December 9, 2018

A nostalgic trip down the Westside’s Memory Lane

Michael Harris, author of “Westside Stories: Recollections and Reflections on Life in West Los Angeles From the 1940s to the 1960s” (The Americas Group), is a Stanford graduate and an Air Force veteran with an impressive professional resume as a practicing attorney. But more important, when it comes to his credentials in writing his first book, his bio mentions that he attended Overland Avenue Elementary School and Hamilton High School, worked as a locker room attendant at the public swimming pool in Rancho Park, and sold maps to the homes of the stars.

It is with that background in mind that “Westside Stories” offers a lively and lavishly illustrated scrapbook of memories about how the bean fields between the 20th Century Fox studio on Pico Boulevard and the MGM studio in Culver City were developed as residential neighborhoods, starting as early as the 1920s and even more expansively after World War II. Harris reminds us that when he was growing up in the 1940s, the acreage where Rancho Park now sits was “wild, unpatrolled and unsupervised, an open space full of rabbits, snakes and assorted other critters.” He and his friends would sneak into the nearby Fox back lot “to enjoy an alternative reality with all the old sets, backdrops and pioneer and Western street fronts” that existed long before the construction of Century City.


Nostalgia figures prominently in “Westside Stories,” which is what makes the coffee table book so pleasurable to read. For example, I had forgotten that snack breaks during the school day back in the 1950s were called “Nutrition” until Harris mentioned it. I took pleasure in his recollection and celebration of the Helms Bakery trucks; Gilmore Field on Beverly Boulevard, where the Hollywood Stars minor league baseball team played its home games; the tetherball courts that were a schoolyard fixture; the statue depicting a young and as-yet-undiscovered Myrna Loy on the front lawn of Venice High; and the low-tech “semaphore” stop signs that once stood on street corners. For younger readers, the recollections of life in the good old days — the incinerators that burned in every backyard and the fluoroscopes that were used in shoe stores to measure our feet — may seem like something out of science fiction.

Harris also investigates some of the urban legends that are unique to the Westside.  I can attest to the fact that a flock of feral parrots can be seen — and heard — in the skies over Cheviot Hills and Palms, but I learned from “Westside Stories” that that they originated when homeowners released their pet birds during the Bel Air fire of 1961, which destroyed nearly 500 homes. And, he adds, “the gene pool … was undoubtedly enhanced when the parrots were joined by escapees from the Busch Gardens theme park,” a now-closed tourist attraction in Van Nuys.

But Harris also enables us to understand how the Westside evolved into a distinct and crucial center of gravity in the politics and culture of Los Angeles. He points out, for example, that the Hillcrest Country Club “was founded by the Jewish entertainment poohbahs of the Westside because they were not allowed to become members of … the Bel Air or the Los Angeles Country Clubs”— an early example of Jewish self-assertion that is now mostly taken for granted in Southern California. He reminds readers that property deeds commonly contained a prohibition against sale or rental to “any person of Ethiopian, Chinese or Japanese descent,” a form of legal racism that was not erased until the 1950s.

Perhaps the best measure of what the Westside was and what it became is found in the escalation of property values. “For example, our family home on Glenbarr Avenue was purchased — fully furnished — in 1944 for $28,000,” Harris writes. “It would sell today for a figure probably in excess of $2 million — a multiplier in this case of more than 66.”

Harris, like so many of us, pokes fun at the profound changes that have taken place, not only in West L.A. but across the country. “Kids today don’t know how easy they have it,” is the message displayed on a vintage photo of a 1940s-era television set. “When I was young, I had to walk 9 feet through shag carpet to change the TV channel.”

But he also writes with warmth about the pleasures of a childhood on the Westside. “For a special day for fathers and children there were the pony rides at Beverly and La Cienega, where the Beverly Center now sells Polo gear,” Harris recalls. “There was also a pumping oil well on La Cienega near Beverly Boulevard, extracting what was needed to keep those Studebakers humming.  Down the street was Ohrbach’s department store before it turned into the Petersen Automotive Museum.”

I’ve reminisced about the same places many times, but I didn’t have the maps, photos, illustrations and other artifacts that make “Westside Stories” such a pleasure to read. Indeed, it’s a book that can be shared with children and grandchildren to show them what life was like for those of us who grew up, as Harris puts it, “in the time of the Red Cars, the Helms Bakery trucks, and nuclear fallout shelters.”