Thirteen Things Gen X-ers and Millennials Would Have Dug In L.A. Back In The Day
Hollywood Boulevard, 1972. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
By Glen Creason
If a time machine does indeed exist, there is probably one in Los Angeles, since we do have one of everything here. I assume chrononauts are plotting their journeys as I write, but in this 50-by-70 mile sprawlscape of a city, they should choose wisely on destinations.
As I am now immersed, like it or not, surrounded by people much younger but not less mature than myself I feel compelled to suggest some destinations for those Generation X and Millennial travelers who might be traversing an L.A. of past. Not only do I spend much of my time ruminating in this past, but I'm likely to spin yarns of not-really-better days but of places and faces you really should have seen. Just as my Mom used to tell me about attending a “lecture” by Aimee Semple McPherson or riding in a rumble seat, and I could tell all of my younger friends about how I shook JFK’s hand, saw Muhammad Ali box and once served Jimmy Stewart a custard tart. But the L.A. places I have seen, they should be shared with all.
Vickman’s was a huge dining hall at the edge of the produce district on 8th Street. If you got in there before 8 a.m., you could still see the last of the Flower Market or produce worker-crowd having breakfast (or lunch, for the guys that had to be at work by 3 a.m.). This was an earthy crowd that featured big bellies, cigar smoke and plenty of BS that flowed in loud torrents across the barn-like facility.
Big talk accompanied generous portions of hearty fare, especially omelets that seemed to be made from a half dozen eggs. All transactions were done on the honor system, where you picked up a newspaper at the news stand near the front door, ordered at the grill and sat down in one of the prime wooden booths or at sturdy tables built to withstand the bulk of the clientele. Waitresses somehow found you within minutes with your order and very modest tips were proffered occasionally by those in the know. When you were finished, you passed by the register by the front door and paid for your meal. Everybody paid in full and ate until they were full. In the back of the dining hall, there was actually a grain-scale that went up to about 400 pounds and the springs often groaned when sated folks climbed aboard for fun. Vickman’s was a joy, the food was terrific and the business thrived for years until it was bought by a Russian investment group who sought to make money, then drove it into the ground in less than a year.
The New Follies
A rite of passage for Southland high school boys in the 1960’s was a pilgrimage to the foreboding streets of downtown L.A. for the rare opportunity of seeing scantily clad ladies. As a Catholic school kid, the closest to scantily clad were shy neighborhood girls' one piece bathing suits at the natatorium in South Gate Park. Downtown in those days was an adult attraction with little of the current day amenities, like cleanliness or police protection.
The Switzerland Restaurant Beer Garden After A Rams Game
Jane Russell and her husband Bob Waterfield. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
This was another huge and vibrant gathering spot where old-style European dining and beer quaffing took place in a once-elegant esszimmer with white, starched napkins and a muffled quiet. Stuff like schnitzel, black bread and streusel made for a gustatory experience that lacked only the Alps in the background. Yet, the real ticket here was the beer garden out back that would bulge at the seams on late Sunday afternoons after Ram games, when the team was hopeless and the fans preferred beer-drunks to slogs home in the Coliseum traffic.
There were movie stars like Jane Russell and football stars of yesteryear like her husband Bob Waterfield along with would-be starlets wearing the stunning combination of Daisy Dukes and high heels. I knew the place well as a parking lot attendant who managed a knackwurst or two with German potato salad out the back door and watched with consternation as these same inebriates got into muscle cars for rides back to God knows where after a couple of hours of beer guzzling in the sunbaked beer garden.
Pacific Ocean Park (P.O.P.)
Pacific Ocean Park in the early 1960s. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Like other plans of recreational bliss in the Ocean Park area, Pacific Ocean Park was cool but not quite ready to overtake Disneyland as the amusement park destination for Angelenos. There was something slightly tacky but exhilarating about the amusement park right on the blue Pacific with a mixture of rides that ranged from carney-corny to really dangerous like these surf bubble balls (Ocean Skyway!) that dangled high above the ocean with just a salt air-eaten cable between you and death in the briny deep. There was an old funhouse called Davy Jones Locker that was a flimsy excuse to bump into the young ladies who smoked cigarettes and tested their hair-spray sculptures against the sea breezes outside. “The Sea Serpent Roller Coaster” was a good one, without the decapitated sailor lore of Long Beach’s grimy Pike, and the Diving Bell was not for the claustrophobic or anyone afraid of dying by suffocation. In the summer, there was the added teen thrill of dance shows on location where one might catch groups like Paul Revere and the Raiders or some garage band from Lawndale. The place smelled like salt air and Coppertone mixed with Marlboro smoke. All of this and more for 99 cents!
The Olympic Auditorium
The Olympic Auditorium in 1938. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
The events at the Olympic were like Naturalist school paintings. Inside, the Olympic was always pandemonium and the fights were viewed like the ancient Romans politely cheered lions shredding the whimpering Christians. Chants erupted, beer was consumed by the gallons, women’s underwear was tossed through the crowd (few women were actually in the seats) and when fights were judged less than satisfactory by the mob, they might throw objects down at the ring like whiskey bottles or entire seats uprooted from the upper balcony. Busloads of companeros came from Tijuana and cuidado if the Mexican lost a decision.
Wrestlers in the Olympic Auditorium ring in 1976. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Once, I was able to sit near ringside and found out that these bouts involved lots of blood that ended up on onlookers who sat close. I also do not believe that I ever went to the Olympic for boxing without seeing a fist fight or two outside after the official matches. They made the seemingly obvious bad decision by selling cold beer in bottles, poured at your seat which mostly ended up only rented for an hour or so. Something about watching the bloodletting and imbibing alcohol for a couple of hours made for a bad peace mission.
The Gambling Boats
Lux. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
While this one was before even my time, I trace a blood line to the Lux, one of the great gambling ships of L.A. history. My Dad was a craps dealer on the Lux who lost his four front teeth to a very drunk lady who whacked him with a bandana full of souvenir dice. His boss was the infamous Tony Cornero, who got out of prison in 1930 for bootlegging and came up with the idea of anchoring fully equipped casino ships three miles off the coast of Santa Monica beyond the jurisdiction line that prohibited gambling. There were about a dozen such “pleasure ships” floating around off the L.A. coastline but Cornero’s S.S. Rex was an operation with integrity, and he promised to run an honest house where rigged games were strictly forbidden. Tony even offered a hundred grand to any patron who could find a crooked game on his Rex. The beauty of these ships was that they were not geared to the rich and famous, but rather drew eager middle class folks who wished to be separated from their hard-earned Depression Era cash. My Dad told a story of a certain mug who Cornero knew had stolen a diamond ring from a lady customer, then swallowed it to hide his larceny. Cornero had the “gent” taken to a stateroom where he was fed castor oil until the truth came out.
Friday Night At The Drive-In Movies
Well documented in films and websites, the drive-in movie experience is part of popular bourgeois history—but in the southeast L.A. neighborhood where I grew up, drive-ins seemed to be like Starbucks, occupying corners in every suburb on the map. There was The South Gate, The Rosecrans, and The Compton, The Paramount, The Roadium, The Circle, The Gage, and dozens of others across the megalopolis.
We normally lined up around dusk with several of our party hiding in the trunk, until we parked near where one of the speakers might be working. Boys would push the back seat forward and squirm into the car ready for a trip to the snack bar, where they'd find the worst pizza and popcorn ever created since man discovered fire. The drive-in with all of its make-out possibilities was the WORST place to actually watch a movie. At The Compton, enthusiastic viewers would honk their horns to demonstrate their approval of the action on screen. Sometimes well-oiled dudes might take a whiz between cars, much to the disgust of ladies present. Weary parents could trudge with their bored kids to the sad swing sets near the snack bar at intermission and cigarette and pot smoke billowed from the cars that grew more and more sweltering sitting in the Southern California heat without AC (no one had AC!) And yet, each Friday when there was nothing else to do we lined up at dusk once again. My personal best experience was seeing the Russ Meyer classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls twice.
The Nun Doll Museum
The Nun Doll Museum was an arcane and creepy exhibit which, like the movie The Exorcist, was exponentially more terrifying to those who attended Catholic School. This was all part of the gift shop or as we called it "the Catholic Head Shop" inside Our Lady Chapel at 8th and Figueroa. You could revisit venial sins and recall corporal punishment at the hands of these holy ladies, now in harmless miniature form. Dead-eyed dolls of orders from all over America sat on dusty shelves above the normal business of selling medals, statues, prayer books and even scapulars! There they were, the covered wagon nun, the flying nun, the paper plate nun, even black nuns! Somehow, seeing a hundred judging tiny nuns looking down on you made you feel a bit guilty about things you had done, including what the sisters referred to as “daily suicide” back in school. Still, I used to bring old friends to the chapel, not to pray but to shudder at the Nun Doll museum and those memories of rulers on the knuckles and the smell of incense at benediction. Occasionally, someone would actually buy one of these to take home and God knows what went on there.
Crowds outside the Biltmore Theatre in 1939.
Everybody has seen the venerable Biltmore Hotel standing proudly across from the horrors of Pershing Square, but once upon a time there was the coziest and coolest little theater attached to the red brick building at 520 W. 5th Street. There were just over 1600 seats total, and the place had that musty, sanctified smell of a New York Broadway house. Yet, when the lights dimmed and the shows were about to begin, it was as exciting as any place in Los Angeles. The theater dated way back to 1924 and was opened with a musical written by Jerome Kern and others. Through the years, the place teamed with the Philharmonic Hall as the place to see plays, musicals and even a movie, occasionally. The Biltmore was the theater for all manner of touring Broadway shows with top flight performers coming west to sample Los Angeles life. “Auntie Mame” with Eve Arden knocked them dead in the 50’s and in the early 1960’s they hosted “My Fair Lady,” “The Music Man,” and “Fiorello,” all with great success. The lobby was particularly grand, the seats comfortable and there were really impressive boxes that hung out over the sides of the orchestra like something Abe Lincoln would have sat in, but with better results. It was the kind of spot where women would wear mink stoles and a gentleman would visit not in jeans and sweat gear as today but in dress suits and fedoras.
Gorky's menu from 1986. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Gorky's would have been the El Dorado of downtown hipness that has grown to mythic proportions over recent years. It was started by a librarian who only wanted to feed the misfits and counter-culture folk who had returned to downtown after the abandonment in the new auto age. Gorky’s at 8th and San Julian provided solid Eastern European food along with existential philosophical conversations at solid oak tables over all hours of the day and night. Despite struggling financially, Gorky’s was beloved by hipsters before that was a dirty word. For those of us who worked in a downtown that rolled up the sidewalks at 6 o’clock, Gorky’s was a beacon along with the Atomic Café and maybe Al’s Bar. Guys sat deep into chess games, women who looked like Cyndi Lauper showed up for pierogis and late night was a scene in an area where parking your car, even across the street would be challenging by the riff raff that were drawn to the crowds with money in their pockets, sort of. Gorky’s opened in 1981 and Judith Markoff, the librarian with the hippie soul sold it in 1985, but it never was the same after that. They still managed to struggle on until 1993 with a sort of faux Haight-Ashbury vibe but at last they ran out of gas, ironic for a place that served so much cabbage.
Cruising Hollywood Boulevard
Cruising down Hollywood Boulevard was a grand tradition in Southern California, where young people and big cars hit the main drags, very slowly checking each other out. Way before Tinder and such, the only sexual judging was done from Chevy to Ford—and many a bad choice was made, just as it is done today electronically. The Valley had Ventura Boulevard, the Southeast had Bellflower and the junior circuit on Tweedy, but the granddaddy of all cruising streets was Hollywood Boulevard, in tinsel town itself.
No one looked at the historic buildings or the ornate old theaters, but only into the cars where four or more chicks sat under vinyl chloride-imbued Aquanet hair sculptures, which were all part of the mating ritual. Cigarettes were smoked, beers were drank and hardly anyone scored, but looking cool was the true goal. In a more innocent time I was once stopped by the police with schnockered pals, the car full of Country Club stubbies, some full and some empty. We were only required by the LAPD to sit on the curb and empty out the full ones, and then allowed to cruise on.
Old School Thrift Stores
Many stories of hopeless, impoverished Millennials today remind me of my early days as a hopeless, impoverished hippie wannabe. It was my luck, living on my tips as a parking lot attendant and independent recreational drug entrepreneur, that I was forced to clothe myself completely out of thrift stores which were plentiful in those days, without any mention of vintage or eBay. You could walk into, say, Value Village on Long Beach Boulevard in Lynwood, and find dozens of totally boss rayon Hawaiian shirts brought back from the actual islands by WWII vets who probably looked as cool in their Depression generation day as Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. There were genuine bomber jackets at seven bucks a pop, H Bar C ranch wear at 95 cents, Claire McCardell sportswear, Stetson hats, dazzling geographic scarves, Catalina Swimwear, original band t-shirts from hot acts like “Screaming Lord Sutch” and boxes of Bauer pottery, Fiesta Ware, Hotel china, and full-length cashmere coats for ten smackers. All of this stuff was being turned in by do-gooder Depression generation families who saw no need to keep this old junk when they could dress in polyester and eat off of Melmac. Furniture too, including these ancient easy chairs that were meant for drinking and watching TV, one of which sits in my front room with an imprint of my behind on it.
Wrigley Field (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Before the Dodgers came to L.A., professional baseball was played in two spots: Gilmore Field out by the Farmer’s Market and Wrigley Field at 41st and Avalon. Wrigley was built back in 1925 by chewing gum magnate William K. Wrigley and cost a whopping 1 and ½ million to tuck it into a neighborhood full of houses and no parking lots.
Steve Bilko. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Big Steve Bilko from Nanticoke, PA. was the darling of L.A. fans due to his sweet disposition and the huge guns he used to drive balls out of Wrigley (55 dingers with 164 ribbies in his prime season). Despite being only 35 years old the old ball yard was full of stinky character. There was a mixture of stale beer and cigar smoke that greeted you when you entered the grandstands, mixed with some other less agreeable olfactory sensations. Wrigley had obstructed views because of huge pillars that held up the stands in places, but you were right down on the field it seemed like. In the days when players wore wool flannel uniforms, you could smell the players when they came off the field scratching and spitting and you could hear the players chatter and the mitts pop. There was no blasting music or scoreboard pyrotechnics, just baseball in the raw.
Glen Creason is a map historian, librarian and author of "Los Angeles in Maps".