Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween 1963

Me and my sister as gypsies, 50 years ago

Happy All Hallow's Eve, everyone!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Collecting Swiss Chalet Dinnerware

Swiss Chalet and me

My mother, like most 1950s housewives, had a set of fancy China that she brought out for special occasions. For everyday meals, however, we ate off a pink set of plastic Melmac that I loved and vividly remember.

Then in the early ‘60s (1962, to be exact), Mom began buying plates and bowls offered as “premiums” at our local supermarket. During the postwar era, when consumerism was just starting to flourish, low-cost dinnerware and utensils were offered as a lure to get customers to shop at various stores. If you spent a certain amount on groceries, for instance, you could buy a box of that week’s featured dishes for, say, 25 cents. My mom eventually acquired a complete set of silverware, plus several ceramic plates and bowls. But she never completed the dinnerware set—I’m guessing because, even at just 25 cents a box, the cost was too prohibitive for our lower-middle-class family. Since the plates and bowls didn’t match any of our other dishes, I took them and the silverware with me when I moved out of the house 35 years ago.

Place setting for one

I still use the silverware, but never had much affection for the dinnerware. Basically, the dishes were white with a pattern of blue and green leaves arranged in a circle in the center of each piece. To me, they were more practical than attractive.

Distinctive Swiss Chalet design

But then, about 10 years ago, Tim and I were strolling through the antiques aisles of the Rose Bowl flea market, when I spotted what looked to be a complete set of the dishes. And it suddenly occurred to me how truly beautiful they were. I also got extremely nostalgic and almost started to cry, but ended up walking away, leaving them behind.

What a mistake! For weeks, I kicked myself for not buying the set when I had the chance. So later that year, while visiting my sister in Snohomish, WA—the “antiques capital of the Pacific Northwest”—I found and bought my first pieces of what turned out to be “Swiss Chalet,” ceramic dinnerware manufactured by the Stetson China Company and sold under the Mar-Crest brand. I was absolutely hooked.

Swiss Chalet box

When Tim and I—and even Karen—first started looking for Swiss Chalet, we could easily find the same plates and bowls I’d been schlepping around for decades. Slowly, through research (mostly online) and a lot of serendipity, we began discovering other more exotic pieces: ultra-modern, A-lined salt-and-pepper shakers, a sugar bowl and creamer, a butter dish, a gravy boat, two sizes of ashtrays, a fabulous teapot, and one of my favorite pieces, a blue casserole with a white top decorated in the blue and green leaves. Plus, of course, there were serving platters, several sizes of plates and bowls, and three (!) different coffee cups/mugs. Who knew?

Common, as well as many of the more
difficult pieces to find

For a long time, the most elusive piece was the blue pitcher that had no markings other than a Mar-Crest imprint on the bottom., which, 10 years ago, was one of the few sites that carried Swiss Chalet, provided a photo of the pitcher, but didn’t have one in stock. After many, many months of looking, Karen finally found one on eBay and surprised me with it for my birthday a few years ago. Our collection was now complete . . . or so we thought.

The elusive blue pitcher

Then, while antiquing in Ocean Beach (San Diego), I stumbled upon two pieces of what looked to be Pyrex, decorated in the distinctive Swiss Chalet blue and green leaves. Completely by accident, I had discovered the Fire-King line of Swiss Chalet, which includes several shapes and sizes of bakeware, in addition to a coffee mug and multi-piece set of mixing and serving bowls. A set of outstanding Swiss Chalet glassware (my hands-down favorites) has also been attributed to Fire-King. But after reading Michael Pratt’s wonderful book, Mid-Century Modern Dinnerware (Schiffer, 2002)—which includes several pages on Swiss Chalet—I’m thinking the glassware may have come from Stetson, which, according to Pratt, did make glassware to accompany some of its dinnerware lines. (More research is needed.) So now I had the ceramic dinnerware, plus a complete line of Fire-King accessories.

Glasses and Fire-King mug

But wait, there’s more! While searching online for the elusive blue pitcher, Karen uncovered yet another line of Swiss Chalet: Decoware tinware, apparently also made in the early 1960s to complement the Stetson Mar-Crest dishes. As soon as we found these, I bought a set of nesting canisters and an enormous cake tin. The leaves are much more stylized than on the ceramic dinnerware, but the connection is obvious. I never would have guessed that my mom’s few inexpensive “premium” purchases had such a far-reaching influence on kitchenware design.

Decoware canister

So why am I even writing about all this stuff? Well, last night I shared our 100+ piece collection with our antiques club and, in doing the research for my talk, discovered that there are still two Swiss Chalet items we don’t own: a Decoware bread box and a set of stacking mugs by Stetson. Unlike 10 years ago, when we first started collecting, there is now a ton of Swiss Chalet for sale on the Internet. Pieces that took us months to find are now available through a single click. Unfortunately for me, however, I am no longer the only person obsessed with Swiss Chalet. The recent resurgence of interest in all things “mid-century” has made its way into vintage dinnerware, which is being snapped-up by collectors who have also fallen in love with Swiss Chalet.

We’re now on the hunt anew! I’m buying stacked Swiss Chalet mugs and the matching Decoware bread box, if you’ve got them to sell! Please contact me via the comment link below if you’ve got something I might want to add to my collection.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Valley Relics

Before there was Woodland Hills there was Girard

As much as I resist going "over the hill" for anything these days, I can't deny that the San Fernando Valley played a huge role in my young life. In fact, it was practically the center of the postwar L.A. universe when my sister and I were kids: aerospace, ranch house developments, and a burgeoning film industry. If we couldn't find what we needed in Burbank, our hometown, we'd head into The Valley to shop at Valley Plaza, grab a slice of Mike's pizza on Van Nuys Blvd. or see a movie in Panorama City. My sister and I even graduated from what was then called Valley Junior College before moving on to university. 

But little did I suspect that I'd end up marrying a Val! Having grown-up in Canoga Park, Tim's Valley roots run much deeper than mine. No surprise, then, that he's been following the San Fernando Valley Relics blog since it began a couple of years ago. The blog features the extensive collection of Valley native Tommy Gelinas, who has spent much of his adulthood saving historic artifacts of the places we all knew and loved as kids. Last week, Gelinas opened the privately-funded San Fernando Valley Relics Cultural Museum, so he could share some of his vast collection with the world. Located on the north end of The Valley, we made a pilgrimage to the museum this morning to admire and reminisce. Here are just a few of the more interesting items we saw (click on images to enlarge):

An entire room dedicated to cow-boys and -girls
and the man who dressed them, Nudie Cohn

When gas was cheap

The Pep Boys: Manny, Moe and Jack

Saved from the wrecking ball: Henry's,
The Valley's favorite taco stand

Oldies but Goodies radio: Art Laboe

Paper ephemera

Neon signs and Nudie's cars

Before there was Target: Gemco membership
card and Zody's potholder

The San Fernando Valley Relics Cultural Museum is located at 21630 Marilla St., Chatsworth, CA. Hours of operation: every Saturday 10AM-3PM.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Rascals

I was 14 when I attended my first rock concert. It was 1968 and the venue was the Hollywood Bowl—back then, the only place in town to see large concerts. The headlining act was the Rascals, the #1 rock group at the time. My “date” was an older friend of the family, who I couldn’t stand. But he had a driver’s license and a car of his own, so I agreed to go with him. I was too young to see the Beatles play the Bowl in the early 1960s. I was not going to miss the Rascals.

Originally called the Young Rascals, the group started as an East Coast cover band that mostly played other people’s songs, like “Mustang Sally” and “Good Lovin’.” They also wore ridiculous Buster Brown outfits, for which they were probably most famous. (See Steven Van Zandt’s tribute below.) By the time I became a fan, the Rascals were singing their own songs and had abandoned their knickers.

The four band members—Eddie Brigati (vocals), Felix Cavaliere (keyboards), Gene Cornish (guitar), and Dino Danelli (drums)—went their separate ways in the early 1970s. Felix, in particular, achieved legendary status among rock aficionados who still mourned the loss of the Rascals, while Dino went on to become one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock-n-roll. Then, in 1988, everyone but Eddie reunited briefly for a national tour. Tim and I saw them at the old California Theater in San Diego. They played their hearts out, even though there were only about 100 people in the audience. Theirs was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.

Last year, the entire band got back together again for Once Upon a Dream, a “bioconcert” that incorporates film clips, a narrative, and live performances by the Rascals. After playing on Broadway, the show is now touring the U.S., with a stop later this week at L.A.’s Greek Theater. The Grammy Museum hosted a very special interview event with the group, Monday night. Needless to say, it was historic. The woman sitting in front us burst into tears as soon as the guys took the stage.

Bob Santelli, executive director of the museum, conducted the interview in the sold-out 200-seat Clive Davis theater. They talked about the New Jersey music scene in the 1960s and how the Rascals evolved into one of the best blues/rock bands of its time. At one point, Santelli mentioned their Hollywood Bowl appearance in 1968 and asked the audience if anyone had been there. I was the only person who raised her hand.

“Did anyone see the Rascals play the Hollywood Bowl?” he asked again, as the houselights went up.

“ME!” I yelled, waving my hand. “I SAW THEM AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL!”

“How was the concert?” Santelli then asked, as all four Rascals peered my way.

“I was 14 and they played with Eric Burdon and the Animals . . .” 

“And Tommy James and the Shondells!” Eddie Bigati interjected, nodding his head.

“Yes, and the Shondells!” I echoed, suddenly remembering the third group I saw 45 years ago! “YOU GUYS WERE WONDERFUL!!”

After all the talking ended, the band took the stage and played four songs, plus an encore. They sounded phenomenal (see snippet below). I can hardly wait to see them again on Thursday at the Greek Theater.

"It's a Beautiful Morning" at the Grammy Museum

P.S. It's now Friday morning and I have a rock-n-roll hangover. The concert at the Greek was fabulous. My head is swimming in Rascals music.

On the way to our seats, we ran into two separate sets of friends. "I knew it was going to be nothing but old people here tonight!" one friend (our age) said, laughing.

A week ago, we would have worn shorts and tanktops. Last night, it was all sweatshirts and wool scarves. But it didn't matter. We loved the Rascals and they loved us right back. Like the song says, the concert was absolutely WONDERFUL!

When you are happy
Every place feels like home
'Cuz you're never alone.
There's much to be said
But it's all in your head.

"It's Wonderful" (album cut) 

"How Can I be Sure?"—the show-stopper and the song
that made me a Rascals fan in 1968