There’s pure magic in rolling over the Bay Bridge for the very first time with 3200 miles behind you on a bright September morning. With the waters below all gem-flecked , redolent of warm salt and promise and the fabled city ahead gleaming like Oz , it’s easy to feel that all hearts must open and all wines flow.
It’s quite another matter to drop off the 5 into the San Fernando Valley in search of a place called Chatsworth. There I was in the early autumn of 1976, having driven from Phippsburg , Maine, looking for Lurline Avenue and the nascent animation studios of Zany Eminators rumored to have set up shop up in one of many Industrial Parks scattered among the cul-de-sacs, mini-malls and even a wee bit of widely scattered horse pasture that made up The Valley.
When I thought of “The Valley” prior to that morning, I pictured – as I’m sure many of you do – Miss Barbara Stanwyck standing on her ranch house porch, cradling a shotgun and gazing wistfully off toward the distant, lavender mountains. Turns out that’s a different Valley entirely and this one, later to become world famous for its unique breed of Girl, had it’s own bizarre charm as the obvious location for such 70’s TV staples as Adam 12 and CHIPS. Nobody told me the place was the epicenter of porn production in the US and, whereas I might very well have run across John Holmes or Marilyn Chambers or Harry Reems, the only celebrity I encountered that fall was Lorne Greene, standing beside me at the 7-11 on De Soto. There were no sidewalks, only road shoulder and parking lots, in one of which I actually heard a fellow say that the surf was up, man, and he was heading to Malibu. This made a deeper impression than rubbing elbows with Lorne Greene.
The Eminators had converted some 4000 square feet of industrial garage into a sort of multi-level, multi-function loft jungle of plywood and 2 x 4’s. There was a kitchen area, common space with plywood dining table, a small room that housed the two- storey, home-made multi-plane camera, and the flop-house sleeping area above for the transients like myself passing through. Although I painted my share of cells, it soon became apparent that my true calling was chief cook and bottle washer, transforming the daily gleanings from the dumpsters behind Ralph’s into some pretty high class dinners for the eight to twelve misfits in residence. I was a vegetarian at the time with a limited repertoire - mostly quiche, artichokes (pilfered from the freeway fields ) with Hollandaise sauce and spaghetti – but the crowds, in their youthful lack of refinement, raved. And lots of “Toby’s Cheesecake Deluxe”, a favorite of the Zanies, who provided the recipe I use to this day.
Funds soon became tight and, after pouring over the classifieds and wasting an afternoon at a sales seminar for vinyl windows, I quickly realized I was no more employable as the new, California me than I had been as the old, Back East me. Serendipity arrived in the form of a man who came to the door looking for “the artists” as, I guess, we’d become known in the Industrial Park. He wanted someone to draw “Rapidograph style” renderings of photo-finishes from Hollywood Park. These would be etched into Lucite paper-weights and given to the winning jockeys. Twice a week he would arrive with photos and pick up my terrible, terrible drawings. The thought that these Lucite chunks probably still exist is vaguely unsettling. Some of us took jobs with the outfit three doors down that stretched and framed bogus, Korean “oil paintings” of New England covered bridges and such. I ran bits of molding through a band-saw for weeks until the owners absconded in the dead of night.
By Thanksgiving I noticed Angelinos wearing scarves and pre-Uggs and those ubiquitous, drab parkas popular at the time with the ratty, fake fur around the hood. Winter wardrobe for Winter’s sake, it seemed to me. The Industrial Park was deserted by Tuesday morning and strangely foreboding winds picked up, inundating the acres of pavement with vast herds of tumbleweeds. By late afternoon there was heavy smoke in the air and as dusk settled an angry, orange glow backlit the hilltops surrounding the Valley. Neighborhoods were being evacuated. We turned on the radio; no one mentioned Lurline Avenue. I stood in the dark on the roof and watched the fires blaze all around and toward us, the ring tightening. Tiny, flickering lights on the distant ridge tops would converge and, eventually, a bit of the flame in that area would diminish, only to rise again with the same puff of wind I’d just felt on my face. I didn’t sleep that night but stayed on the roof trying to imagine a route out through the burning ring of fire. It rained black ash for a week.
By Christmas the jig was up. A veritable army of State and City inspectors showed up, alerted by the dome on the roof and the prevalent gossip about a bunch of artist kids living in an industrial garage in Chatsworth. Hefty bribes would have done the trick, had any of us recognized that this was what they were after. Had any of us had the funds for hefty bribes. The Zanies folded their tents and headed north to start over in the more benign climes of the Bay Area . I flew home for the holidays without ever having seen downtown LA, Santa Monica, Hollywood, Venice Beach or MacArthur Park, where someone left the cake out in the rain….