Santa Monica Mountains

SO CAL GHOSTS

Paraphrasing Shakespeare–Hamlet said to Horatio: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I have always been interested in the supernatural; I’ve had some experiences and know many friends who have had them as well. It’s a great topic for articles and stories. I’ve written a short book on Amazon about a true fascinating positive encounter—Angels in Uniform—and I interviewed a man who was living in a haunted house. The interview, upon which I based this blog, was published in the Daily News newspaper of Los Angeles when I had a column.

Glen Peterson had bought a dilapidated “castle” in the Santa Monica Mountains and began restoring it years ago. Resembling a German castle on a hill with its bell tower, gables, decorative wood beams, courtyard and guest house, the home was built in 1939 by Theodore Spurkuhl, a Paramount Studios director of photography known for his pioneering use of spotlights. Spurkuhl worked with many of the film greats: Ronald Coleman, James Cagney and Fred MacMurray, for instance, and was noted for his work on “Beau Geste” starring Gary Cooper.

SparkuhlHome

Sparkuhl Home

Spurkuhl put a great deal of energy into building the home. Since it was wartime, he even added a secret room in case the Japanese invaded or the Germans won the war. His descendants, who visited the site while Glen was restoring it, thought the cinematographer might have put too much intensity into the building project since he died in 1940.

Before Glen bought it, the home was owned by actor Nick Nolte, who purchased it in 1975 during the filming of the TV miniseries, “Rich Man, Poor Man.” The other primary actor in the series, Peter Strauss, had also bought property nearby. Coincidentally, Strauss’ property was later sold by Glen, who had been a real estate agent, to the National Park Service. This 1970s miniseries was featured on a PBS documentary “Pioneers of Television” not long ago.

The 70s were wild and crazy for Nolte. I remember seeing his old yellow Cadillac broken down by the side of a mountain road one day. Nolte and his friends partied quite a bit and the house suffered a good deal of damage. It was finally abandoned to birds of all types, squirrels and various other animals. It was a mess of animal droppings and the like when Glen began his restoration.

One evening after the house was beautifully finished, Glen was home alone enjoying a quiet evening. While listening to a new Terence Trent Darby recording and near the end of the song, Glen heard a loud knocking on the back door. He checked both inside and out and found no one. Back inside he restarted the song. The knocking began again at the exact same place.

This time he checked the windows, “I had repaired the windows just that morning,” Glen recalled, specifically to keep them from opening due to strong winds. They were all still closed, and he began the recording once more.

Glen played the song eight times, and he told me, “the pounding kept happening at the same time each time.” Every time it happened, he checked for a reason for the knocking, but found none. On the ninth try, the record played through to the end, and there were no further knocking sounds.

The mysterious last two lines of the song that finally played were: “No grave can hold my body down; this land is still my home.”

LA – LOTS OF FILM LOCATIONS

Old Army truck from MASH

Old Army truck souvenir from MASH TV series in Santa Monica Mountains – Malibu Creek State Park
In Southern California, the entertainment capital of the world, it’s not unusual to see large white trucks parked on local streets—film crews have come for a day or two of filming. It could be for a commercial, a TV show or perhaps even a glamorous exciting movie! On my way to Trader Joe’s to get groceries recently, I saw them lined up about a block long on the street bordering a local park. I get a kick out of seeing the long trucks full of dressing rooms and imagining who will use them. When the rooms are small, it’s not going to be anyone famous.

Not long ago, one of the local car washes looked like it was open for business, but they were using it for some kind of film shoot. Since the car wash didn’t want to lose its regular clientele (it was on the weekend), a man and woman were sitting near the entrance handing out free washes because of the inconvenience. Recently, an Italian restaurant had cameras outside for some kind of production. It’s an older restaurant that was remodeled not long ago, and that factor may have made it more appealing for filming.

The Los Angeles Times prints a map and a list of “permitted shoots” for the week in the Business section. Not long ago NBC was filming in Studio City, and a couple of other productions were being shot in other parts of the San Fernando Valley. And then there are the commercials, like Purina One being made in Encino, and Mazda whose shoot was in Griffith Park.

One of the best, almost perpetual film sets is a natural one: Malibu Creek State Park, 7,000 acres located off Malibu Canyon Road in the Conejo Valley. I was living with my family in that general area when it opened to the public in 1976, and we were eager to hike through it. The State of California combined the old 20th Century Fox movie ranch, extensive property owned by Bob Hope and 250 acres belonging to Ronald Reagan from 1951-1967. The valley and surrounding Santa Monica Mountains were once the territory of the Chumash Indians and later to Spanish settlers.

On one of our first family hikes, there were still some movie sets around—the dome-shaped homes of the apes in “Planet of the Apes,” which starred Charlton Heston, for instance. What looked like a shallow concrete pool was the miniature set for “Tora, Tora, Tora,” a movie about World War II. The lovely home used for Cary Grant’s film, “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House” is still there and used for an administrative office for California State Parks.

Some of the many movies made in that scenic area included: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The park was supposed to be South America and one of the characters actors in it, Strother Martin, lived nearby in Malibu Lake. Elvis Presley made “Love Me Tender” there, and in the classic 1941 film, “How Green Was My Valley,” the area posed as Wales.

A more recent film made by Mel Brooks: “Robin Hood, Men in Tights” was filmed there. I met Mel Brooks shortly after his film came out. I was doing an interview in Santa Monica at the Pritikin Institute. He and his wife, Anne Bancroft, were having dinner in the Pritikin banquet hall and I introduced myself. I couldn’t resist telling Mel how much I liked his funny movies, particularly the Robin Hood movie. He had one particular joke in the film that applied to the area’s history: the actors used a real fox as a messenger and as it ran away, the line was, if I remember correctly: “There goes the 20th Century Fox!”

One of the most popular shows on television, “MASH” was filmed in Malibu Creek State Park. The area must have resembled Korea. I missed the opportunity to ask my dad, who had fought in the Korean War, if he had ever watched “MASH.” The TV set is now long gone, but they left behind an old Army truck, which stands as a souvenir in the area that was once the set.

GHOSTLY ENCOUNTERS IN SO CAL

Paraphrasing Shakespeare–Hamlet said to Horatio: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I have always been interested in the supernatural; I’ve had some experiences and know many friends who have had them as well. It’s a great topic for articles and stories.  I’ve written a short book on Amazon  about a true fascinating positive encounter—Angels in Uniform—and I interviewed a man who was living in a haunted house. The interview, upon which I based this blog,  was published in the Daily News newspaper when I had a column.

Glen Peterson had bought a dilapidated “castle” in the Santa Monica Mountains and began restoring it years ago. Resembling a German castle on a hill with its bell tower, gables, decorative wood beams, courtyard and guest house, the home was built in 1939 by Theodore Spurkuhl, a Paramount Studios director of photography known for his pioneering use of spotlights. Spurkuhl worked with many of the film greats: Ronald Coleman, James Cagney and Fred MacMurray, for instance, and was noted for his work on “Beau Geste” starring Gary Cooper.

SparkuhlHome

Spurkuhl put a great deal of energy into building the home. Since it was wartime, he even added a secret room in case the Japanese invaded or the Germans won the war. His descendants, who visited the site while Glen was restoring it, thought the cinematographer might have put too much intensity into the building project since he died in 1940.

Before Glen bought it, the home was owned by actor Nick Nolte, who purchased it in 1975 during the filming of the TV miniseries, “Rich Man, Poor Man.” The other primary actor in the series, Peter Strauss, had also bought property nearby. Coincidentally, Strauss’ property was later sold by Glen, who had been a real estate agent, to the National Park Service. This 1970s miniseries was featured on a PBS documentary “Pioneers of Television” not long ago.

The 70s were wild and crazy for Nolte. I remember seeing his old yellow Cadillac broken down by the side of a mountain road one day. Nolte and his friends partied quite a bit and the house suffered a good deal of damage. It was finally abandoned to birds of all types, squirrels and various other animals. It was a mess of animal droppings and the like when Glen began his restoration.

One evening after the house was beautifully finished, Glen was home alone enjoying a quiet evening. While listening to a new Terence Trent Darby recording and near the end of the song, Glen heard a loud knocking on the back door. He checked both inside and out and found no one. Back inside he restarted the song. The knocking began again at the exact same place.

This time he checked the windows, “I had repaired the windows just that morning,” Glen recalled, specifically to keep them from opening due to strong winds. They were all still closed, and he began the recording once more.

Glen played the song eight times, and he told me, “the pounding kept happening at the same time each time.” Every time it happened, he checked for a reason for the knocking, but found none. On the ninth try, the record played through to the end, and there were no further knocking sounds.

The mysterious last two lines of the song that finally played were: “No grave can hold my body down; this land is still my home.”

LA — FULL OF CAMERAS AND FILM LOCATIONS

Old Army truck from MASH

Old Army truck souvenir from MASH TV series in Santa Monica Mountains – Malibu Creek State Park

In Southern California, the entertainment capital of the world, it’s not unusual to see large white trucks parked on local streets—film crews have come for a day or two of filming. It could be for a commercial, a TV show or perhaps even a glamorous exciting movie! On my way to Trader Joe’s to get groceries recently, I saw them lined up about a block long on the street bordering a local park. I get a kick out of seeing the long trucks full of dressing rooms and imagining who will use them. When the rooms are small, it’s not going to be anyone famous.

Not long ago, one of the local car washes looked like it was open for business, but they were using it for some kind of film shoot. Since the car wash didn’t want to lose its regular clientele (it was on the weekend), a man and woman were sitting near the entrance handing out free washes because of the inconvenience. Recently, an Italian restaurant had cameras outside for some kind of production. It’s an older restaurant that was remodeled not long ago, and that factor may have made it more appealing for filming.

The Los Angeles Times prints a map and a list of “permitted shoots” for the week in the Business section. Not long ago NBC was filming in Studio City, and a couple of other productions were being shot in other parts of the San Fernando Valley. And then there are the commercials, like Purina One being made in Encino, and Mazda whose shoot was in Griffith Park.

One of the best, almost perpetual film sets is a natural one: Malibu Creek State Park, 7,000 acres located off Malibu Canyon Road in the Conejo Valley. I was living with my family in that general area when it opened to the public in 1976, and we were eager to hike through it. The State of California combined the old 20th Century Fox movie ranch, extensive property owned by Bob Hope and 250 acres belonging to Ronald Reagan from 1951-1967. The valley and surrounding Santa Monica Mountains were once the territory of the Chumash Indians and later to Spanish settlers.

On one of our first family hikes, there were still some movie sets around—the dome-shaped homes of the apes in “Planet of the Apes,” which starred Charlton Heston, for instance. What looked like a shallow concrete pool was the miniature set for “Tora, Tora, Tora,” a movie about World War II. The lovely home used for Cary Grant’s film, “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House” is still there and used for an administrative office for California State Parks.

Some of the many movies made in that scenic area included: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The park was supposed to be South America and one of the characters actors in it, Strother Martin, lived nearby in Malibu Lake. Elvis Presley made “Love Me Tender” there, and in the classic 1941 film, “How Green Was My Valley,” the area posed as Wales.

A more recent film made by Mel Brooks: “Robin Hood, Men in Tights” was filmed there. I met Mel Brooks shortly after his film came out. I was doing an interview in Santa Monica at the Pritikin Institute. He and his wife, Anne Bancroft, were having dinner in the Pritikin banquet hall and I introduced myself. I couldn’t resist telling Mel how much I liked his funny movies, particularly the Robin Hood movie. He had one particular joke in the film that applied to the area’s history: the actors used a real fox as a messenger and as it ran away, the line was, if I remember correctly: “There goes the 20th Century Fox!”

One of the most popular shows on television, “MASH” was filmed in Malibu Creek State Park. The area must have resembled Korea. I missed the opportunity to ask my dad, who had fought in the Korean War, if he had ever watched “MASH.” The TV set is now long gone, but they left behind an old Army truck, which stands as a souvenir in the area that was once the set.

LOS ANGELES — TAME OR WILD?

Los Angeles is full of wild critters: coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, skunks, raccoons, and mule deer, for instance. I’ve been here since 1965, but am always surprised about the natural aspects of Los Angeles. Many of our visitors don’t realize the scope of life here. We have a population of nearly 13 million, for instance. Interestingly, our statistics indicate that we only have 7,500 people per square mile, while New York City has 27,500 and Chicago has 11,800 folks per square mile. Of course our land area, just in the metropolitan LA area, is 4,850 square miles and that doesn’t include some of the outlying areas.

Being surrounded by mountains and lots of open space, Southern California is alive with wild animals (and I don’t mean young “cool cats,” etc., in Hollywood). Black bears come down from the mountains, especially in spring, for visits. They take a break in pools and hot tubs, break into refrigerators and freezers in garages, and easily discover when trash day is scheduled so they can steal food. If we two-legged animals spot them, chances are they’ll head for a tree when pursued. Animal control agents might use tranquilizer guns before they drive these fuzzy creatures back into the mountains. It doesn’t stop the bears; one of them that was relocated 50 miles away came back again the next year. The neighbors in the area he preferred even had a nickname for him — Meatball — since he preferred Costco frozen meatballs from a freezer he broke into. He finally had to be relocated to the San Diego County Sanctuary. Before that he had become quite the media star.

Malibu Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains  is full of wildlife.

Malibu Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains is full of wildlife. Photo by Heidi Giraud

Mountain lions are prevalent and most parks and hiking trails will have signs warning people to make themselves look bigger with arms extended, for instance, when encountering one. An unlucky biker was a target and died from a mountain lion attack a few years ago. These critters are very resourceful – one of them negotiated the flood channels (formally known as rivers) near Santa Monica and ended up in a small shopping center one morning; a male mountain lion found his way across five freeways to make his home in spacious Griffith Park. He was tagged P-22 and was in the news. He was videoed strolling along streets in the Hollywood Hills about 5 a.m. Was he looking for food or a mate? Nobody had a chance to interview him!

Behind a fence, a Coyote checks things out

Behind a fence, a Coyote checks things out

Coyotes are everywhere. Out in Malibu Lake in the Santa Monica Mountains, you can expect to see coyotes strolling around and perhaps peering through your glass patio door. Any residential areas near the mountains will enjoy coyote song during the night—their howling choruses remind me of a scary movie or a Stephen King book! Residents keep their cats and little dogs inside if they don’t want them to become a meal. Mule deer wander the hills as do raccoons and rattlesnakes. I had a brief encounter with a raccoon a few blocks from my apartment. He may have come from the nearby flood channel, which is blocked off from humans (who still insist on trying to ride the river when there’s a major rain storm, despite the danger).

The skies are full of hawks of various types and owls. When I do see hawks making lazy circles in the sky, I am reminded of the song from the musical “Oklahoma.” I had no idea wild owls could have such a wide wing span or look so imposing until I saw one on a mountain road devouring a recent kill. Sometimes, we can spot a flock of exotic parrots in the San Fernando Valley. There are 13 species of wild parrots in LA. Apparently they were once pets and were let go for one reason or another. During the 1961 fire in Bel Air (Nixon had a home there, which burned), firemen let pet parrots go because there was no time to save them. Others may have come from the Busch Gardens Park in Van Nuys, which was closed down in the late 1970s as the Anheuser-Busch brewery grew. The bird sanctuary was the last to go, but no one seems to know how so many parrots got away. Perhaps it was too much trouble to find them homes.

Seagulls, which prey on beachgoers for food, also fly in from the nearby ocean to see what tasty morsels can be had inland. While having a nice meal at Gladstone’s off Pacific Coast Highway on the beach, I’ve had a roll snatched out of my hand by a seagull that swooped by.

FIESTY FEMALE FIREFIGHTERS

Fire season in California can start at any time, season or not. There was a fairly large one not long ago in Riverside and another one even more recently. Men aren’t the only ones who fight the blazes. I discovered some out-of-the-ordinary firefighters when I wrote a story about  Malibu Conservation Camp 13 some years ago. A film director friend thought the story was so interesting that it would make an exciting movie.

Malibu#13

Nestled within the Santa Monica Mountains off a lightly trafficked road in Encinal Canyon is the camp, which housed at that time about 100 women, who were convicted felons serving time for embezzlement, drug use and drug sales. To serve their time there, they are classified as trustworthy; as a minimum security facility, the camp is run on the honor system. It’s not meant to be a vacation; these gals, in their 20s, have to stay in top physical shape to fight the fires they are called out on. Who needs a gym when you have to climb up hilly terrain daily, from 1.2 miles to 2.6 miles, and do it in 25 to 58 minutes? Crews of 14 women inmates stay “on call” 24 hours a day, and they have to respond within five minutes after a fire call is received. This is serious business.

At the time I interviewed the camp commander, and he pointed out the difference between male and female prisoners: “We don’t have the gang affiliation problems. Women get along better; they’re inclined to do a good job with the least amount of problems.” It’s intriguing for me to look back at this story at a time when women are becoming more powerful in the workplace and actually running huge companies. When these female firefighters have served their time, their excellent training qualified them to eventually work with the California Department of Forestry.

For a woman who has to serve time, getting sent to a camp in the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains is a great alternative. It seemed a bit like a summer camp, and all was not work. They had a library, TVs, a hobby-craft program and a lot of support for recovering drug users. Visitors are allowed on holidays and weekends, and those who come to visit enjoy a scenic drive, and good mountain air mixed with moisture from the nearby Pacific Ocean.

On my way back from my interview, I still vividly remember a very large owl in the middle of the empty two-lane road. He was in the midst of devouring something—perhaps a rat or other small animal. I slowed down to appreciate him. He was not intimidated by me in my small car. Moments later he spread his amazingly large wings and flew away into the trees.

 

 

GHOSTLY ENCOUNTERS

Paraphrasing Shakespeare–Hamlet said to Horatio: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I have always been interested in the supernatural; I’ve had some experiences and know many friends who have had them as well. It’s a great topic for articles and stories.  Interesting note to add to this blog post…It was written on February 6 and, I thought, it was published. I provided a link on Facebook and sent out reminders. Were ghosts at work on this blog? Turns out it was still a DRAFT and not published, no matter what I’d announced. There are several steps involved in putting out a blog, and I was sure I’d paid attention to them all. So, Hamlet was right! At any rate, here it is again for those who haven’t read it.

I’ve written a short story (except my short stories are generally novellas and anything but short) about a true fascinating positive encounter—Angels in Uniform—and I interviewed a man who was living in a haunted house. The interview was published in the Daily News newspaper when I had a column.

Glen Peterson had bought a dilapidated “castle” in the Santa Monica Mountains and began restoring it  years ago. Resembling a German castle on a hill with its bell tower, gables, decorative wood beams, courtyard and guest house, the home was built in 1939 by Theodore Spurkuhl, a Paramount Studios director of photography known for his pioneering use of spotlights. Spurkuhl worked with many of the film greats: Ronald Coleman, James Cagney and Fred MacMurray, for instance, and was noted for his work on “Beau Geste” starring Gary Cooper.

SparkuhlHome

Spurkuhl put a great deal of energy into building the home. Since it was wartime, he even added a secret room in case the Japanese invaded or the Germans won the war. His descendants, who visited the site while Glen was restoring it, thought the cinematographer might have put too much intensity into the building project since he died in 1940.

Before Glen bought it, the home was owned by actor Nick Nolte, who purchased it in 1975 during the filming of the TV miniseries, “Rich Man, Poor Man.” The other actor in the series, Peter Strauss, had also bought property nearby. Coincidentally, Strauss’ property was later sold by Glen, who had been a real estate agent, to the National Park Service. This miniseries was quite recently featured on a PBS documentary “Pioneers of Television.”

The 70s were wild and crazy for Nolte. I remember seeing his old yellow Cadillac broken down by the side of a mountain road one day. Nolte and his friends partied quite a bit and the house suffered a good deal of damage. It was finally abandoned to birds of all types, squirrels and various other animals. It was a mess of animal droppings and the like when Glen began his restoration.

One evening after the house was beautifully finished, Glen was home alone enjoying a quiet evening. While listening to a new Terence Trent Darby recording and near the end of the song, Glen heard a loud knocking on the back door. He checked both inside and out and found no one. Back inside he restarted the song. The knocking began again at the exact same place.

This time he checked the windows, “I had repaired the windows just that morning,” Glen recalled, specifically to keep them from opening due to strong winds. They were all still closed, and he began the recording once more.

Glen played the song eight times, and “the pounding kept happening at the same time each time.” Every time it happened, he checked for a reason for the knocking, but found none. On the ninth try, the record played through to the end, and there were no further knocking sounds.

The mysterious last two lines of the song that finally played were: “No grave can hold my body down; this land is still my home.”

MALIBU – WHO KNOWS WHAT CELEB MIGHT SHOW UP?

For years I lived a Santa Monica Mountains’ canyon’s length away from Malibu, about a twenty-minute drive. Mountains and the resulting canyons run along the length of California, which gives us our unusual variety of weather—degrees of warmth and moisture can be vastly different if you’re at the beach, winding through the canyons, or living in the hotter valleys, which are mostly flat. Los Angeles is the only city with a mountain range running through it.

Malibu’s name derives from the Chumash Indian language since they were the original inhabitants of the ocean-side community a few hundred years ago.  The curving canyon roads that lead to the ocean are bordered with expensive homes and typical California greenery, which means anything money can buy and the availability of water. All of the beauty and luxury  is highly susceptible to the wildfires that occur every few years. Beauty comes at a price.

Having lots of disposable money is a requirement for living in Malibu, but those of us on budgets can at least visit for the day. Besides restaurants, shops, beaches and the famed Malibu Colony (a gated residential area that borders the ocean), there are the perks, if you’re not blind or oblivious, of seeing favorite actors or TV personalities.

Crosscreek Shopping Center, my preference for meandering and sometimes shopping, is probably the ideal place for sightings. Ali McGraw once designed the interior of a popular restaurant, which is currently Taverna Tony’s, a Greek spot. Not too long ago Mel Gibson was frequenting the bar there, and the tabloids reported the results.

I’ve been visiting that area since the 1970s when one of the shopping center’s main Spanish-style buildings was opened. My husband at the time was the LA County Engineer for the area, so we were asked to the opening night festivities featuring music, food and dancing. I enjoyed talking to actor Charlie Martin Smith, whose wife was opening a dance studio there. I had seen his recent movies “Never Cry Wolf,” and “Middle Age Crazy.”

Almost every time I went there in the ensuing years to browse bookstores, art galleries and to eat lunch, I spotted someone of movie or television fame. A girlfriend and I talked to Helen Hunt in the 1990s, complimenting her on the TV series, “Mad About You.”

Sitting outside an ice cream shop, I noticed a very welcoming and smiling Dick Van Dyke. I’ve regretted not saying hi ever since, especially since I knew his son Barry, who was active in my community of Agoura Hills.

A popular Italian restaurant attracts many celebrities. One afternoon Geena Davis, in a baseball cap and sweats, and leading her large poodle, sat with some of her friends at an adjacent table. She was a vivacious conversationalist from what I overheard, and the dog was well-behaved.

Geena Davis dressed up

Near that restaurant is a large grassy area with swings for children. I’ve seen TV host and comic Howie Mandell swing his kids, and Director Ron Howard, in his trademark baseball cap, walk by with a child on his shoulders.

My most exciting close encounter was with Shirley MacLaine on a late Sunday afternoon. My friend Carolyn and I were having lunch in an essentially empty restaurant when Shirley walked in with a young stocky blond man and took a table fairly close-by. She had on sunglasses and gave off an air of not wanting to be bothered. I surmised her companion was probably a personal assistant.

Since I was a fan of Shirley’s film work, not to mention all her books, I was yearning to go up and say something like, “I come from Virginia too!” Much more conservative than me, Carolyn strongly discouraged any action, so I had to content myself stealing a few glances. Shirley and the young man left the restaurant before we paid.

As we walked out, we decided to visit a favorite eclectic women’s boutique, Indiana Joan’s, which was right next door. There was Shirley again, this time buying some costume jewelry. I resisted my urges. Some time later, after browsing several more shops, Carolyn and I headed for the car. As we were walking through the small parking lot, here came Shirley and her fellow again. He was carrying her dry cleaning and their car wasn’t far from ours.

Shirley MacLaine

A FUNERAL AT FOREST LAWN, HOLLYWOOD

Movie stars are people too—they live, enjoy some fame and notoriety and eventually die, like we all do!

Character actors, like Strother Martin, are oftentimes the more approachable kind of person in the movie trade. He and his wife Helen had lived near where I lived and worked in the Conejo Valley (Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks) for years.

Strother and Helen were active in the community. Helen was an enthusiastic member of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District (TLVRCD), which dealt with preserving and conserving the cherished Santa Monica Mountains—the western boundary of the Conejo Valley. Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s first political job was his election to the Board of the TLVRCD: he was recruited to run because he had a ranch in the area in the 1950s . We all know what that position eventually led to!

Strother had an active career in film. Who can forget his famous words as the prison camp superintendent of “prisoner” Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke? “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” He and Newman did several movies together—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Slapshot among them.

Strother Martin in "Cool Hand Luke"

Considering himself a participating member of the community, Strother volunteered to be part of the local chamber of commerce’s Christmas celebration at the Calabasas Inn one year. I believe he read something from Dickens, and we all felt honored to hear his dulcet tones.

I was the editor of the Acorn, a local weekly newspaper, in the early 1980s and had decided to do an interview with Strother. He was an interesting subject, especially since he had made a movie not long before with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn: Rooster Cogburn. He gave me some publicity shots from the film and then mentioned he was due to host Saturday Night Live on NBC. It was April 1980 and it was one of his last jobs.

Shortly after my story was published, I got the news that Strother had had a fatal heart attack. He was only 61. Helen informed the members of the chamber of commerce about the funeral plans, and we were all invited to attend. As the local newspaper editor, I was an active member.

The service and burial were scheduled for the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery; this one is in the Hollywood hills, not the one where Michael Jackson was laid to rest. I distinctly remember following Ernest Borgnine’s expensive car into the cemetery. I knew it was him by the personalized license plate.

Sitting in the small chapel, we chamber members were surrounded by some of Hollywood’s elite. Trying not to stare, I noticed Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart, both favorites of mine. Paul Newman, I was told, couldn’t attend but had sent his daughter. It was strange to see the once vital and entertaining Strother in an open casket as we filed by for the obligatory viewing.

After the funeral, a few of us (no one famous) were invited back to the Martin’s house. Helen let us know she was surprised and honored when President Jimmy Carter called personally to give her his condolences.

For a few years afterward I would see Helen Martin, who kept herself busy with the community and the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District. One night I was invited to accompany her to a play at the Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center in downtown L.A. She drove us in her huge yellow Cadillac. At intermission, she introduced me to Strother’s former agent, whose name I don’t remember. I do recall he also represented Richard Dreyfuss, who had gotten married at the agent’s Beverly Hills home.

In Southern California it can be both odd and exciting to meet and perhaps be a small part of the lives of those you’ve admired on the silver screen.

Southern California Pioneer Walt Penland

Los Angeles just turned the ripe old age of 230! I imagine that fact will be a surprise to many who thought the film industry created everything. After all, being the entertainment, or should I say fantasy, capital means we can make ourselves what we fancy—from cowboys and aliens to sex symbol divas and millionaire studs, and everything in between.

I was fortunate to live in old ranch country (think late 19th to middle 20th century) before it became fully developed with one huge residential development after another. When I was running the Acorn, a local weekly newspaper in the Conejo Valley, I interviewed Walt Penland, who was born in Calabasas in 1905, attended the one-room schoolhouse there and lived the rest of his life in the same general area. For his 75th birthday, he was being honored as a community activist for his work in helping establish the local chamber of commerce, the water district and the school district. By the time Walt died not long after, the area was full of freeways, various school districts, with shopping centers almost everywhere.

When Walt was growing up, his parents, who had also been born in California, raised horses and farmed wheat and barley on over 1,200 acres of leased land, now the site for the exclusive Morrison Ranch Estates in Agoura Hills. The owner of the land was a fellow named Plummer who also owned the land that became the site for the famous Hollywood Bowl. Below is Walt Penland leaning on an old ranch building now long gone .

Walt was retired from the LA County Sheriff’s Department and was a fascinating storyteller; after all he’d seen lots of change. He married Dot, a local girl, when she was 16 and he was only 19. Dot’s father helped build the Malibu Lake Clubhouse in the Santa Monica Mountains and later became a caretaker of the grounds. Malibu Lake was surrounded by small vacation homes owned by such stars as Clark Gable, who would come to enjoy the fishing and hunting. More recently Malibu Lake has been a movie site for such films as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and “Must Love Dogs.”

Before his 32-year career as a deputy sheriff, Walt had done some farming, construction work and been a school bus driver. He had a Model T Ford touring car and drove Agoura’s few students (most of them ranch kids) over the steep Calabasas grade into the San Fernando Valley to attend Owensmouth High School (now Canoga Park High).

In their early married life, Walt and wife Dot rented little homes in the area for $5 to $15 a month. Nowadays, much of this same area is full of homes nearer the million dollar and up price tag.

Walt joined the Sheriff Department in 1930 and was assigned to the new station in Malibu in 1935. No longer part of law enforcement, that brick building still stands on Pacific Coast Highway and faces the Pacific Ocean. Getting to work was a challenge since the Santa Monica Mountains had to be traversed through one windy canyon road or another. During winter rains, Walt would have to drive miles out of his way. In extreme cases, he said, he’d have to leave his car at the Bel Air Country Club and walk the six miles down the coast to the station.

Radio cars were new in the early 1930s and transmission was a one-way affair. Deputies would frequently have to find the highest spot around (fairly easy in the mountains) to receive their messages.

The Agoura-Las Virgenes Chamber of Commerce gives a yearly recognition award to a deserving person in the community. It’s called the Walt and Dot Penland Award.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victoria Giraud

 

Author of Melaynie’s Masquerade

historical fiction – Amazon books

 

Editor — 85 books in all genres

 

Blogger — Words on My Mind

 

 

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