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Arts and Entertainment

Ten Things You May Not Know About Burbank

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(Photo by Karol Franks via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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As much as any L.A. neighborhood, Burbank is defined by the industries that have passed through its doors. The city is named after David Burbank, a dentist who traveled west in the mid-1800s with intentions of buying land and raising sheep. A shrewd business man, Burbank would facilitate the construction of rail lines into the neighborhood, which in turn established the area as a notable hub. The aviation and entertainment industries, possibly lured by the wide expanses of space, would later come knocking in the 1920s and '30s.

Burbank, in other words, means business. It’s a town where people work and live, and less so regarded as a buzzy destination spot (unless you’re catching a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show). This doesn't mean that its history is a bore, however. Here, we touch on some of the interesting trivia about the town you’ve come to know (somewhat) through Disney and The Tonight Show.

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A 1936 photo of Amelia Earhart in the cockpit of her Lockheed Electra plane in Burbank, California. (Photo courtesy of Purdue University Libraries/George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers)
Amelia Earhart's Lost Airplane Was Built Here

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Burbank's history with aviation started in 1928, when the Lockheed Aircraft Company (now known as Lockheed Martin) moved its facilities to the neighborhood. The company would take a big hit from the Great Depression, but came surging back when World War II rolled around. During the war the company was employing as much as 94,000 workers, which consequently translated to a boom in residents; from 1920 to 1940, the population had jumped from about 3,000 to 34,000.

As one of the aviation capitals of the U.S., Burbank is linked to a number of historic moments in flight history. Some of Howard Hughes' aircraft facilities were based in Burbank, and the galavanting germophobe would make a number of daring takeoffs from the city. In one of his most storied jaunts, he set the U.S. transcontinental record by flying from Burbank to Newark, New Jersey, in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds.

Amelia Earhart's connection with Burbank, on the other hand, is more aligned with tragedy. In her attempt to make a historic flight around the globe, she flew a customized Lockheed Electra 10E that was built in a Burbank facility. The plane, of course, was lost during Earhart's second attempt to complete the journey (the first had been aborted due to mechanical failures). In 1991, a piece of metal from the plane was discovered (and later identified) on the Nikumaroro Atoll in the western portion of the Pacific Ocean.

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Lockheed employees standing beneath the camouflage canopy. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
It Was The Site Of An Insane (And Apparently Successful) Camouflage Project

Speaking of Lockheed, the company was involved with one of the more bizarre tales to come out of WWII.

As recounted on the company's website, the attack on Pearl Harbor had prompted the company to think up of ideas to secure its plant in Burbank. The job fell to a colonel by the name of John F. Ohmer, who came up with the idea of disguising the facilities so that enemy pilots, flying overhead, would mistake it for an ordinary Californian suburb.

In his undertaking, Ohmer hired artists and set designers from the nearby studios at Disney and 20th Century Fox. The project involved a number of man-made ruses; there were, for instance, fake trees with spray-painted feathers as leaves. The most prominent piece of trickery, however, was a massive canopy that was painted to resemble a suburban tableau. After the canopy was painted and stretched over the facilities (portions of which would later become Bob Hope Airport), Ohmer invited a War Department general to do a fly-over to identify the location of the plant. The general couldn't find it.

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Walt Disney Studios in Burbank in 1958. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
It Could Have Been Home To Both Disneyland and UCLA

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Anaheim is inextricably linked with Disneyland. And Westwood is synonymous with UCLA. There's an alternate reality, however, in which Burbank would have been home to both the Haunted Mansion and Pauley Pavilion.

In the 1950s, Walt Disney mulled over the idea of building his future theme park in the neighborhood. He'd intended to set it on Riverside Drive, right by the company's Burbank studio, and had even gone as far as commissioning conceptual artwork for the park; a number of the ideas, including the "Skull Rock," would survive the transition to Anaheim. The Burbank project wasn't meant to be, however. For one thing, Disney faced staunch opposition from the city's councilmembers, who told him in 1952 that they "don't want the carny atmosphere in Burbank." Disneyland and its surly carnys would later be unveiled in Anaheim in 1955.

Before the genesis of Disneyland, UCLA had its own flirtation with Burbank. The university had its beginnings in 1919, when an assembly bill called for a second branch of the University of California education system to be built in the Southland (Berkeley was home to the first branch). There was a question of where the university would be built, exactly, and for a while planners had considered the Benmar Hills area in Burbank. Developer Ben W. Marks, who humbly named Benmar after himself (he left out the "k"), had lobbied hard for the school to be erected on his land. His plans fell apart when Janss Investment Corp., a development firm, donated 385 acres of Westwood for the university. Construction for the new UCLA campus started in 1927.

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The "Aerial Swallow." (Photo Courtesy of University of Southern California Libraries and the California Historical Society)
It Was The Site Of A Real (And Failed) Monorail Idea

From the "Spruce Goose" to the recent "straddling bus" in China, there's something about transportation failures that strike a certain tone of hilarity. Maybe it's the mixture of financial waste and human ingenuity; nothing is more indicative of our hubris than a giant aircraft that fails to get off the ground. One of the most mocked-about busts is the fictional monorail of Simpsons lore. "Marge vs. the Monorail"—an episode penned by Conan O'Brien—revolved around, yes, a monorail with seriously faulty brakes. It was a work of fiction, but was it based off a real-life counterpart in Burbank?

Starting in 1910, Burbank was home to L.A.'s own fleeting love affair with the monorail. Farmer/inventor Joseph Fawkes designed an electric trolley that he christened the "Aerial Swallow." The contraption was suspended on an overhead iron rail, balanced by a gyroscope, and used a propeller to make its away across the terrain, according to LA Mag. Fawkes said that the trolley could go up to speeds of 150 mph, and had built a 840-foot-long test track in Burbank to back up his claims. The test runs, however, failed to impress, and the Aerial Swallow was re-dubbed “Fawkes’ Folly” as it sat idle in Fawkes’ estate.

The Valley's First Rail Line Went Through Burbank

The monorail may have been a dud, but it should be noted that Burbank's growth has been linked, in varying degrees, with the spread of rail-based transit. For one thing, residents had passed over Fawkes' idea to welcome a new trolley line that was managed by the fabled Pacific Electric Railway company, which at one point ran the biggest network of urban rail transportation in L.A. (and all of the U.S.). The first Pacific Electric streetcar glided into Burbank in 1911, and the line remained in operation until 1955.

Before that, right before turn of the 20th century, the Southern Pacific Railroad company laid tracks to establish its Burbank branch, the first rail line to run through the Valley. Soon after, the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe rail companies would engage in a rate war to see who would steep to the lowest fares. At one point, a train ride from Kansas City to L.A. was advertised as costing a dollar. The preposterously low rates ushered in a new wave of people to L.A., and are believed to have contributed to Burbank's growth in the early 1900s.

Johnny Carson Dumped On Burbank A Lot

Hollywood, being the face of the movie industry, has long cast a shadow over Burbank’s place in entertainment history. The truth of the matter is that, by the 1960s, Burbank was home to Warner Bros., Columbia Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and NBC’s West Coast headquarters. Casablanca, High Noon, and Bonnie and Clyde (among many others) were shot at Burbank facilities owned by Warner Bros. Public spots were re-purposed for film shoots too: the local Safari Inn, with its facade of chic-kitsch, has served as a stand-in for America's most visible roadside motel (both Apollo 13 and True Romance had dropped by for shoots).

The Tonight Show, televised from NBC studios, was one of the most prominent products to have come out of Burbank. While Burbank housed the taping, the tenants weren’t too enthusiastic about the fact. Every night, gruff sidekick Ed McMahon would kick off the show with "frooom Hollywood!" And if that wasn't insult enough, Johnny Carson had a running gag of taking potshots at Burbank, portraying it as the Jan to Hollywood’s Marcia. In a 1983 episode, Carson said, “I know many of you are from out of town. And from time to time I try to point out things of interest to promote Burbank,” to which the audience responded with knowing laughter. Carson then goes on to cite, among other things, a fictional inventor who cross-bred a chicken with a silkworm, and an Italian restaurant that touts a "touch of Newark."

Burbank, however, seems to have taken it all in stride; the city named a park after him, and even went as far as erecting a small monument in honor of Johnny.

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Burbank's other Mickey. (Photo from the National Archives/Getty images)
Mickey Cohen Once Ran A Casino Inside A Burbank Horse Stable

Burbank may be designated as one of America's Safest Cities by Business Insider. But there was a time when it was the setting for a potboiler novel; one replete with notorious mobsters, crooked cops, and hidden gambling dens.

A 1956 issue of Coronet Magazine listed a rogues gallery that had taken up shop in Burbank:

Joe and Frank Sica, said to be members of the infamous Mafia, ran the Champ Cafe as a hangout for mobsters. Ted Jabour Lewis, reported to be associated with Detroit's Purple Gang, swaggered around town with an honorary police badge and gun permit. Mickey Cohen, recently released from prison for evading income taxes, and Ralph Maddox, a big-time bookmaker with a criminal record, both operated wide-open gambling joints.

That's right, Mickey Cohen, perhaps L.A.'s most famous connection to the crime syndicate, ran an underground casino out of Burbank. It was located at the Dincara Stock Farm, a horse stable on Mariposa Street and Riverside Drive. In 1948, Burbank detective Harry Strickland led a raid on the property and uncovered evidence of illegal gambling. The bust would help shed light on a network of corruption that plagued the fair city of Burbank. Elmer Adams, then police chief, was later found by a grand jury investigation to have received payoffs by racketeers; he'd reportedly bought a 56-foot yacht (mostly with cash) even though he subsisted on a modest salary. Also, a councilmember and the city manager would abruptly resign from their posts, rousing more suspicions of corruption in the upper reaches.

Strickland would later found the the Burbank Historical Society in 1973.

It Was One Of The First Cities In The Southland To Crack Down On Smoking In Public

Smokers may feel as if they’re getting squeezed in, and for good reason. L.A. County has seen a wave of no-smoking ordinances take shape in the past decade or so. In L.A., West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and others, smoking is prohibited in and around restaurants. L.A. even has a rule specifying that you can’t smoke within 40 feet of a food truck. In 2013, UCLA not only banned cigarettes from its campus, but all forms of tobacco as well.

Whether you’re for or against the ban, you have Burbank to thank for helping to start the trend. In 2007, it became the third city in Southern California to place bans on public smoking (Santa Monica and Calabasas were the first to the party). The city council voted to go smoke-free in all areas owned by the city; this includes parks, libraries, City Hall, and pretty much all of the downtown area. Cigarettes are also prohibited at restaurants and “service areas” where any goods or services are exchanged; this means ATM machines, information kiosks, and car washes. Talk about thorough. Apparently, one of the few places where you can smoke is at a golf course (though not at the driving range).

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Sign outside of The Blue Room bar. (Via The Blue Room/Facebook)
It's Got A Lot Of Old (And Neat Looking) Signs

Drive around Burbank and you may get a sense that parts of the neighborhood are frozen in history. There’s just something that harkens back to the time of malted shakes and My Three Sons. Perhaps nothing is more representative of this than the neighborhood’s bevy of vintage store signs. There’s the stately sign that hangs outside The Blue Room bar, and the distinctive lettering that hoovers above The Smoke House restaurant, and the Googie-inspired logo of the Lakeside Car Wash. Even signs bearing the indistinct calling cards for “florist” or “hats” or simply “repairs,” bear a design that’s both clean and elegant.

The signs are such a prominent piece of Burbank that, in 2014, the city ordered a “Historic Sign Survey” to be conducted by a contractor. The aim was to single out signs that were more than 45 years old and to develop an ordinance that would provide incentives for property owners to keep the historic signage.

The study determined that there are 79 signs that are deemed historic. And researchers said that a large number of the signs were constructed during World War II, when the successes of the aviation industry ushered in a boom for commerce. As such, you can make an argument that the signs are more than eye-candy; they’re also emblematic of Burbank’s heyday as a burgeoning neighborhood.

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The Arnolds in front of their home. (Via YouTube)
This Was Kevin Arnold's 'Hood

Outside of its collection of movie studios, Burbank itself has also been used as a shooting locale. And it was The Wonder Years, perhaps, that best captured the quaint suburbia that pervades the neighborhood.

Kevin Arnold (protagonist of primetime TV's favorite bildungsroman) came of age on the mean streets of Burbank, and his house can be found by the intersection of University Avenue and 6th Street, according to LA Mag.

Weirdly, it seems as if the entire Wonder Years universe had taken place around University Avenue. Winnie Cooper's house is directly across from the Arnolds', and, when she "moved" to new pad that was supposedly miles away, she'd actually taken up residence in a house that was just around the corner on Tufts Avenue. Kevin's best friend Marilyn Manson Paul also lived in nearby homes on University and Tufts. Bizarrely, in the pilot episode, the interior of the Arnold household was actually the interior of (what would later be) Paul's "home" on University. The same interior was recreated on a film set, and this was used in episodes subsequent to the pilot.

It's the facade of the Arnold house, however, that's so familiar to us. With its manicured lawn, squat layout, and basketball hoop, the Arnolds' homestead has been etched in our minds as a symbol of Americana.