July 18, 2019

Framing L.A.: The Jews who helped us to picture art

In the post-World War II years, Jewish businessmen figured out how to price and frame art so that almost anyone who wanted it would be able to afford it.

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, with veterans having families and buying homes in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside, people needed framed photos and art to fill their walls; as a result, dozens of Jewish-owned framing businesses sprang up to fill the need.

Jews were involved at every level of the picture-framing business in Los Angeles — from wholesale to retail, from milling moldings to carving custom frames, from framing oil paintings to publishing and mass-producing readymade prints.

Forming an informal subset of the Jewish community, these business owners bought framing supplies from one another, provided first jobs in the business, shared family news on sales calls and trade shows, and married into one another’s families.

The most famous were two of the Aaron Brothers: Len, born in Antigo, Wis., and Al, born in Chicago, who in the early 1940s established a photography business on Hollywood Boulevard.

During the war, Len (born in 1917) was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, where he took pictures and ran a photo lab for the U.S. Army; his brother, born Allmore (1914-1997), was stationed in Culver City at Hal Roach Studios, working as a still photographer under Commanding Officer Ronald Reagan. The youngest brother, Chuck (born in Antigo in 1920), was a pilot flying missions in the Pacific theater.

In Los Angeles, both before and after the war, “We were in the ‘kidnapping’ business,” Len said, referring to the business practice of knocking on people’s door, taking pictures of their children and returning a few days later to try to sell the parents the 8-by-10’s they had printed up on spec. “Our average sale was $3.75,” Len said.

We graduated into the frame business,” Len said, remembering how he and Al started. “We each kicked in 50 bucks and sold out of our car,” including paper frames and photo albums.

In 1946, they opened Aaron Brothers Co. at 126 N. La Brea Ave., selling photography supplies, including frames. “We never really tried to do any retail,” Len said. “We just moved into this big store with a lot of windows, and people started knocking on the door, and that was the beginning of it.”

“We were strictly wholesale at first,” added Chuck, who became involved with the business around 1947 and left it around 1949, eventually opening his own company, Valley Molding and Frame, in 1975 with his then-son-in-law David Labowitz.

After opening 16 stores in California, Aaron Brothers, by the mid-1960s, had also branched out into a franchise program called “Picture and Frame Marts,” of which many Jewish families were franchisees, said Labowitz, who for a time was an outside sales rep for Aaron Brothers.

As to the appeal of the art-framing business to Jewish families, Labowitz explained, “At the time, there were some businesses they couldn’t get into.”

Frames, however, “took so little money to get into. For a few thousand dollars, they could open the door,” said Chuck, who today is a rancher and investor in commercial properties.

Realizing that reasonably priced prints could boost frame sales, Aaron Brothers began publishing its own images.

“Al dealt with all the artists and was very much into the art business,” Len said. “Al picked the artwork.”

In the late ’60s, in addition to selling art supplies and readymade frames — custom framing didn’t come until the 1970s — Aaron Brothers sold prints of flowers, nudes, Western images, seascapes and landscapes, “all good sellers,” Labowitz said. Included in the Aaron Pix catalog were even a few pictures of Jewish interest, including a tefillin-wearing “old rabbi,” and a still life with prayer book and tallit.

The prints sold for a dollar or two, and, “If it wasn’t a good seller, you got stuck with 5,000 sheets of paper,” said Len, who for decades has painted canvases of his own in what he calls an “abstract-expressionist” satirical style.

Len takes credit for coming up with the idea for the “One-Cent Frame Sale,” a concept the company uses to this day.

Were there any obstacles? Chuck, while on sales calls to Palm Springs and La Jolla and looking for overnight lodging, was surprised by several motels whose managers told him, “Sorry, we don’t let your people in here,” he said.

Although by the early 1970s, with around 35 locations, Aaron Brothers was preparing to go public, that did not mean that the expansion had come easily.

“There were many times when making the payroll wasn’t easy,” said Labowitz. “It wasn’t all peaches and cream.”

Since the business was sold to the Chromalloy American Corp. in 1977, it has had several owners, with Michaels Stores Inc. being the current one, operating around 155 Aaron Brothers stores in 11 states.

Each brother also had offspring who went into the business, with Len’s daughter Paula Aaron Hurwitz, having worked in the company’s Beverly Hills location, where she remembers doing frame work for Mickey Rooney. Al’s son David worked in the company’s retail area, and his son Michael in the publishing division, and Chuck’s daughter Suzanne (Aaron) Ehrmann became senior vice president of Valley Molding and Frame.

The Aarons were not alone in passing along the art-framing business to their children.

Allan Marion of Allan Jeffries Framing is third generation in the business. His grandfather, Morris Marion’s Marion Manufacturing made frames in the 1930s in Los Angeles and came up with the idea of selling them with multiples of etchings by French Art Deco artist Louis Icart, that “sold in chain stores like J.J. Newberry’s,” Marion said. “He paid Icart 50 cents per print,” Marion said. In about 1959, his father, Sam, along with his brother Jack started the Gemline Frame Co. in L.A., which manufactured readymade wall frames for chain stores, including Aaron Brothers. “The technology that [Jack] invented is still used today,” Marion said.

Adding to his art-framing yichus, Marion’s mother, Lucille, along with a partner, Beverly Abraham (his godmother), started a chain called Discount Frames in the San Fernando Valley in 1962. “We all knew everybody,” said Marion who is also Chuck Aaron’s godson.

Marion had his first job at 15 working for his mother. He also worked for his father at Gemline and opened a frame outlet store in Boyle Heights. After going into acting for a couple of years in 1984, with the help of the Jewish Free Loan Association, he opened a framing gallery on Third Street and Sweetzer Avenue.

Today, Marion owns three galleries and is part owner of a framing business near downtown. “It’s a great time to be in the art business,” said Marion, who regularly donates to several Jewish institutions and charitable organizations and has been honored by Jewish Free Loan.

Alan Greenstone, whose father, Norman, was one of the Aaron Brothers’ early employees and eventually a franchisee, owns United Picture & Frame Co. in Pasadena, which was founded in 1959.  “There are a lot of Jews in the business,” said Greenstone, who recalled Marty Goodside, who owned a Picture and Frame Mart and became a vice president at Aaron Brothers. Still active are Jerry Solomon, who has custom framing shops in Los Angeles and Agoura Hills and also hails from a picture-framing family, and Bob Stanley, a second-generation owner of Foster Planing Mill in L.A., which produces hundreds of styles of unfinished wooden moldings used in picture framing.

Richard Gibson is a second-generation owner of Ted Gibson Picture Frames, at 4271 W. Third St., in Koreatown. His father was born in Brooklyn in 1907 and grew up in Jewish orphanages, according to his son, and became a “legend” in the business. “He started working when he was 9,” and when he was 15, “stretched canvases for Georgia O’Keeffe.”

The day in 1933 his father came to Los Angeles “was the Long Beach earthquake,” Gibson said.

After opening his first store, at 2940 W. Seventh St., in 1947, Ted Gibson put everything in the store on skids and moved to 2866 W. Seventh. “Fortunately it was downhill,” he said. When his father married Lillian Kassovsky in 1949, the wedding dinner was held at Canter’s, said Richard, who was one of the last in the 1950s to have his bar mitzvah at Sinai Temple at its home on New Hampshire Avenue and Fourth Street.

Gibson was known for his quality frames, many of which he cut, carved and painted by hand. “My dad worked with some of the finest artists,” said Gibson, including painter Millard Sheets, famous for his Home Savings mosaics, and abstract expressionist Hans Burkhardt. Actors Zero Mostel and Vincent Price, both of whom he did framing work for, were close friends. He was also friends with Meyer Flax, who opened M. Flax Art Supplies in 1931 (and was the father of Harvey Flax, who opened Flax in Westwood in 1950). “He wanted every frame job to hang with its own integrity. He earned people’s trust,” his son said.

A picture hanging in Richard Gibson’s shop frames a moment of Jewish affinity in the framing business. Ted, who died in 2000, and who, in his later years, wore suspenders printed with a tape measure design, is shown in 1998 receiving an award “in recognition of a lifetime of service to our community” from the local chapter of the Professional Picture Framers Association. Presenting it is his friend Chuck Aaron.

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman @ edmojace@gmail.com