Monday, March 29, 2010
Up with Downey
One of our favorite L.A. personalities is Charles Phoenix, the self-proclaimed “histo-tainer” who makes local history fun and entertaining (hence the sobriquet “histo-tainer”). Charles collects and shows other people’s retro photographic slides, plus leads fascinating tours of mid-century L.A. landmarks. We think he’s just wonderful!
On Saturday, Charles led his first tour of Downey, “America’s greatest space age suburban city.” I worked in Downey for a year in the mid-1990s, so knew a little about the town. But nothing prepared us for the sights we were about to experience on Charles’s “Up with Downey” tour.
Our first stop was Bob’s Big Boy, a recently refurbished coffee shop with drive-in service and a real 1950s feel. Originally Harvey’s Broiler and then Johnnie’s, the restaurant was illegally demolished a few years ago when the building and its parking lot served as a used car lot. Luckily, enough of the structure was saved that the current owner was able to rebuild it as a fabulous new Bob’s. We do love our Big Boy!
From there, we all piled into an orange school bus and visited the Downey Historical Society as well as the city’s oldest house (ca. 1886). We next toured the remains of the Los Angeles County’s “Poor Farm,” where the destitute helped grow provisions for several other county facilities, and the abandoned old Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center, where polio victims lived and convalesced during the first half of the 20th century. Here we sampled the Rancho’s famous “prune bread,” which apparently was a huge bestseller during the early 1900s. I was careful to eat only the bread portion, but Tim ate prunes and all (ack!).
Our next stop was the barn where the Downey Rose Float Association creates its magic every year for the Pasadena Rose Parade. Tim was mesmerized by the float mechanics, but I thought the thing looked like a gigantic mattress boxspring and so waited outside while everyone else oohed and aahed over next year’s design.
We took a quick stop at Beach market--a complete throwback to the “supermarkets” of our youth--before making our way to one of Downey’s main bedroom communities. Perhaps the most famous of the city’s former residents are pop-singers Richard and Karen Carpenter, who lived and owned property in Downey. We not only saw the house where Karen Carpenter grew-up and (sad to say) eventually died, but also the twin apartments she and her brother bought with their first royalties. Fittingly, they named the buildings after their first pop hits: “Close to You” and “Only Just Begun.”
A major coup for the Downey Historical Society was helping save the world’s oldest McDonald’s restaurant from the wrecking ball over ten years ago. Naturally we had to pay our respects. Tim and I resisted the urge to eat, but did enjoy the small McDonald’s museum right next door. We also adored our paper chef’s hats, decorated with McDonald’s vintage mascot, Speedee. Thank you, Charles!
As terrific as everything else was, Charles truly saved the best for last: the former North American Aviation plant, where the Apollo command modules were built during the 1960s and ‘70s. Now I am not a space fanatic, but I am extremely nostalgic about the Apollo missions and space exploration of my youth. Therefore, I was almost overcome when we got off the bus and walked behind a chain-link fence to view (and touch!) not one, but two (!!) life-sized command module “templates” (i.e., mockups) that were used to test various Apollo functions. We then visited the archives of the onsite Aerospace Legacy Foundation, which seeks to preserve L.A’s aviation heritage. It was the perfect ending to an absolutely wonderful day.