January 19, 2019

L.A. history: The days of beach, baseball and Frankenstein

The season of long hot days signals an opening of the many tents of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Slathering on some sunblock, we go down to the sea in groups, to the park for a picnic or to Dodger Stadium for Jewish Community Day (this year, it’s Aug. 30). Teen groups plan outings to amusement parks, and 20-somethings bubble up to rooftop bars. But was the good old summertime always so?

Flipping back the years of the Jewish calendar to peek at an earlier age’s summer diversions, we can see that at the beginning of the 20th century, although bathing suits offered more coverage and the Dodgers batted in Brooklyn, summer’s pastimes were not all that different.

Selig Zoo. Photo courtesy Bison Archives

For picnics in that earlier age, we could go to the Selig Zoo, a popular meeting place for Jewish groups. In 1913, motion picture pioneer William Selig purchased 32 acres on land next to Eastlake Park (today, Lincoln Park in Lincoln Heights) and turned it into a studio and zoo to house the animals that appeared in his films. By 1915, around 700 species of animals, including elephants, lions and tigers, were kept in the northern portion, and in the southern there was an area equipped with benches and bathrooms, according to film history consultant Marc Wanamaker.

In the summer of 1916, Selig Zoo was the location for a “Joint Zionistic Picnic,” which scheduled “a lively baseball game” between the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and the Young Hebrew Social Club, according to a blurb that appeared in the events column of the B’nai B’rith Messenger.

In 1916, the Jewish War Sufferers Relief Society was invited to the park for a baseball game between the Universal Film Co. — whose president, Carl Laemmle, was Jewish — and another popular film company. “It is expected that Mr. Charles Chaplin will act as umpire,” the blurb announced.

In June 1918, on “probably the hottest day this summer,” the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association held its sixth annual Picnic in the Park, with about 5,000 people attending. Showing that the Jewish tradition of volunteerism at such events was very much in play, the Messenger article reported that “every truck, every man and woman that worked [for] the picnic, worked gratuitously,” on behalf of the Duarte Sanatorium (today’s City of Hope National Medical Center) and the “unfortunate consumptives.”

For a summer day’s amusement, we can head south of downtown to Chutes Park (today the neighborhood of the Los Angeles Mart), which advertised regularly in the B’nai B’rith Messenger. At around the turn of the 20th century, it was a 35-acre amusement park, which featured a waterslide for small flat-bottomed boats (Shoot the Chutes), a roller coaster and a ride called Mystic Cave of Winds, plus a Laughing Gallery and a foreboding House of Trouble.

When we just wanted to relax by the shore, there was Ocean Park, which, as we see from checking out the society column of the B’nai B’rith Messenger, was a desirable locale for Jewish families to take up summer residence. “Israel Schorr, cantor of Temple B’nai B’rith [today, Wilshire Boulevard Temple], has been living at Ocean Park since the early part of June. He has taken rooms at the beach for the summer,” read an item dated 1906.

For tunes in 1906, we could take the downtown streetcar to the Orpheum Theater, then at 227 S. Spring St., to hear the city’s largest theater band under the baton of Jewish conductor Abraham F. Frankenstein — the man who would write the music for “I Love You, California.”

The Orpheum Theater. Photo courtesy Western States Jewish History

At the Orpheum Theater, in addition to providing accompaniment for the vaudeville performers — the quintets, boy tenors, animal acts, jugglers and bird-call imitators — you could hear “professor” Frankenstein strike up the band before and after the performances as well as during the intermission.

From 1920 to 1925, according to Western States Jewish History (WSJH), Frankenstein could be seen conducting for such vaudeville stars as Ethel Barrymore, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, Houdini and the Marx Brothers.

During one memorable evening, according to a 1934 piece in the Los Angeles Times, Frankenstein stopped the show when he “clambered over the piano and up on the stage to do an impromptu cake walk.”

Frankenstein (1873-1934) was born in Chicago to Samuel and Dora (née Milloslowsky) Frankenstein. At age 15, he began his musical career by playing violin in public parks “under the auspices of the West Chicago Park Commission.” He became a member of the Illinois National Guard Band and later was an assistant to its director, having been put in charge of the string section. He served as a musical director to several organizations in Memphis in the 1890s, and a year after first coming to Los Angeles in 1897 to play a date here, he was offered the job of musical director at the Orpheum Theater, a job he held for 30 years.

Conductor Abraham F. Frankenstein (left) with the Los Angeles Police Band. Photo courtesy Western States Jewish History

At the theater, where he was known as “Frank,” according to WSJH, silent-film actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Charlie Murray “would sit in the front row and talk to Frankenstein between acts.”

By July 1906, the Los Angeles Herald reported that “Prof. A.F. Frankenstein, leader of the Orpheum orchestra, is now able to boast the largest theater band in Los Angeles and one of the best” and added that “since the Orpheum orchestra has been strengthened, more and more people remain in their seats during the intermission to hear the selections.”

On a summer’s Sunday evening. you might also hear Frankenstein and his band playing as you skated round the Panorama roller skating rink on Main Street, or playing a gig at Al Levy’s cafe at Third and Main.

In June 1903, if you went to Congregation B’nai B’rith, which then was at the corner of Ninth and Hope streets, to attend its confirmation, you could hear Frankenstein playing a violin solo during the blessing of the confirmands by Rabbi Sigmund Hecht.

In 1913, working with lyrics written by men’s clothier F.B. Silverwood — founder of Silverwood’s men’s stores — Frankenstein composed the music for what became, in 1951, the Golden State’s official song, “I Love You, California.”

On Sept. 16, 1914, the Oakland Tribune reported, tongue-in-cheek, that “I Love You, California” rang so harmoniously in the ears of Miss Gertrude Miller Scott that she decided to marry the composer.”(His first marriage, to Loretta B. Langdon, in 1892 when he was around 19, ended in about 1912.) However, after having two sons, Fred and Albert, the song wasn’t ringing so sweetly. Following an ugly and very public court battle, during which the Los Angeles Times reported that the theater orchestra leader drew a picture of “his young and attractive wife playing fast and loose with his affections,” a divorce was granted in 1920.

Locally, Frankenstein also organized bands for both the Los Angeles police and fire departments, which on New Year’s Day in 1923, joined together to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade. In 1913, Frankenstein was appointed to the Los Angeles Fire Commission, and after serving from 1925 to 1926, he became the commission’s president. Enjoying the perks of office, and in an era before such things were outlawed, when Frankenstein’s relatives would come out from Chicago for a visit, noted WSJH, “He would send a fire department limousine to provide them with transportation.”

In 1929, with the growing need for sound in movies, Frankenstein became a music supervisor for MGM Studios. However, that portion of his movie career was short lived; in November 1934, he died in an automobile accident. In the funeral announcement, the Los Angeles Times referred to him as “one of the most colorful characters in theatrical history.” Although he was eulogized as a “tough taskmaster” at his funeral, under the joint auspices of the Knights Templar (associated with Freemasonry) and the Christian Scientists, to which other Jews of this era had been attracted as well, it was also noted that “he never missed a cue in thirty-one years.”