There’s a ritual I never fail to observe when traveling to Los Angeles on business. I’ve done it for years now. Once I land, usually at LAX, grab my rental car and hit the road, I call home to let everyone know I arrived safely (transcontinental flight, you know), and at some point in the conversation I exclaim “I love L.A.!” in my best, most frazzled Randy Newman voice. It’s the title line from his 1983 hit song, and sometimes I’ll throw it in more than once. It’s an old shtick, but my wife still humors me each time.
And I really do love it. Not because I’m driving a convertible (just an “intermediate” car, which is rental car company language for “yogurt cup on wheels”) or wearing a Hawaiian shirt (“business casual” isn’t that casual, I’m afraid) or accompanied by bikini-clad women (the call home would be awkward to say the least), but because of all of the great-looking old retail buildings there: Spanish-style, mid-century modern, bizarre and uncategorizable, you name it. Sure, scads of them have been torn down over the years, but there’s still a lot to see - simply because so many were built there in the first place.
Thankfully, much of this is well-documented in still photographs, but I can’t help but wonder what it all must have looked like from the windshield perspective in its heyday. The amazing film clip above, from 1954 (sincere thanks to Julie for bringing it to my attention) is the closest thing I’ve found to that. Only 1:50 long, it provides a great, if fleeting, full-color snapshot of the City of Angels at an exciting point in the early postwar era.
I don’t know the origin of this particular clip, but it was likely made for a commercial purpose of some type. It’s a nice example of a genre known today as “ephemeral films” – educational films for classroom use or promotional movies produced for tourism bureaus, trade associations or corporations. They were glowing salutes to The American Way - progress and prosperity, the natural result of virtue, ingenuity and hard work. These films provide a fascinating, if not complete, slice of life from those times. And they always seemed to feature bouncy, optimistic soundtracks with plucking strings and insanely peppy woodwinds. I’m tempted to think that music like this just played in the air in those days, and could be heard whenever you stepped outside. (Someone, please tell me this was true!)
The local icons are well represented here - starting out with the approach to downtown L.A., we see the famous City Hall in a perfect “Dragnet establishing shot”, followed by the Angels Flight inclined railway in the Bunker Hill area of town. Then on to some of the main drags, including South Broadway in downtown L.A., Wilshire Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, where a crowd is lined up outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (only the side of the building is shown – the Kodak theatre now sits in that spot next door, square atop the intersection of Hollywood and Orchid) for a showing of “The Robe”, one of those films the late movie palace historian Ben Hall would have called “the latest version of the Bible according to Cinemascope”.
And then (you knew we’d get around to this, didn’t you?) comes the really fun stuff, as far as those who regularly visit this site are concerned. In addition to the “postcard scenes” described above, the film depicts some of the L.A. area’s most noteworthy retail properties of the day, which by default means some of the most noteworthy anywhere. A few notes:
Two years earlier the intersection of Crenshaw and Santa Barbara Avenue (renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in the 1980’s) was home to only trees, grass and assorted wildlife, but the nearby population was beginning to boom. When The May Company announced plans to build a large branch store there, the Broadway reciprocated with plans for a huge Crenshaw location of its own, with a strip of some 15 supporting stores in tow, right across the street. Among the other tenants were Woolworth’s, Lerner Shops, Owl Rexall Drugs, Silverwoods (a downtown L.A.-based men’s clothing store) and a detached Von’s supermarket.
The design of the center was the work of architect Albert B. Gardner, who also had a hand in designing the circa-1928 City Hall seen at the beginning of the clip. One of the very largest shopping centers in the country at the time it opened, Broadway-Crenshaw yielded some important lessons for future retail development. I’ve summarized a few of them from Richard Longstreth’s great book “City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950” which devotes several pages to the center: For one, the head-to-head competition that both May Co. and The Broadway were dreading turned out to be a net plus, an early example of the drawing power of multiple large department stores in close proximity. Secondly, there was no need for the “duplicate storefronts” along the street line. Most customers drove to the center and used the parking lot, so “sidewalk shoppers” accounted for a low percentage of sales. Future shopping centers like this, for the most part, were slid to the middle of the parking lot. Third, Broadway-Crenshaw really needed a second large anchor to balance the traffic flow to the other stores. (The May Co. store didn’t count in that regard, of course.) This helped lead to the opposite ends or “dumbbell” configuration for 2-anchor malls seen countless times in the ensuing years. It also became clear that anchor department stores of this type could handle, and really needed, far more than 15 supporting stores.
The shopping center is now known as Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, which encompasses both the former Broadway and May Company properties. The Broadway store building still exists as the best-looking Walmart that will ever be, while the May Co. store is now a Macy’s. The smaller stores were torn down and replaced years ago. The photo above (same pic, two different “zoom levels”) is from the 1951 book “Shopping Centers – Design and Operation” by Geoffrey Baker and Bruno Funaro, a vital early text on the subject.The Von’s (apostrophe long since dropped) supermarket at Crenshaw Center was not designed by Mr. Gardner, but by another L.A.-based architectural heavyweight, Stiles Clements. Mr. Clements had already done a great deal of work for Ralphs, one of Von’s main competitors, with designs ranging from exquisite Spanish-styled markets to some of the most striking streamlined buildings ever seen in retail. In later years, Clements played a key role in refining Sears’ distinctive “West Coast look”.
Lauded in an August 24, 1950 Los Angeles Times article as being “Rated the World’s Largest Grocery”, the store was indeed huge for the times at over 58,000 square feet (roughly half of that selling space), and it featured a mural depicting scenes of California history along the entire back wall, painted by artist Bert Makos. This photo also comes from the Baker and Funaro book cited above. Note the windmill on the corner - the beloved trademark of Van de Kamp’s, operator of supermarket bakery departments all over SoCal as well as their own coffee/bakery shops. Then, a brief glimpse of an early fifties Safeway store from an unidentified location. (I first assumed it was the nearby 39th and Crenshaw location that opened in 1952, but an opening day photo in the Los Angeles Times proved otherwise.) This store is typical of those Safeway was opening in many locations at that time, before the yellow-pyloned exteriors of the mid-fifties and the Marina family of designs launched at decade’s end. With over 10,000 feet of selling space, these stores must have seemed immense compared to the small, white-painted masonry units the company favored (note the first photo here) just a few years earlier.
The similarly-designed store pictured above was located in Lancaster, California. This photo appears here by the kind courtesy of Jacques Gautreaux, and is part of his great collection of retail photos from northern L.A. County’s Antelope Valley, taken in 1966.
A relatively minor entry in the SoCal retail history books is long-gone independent supermarket chain McDaniel’s Markets, which featured a jaunty Scotsman as their mascot and a tartan pattern as a key design element in their ads and on stores. By mid-1957, McDaniel’s had six stores, located in North Hollywood, Beverly Hills, East L.A. (famous as the birthplace of Cheech Marin), Maywood and Baldwin Park, according to the Los Angeles Times. That year, McDaniel’s bought out the six-store Walker’s Market chain, and between those stores and additional units built over the years, the company eventually grew to almost 25 stores.
In the early 60’s McDaniel’s went bankrupt, selling their choicest locations to Food Giant Markets. I wonder if some creative sloganeering would helped, like “Visit the Plaid Pylon, where we pile on the deals!” or “More buying power under the Tartan Tower!” (Or maybe it would have hastened their demise, you say.) The photo above, an artist’s rendering of the Oxnard, California location, appears here courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Owl, Rexall’s major west coast banner, was closely controlled by the parent company, as was its eastern counterpart Liggett, and hundreds of Rexall drug stores were operated under these two names. While neither Owl nor Liggett were strictly confined to the coasts, most Rexall stores in between (in what hipsters like you and I call “flyover country”) were more likely to sport one of multitudes of franchisee names on the familiar orange-and-blue signs.
The four-day grand opening kicked off on September 15, 1947 and at the podium, along with Dart himself, was California Governor Earl Warren (this was six years before he was appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and had better things to do, like reshaping American life), Wisconsin Governor Oscar Rennebohm (Because he owned 14 Rexall drugstores in Madison, that’s why!), the mayor and the sheriff of Los Angeles, executives from Eastman Kodak, Coca-Cola and Lambert Pharmacal (later known as Warner-Lambert) and other dignitaries too numerous to name here.
And there were celebrities galore, owing to Rexall’s prominence as a national sponsor and advertiser in those years when radio was the undisputed media king and many people went to the movies every single week – Jimmy Durante emceed each of the four days, and there were appearances by Dorothy Lamour, Red Skelton, Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, Pat O’Brien, Alan Young of future “Mister Ed” TV fame, Lynn Bari - a beautiful 20th Century Fox contract actress who deserved greater fame, and legendary newspaper gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. (Gosh, you’d think they would’ve put some more thought into this. I mean, drugstores don’t open every day, you know.)
Today the location is home to a CVS Pharmacy, Marshalls and a number of other retail tenants. The corner facade is still curved, leading me to believe the building shell may be original, but I don’t know that for a fact.
Thrifty’s largest store yet, it was part of a shopping center developed by the company that also boasted a new Alpha Beta supermarket as a key tenant. As with the Owl Rexall store above, the store was built in conjunction with a new home office for the company (Thrifty was the third largest drug chain in America at that time) on the property.
The Baldwin Hills Thrifty attained instant landmark status due to its massive sign tower, affectionately named the “Trilon”. At 65 feet tall with three 15 by 35 foot faces (Weighing in at 12 tons, according to the Los Angeles Times. Did somebody throw this thing on a scale?) and a unique, funky steel structure design that brings to (my) mind some of Alexander Calder’s “stabile” sculpture pieces, the Trilon certainly served its purpose as an attention-getter for Thrifty.
The shopping center’s “premiere” (I just thought of that. Nice, huh?) took place on November 13, 1952 with actress Anne Baxter performing the ceremonial duties, an experience I’m sure she ranked right up there with her recent Oscar nomination for “All About Eve”. (Well, kinda sure, that is…) The next evening, singer/actor Tony Martin performed live at the Thrifty store. Mr. Martin, still kicking at age 99 and performing as recently as 2010, is one of the last survivors among America’s great crooners. He was married to Cyd Charisse, the great star of such classic MGM musicals as Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings, (shown all the time on TCM – if you haven’t seen them, you should) for 60 years until her passing in 2008.
The sign, which survived the infamous 1963 Baldwin Hills dam break and flood, still stands while the accompanying building bears scant resemblance to the original. It now sports the name of Rite Aid, Thrifty’s successor. The picture above is a detail from the store’s grand opening ad.
Tested out on a smaller basis in Ontario, California a few months previously, the Big Owl opened on November 1, 1951 at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Kittredge Street in North Hollywood, just a couple of blocks up from the giant new Sears store on Victory Boulevard. The opening-day celebrity here was Lorraine Cugat, singer and (soon to be ex-) wife of bandleader Xavier Cugat. The store really did foreshadow some key elements of the combination store/superstore idea, with “a See’s candy shop (Is it legal to leave the State of California without a box of See’s candy? I don’t want to find out.), Van de Kamp’s bakery, dry cleaning shop, a liquor, tobacco, pen and camera room (all you need, right?), a gift shop and a 12-chair barber shop with a jet fire engine chair for the youngsters”, along with “a watch and jewelry repair shop, a check-cash service, a bill-paying service and a soda fountain grill.”, according to a pre-opening write-up in the Los Angeles Times. To my knowledge, they never opened another one.
The clip’s closing scenes reinforce the “America, land of plenty” theme, starting with a really nice shot of a grocery store checkout lane in action. It’s interesting to note the still-familiar brand names as they whizz past the wood grain-painted metal cash register. What’s striking is how small the package sizes were in that era before “economy size” became the rule. Ironically, with manufacturers reducing package sizes as a response to the current economy, we just might be trending that way again.
From there, there’s a glimpse of the Ford Assembly Plant in Long Beach, followed by one of its General Motors counterpart in Van Nuys, two important cogs in the economic engine that helped make all of this prosperity possible. Both have long since closed, and sadly we won’t be trending that way again. Then it’s back on the open road, a fine place to be indeed.
I think next time I’m out that way I’ll try to whistle a few bars of the “insanely peppy woodwinds” theme. I’ve been practicing. Or maybe I should just stick with Randy Newman.