Looking Back at Christmas

The Grier Musser Museum in Los Angeles

The Pico-Union District of Los Angeles is a tough neighborhood with heavy concentrations of Central American immigrants. Yet there on Bonnie Brae Street lies the Grier Musser Museum with its huge collection of antiques and seasonally related memorabilia. During the key holidays of Halloween and Christmas, there are fascinating exhibits of decorations, music boxes, pop-up books, greeting cards, postcards, and other popular culture highlighting the present and past.

Although Martine and I have visited only during those periods, there are also special exhibits for Valentines Day, Chinese New Years, and Independence Day.

Susan Tejada with Christmas Elf

On Saturday, we spent several hours viewing the Christmas exhibits and chatting with Susan and Rey Tejada, the owners (and inhabitants) of the museum. Christmas is now safely in the past, but it was nice to see the constantly growing exhibits that Susan has collected. They represent what we all want the holidays to be like, far from the mayhem in the parking lots and department stores in mega-malls which it has become. Visiting the Grier Musser Museum gives you a picture of what we all want Christmas to be like. It’s actually a nice feeling.

 

La Loma de los Vientos

Silent Cowboy Star William S. Hart

William S. Hart (1864-1946) was one of the great early cowboy stars. A scant year after Cecil B. DeMille traveled to Hollywood to shoot The Squaw Man (1913), Bill Hart teamed up with Thomas H. Ince to shoot a series of Western two-reelers, many of which hold up well today. There was a sense of moral compass about Hart’s roles that registered with silent film audiences—that is, until flashier actors like Tom Mix started eating into his popularity in the 1920s. By the time that happened, Hart was in his sixties and getting a little long in the tooth.

Today, Martine and I made our annual pilgrimage to the William S. Hart Museum in Santa Clarita, which we had been doing for upwards of seventeen years. There is something about La Loma de los Vientos (“The Hill of the Winds”) that has always appealed to us. Part of it is the attraction of Hart himself. Part of it is that I knew William S. Hart, Jr., who used me on several occasions as a guest lecturer in tools for site location in his classes in real estate at California State University at Northridge. And part of it is that the house is a beauty.

Façade of La Loma de los Vientos

Living at his hillside retreat in Santa Clarita, Hart made friends with Western legends like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. He also knew Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart, Charles Marion Russell, and other notables of the day. After his marriage to actress Winifred Westover fizzled after a few short months, Hart lived alone with his sister Mary-Ellen, his son William Jr. being raised by the estranged mother. I got the feeling that, in his last years, Hart lived mostly on the second floor of his comfortable house, where, after his film career, he wrote Western-themed books.

The Second-Floor Living Room of the Hart House

I love the second-floor living room/screening room in the museum. Ther’s a 35mm projection booth in the back, capable of filling a large screen that one one time hung from the horizontal rafter by the two south windows.

 

The Gifts of Phineas Banning

Phineas Banning (1830-1885)

The growth of Los Angeles was by no means a sure thing. In the mid-1830s, Richard Henry Dana described the area when the ship he was on landed near San Pedro for a cargo of animal hides. The description comes from Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

What brought us into such a place, we could not conceive. No sooner had we come to anchor, than the slip-rope, and the other preparations for southeasters, were got ready; and there was reason enough for it, for we lay exposed to every wind that could blow, except the northerly winds, and they came over a flat country with a rake of more than a league of water. As soon as everything was snug on board, the boat was lowered, and we pulled ashore, our new officer, who had been several times in the port before, taking the place of steersman. As we drew in, we found the tide low, and the rocks and stones, covered with kelp and seaweed, lying bare for the distance of nearly an eighth of a mile. Leaving the boat, and picking our way barefooted over these, we came to what is called the landing-place, at high-water mark. The soil was, at it appeared at first, loose and clayey, and, except the stalks of the mustard plant, there was no vegetation. Just in front of the landing, and immediately over it, was a small hill, which, from its being not more than thirty or forty feet high, we had not perceived from our anchorage. Over this hill we saw three men coming down, dressed partly like sailors and partly like Californians; one of them having on a pair of untanned leather trousers and a red baize shirt. When they reached us, we found that they were Englishmen. They told us that they had belonged to a small Mexican brig which had been driven ashore here in a southeaster, and now lived in a small house just over the hill. Going up this hill with them, we saw, close behind it, a small, low building, with one room, containing a fireplace, cooking-apparatus, &c., and the rest of it unfinished, and used as a place to store hides and goods. This, they told us, was built by some traders in the Pueblo (a town about thirty miles in the interior, to which this was the port), and used by them as a storehouse, and also as a lodging-place when they came down to trade with the vessels. These three men were employed by them to keep the house in order, and to look out for the things stored in it. They said that they had been there nearly a year; had nothing to do most of the time, living upon beef, hard bread, and fríjoles, a peculiar kind of bean, very abundant in California. The nearest house, they told us, was a Rancho, or cattle-farm, about three miles off; and one of them went there, at the request of our officer, to order a horse to be sent down, with which the agent, who was on board, might go up to the Pueblo.

Even then, the Pueblo of Los Angeles was the center of the hide trade, but it lay more than a day’s journey from the port of San Pedro. Dana adds:

I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior was a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the centre of which was the Pueblo de los Angeles,— the largest town in California,— and several of the wealthiest missions; to all of which San Pedro was the seaport.

 

Phineas Banning’s House in Wilmington

Fortunately for Southern California, there was a recent settler from Wilmington, Delaware, named Phineas Banning who ran a stage line and had definite ideas for turning Los Angeles in a port city. His house in Wilmington, California, was during the 1860s right up against a gigantic marsh. Banning decided to have the marsh filled in and a breakwater constructed off San Pedro so that vessels can load and unload at San Pedro in relative safety. In addition, he arranged for the railroad to come down to Los Angeles and San Pedro.

Ironically, it was a transportation accident that snuffed out the life of the transportation genius who made L.A. into a major city: He was run over by a horse and carriage in the street and died soon after of the injuries sustained in the accident.

Today, Banning’s house is a fascinating museum of life in 19th century Southern California. Martine and I visited it on Saturday for the first time in several years.

First Rain

Our Rainy Season Began Today

When I first arrived in California, I thought it was odd living in a place that had a distinctive rainy season. Mind you, there are many years when we see only a few inches of rain; and others, where we get inundated. At this point, there is no guarantee that we will get more rainfall any time soon. Given the massive wildfires of the last month, it is probably just as well: A heavy rain at this time would result in heavy mudslides in the burn areas, mudslides that may very well destroy more homes than the fires did.

Today’s showers were light and, near the coastal area in which I live, over by one in the afternoon. The way I (informally) measure rain, it was enough to clean my windshield of insect and bird waste accumulated since my last car wash. Anything less, I count as a “dirty drizzle,” one that serves to dirty the windshield because the wipers serve only to smear the muck.

It is predicted that the rain in L.A. will be over by tomorrow morning, well over for the coastal areas. There may be a few light showers in the eastern part of the county.

 

Garcetti-Ville

Los Angeles Mayor Gil Garcetti

Although Los Angeles Mayor Gil Garcetti is a Democrat, I see him as something of a failure. I take issue with him on two counts:

  • He is one of those weepy progressives who are unable to deal with the burgeoning population of the homeless because he doesn’t know how to talk about it. “Let’s build housing for the poor homeless” is no answer when most of the homeless are unable or unwilling to follow rules because it violates their independence.
  • He is a tool of the real estate interests as he embarks on a spree of building high-rise housing along the light rail lines. You can be sure that very few of those units will be reserved for the homeless.

Artist’s Rendering of High Rise Housing Project

In the end, the streets of L.A. will continue to be littered with homeless encampments and the streets will be clogged with increased automobile traffic that no one seems to be planning for. And no, most of the people who will live in these high-rise Garcetti-Villes will probably not be interested in taking public transportation to work or entertainment.

Politicians like to make common cause with real estate developers because of the myth that tax revenue will thereby increase. Far from it: The city will be stuck with older apartment structures that will be vacated to move into these new high-rent districts, turning them into largely vacant slums, while the streets will be choked with cars.

Of course, I like the new light rail lines and the subways. But then, I am not a typical Angeleno.

Old Town Music Hall

The Facade of the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo

On hot summer weekends, Martine and I frequently found ourselves in the coastal enclave of El Segundo. Its southern boundary is the huge Standard Oil refinery, the second (“El Segundo”) to be located in California, the first being in Richmond. North is Los Angeles International Airport, and east lies the Pacific Coast Highway and a commercial/industrial area. The western boundary is the Pacific Ocean.

Situated on Richmond Street half a block from the refinery is the Old Town Music Hall, a former silent movie theater built in 1921. In 1968, it was re-opened as a repertory film theater and concert venue featuring a Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

A typical film screening features old classical films, opening with a Wurlitzer organ concert, followed by sing-along slides of old musical favorites and occasionally a short film. In October, we saw three films of a Halloween horror film series, including the original Frankenstein and Dracula as well as The Black Cat, which starred both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. There are also programs featuring classical musicals and short comedies and cartoons.

In addition, there are occasional live music concerts, which we have not attended.

Interior of the Old Town Music Hall

The theater is run as a nonprofit organization under Section 501(c)(3). There is seating for only a couple hundred people, so profits are pretty much out of the question. The whole operation is clearly a labor of love.

We’re looking forward to a program of Laurel and Hardy shorts to be shown next weekend.

 

Devil Winds for Halloween

Wind-Driven Fires for Halloween

At one point this afternoon, there were ten active wind-driven brush fires in Southern California. Although Martine and i do not live in any of the affected canyon areas, we felt the devil winds of the Santa Anas juddering against the walls, windows, and doors of our apartment.

The winds are so powerful, in fact, that they blew away the second “e” in EXTREME. Do you suppose they could have meant EXTRUME or EXTRIME?