Los Angeles Airways pioneered mail delivery, then passenger service, via helicopter

A Los Angeles Airways Sikorsky S-61L passenger helicopter lifts off from the Disneyland Heliport in 1963. This is the same type of aircraft that crashed twice, killing all on board, in 1968. The Matterhorn can be seen in background at right. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, we delved into the problems of reaching Los Angeles International Airport by ground transportation. This week, we remember a firm that looked to the skies, using helicopters to achieve the same goal.

Aviation engineer Clarence M. Belinn founded Los Angeles Airways in 1944, with the goal of becoming the first private firm to  begin air mail delivery using helicopters. Belinn knew that the U.S. Army Air Force had been experimenting with the idea, and prepared his firm to be a front-runner for the private sector contract.

Los Angeles Airways then beat out several other firms to get approval from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to begin the service. On Oct. 1, 1947, LAA conducted its maiden flight, delivering express mail from its base at LAX to the central Los Angeles post office downtown, Terminal Annex, via its Sikorsky Aircraft S-51 helicopter.

A Los Angeles Airways S-51 helicopter lands on the roof of the Terminal Annex post office downtown in 1947 to inaugurate helicopter air-mail service from LAX. (Credit: UCLA Library Special Collections)

The flight was a great success. By March 1948, the service had expanded to cover deliveries within a 50-mile radius of LAX, and even one route to San Bernardino, 65 miles to the east.

The company’s 95% efficiency rate led to profitability, and Belinn began looking toward new adaptations. He applied to the CAB to get permission to transport passengers on the new, larger S-55 Sikorskys, and the agency gave its approval to the idea in July 1951.

The new service began in November 1954, four months after a similar air service began in the New York area. The S-55s were much larger, and had room for ten passengers. In just a few months, LAA offered helicopter commuter flights to 25 destinations in Southern California, from the San Fernando Valley to San Bernardino and Orange County.

In the summer of 1955, LAA hooked up with the newly opened amusement park sensation Disneyland, offering passenger service directly to a dedicated heliport. Originally, the heliport was located near the park itself, but was moved to a more permanent location adjacent to the Disneyland Hotel when it opened in 1956.

Business really took off once the airline began using the latest Sikorsky model, the even-larger twin-turbine powered S-16Ls. Able to carry 28 passengers, the jet copters became LAA’s workhorse following their introduction in 1962.

In 1965, the CAB granted LAA a permanent license to operate helicopter passenger flights in the Los Angeles area. That same year, the company lost its government subsidy, an economic blow cushioned somewhat by United and American Airlines acquiring partial  ownership stakes in the company.

Democratic presidential aspirant Adlai Stevenson arrives via helicopter at NBC studios in Burbank for a television broadcast on March 29, 1956. He was rushed from LAX via Los Angeles Airways helicopter. (Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

LAA continued to thrive. Its helicopter service was a great way to beat the growing freeway traffic in the booming Los Angeles area, with most trips taking 25 minutes or less.The ride from LAX to the Disneyland Hotel took 15 minutes. Fun fact: I once rode on an LAA flight from Ontario International Airport to LAX in the late 1960s, on one of the S-61L copters.

The flights were so popular that, in December 1966, the Torrance Chamber of Commerce made a written request to Clarence Belinn of LAA to introduce its service to Torrance Municipal Airport. As far as we can tell, that route never went into operation.

United Airlines ad highlights the Los Angeles Airways air service to Disneyland. The boarding area was located in the blank spot at upper right. Undated, circa early 1960s. (Credit: Tails Through Time blog)

Sadly, the company began to unravel following two deadly crashes in 1968.

The first occurred on May 22, 1968, when an S-61L eastbound  from Disneyland to LAX crashed from a height of 2,000 feet onto a dairy farm on Alondra Blvd. near Minnesota St. in Paramount and burst into flames. All 23 aboard were killed.

Less than three months later, another S-61L crashed from 1,200 feet into Leuders Park on Rosecrans Ave. in Compton on Aug. 14, 1968. This flight also was headed eastbound for Disneyland from LAX. All 21 aboard were killed. Fortunately, no one on the ground was killed in either crash.

In both cases, problems with the blade rotor system were found to be responsible. In the May 22 crash, a malfunction caused one of the blades to strike the side of the copter, leading to the crash. Metal fatigue in the yellow main rotor blade was deemed to be the cause of the Aug. 14 accident.

The crash scene of Los Angeles Airways Flight 84 along Alondra Blvd in Paramount on May 22, 1968. One of the main rotor blades can be seen on a building’s roof at upper right (arrow). (Credit: DisneyHistory101.com website)

As a result of the crashes, the company’s operations had to be temporarily suspended, including the popular Disneyland flights, and it began losing money fast. An October 1969 strike by its pilots didn’t help matters. 

In September 1970, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and ceased operations after a proposed buyout deal by Howard Hughes fell through.

Los Angeles Airways copter flies over the city in this undated postcard circa early 1950s. Los Angeles City Hall can be seen just to right of copter.

Local commuter airline Golden West took over LAA in 1971 and restarted the copter routes  again in 1972, but its own financial problems caused them to cease flights after only a few months.

On Aug. 19, 1972, the last Golden West/LAA routes to and from Disneyland via helicopter were flown. Operations then were suspended, and they never resumed. Golden West itself went bankrupt and ceased operations in 1983.

Sources:

“Downtown In Minutes: Part 1 – The Story of the World’s First Passenger Helicopter Operations,” by Craig Kodera, Airpower magazine, March 2004, Page 33.

“Famous Firsts in Autogiros,” by Fred Holladay, The Airpost Journal (Special Helicopter Issue), June 1956, Page 300.

“Los Angeles Airways to Disneyland,” Disney History 101 website.

Los Angeles Times files.

“The Story of Los Angeles Airways,” Tails Through Time: Short Trips on the Long Road of Aviation History (blog), June 1, 2010.

Torrance Press-Herald files.

“22 May 1968,” “14 Aug 1968,” This Day In Aviation: Important Dates in Aviation History website.

Wikipedia.

1959 Los Angeles Airways brochure indicates cities served and shows route map, left. (Credit: Collectair Aviation Art and Artifacts blog)

The direct link between public transportation and LAX finally is coming. No, really!

LAX’s central loop once featured open-air parking lots. 1961 photo. (Credit: Los Angeles World Airports)

For the first couple of decades after Los Angeles International Airport began operations in the late 1940s, linking up to your airport flight wasn’t much of a concern. You just drove up, pulled into one of the large central parking lots and parked before catching your plane.

As the airport and its surrounding metro area continued to grow exponentially during the 1970s and 1980s, though, the lack of a direct public transportation link and all that automobile traffic along the central airport loop frustrated commuters to no end.

Large parking garages seemed to only exacerbate the traffic problems. Airline travelers had to rely on shuttle vans, Flyaway and municipal buses, and, more recently, Ubers and Lyfts to make the connection.

With the arrival of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) light rail lines in the 1990s, optimism grew that such a link would become available. The best bet, the Green Line, which follows the 105 Freeway from Norwalk to the South Bay, opened in 1995. 

The Green Line route comes close, but does not connect to LAX in its current configuration. (Credit: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority)

In reality, it did bring commuters to the southeastern edge of the airport, but, incredibly to some, no closer before drifting off to its western terminus in a quiet Redondo Beach neighborhood.

Metro planners cited lack of funding and other factors for their decision not to connect to the airport. They offered its riders, you guessed it, a shuttle bus to traverse the short distance from the closest Green Line station, Aviation/LAX, to the airport terminals. It remains a cumbersome solution.

An LAX shuttle bus, right, awaits passengers heading to LAX at the base of the Aviation/LAX Green Line station. July 2021. (Credit: Photo by Sam Gnerre)

Twenty years earlier in 1970, San Fernando Valley commuters to LAX came up with an innovative plan to make their way through the clogged Sepulveda Pass section of the 405 Freeway and get to LAX on time to catch their flights. The answer: high-speed air-cushioned trains running on elevated tracks.

Borrowing from a 1961 proposal by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn to connect downtown Los Angeles and LAX via monorail, the city’s Transportation committee report suggested using the right-of-way along the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass. 

High speed trains would connect in the Valley via Sepulveda Blvd. to the north and to LAX via Westchester, also partly along Sepulveda, to the south. The entire journey would take 11 minutes.

It would be the first part of a proposed route that would also include, ambitiously, high speed trains linking to the planned Palmdale International Airport and from there to Las Vegas.

Debate and discussion over the innovative plan continued for the next 18 months. Should we build a tunnel under Sepulveda? Add a stop in congested Westwood on the way over? Route it through Pasadena instead?

But it all came to nought when L.A. Recreation and Parks commissioners refused to allow the trains to use Sepulveda Basin parkland for the train’s northern terminus. The other solutions were deemed unworkable and funding never came. The plan died.

Westchester residents and businesses were not fans of the 1970 plan to build an elevated train down Sepulveda Blvd. to LAX. Sepulveda looking south from Manchester Ave. in 2015. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

The plan might never have happened anyway, as it had plenty of critics both in the Valley and in Westchester. Neither location was pleased about the idea of railroad tracks on elevated pylons running through their respective Sepulveda Blvd. business corridors. “It would kill the Westchester shopping district,” then-Councilwoman Pat Russell told a Los Angeles Times reporter in December 1970.

As for the Green Line, planning recommendations calling for it to connect to LAX directly were being made as early as 1984, but it never came to be. In addition to funding deficiencies, naysayers also cited engineering problems, saying the trains might distract landing planes with their lights, befuddle radar navigation due to their electromagnetic emissions and cause utility conflicts and traffic snarls during construction.

Nearly 40 years later, here’s how the link will be made at long last. First, the new Crenshaw/LAX  Line scheduled to open in 2022 will originate from Crenshaw Blvd. and connect from the north to the Green Line at the airport. 

Next, two new stations will be built near the airport, the Aviation/Century station and the all-important Aviation/96th St. station. Airport officials have their own name for the new Aviation/96th St. station: the Airport Metro Connector (AMC) Station Project.

Artist rendering of the new Airport Metro Connector (AMC) station, center left, shows how it will connect to the Metro Green Line and Crenshaw/LAX line trains and the Automated People Mover (APM), left. (Credit: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority)

Passengers riding the two train lines that will reach the airport will disembark at the large, $898.6 million AMC station and ride short Automated People Mover trains to their terminals when that part of the massive LAX reconfiguration project is completed in 2023. 

The station also will offer other transportation options, including a bike hub, bus plaza and private vehicle drop-off area. Groundbreaking for the AMC was held in June 2021. The new station, scheduled to open in 2024, will be second in size only to Union Station in the Metro system. 

Planners envision it as the key gateway from the airport to the Los Angeles area. The Aviation/96th St. facility will have not only a variety of transportation choices, but also passenger amenities such as a customer service center,  pedestrian plaza and retail spaces for shops and restaurants. 

Status of the LAX ground transportation project currently under construction. (Credit: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority)

Even long-neglected South Bay residents will be able to avail themselves more fully of this new  Metro  link once an extension of the Green Line into Torrance is completed in 2028.

As for the San Fernando Valley-LAX link, it turns out that everything old is new again. Proposals for a rail line through the Sepulveda Pass that could link to the airport are being debated currently, with options including an underground train, a monorail, or some combination of the two. But the project, if it ever materializes, is still in the pre-development stage, and a long way from becoming reality.

Artist rendering of the proposed monorail from the San Fernando Valley through the Sepulveda Pass. (Credit: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority)

Sources:

Airport Metro Connector Station: 60% Design Presentation, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), June 2021.

Daily Breeze archives.

Los Angeles Times archives.

Metro website.

“SkyRail Express, Metro to Explore Development of Sepulveda Pass Monorail,” by Mark Madler, San Fernando Valley Business Journal, July 1, 2021.

 StreetsBlog LA website.

“Who is the Driving Force for a Monorail Through the Sepulveda Pass?”, by Matthew Hetz, City Watch blog, May 6, 2021.

Video by John Kay.

U.S. Coast Guard has had a Harbor Area presence for more than a century

The Los Angeles Long Beach Coast Guard base occupies the lower half of Terminal Island, below the federal prison. 2015 photo. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Base Los Angeles Long Beach Facebook page)

The United States Coast Guard has one of the most reassuring mottoes in the military: “Semper paratus,” Latin for “always ready.” Whether by sea, air or land, the military branch serves to protect our coastal areas from natural and manmade disasters, foreign attacks, crime and a myriad of other threats.

It traces its roots to 1790 and the formation of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, whose original purpose was to enforce tariffs. It was the country’s only naval force until the founding of the U.S. Navy in 1798. The early cutter ships also performed rescues, fought piracy and even carried mail.

In 1878, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was formed from a loose aggregation of coastal sea rescue services throughout the country. The two agencies operated independently until Jan. 28, 1915, when Congress authorized the formation of the U.S. Coast Guard, which merged the two operations. Though defined as a branch of the military, it initially found itself under the auspices of the Treasury Dept.

Coast Guard cutters became regular visitors to San Pedro’s waters shortly thereafter, though its first official outpost wasn’t established until 1919: the Marine Exchange which reports on the comings and goings of ships in the port.

The cutter Haida launches from an unidentified shipyard in Oakland, CA, in 1921.
(Credit: San Francisco Maritime National Historical Digital Archive, National Park Service)

In 1922, the newly built Coast Guard cutter Haida began calling San Pedro its home port, concentrating on what would be the Guard’s chief mission during the next decade: patrolling offshore waters for rum-running ships during Prohibition. 

For the next few decades, Coast Guard cutters would dock at various spots in the harbor, most notably near the U.S. Navy’s docking area at the Outer Harbor Dock & Wharf Company. An area there with 400 feet of docking and a small office was obtained by the Coast Guard in March 1926.

Under its commander, Leon C. Covell, the San Pedro unit that he established in 1925 already had grown to two cutters,  eight patrol ships and two survey ships. Covell led operations that vigorously chased down and captured rum-runners up and down the coast.

Commander Leon C. Covell. Undated.

But they also conducted many rescues on the high seas, including a high-profile one involving big-time Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille’s luxury yacht Seaward, which exploded and caught fire in June 1927. The Coast Guard rescued five crew members from the flames.

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 reduced the Coast Guard’s need to chase rum-runners, though catching smugglers of all types would always be part of its enforcement duties.

In 1936, another item was added to its list of duties when the federal government made the Coast Guard the official protector of whales swimming off the coasts it patrolled, a major environmental responsibility.

With the advent of World War II, the Coast Guard came back under the command of the U.S. Navy, as it also had during World War I. It played a major role in the naval war effort throughout the conflict, including conducting large-scale rescue operations during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944.

After the war, control of the Coast Guard reverted back to the Treasury Dept. In 1946, a major push to establish a more permanent base in San Pedro was proposed in Congress. It called for $1 million to establish a base at Reservation Point on the southern end of Terminal Island, south of the federal prison that opened there in 1938

The Los Angeles- Long Beach Coast Guard base on Terminal Island named its main building the Terrell E. Horne III Building in a May 2014 ceremony. The Redondo Beach resident lost his life during a run-in with drug smugglers off the coast of Los Angeles in December 2012. (Daily Breeze file photo)

The planned base would consolidate various Coast Guard operations currently scattered among sites in San Pedro, Wilmington and Long Beach on eight acres of land at Reservation Point. It would contain an administration building, barracks, base exchange, mess hall and  machine shops, as well as four deepwater moorings for cutters, a long wharf and a dredged basin for patrol boats and small craft.

The plan eventually was approved, and construction of the Los Angeles – Long Beach Coast Guard base as it currently exists began in 1950. 

Not everything was consolidated. The Coast Guard’s shoreline radio transmitter continued to operate at Point Vicente, right next to the lighthouse, as it still does. 


The U.S. Coast Guard permanently moved its helicopter air operations from LAX to Point Mugu in Ventura County in 2016. Undated pre-2016 photo taken at LAX. (Credit: United States Coast Guard)

Also, the Los Angeles Coast Guard Air Station, home base for its helicopter and airplane operations, was moved to Los Angeles International Airport in August 1962. 

But it was forced to close in September 2016 when its lease was not renewed due to LAX’s massive improvement plans. Its operations have since moved to the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu.

In 1967, the Coast Guard began adding a distinctive blue and red stripe design element to its ships and aircraft to make them more identifiable. That same year, the Guard became part of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

The second of four new U.S. Coast Guard fast-response cutters arrives at the Los Angeles-Long Beach base on Oct. 31, 2018. (Daily Breeze file photo)

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the creation of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard came under the authority of DHS in 2003.

It has continued to lend its strengths and expertise to everything from small craft rescues and marine conservation efforts to full-scale participation in everything from wars to weather and environmental disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

In May 2020, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore became commander of the Coast Guard’s Los Angeles-Long Beach sector at the base on Terminal Island, with responsibility for an area stretching from Morro Bay to San Clemente.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore, Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach commander, takes over from Capt. Monica Rochester during the change-of-command ceremony at the Terminal Island base on May 21, 2020. Ore previously served as the deputy commander. (Daily Breeze staff file photo).

Note: Special thanks to Tom Lasser.

Sources:

Daily Breeze archives.

Los Angeles Times archives.

Palos Verdes Peninsula News archives.

San Pedro News Pilot archives.

U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office website.

U.S. Coast Guard Base Los Angeles Long Beach Facebook page.

Wikipedia.

Note: The Terminal Island base is not open to the general public without special permission from the Coast Guard.

A Coast Guard helicopter takes off from the field at the Terminal Island base on Nov. 24, 2015. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Base Los Angeles Long Beach Facebook page)
(Credit: Google Earth)

Pinball wizards sidelined by gambling enforcement bans in the 1940s and 1950s

Sheriff Eugene W. Biscailuz takes the first swing with the ax as his department destroys various confiscated pinball machines and other gambling equipment on Nov. 10, 1955. Looking on is Undersheriff Peter Pitchess. (Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

The pinball machines of the 1930s were different and far more primitive devices than the ones that became ubiquitous in bowling alleys and arcades during the 1970s and 1980s.

The first versions from the 19th century, known as bagatelles, were tabletop devices, and none of them had flippers, which weren’t invented until 1947. 

The name “pinball” comes from these earlier machines. The “pins” were thin metal posts attached to the game board. Players attempted to steer a steel ball shot up into the top of the board into scoring holes, often using the metal pins to maneuver the ball.

A Caille-Schiemer Co. bagatelle game, circa 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

By the 1930s, innovations from the Gottlieb and Bally firms made the machines, now with their playing surfaces enclosed in glass, much more popular. These included coin operation (1931) and electrification (1933). 

The games became common sights in bars, ice cream parlors, drugstores and other high-traffic businesses during the Great Depression. They were set up so that players could win free games by executing certain sequences, which mostly happened randomly. In some cases, the free games won could be converted into cash payouts.

That’s when law enforcement became involved. The random nature of winning turned pinball into a game of chance, not one of skill, and the law therefore considered the machines to be gambling devices.

The crackdowns on the machines began in the mid-1930s, when California Attorney General Ulysses Webb declared that pinball and related marble games were being used by organized crime for illegal gambling and called for local lawmen to enforce his edict against them.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz became an enthusiastic advocate of the crusade, calling for a county-wide campaign against the games in March 1937. He faced some resistance from game operators, merchants and manufacturers, who argued that they should be considered games of skill. 

Lloyd Federmeyer, a 15-year-old newsboy, was summoned as an expert witness at James Martin’s illegal gambling trial in Los Angeles on Aug. 13, 1934. “Of course it takes skill to win,” Federmeyer testified. And, with this, he started rolling up big scores–with nickels provided by attorneys. Then jurors wanted to know if he could hit a certain hole. Lloyd answered by ringing the contact hole three times in a row amidst the applause of the court. Lloyd, at extreme right, shows his skill on the board to the jury. (Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

After all, trials attempting to prosecute owners and operators of the games in Los Angeles in 1934 and Hermosa Beach in 1936 had ended with innocent verdicts. The Los Angeles case turned dramatically when a defense witness successfully made a deliberate winning maneuver on a machine entered as evidence in the courtroom, convincing the jury that skill was indeed involved.

Earl Warren in 1953.

But cities soon began passing laws against the machines, especially when Webb’s state attorney general successor, Earl Warren, ratcheted up California’s campaign upon taking office in 1938. After several attempts, the city of Los Angeles passed an ordinance banning the games via a 1939 referendum election. The ban took effect in 1940. It took the county supervisors until 1947 to pass a similar law.

Manufacturers stopped making the games during World War II, turning their efforts instead toward helping the war effort. After the war, the machines returned to production. Anti-pinball forces resumed the seizing and smashing of the devices, and campaigned to have laws passed against them.

Cities from Long Beach to Monterey Park passed laws banning pinball during the 1950s, when the devices increasingly were painted as not only illegal, but immoral and corruptive to suburban youth.

According to the Torrance Herald, city resident, teacher and Torrance Council of Churches member Alan S. Moore told the council during its debate over them in 1950, “If we allow pinball machines to operate here solely because they are profitable, then we should by the same reasoning, allow houses of prostitution to operate in Torrance.”

The Torrance Press published a front-page editorial in the form of an open letter to the city council on May 25, 1950, urging them to pass the new law.

Torrance Press anti-pinball political cartoon, May 23, 1950. (Credit: Torrance Historical Newspaper and Directories Archive database, Torrance Public Library. Special thanks to reference librarian Michael George.)

After several lengthy debates, the Torrance City Council passed its ban on the machines with a 4-1 vote in June 1950. Councilman Nick Drale was the only dissenter. A final version of the ordinance became law that November after its language was tightened up. Inglewood passed a similar law by unanimous vote in December 1954. 

These laws remained on the books throughout the country for the next couple of decades. But manufacturers managed to update the machines by adding elements of skill to the games, allowing the players more control over outcomes. 

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy commented on this development in 1962, noting in an Associated Press story that changes being made in the newer machines made banning them as gambling devices more difficult.

In 1972, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Sax ruled that the pinball ban still in effect in the city of L.A. no longer was valid, due to the changes in the nature of the games since it took effect in 1940. 

A year later, Torrance Police Chief Donald Nash recommended that the city rescind its 1950 ban on the machines, and the city council agreed. Many other municipalities had either dropped or were not enforcing similar regulations.

According to Wikipedia, most cities throughout the country did the same, though the city of Kokomo, Indiana, waited until 2016 to do so.

The machines enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the 1970s and 1980s. They were  marketed as amusements rather than gambling devices, allowing cities to regulate them and make money on them through licensing fees. The rise of home video gaming since then has turned the once-ubiquitous machines into curiosity pieces from a different era.

Torrance Herald, Oct. 5, 1950, Page 1. (Credit: Torrance Historical Newspaper and Directories Archive database, Torrance Public Library)

Sources:

“11 Things You Didn’t Know About Pinball,” by Seth Porges, Popular Mechanics, Sept. 1, 2009.

“The History of Pinball: A coin-operated arcade game,” by Mary Bellis, Sept. 19, 2019, Thought Co. website.

“The History of Pinball Machines and Pintables,” BMI Gaming website.

“Kilroy,” The International Pinball Database.

Los Angeles Times archives.

Torrance Press-Herald archives.

Wikipedia.

A 1947 “Kilroy” Chicago Coin pinball machine on display in the historical museum at Lizzie’s Trail Inn at the foot of the Mt. Wilson Trail in Sierra Madre in 2004. (San Gabriel Valley News staff file photo)

Developer Rudolph Mayer knew how to stir the pot in Torrance in the early 1950s

Photos of Rudolph W. Mayer are hard to come by. This Torrance Herald photo from Jan. 22, 1948, Page 8-A shows Mayer, bottom row, second from left, posing in a group shot with the Torrance City Council. (Credit: Torrance Historical Newspaper and Directories Archive database, Torrance Public Library)

Dictatorial studio head Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio from 1924-1951, may not have been the most beloved movie mogul of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but he was downright angelic compared to his little brother Rudolph.

Rudolph W. Mayer was born Rubin Mayer in Long Island, New York, on April 17, 1889, to Jacob and Sarah Meir. His parents had emigrated to the U.S. from a small town near Minsk in present-day Belarus to New York in 1887, bringing along Louis and his two sisters, Yetta and Ida, and changing their name to Mayer. (A third brother, Jeremiah, was born in 1891.) 

The young boys worked in the family scrap iron business, J. Mayer & Son, often roaming the streets looking for metal scraps. Louis eventually got married and moved to Haverhill, Mass., near Boston, where he became enamored with the entertainment business, renovating and reopening an old theater there in 1907. 

The Orpheum, as he renamed it, became successful, and he was on his way. Rudolph was involved in the early phases of the project, but Louis decided his brother’s temperament was ill-suited to the hard work involved, and he was eased out of his role there.

The Orpheum theater, pictured here on Essex Street in downtown Haverhill, Mass., was the first movie theater opened by Louis B. Mayer, who began operating it in 1907. Undated handout art. (Credit: Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.)

Rudolph returned to the metal business, moving to Canada where he became president of the Dominion Iron & Wrecking Co. The company flourished when it began making war materials for World War I, but business suffered following the war’s end.

Rudolph left the scrap iron business after the downturn, and began a life as a roving entrepreneur. Some might call him a con man; he began with deals in the Florida real estate market, selling the proverbial “Florida swampland” to the unsuspecting.

In 1931, he formed a new venture, Rudolph Mayer Pictures Inc., which became a well-known precedent in legal circles for the case Rudolph Mayer Pictures, Inc., v. Pathe News, Inc. ( 235 App. Div. 774). Mayer had obtained rights to film footage of the Jack Sharkey-Mickey Walker boxing match at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and successfully sued Pathe News when they horned in by setting up a camera on a nearby rooftop to capture images of the fight.

Unfortunately, Mayer Pictures turned out to be more of an attempt to cash in on his brother’s more famous film operation than an actual going enterprise. Rudolph was arrested on fraud charges in 1932 for illegally selling stock in the shell company. The incident embarrassed his brother Louis, who had to intervene to get charges dropped and pay back duped investors.

Rudolph went from one such scheme to another. He became especially active following the end of World War II. In 1946, he became president of Nevada Desert Inn Inc., the company attempting to build the landmark casino and hotel in Las Vegas’ early days as a gambling mecca. He left soon after, and the hotel wouldn’t be completed and opened until 1950.

Sensing major financial opportunities in the California land market, which was particularly hot in the South Bay, he changed his career course once again. 

He began buying and developing vacant land in the Hollywood Riviera area of southwest Torrance through his Sunhaven Properties firm. His first major project, the 156-unit Palos Verdes Apartments, opened in spring 1949 at 444 Hollywood Palos Verdes Parkway (later renamed Palos Verdes Blvd.)

Palos Verdes Peninsula News ad, Jan. 14, 1949, Page 2. (Credit: Palos Verdes Peninsula News archives)

Renters quickly filled the new complex. But Mayer and his associates had borrowed $1,269,000 from an insurance company for its construction, which they then defaulted on in April 1951. The U.S. government ended up having to repay the insurance company under the National Housing Act, and it had to sue to reclaim the title to the complex in April 1952.

The Palos Verdes Apartments eventually became subsumed into the larger Village Palos Verdes residential complex that occupies the site today.

But his most underhanded, and, frankly, blatantly racist scheme was yet to come. He subdvided the remainder of his Hollywood Riviera property at the base of the Palos Verdes Hills into 400 lots in 1950, and set about getting permits to build houses there. The $10 million project would include not only houses, but a hilltop luxury hotel overlooking Torrance Beach.

He then ran into a snag with the Torrance planning commission, who insisted that the first 80 new houses he sought to build in 1950 must have sidewalks. Mayer absolutely refused to accede to this request, pointing out that none of the many other housing developments under construction in the booming city had such sidewalk requirements.

The impasse grew tense and more angry, until Mayer dropped his bombshell at a September 1950 city council meeting. He announced with great fanfare that a consortium of “wealthy Los Angeles Negro citizens” headed by one Clarence McFadden had made an offer to acquire the land and build houses there.

Torrance Press, Sept. 28, 1950, Page 1. (Credit: Torrance Historical Newspaper and Directories Archive database, Torrance Public Library)

Torrance at the time was a “sundown town,” with an unspoken agreement not to sell homes to Black buyers. That stance would be challenged and receive nationwide attention during the civil rights protests at the Southwood development in 1963, thirteen years later. 

“We’re sick and tired of the actions of Torrance officials, and we’re selling out,” Mayer told the Torrance Press. He claimed the group and the offer were both legitimate, and The Press fell for Mayer’s cheap race-baiting tactics hook, line and sinker. It was the only newspaper outlet to do so; others, including the Torrance Herald, recognized that Mayer was bluffing.

Initially, the Torrance city council stood firm on the sidewalk requirement, but it eventually caved to Mayer’s ultimatum with a 3-2 vote in his favor on Oct. 17, 1950. The sidewalk requirement was rescinded; Mayer had won.

The houses were built without sidewalks, and much of the Hollywood Riviera residential area remains without them to this day. The luxury hotel never was built.

Mayer had little time to savor his victory. He died of an apparent heart attack after a fire believed to have been started by a cigarette broke out in the bedroom of his suite at the Gaylord Hotel at 3355 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, 1951. He was 61.

“Developer wins sidewalk waiver,” Torrance Herald, Oct. 19, 1950, Page 1. (Credit: Torrance Historical Newspaper and Directories Archive database, Torrance Public Library)

Sources:

Daily Breeze archives.

Findagrave.com

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, by Scott Eyman, Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Los Angeles Times archives.

New York Times archives.

“Something Has Gone Very Wrong…” | The Homepage of James W. Loewen.

Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, by James W.  Loewen,  New Press, 2018 (illustrated edition).

Time magazine archives.

Torrance Press-Herald archives.

No sidewalks are in evidence in this section of Calle Mayor in Hollywood Riviera in April 2019. (Credit: Google Earth)

Manhattan Beach’s El Porto area retains its own distinctive identity

Los Angeles Times ad, Nov. 5, 1911, Page V24. (Credit: Los Angeles Times digital archives)

In 1911, landowner/developer George Peck first subdivided the 27 acres of oceanfront land between Manhattan Beach and El Segundo that would become El Porto. He ran a large ad about the new tract in the Los Angeles Times of Nov. 5, 1911, above, using the Cooper-Culler Co. in Los Angeles as his agent.

He designed the lots so that each abutted a street in front and an alley in the rear. The oiled dirt streets had no names at first, but eventually they would pick up names from Manhattan Beach to the south.

El Porto’s main north-south street, Highland Ave., extended north from then-sparsely populated Manhattan, while its east-west street picked up Manhattan’s numbering system, running from 38th to 45th St. Crest Drive, just west of the Chevron refinery property, formed the development’s eastern boundary.

El Porto, looking west. Chevron tank farm in foreground. (Credit: Google Earth)

A word about El Porto’s name: it doesn’t mean “the port” in Spanish, otherwise its name would be “El Puerto.” It has been theorized to be a hybrid of Spanish and Portuguese, as “porto” is Portuguese for port but the language doesn’t use the Spanish “el” article. That could be overthinking it; it could have just been the developers thinking “Porto” meant port in Spanish. In any case, its exact origin is unclear.

It seemed inevitable that the new settlement would be annexed by either Manhattan Beach or El Segundo, both incorporated cities. The first election that would have made El Porto part of Manhattan was held on Feb. 5, 1929, but its residents decisively voted down the proposal.

It wouldn’t be the last time annexation came up for discussion, but for the next 41 years, El Porto would remain a small outpost of unincorporated Los Angeles County land surrounded by two larger cities.

It was a beautiful little spot, overlooking the Pacific. Its unincorporated status gave the aura of an anything-goes beachside paradise. An offshore canyon generated larger waves than on neighboring beaches, an asset that would boost El Porto’s stature among surfers in later decades. (A Body Glove-sponsored pro surfing tournament took place there in July 1987.)

High surf draws curious onlookers, but no surfers, at El Porto in December 2005. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

The reputation of the out-of-the-way beach enclave even drew attention from Hollywood. Actor William Haines, a movie star during the silent and early talkies, had rented a house at 221 Moonstone St. in El Porto where a major fracas took place in June 1936.

Haines, who made little secret of being gay, was accused by local six-year-old Jimmy Walker’s mom of child molestation. The police believed Haines, who claimed innocence, and they refused to press charges due to lack of evidence. A mob of about thirty local residents, egged on by members of a Klan-like group called the White Legion, attacked Haines and his house guests, ordering them to leave the area. Haines maintained his innocence, but never returned to El Porto.

The shoreline became a Los Angeles County beach during the 1930s. In 1956, the county paved a portion of an old Pacific Electric railroad right of way just above the beach, turning it into a metered parking area that still operates between 40th and 45th streets. (An effort to turn it into a $7 daily parking lot in 1991 was short-lived.)

Autos head into the El Porto parking lot from the 45th St. entrance in Manhattan Beach in June 2021. (Photo by Sam Gnerre)

By 1950, the population of El Porto was estimated to be 1,491 people. Its children attended schools in the El Segundo School District, despite the area’s seemingly closer ties to Manhattan Beach. Manhattan provided many of the area’s services and public utilities.

Those ties would be re-examined during the 1960s, when talk of annexation heated up again. A committee studied the possibility in 1963, but neither Manhattan Beach nor El Segundo pursued the action.

Discussion continued throughout the 1970s, but even the passage of a state law simplifying the annexation process for areas of less than 100 acres didn’t seem to entice El Porto’s two neighboring cities. As late as March 1978, officials from both El Segundo and Manhattan Beach still publicly claimed to have no interest in annexing the island of county land.

El Porto is at lower right in this 1952 aerial photo looking north. Diagonal road leading into it is Vista Del Mar, which becomes Highland Ave. in El Porto. The Chevron refinery tank far and refinery itself are at middle right, with El Segundo at top right. (Credit: USC Digital Library. Photo by Dick Whittington)

By the end of the year, though, Manhattan Beach had come around, and began actively working to acquire the land. The city council approved moving forward on annexation in May 1979, the County Board of Supervisors okayed it in September 1980, and El Porto officially became part of Manhattan Beach that November.

The area, which had become known as the “Devil’s Triangle” during the 1970s for its lively bar scene and pervasive beach bum culture, had cleaned up considerably by the 1990s. Its residents had grown tired of having to send their children to El Segundo schools, when those in Manhattan were much closer.

The El Porto parking lot in Manhattan Beach usually filled with the cars of surfers and beachgoers when conditions are right, as on this June 2021 morning. (Photo by Sam Gnerre)

In 1997, they campaigned successfully against an El Segundo bond measure which would have forced residents to give more money to El Segundo schools, even though by then the great majority of El Porto kids attended Manhattan Beach schools via special permits.

The bond measure defeat led to the severing of the area’s final tie to its northern neighbor. With the cooperation of El Segundo school officials, El Porto became a part of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District on July 1, 1998.

In a recent innovation aimed at improving the area’s look, residents voted in 2019 to underwrite having all of its power, telephone and cable television wires buried underground.

The small community continues to struggle with parking and traffic woes thanks to its high-density location, but it remains a highly desirable place to live, and not just because of the surfers who continue to flock to its popular beach. 

A surfer drops down the face of a wave at El Porto in Manhattan Beach in January 2016. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

Sources:

Daily Breeze files.

Los Angeles Times files.

A Walk Beside the Sea: A History of Manhattan Beach, by Jan Dennis, Janstan Studio, 1987.

Wikipedia.

The northern terminus of The Strand is at 45th St. in El Porto. (June 2021 photo by Sam Gnerre)

Cities, communities have differing reasons for keeping or changing street names

El Segundo Street Maintenance Supervisor Beto Moreno inspects newly installed street signs on June 1, 2018. The city changed the name of a two-mile stretch of Sepulveda Blvd. through town to Pacific Coast Highway to help give it a “beach city” image. (Daily Breeze file photo)

In the crazy quilt of jurisdictions that make up southwest Los Angeles County, one can at times detect some strains of logic to its street names.

Every incorporated city’s planning department has some control over how its streets are named, which helps to explain both the consistencies within city limits, and the inconsistencies in the area as a whole. County planning agencies also have something to say about it, and usually work to maintain some kind of conformity in naming.

The presence of the massive city of Los Angeles, parts of whose territory snake through the South Bay and Harbor Area, had great influence on street naming conventions in the region.

Part of the reason for its influence: the 1909 addition of San Pedro for the Port of Los Angeles, which was done with help from the city’s annexation of the continuous “shoestring strip” of land that connected the port to Los Angeles. This enabled major north-south arteries such as Western, Normandie and Vermont to keep their same names as they extended southward.

The numbered streets that begin with 1st St. in downtown L.A. eventually were extended down through the South Bay and Harbor Area as it developed. The numbered streets go all the way to Harbor City, where the final one, 266th St., lies just north of Palos Verdes Drive North.

266th St. in Harbor City is the final numbered street in the sequence that starts with 1st St. in Downtown Los Angeles. (June 2021 photo by Sam Gnerre)

So how come numbered streets start up again a couple miles south in San Pedro proper, where a separate set of numbered streets runs from 1st St. south to 40th St.? Because when the then-incorporated city of San Pedro voted to become part of L.A. in 1909, part of the deal included the larger city granting the annexed one autonomy in retaining the names of its streets.

L.A. city and county officials haven’t always been so generous when it comes to street names. Ever wonder why Redondo Beach doesn’t have numbered street names in conformity with L.A.’s system?

It’s because the beach city, incorporated in 1892, had grown rather fond of its colorful street names and didn’t want to change them. Groups of streets are named for gems (Emerald, Garnet, etc.), the female descendants of land grant owner Manuel Dominguez (Irena, Helberta) and even captains of industry/robber barons (Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc.).

When the Association of City Planners of Los Angeles County demanded that Redondo adopt numbered streets “in the interest of eliminating confused and duplicable street names in the southwest portion of the county,” Redondo turned them down flat, as had Manhattan and Hermosa Beach earlier, according to the Redondo Reflex report of Nov. 22, 1935.

Both Manhattan and Hermosa have their own independent sets of numbered streets, and Redondo has its lettered streets A through I, which were part of the Clifton-by-the-Sea development before it was annexed to the city.

Sometimes the smaller cities did cooperate, usually with regard to larger regional thoroughfares. California state highway officials worked to get more uniformity to the naming of Artesia Blvd., State Highway 91, during the 1950s before the building of the 91 Freeway. 

Torrance agreed to change 174th St. to Artesia Blvd. in 1956 for just that reason, which explains why North Torrance’s numbered streets jump from 173rd to 175th, with Artesia running between the two. (Torrance had long since agreed to adopt L.A.’s numbered street sequence.)

In the 1960s, Redondo Beach also agreed to change a section of Redondo Beach Blvd. to Artesia Blvd. for the same reason. North Redondo merchants have lobbied to have the name changed back to Redondo Beach Blvd. in recent years, but neighboring Manhattan Beach and others objected, and Artesia it remains for now.

Sepulveda Blvd. signage at the El Segundo Blvd. intersection in El Segundo in February 2017, before the city changed the street’s name to Pacific Coast Highway in order to enhance the city’s image as a beach city. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

Sometimes cities change street names for aesthetic reasons. In June 2018, El Segundo became the latest city to change Sepulveda Blvd. to Pacific Coast Highway, in an attempt to enhance its identification as a beach city. That leaves only Manhattan Beach still using the Sepulveda name instead of PCH for Highway 1 through the beach cities.

In 1986, a much more controversial street name change made headlines when the city of Paramount, just east of Compton, changed the name of Compton Blvd. to Somerset Blvd. That began a wave of street name changes from Compton to Marine Ave. to the west of the city, with Redondo Beach becoming the last to change the name in 1990.

Once Compton Blvd., Marine Ave. (sign at left) now begins at this intersection with Vermont Ave. in Gardena. (Credit: Google Earth)

South Bay city officials tried to downplay accusations of racism by Compton city officials, who claimed the cities made the changes because they didn’t want to be associated with Compton’s negative image, especially then, as infested with crime and gangs. 

They claimed that Marine Ave. was a more befitting name for a roadway that leads west almost to the Pacific Ocean, though that didn’t quite explain why inland cities such as Hawthorne and Gardena adopted the name. Marine Ave. now begins the journey west to its Manhattan Beach terminus at Vermont Ave. in Gardena.

Doris Ave. in the Sleepy Hollow area of Torrance, here lit up for the neighborhood’s annual Christmas light displays in 2016, is among the many western Torrance streets with female first names created by developer Ben Haggott in the early 1950s. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

Developers have to submit new street names for their housing tracts to city and county planning agencies for approval, a process that Torrance developer Ben Haggott used in the early 1950s to give western Torrance its plethora of streets with female first names. They were named after his children and the children of friends and relatives.

Decades later, the developer of The Verdi Collection gated community in Torrance was less successful in getting opera-themed names for its streets in 1991. The city turned down the Guiseppe Verdi-related Aida, Otello and Traviata names, requiring instead that the names inside the gates — Elm, Date, Dorset and Woodbury — agree with corresponding and existing city street names for clarity’s sake.

Note: Special thanks to Douglas Thompson of the Redondo Beach Public Library.

The developers of The Verdi Collection homes across Crenshaw Blvd. from Wilson Park in Torrance were turned down in 1991 when they asked to use street names related to opera composer Giuseppe Verdi inside their gated community. (June 2021 photo by Sam Gnerre)

Sources:

City of Redondo Beach Historic Context Statement, by Marguerite Duncan-Abrams and Barbara Milkovich, Ph.D, Historical Resources Management, 1995.

Daily Breeze archives.

The Entirely Readable City: Notes on Los Angeles Cartography and Street Grid(s),” The Asphalt Island blog, March 20, 2018.

Los Angeles Times archives.

Redondo Reflex archives.

San Pedro News Pilot archives.

Torrance Press-Herald archives.

Compton Blvd. sign in East Rancho Dominguez in 2015. The unincorporated county area just east of Compton quietly changed its name from East Compton in 1990, in an attempt to play down its proximity to Compton, but kept the Compton Blvd. name. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

1920 earthquake brought mandatory urban renewal to Inglewood

The Inglewood Hotel, located on Queen Street between Market and Commercial streets, in 1902. (Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

Real estate developer Daniel Freeman tried hard to convince people to buy lots in the  Inglewood area after he acquired the Rancho Sausal Redondo and the Rancho Aguaje de la Centinela lands in the 1880s.

He became a central figure in the development of Inglewood through his Centinela-Inglewood Land Company, formed in 1887. Freeman eventually became a very wealthy man through subdivision and sale of his real estate holdings.

He built some structures on the mostly empty land in an attempt to portray the development as attractive and thriving. One of them, the Inglewood Hotel, went up in 1888.

At first it didn’t even operate as a hotel, serving more as an advertising facade than an actual business. By the early 1900s, private owners began taking guests, but the hotel was far from luxurious.

Huge cracks are visible on the Inglewood School immediately after the 1920 quake. It was built in 1911 to replace the 1888 grammar school building.(Credit: USC. Digital Library)

Other early buildings in the city included the nearby First National Bank of Inglewood, built around 1905, the Inglewood Grammar School, the city’s first school, built in 1888, and several business buildings in the town’s Commercial Ave./Queen St. business district. (Commercial later would be renamed La Brea.)

The city incorporated in 1908. By 1920, Inglewood wasn’t exactly thriving, but it did have about 4,000 residents and an assessed total valuation of just over $1 million.

Citizens Savings Bank, dark building at left, following the 1920 quake. Apartment house rooms lie exposed at right, with heavily damaged drugstore at center bottom of buildings. (Credit: California State Library)

All of that changed on June 21, 1920, when a 4.9 earthquake on the Newport-Inglewood fault shook the city in the middle of the day, at 12:35 p.m.

While not a mammoth temblor by modern standards, the quake turned out to be plenty powerful enough to do major damage to many of Inglewood’s downtown buildings as well as to its water mains and streetlights.

Newspaper accounts of the event bent over backward to spin the damage as minor and relatively inconsequential. While it’s true that no one was killed in the quake, most of the buildings mentioned above did suffer major damage.

Photograph of a furniture store, left, and funeral parlor, right, after the 1920 Inglewood quake. In the foreground are four unknown people observing the aftermath of the quake. (Credit: Inglewood Public Library)

The aging hotel’s shoddy workmanship was revealed when it was seriously damaged by the quake. It marked the end for the hotel, which never reopened and would be torn down shortly afterward.

The First National Bank also was a total loss, and the Citizens Savings Bank was left with  serious structural damage. The Inglewood Grammar School on Queen St. was devastated by the quake, and was a total loss.

Dozens of storefronts suffered damage, including pharmacies, grocery stores and the town’s movie theater. Some just had windows and merchandise broken, but several had at least one wall collapse.

Sightseers examine the destruction caused by the 1920 Inglewood quake. Los Angeles Herald, June 22, 1920, Page 1. (Credit: Los Angeles Herald archives)

Thousands of spectators descended on the small city to view the effects of the temblor, climbing through the rubble to look at the buildings with their now-exposed interior rooms. Additional law enforcement had to be called to the scene to control the overflow crowds.

Initial estimates put the total damages in the city at about $100,000, which probably was on the conservative side. Work began quickly to clear the bricks, broken glass and other rubble from the streets even as aftershocks caused further jitters. The city’s water mains and streetlights also were repaired over the next few days.

Also, plans to rebuild the affected parts of the city were announced almost immediately. The First National Bank was rebuilt completely. Citizens Savings spent about $40,000 repairing its dinged building, and a new school began going up on the site of the old grammar school. It would eventually evolve into Crozier Middle School, which occupies the site today.

The original First National Bank building in Inglewood. Undated postcard, circa 1907-14. (Credit: CSUDH Digital Archives)
The rebuilt First National Bank opened in 1924. It was a Pacific Southwest Bank branch when this 1927 photo was taken. (Credit: USC Digital Library)

Businesses repaired their storefronts and interiors. As mentioned, the hotel wasn’t rebuilt, but a new city hall began to rise on Queen St. in 1923. 

The 1920s brought a surge in prosperity to the area. Local historian Gladys Waddingham attributed the uptick partially to those visitors to the quake scene being attracted enough to the area to pursue resettling there in her book, The History of Inglewood (Historical Society of Centinela Valley, 1994).

Whether that or merely the 1920s business boom was the cause of the city’s rejuvenation, things changed quickly for the better in Inglewood. By 1927, just seven years after the earthquake, the city’s population topped 25,000, and its total valuation was estimated at more than $13 million.

And it’s hard to deny that its citizens had the 1920 quake to thank for the ensuing rapid urban renewal that changed the face of their city.

Undated pre-1920 quake postcard shows Queen St., including First National Bank, left, City Hall, right, and Inglewood Grammar School, behind and to right of City Hall. (Credit: CSUDH Digital Archives)

Sources:

Daily Breeze archives. 

The History of Inglewood, by Gladys Waddingham, published by the Historical Society of Centinela Valley, 1994.

Los Angeles Herald archives.

Los Angeles Times archives.

San Pedro News Pilot archives.

Inglewood in 1894. (Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

Surfing pioneer Hap Jacobs helped shape surfboard creation into a fine art

Legendary South Bay surfboard designer Hap Jacobs at his Hermosa Beach workshop in March 2011. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

Hap Jacobs has popped up from time to time in past entries on this blog, but his life and role as one of the founding fathers of surf culture in the South Bay cries out for a more detailed exploration.

Dudley George “Hap” Jacobs was born in Los Angeles in 1930. His father was a plumber, and the family originally lived in West L.A. They moved to Hermosa Beach in 1938, when Hap (short for “happy”) was in the fourth grade.

At first, he didn’t like the idea of having to leave behind his West L.A. friends, but he soon took to the beach lifestyle. At 16, he got a job working at California Surfrider in Manhattan Beach, an outfit that rented out inflatable rubber mats for wave-riding.

His job was to sweep off the mats and keep them inflated them properly. As a side benefit, he was allowed to use them to ride waves at the Manhattan Beach Pier. Around this time, roughly 1946, he also noticed a group of older guys riding their crude redwood surfboards and congregating at the base of the Hermosa Beach pier, led by the brusque, charismatic Dale Velzy.

Hap Jacobs surfs in Hawaii in the 1960’s in this undated photo. (Daily Breeze file photo)

He graduated from Redondo Union High School in 1951. Next, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard for a two-year hitch. He was stationed in Oahu, as luck would have it, and fell in with a group of seasoned surfers at Makaha. The group included fellow South Bay surfing pioneer Greg Noll.

While in Hawaii, he began to learn the art of surfboard shaping from transplanted American surfing legend George Downing. In addition, he met his wife, Patricia, while stationed there.

After his Coast Guard stint, the couple returned to Hermosa, living in a small apartment. Jacobs tried out a job as a carpenter’s apprentice at UCLA, where his dad often did plumbing work. Despite the benefits of health insurance and a pension, he hated the job too much to stay.

Hap Jacobs shapes a board out of balsa wood just like he did when he started in the 1960’s at Jacobs Surfboards in Hermosa Beach.. Oct.13, 2007. (Daily Breeze staff file photo).

His fellow employees were stunned when he quit. “ I told them I wanted to make driftwood furniture and surfboards. They said, ‘You have to be analyzed. This is a bad idea,’” Jacobs told Daily Breeze reporter Douglas Morino in 2011.

Jacobs and South Bay diver Bev Morgan decided to pool their resources in 1953 and go into business together. Jacobs shaped the surfboards, and Morgan designed and made custom wetsuits. They opened their store, Dive ‘N Surf, at 223 Hermosa Ave. in Redondo Beach.

Jacobs didn’t stay long. Later that year, he sold his share in Dive ‘N Surf to twin brothers Bob and Bill Meistrell, who went on to create the Body Glove empire from there.

Looking to concentrate on creating quality surfboards, Jacobs met up with Dale Velzy through Bill Meistrell. The pair opened the Velzy-Jacobs surf shop at Venice Beach. After several profitable years, the duo split up in 1959.

Shortly afterward, Jacobs opened his Jacobs Surfboards shop at 422 Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa, a combination retail and manufacturing site. One of the first things he did there was to design the iconic diamond-shaped Jacobs logo, which quickly would become the hallmark of a quality board.

Undated Jacobs ad from Surfer magazine circa early 1960s. (Credit: Credit: International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame website)

He was in the right business in the right place at the right time. The surfing craze swept Southern California and the nation in the early 1960s, and, for a while, Hermosa Beach was ground zero. At one time, more than a dozen surf shops lined PCH and environs, including those run by Greg Noll and Dewey Weber.

The business started to change in the late 1960s with the advent of shorter, more maneuverable boards in place of the longboard style favored by Jacobs. Sales dropped off, and in 1971, he sold his share in the business.

South Bay surfboard designer Hap Jacobs poses with some of his boards in 2011 at age 80. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

He used the money to become a commercial fisherman for the next twenty years, buying a swordfishing boat (the “Patricia J”) and operating the fuel dock at King Harbor between swordfish runs. Around the same time, he and his wife settled in Palos Verdes Estates, where they still live.

In 1991, amazingly, he returned to boardshaping. By now, with decades of experience, his boards more resembled the work of an artist than merely a craftsmen, and were sold mostly to private buyers. Along the way, he had won the enduring respect and admiration of a whole new generation of surfboard makers such as Donald Takayama, Robert August and Matt Calvani.

Hap Jacobs shapes a board out of balsa wood in his workshop in Hermosa Beach in 2007. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

Jacobs shaped his final surfboard in April 2019 at age 88. 

For his lifetime of work, he has been honored many times. In 2003, he was named a charter member of the Hermosa Beach Surfers Walk of Fame, with a plaque in his name installed on the Hermosa Beach Pier.

A surprise tribute dinner celebrating his life and work was held at Captain Kidd’s restaurant in Redondo Beach in September 2014. More than 100 of his former friends, colleagues and admirers attended the event, which Jacobs attended with his wife, Patricia.

As Daily Breeze reporter Carly Dryden aptly put it in her story about the event,  “In true form, the humble Jacobs spoke few words, standing seemingly in disbelief with a sheepish grin, as grown men cried tears of joy and thanked Jacobs for changing their lives.”

Former surf team members, friends and admirers gathered on Sept. 4, 2014 at Captain Kidd’s in Redondo Beach to celebrate and share memories with legendary surfboard shaper Hap Jacobs. Jacobs listens to stories with his wife, Patricia. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

Sources:

Daily Breeze files.

“Hap Jacobs,”  International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame website.

“Hap Jacobs” (interview), by Glenn Sakamoto, Liquid Salt website, April 2010.

“Hap Jacobs, last of Hermosa Beach’s Golden age of Surfing shapers, shapes final surfboard,” by Kevin Cody, Easy Reader, April 7, 2019.

Los Angeles Times files.

Longtime South Bay surfboard maker Hap Jacobs in his Hermosa Beach workshop in 1999. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)

Mary Star of the Sea church, schools a vital part of San Pedro community

The second Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church at Ninth and Centre streets in San Pedro opened in 1905. Undated photo circa 1909. (Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church has played an important role in the San Pedro community ever since its founding in 1889 by Bishop Francisco Mora i Borell. The Spanish  priest, known as Bishop Mora, headed the Monterey-Los Angeles diocese in the late 1800s, and helped establish the modern Catholic Church in California.

His innovations included setting up a parish in San Pedro, then a bustling fishing community that had incorporated just the year before on March 1, 1888. (It would be annexed by Los Angeles in 1909 as part of the port consolidation.) The Mary Star of the Sea Parish remains one of the oldest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The first Masses in the city took place at Swinford’s Hall, a meeting place at 324 Fifth St. in San Pedro. They were conducted by a Father Morgan of Wilmington. A small wooden structure, the first of three Mary Star of the Sea churches, went up shortly afterward on a small lot on West Ninth St. 

Group of First Communion recipients at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Pedro in 1951. (Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

The name Mary Star of the Sea comes from medieval times, and is a translation from the Latin title Stella Maris, “Our Lady, Star of the Sea,” which refers to the Virgin Mary’s role as a guiding star for fishermen and other seafaring workers. Catholics in many coastal fishing communities long have expressed devotion to this religious guardian figure.

When it started to become clear shortly after the turn of the century that San Pedro would become the official Port of Los Angeles, church officials began raising funds to buy a larger plot of land that would sustain not only a much larger church, but a school, rectory and convent.

Entrance to the current Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Pedro. Latin inscription above the door reads, “Mary, Star of the Sea ,Pray For Us.” (May 2021 photo by Sam Gnerre)

The new church on the northwest corner of Ninth and Centre streets opened in 1905. The first Mary Star of the Sea Elementary School opened nearly a decade later, in 1914, with 200 students. The Norbertine priests gave up their rectory in order to house the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), who came to the parish to operate the school. A new rectory built for the priests was dedicated in February 1915.

The parish built close bonds with San Pedro’s fishing community over the next few decades. It called for their support as well as that of the diocese for several new projects beginning in the late 1940s. All of them were built on a large parcel of land near Eighth St. and Cabrillo Ave. shrewdly purchased by the parish in 1919.

Aerial from early 1950s shows the complex at Eighth St., bottom, and Cabrillo Ave., top right, before the new church was built in the empty area visible at lower left. New high school building is at far right. (Credit: “Mary Star High School Class Reunion 1978 1979 1980” video, Nov. 14, 2009, YouTube)

First came a new convent in 1948, followed by a roomier elementary school building in 1950. A church auditorium went up in 1951, followed by a new rectory in 1952.

A key part of one of the major new projects was dedicated by James Francis Cardinal McIntyre on Jan. 25, 1953. The two-story brick structure was the first building of Mary Star of the Sea High School to be constructed.

Cardinal McIntyre, flanked by priests, blesses the new Mary Star of the Sea High School building on Jan. 25, 1953. (Credit: USC Digital Library)

The new coeducational high school had been established in 1951, sharing facilities with the elementary school, but the need for a separate campus soon became obvious. Staffed mostly again by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, it graduated its first senior class in June 1954.

Attention now turned to building a bigger Mary Star of the Sea church on the same parcel. Construction on the new edifice at 870 W. Eighth St. began in February 1958, and it opened later that year.

Stained glass window at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Pedro shows Jesus blessing a fisherman on the bow of a fishing boat as fishermen haul in a large catch. Photo taken Sept. 27, 1989. (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

The new church could accommodate 1,200 persons, and its initial cost was estimated at $307,000, or more than $2.8 million adjusted for inflation.

Local fishermen raised $7,000 for the striking bronze statue of Mary Star of the Sea surrounded by a crown of stars that tops the building. A stained glass window at the church also depicts Jesus in a boat speaking to fishermen.

Workmen prepare the bronze statue of Mary Star of the Sea for hoisting to the top of the church in 1958. (Credit: “Mary Star High School Class Reunion 1978 1979 1980” video, Nov. 14, 2009, YouTube)

In the fall of 1959, the archdiocese opened a new all-male school in San Pedro, Fermin Lasuen High. For the next 12 years until Fermin Lasuen’s 1971 closure, Mary Star of the Sea became an all-girls school. It returned to coed learning in 1971.

In 1995, Rev. Norbert Wood, principal of Mary Star high school, put in a bid on 27 acres of land on Taper Ave. in north San Pedro that was part of an abandoned Navy housing development. “I just assumed it was a shot in the dark,” he later told Daily Breeze reporter Donna Littlejohn after the property surprisingly was awarded to the school.

It would take about a dozen years, but the land eventually would house a brand new high school to replace the overcrowded Eighth St. facility.

The new Mary Star of the Sea High School campus on Taper Ave. in San Pedro opened in 2007. (May 2021 photo by Sam Gnerre)

The San Pedro architectural firm of BOA Architecture was hired to design the new school in 1997. In 1999, the 126 old Navy houses on the property began to be cleared. The Los Angeles Planning Commission gave final approval for the project in 2001.

The next few years were spent securing financing for the campus, which was expected to cost upwards of $25 million to build. Construction finally began in late 2004, and the new high school was completed three years later. Cardinal Roger Mahony dedicated the campus on Sept. 30, 2007, and its first classes were held on Nov. 28, 2007.

The Norbertine fathers operate the school separately from the San Pedro church of the same name.

Mary Star of the Sea parish continues to operate from its church built in 1958, and currently serves more than 5,000 parishioners.

Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church with statue-topped tower in San Pedro. (May 2021 photo by Sam Gnerre)

Sources:

CPI Inflation Calculator website.

Daily Breeze files.

Los Angeles Times files.

Mary Star of the Sea Parish website.

San Pedro: A Pictorial History, by Henry P. Silka, San Pedro Bay Historical Society, 1993.

San Pedro News Pilot files.

“School History,” Mary Star of the Sea High School website.

Wikipedia.

Salutatorian Christina Padilla addresses 119 seniors graduating from Mary Star of the Sea High School inside Mary Star of the Sea church in May 2014. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)
The Mary Star of the Sea Parish Fiesta had been held every July between 1947 and 2019 until the pandemic caused the 2020 event to be canceled. The 2012 event is shown above. (Daily Breeze staff file photo)
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