakeside. “I remember this young reporter named Tom Brokaw came over to us, and my mom — who would just strike up friendships with people and they loved her — she and Tom got to talking, and she gave him some water, and we’ve been friends with him ever since.”
Although it hadn’t been a factor in the Kurtzes’ choice to settle down there, Toluca Lake was also the perfect location for a budding thespian. Swoosie attended Hollywood High School specifically to study with legendary drama teacher John Ingle. Although she went on to USC, where her parents had first met, she decided she wanted to leave after two years to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Her parents protested, encouraging her to finish her degree first, but since Margo herself had left USC after two years to support and coach Frank in his diving career, they recognized it was important for their daughter to pursue the path she loved — which eventually led her from London to Broadway. “I was a real New Yorker, and I was very elitist about L.A., because I just wanted to be on the stage,” she admits.
Frank and Margo Kurtz cheered her on each step of the way. “Every play I ever did in New York, they would come and see it and stay with me, even when I just had a one-room apartment,” she says. At the same time, her career success brought TV and film opportunities that periodically drew her back to L.A. — where she’d stay with her parents, both to spend time with them and to take advantage of Toluca Lake’s convenient proximity to the studios, which she calls “heaven for an actor.” Swoosie even lived with her parents while starring in the hit NBC drama Sisters, which ran for six seasons in the early 1990s. “I would fall asleep over my script sitting on the same foldout bed where I had fallen asleep over my homework in high school,” she says. “And that’s pretty sad, so finally I was like, ‘Get yourself your own house!’”
In her real estate search, she says, “I never even thought about any area except Toluca Lake,” eventually settling on a 1951 home designed by modernist architect Harwell Hamilton Harris — “it’s just beautiful and I love it.” After Frank passed away in 1996, Swoosie invited her mother to move in with her and cared for her until she died in 2019, aged 103 1/2. She wrote movingly about the experience in her memoir, Part Swan, Part Goose, a love letter to her parents and their relationship as well as a chronicle of her life and acting career. As a companion piece to her own book, she had the joy of seeing Margo’s My Rival, the Sky reissued after years out of print. “It was a thrill and an honor to read her book again, to bring out the parts I love most and find parallels with my own life,” she says.
While Swoosie had always known her parents’ story — and couldn’t help but be constantly reminded of it, given the origin of her unusual name — she says, “when you’re a child and you’re used to hearing it all the time, it becomes rote. But when I was putting everything together in my book, I was not only astonished at the blessings in my life, but I realized I had really won the parent lottery. These two people, apart from their accomplishments and celebrity, were the greatest parents anybody could have. They never pressured me to be any way at all, or not to be any way. They let me become whoever I was going to become. And I think just by example, by watching them navigate life, I saw what character means.” That includes the sacrifices her father made in the war, the sacrifices the rest of the family made that allowed him to serve his country, and taking pride in hard work and a job well done. “One of the great many gifts they gave me was ‘Find what you love and do that,’” she adds. “And they helped me to do that.”
Now, Swoosie is struck by the ways past and present coexist in the neighborhood she continues to call home. She’s still working at Warner Bros., now playing the role of Mayim Bialik’s mother on the Fox sitcom Call Me Kat. “I think I’ve spent probably more than half of my professional life on the Warner Bros. lot,” she exclaims. “It’s just amazing — four and a half minutes away, unless I hit the light on Riverside. And I have done so many projects there, when I take a walk around the lot, I think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where I got mugged at the ATM in Sisters, that’s where we had the funeral in Pushing Daisies, that little church there is where I got married to Robert Klein on Sisters,’ all of these little landmarks.” The local landmarks extend to her personal life, as well: “It’s sort of strange for me, and wonderful in a way, to be driving to work at Warner Bros. and back and forth around the neighborhood, and passing that house my parents lived in that contains all these amazing memories from so many years, and it’s still exactly the same.”
And just as her parents did, Swoosie takes comfort in the serenity and closeness of the community — which became all the more important during the difficult times of the pandemic. “I tell you, thank God for Toluca Lake,” she says. “I just holed up in my house, and my only outlet was walking in this beautiful neighborhood. I felt safe, I felt that could control my environment. It was tough, but not like it was for so many people. Because just looking out for each other and communicating, it makes a big difference, especially during the quarantine. You don’t feel so much like you’re alone. The sense of community we feel in Toluca Lake, that’s what makes our houses homes.”