Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ghost Restaurant

The doors closed at 7373 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles in the late summer of 1961, and on the glass there was a sign posted that read:  "Closed for vacation.  Be back August 23d."  But that date came and went.  The place settings remained on the tables and a pot of the Original Spanish Kitchen's famous enchilada sauce was still on the heavy commercial stove. 

The Kitchen had been popular since its opening in 1932; many stars including Bob Hope, John Barrymore and Mary Pickford dropped by regularly.  Founder John Caretto not only served food that people came back for; they enjoyed his warmth and humanity even more.  So he and his restaurant were missed in the waning months of 1961, in a sprawling city with many hundreds of other places, some much more famous and certainly more tony.

With no explanation from John's widow and co-owner Pearl forthcoming, the mystery grew and so did the rumors, especially after an article appeared in the L.A. Times.  A story on TV's Lou Grant Show was based on the closed and untouched restaurant, which added an angle involving murder of the owners, who lived upstairs.

Writer Don Ray, doing extensive research for a 1986 article in Tables magazine, eventually found out what had happened, and why, despite Pearl and her daughter refusing to talk about it.  The daughter, living in Phoenix, did drop enough hints so the long story could be brought to light.

When John's Parkinson's disease finally prevented him from going on after three busy decades, Pearl attempted to keep the Kitchen open for a while and simultaneously take of her husband upstairs.  She did believe the closing would be temporary, and John would recover enough to go back to work.  That is why she kept it ready, even after he died in 1967.  Pearl never considered a possible new operator, who might "change any thing in what had been Johnny's whole life."  That was the only statement Mr. Ray teased out of Pearl's daughter, but it was the only explanation needed.

A beauty salon and spa opened in the building in 2005 after Pearl was gone (she had remained upstairs as somewhat of a recluse since 1961), and the iconic sign was defaced by covering up all its letters except S P A.


There's enough weirdness in L.A., even just in the restaurant business, to keep us busy here for a while.  If you want to take a look, writer Mark Evanier's blog www.oldlarestaurants.com is a delightful treasure trove.  A good example:  the Quality Cafe, which stayed open after it stopped serving customers in 2006.  It has a new and very busy ghost life as a set in more TV shows and movies than anyone can name.  People recognize the seats, counter, napkin holders and coffee cups, seen in such shows as Mad Men and CSI:NY (despite it being a West Coast diner!) as well as movies -- Million Dollar Baby, Se7en, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Catch Me If You Can, Gone in 60 Seconds and many more.

Only in L.A...


Friday, February 20, 2015

Por La Causa

The slogan, "they shall not pass!"
was originally spoken by a French general
 at the Battle of Verdun
Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American
volunteers who fought to defend the Spanish Republic in
the Civil War of 1936-1939, participated in a 1981 march
on Washington against Reagan's support for the
repressive regime in El Salvador, wearing their
exotic berets and carrying their banner.

A young protester said to a former officer of the ALB,
"We have the same heart.  I hope my generation has
the same courage as yours."

Most literate people probably remember the character
Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls.
If your life has been celebrated in a major novel of
the century and in a film where you are portrayed by
Gary Cooper, you may have done some memorable
or courageous things yourself.  Or people may forget
your real name and that your short, heroic and tragic life was
not fiction.

In 1936, 27 nations signed the Non-Intervention Agreement to state their neutrality in regard to the Spanish Civil War (really a military coup that became three years of class war), imposing an arms embargo.  It didn't work out because Germany and Italy sent troops, airplanes, supplies and armor to General Francisco Franco's "Nationalist" forces, and the USSR did the same for the Republic, the formula for a proxy war between major powers.

Initially, the milicianos of various unions and parties faced Franco's experienced African Army  which was strongly augmented by dozens of divisions of well-trained and -equipped Axis troops, confronting that formidable opposition with leftover World War I weapons and never enough air power or artillery.  35,000 people worldwide heard a call they could not resist to come to the aid of the Republic in this grossly unequal fight.  They were called the International Brigades, streaming in from England, Poland, Belgium, France, Canada, Italy, Austria and the Balkans; there were several thousand from the United States in two battalions (the Washington and the Lincoln).  Their arrival saved Madrid from Franco early in the war and gave a hopeless cause great hope. 

They, the milicianos, some Russian fliers and regular troops then advanced to contain Franco's Nationalists on the banks of the Jarama in early 1937, but at a horrific cost to the International Brigades. The Axis artillery, air power and armor took another huge toll in the Brunete offensive later in the year when the IB lost another 4300.

Robert Merriman, third from the left
The commander of the ALB was wounded in the shoulder at the battle of Jarama (a total of nine commanded over the duration; four died and four were wounded).  An unlikely-looking volunteer soldier, he was a tall, bespectacled, former economics professor (at UC Berkeley) named Robert Hale Merriman.  His background must have made him sympathetic to the downtrodden ordinary people of Spain; the son of a poor lumberjack, Merriman worked his way through college then won a fellowship for graduate school.  Among those jobs were construction and ranching, and Merriman spent two years in the ROTC, because he needed the $7.50 a month pay.  He and an ex-Army sergeant were put in charge of training the enthusiastic but inexperienced American volunteers at their first camp in Spain.  He led from the front in action as they defeated the Nationalists in house-to-house fighting in Belchite, where he was again wounded by grenade shrapnel.

As Soviet support dwindled and Axis bombers pounded the defenders and civilians both indiscrimately and relentlessly, the Nationalists pushed toward Catalonia.  The remants of the Lincoln Brigade (now merged with the Washington and under the 15th IB) couldn't hold any high ground and were lying low in a vineyard near the town of Gandesa in August 1938.  When Merriman left cover to organize his men, he and LT Edgar Cody were cut down by machine gun fire.

The last salute of the International Brigades at Montblanch
The International Brigades were dissolved two months later by the prime minister in an effort to appease the Axis powers, hoping they would respond in kind and withdraw their troops.  By then, there were only 7000 left alive.  That action was not only in vain, but the Brigades' exit was a sad thing.  Marooned in dirty, cold villages, they had to wait for international representatives to sort out their legal status and return them home.  Many who went to fascist-dominated countries were imprisoned, driven to suicide or executed.  At home, the few Americans (about 300) who returned were watched by the FBI, rejected by the American Legion and hounded in the post-World War II red-scare years by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  The Republic's government and military was indeed largely taken over by Stalin's agents, and the guilt by association lingered the rest of their lives.  So many never came home to be shamed, or be called mercenaries, remaining where they fell on the Spanish soil.

Photojournalist Gerda Taro did not survive the war

"Sheer force can trample the human spirit underfoot..."   -- Albert Camus

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Closing Time

Another one bit the dust.  The third or fourth little bakery/cafe in a row suddenly closed.  The owners were hard-working and personable, and prices around here are always reasonable, but something always seems to be off, like their 10 am - 2 pm hours.  There is parking to be found, all free.  The odds against any of these little shops surviving must be staggering.  I'm not sure anyone who keeps aspirations and emotions out of the equation and considers only the hard facts would ever open a small business in a small downtown.

We had a big, busy bakery cafe in town for years, named after its owner, chef Dingeldein, formerly of the Hotel Hershey, which was esteemed enough to draw customers from across the river and the region.  We also had, for three decades, an Irish themed restaurant and bar that had the same status (although not the same high quality food products).  Both were in old buildings, with a load of character and an equal load of physical problems -- and both are gone despite their popularity.  The main thoroughfare, Bridge Street (so called, but actually Third) has constant traffic but little of it stops.  Someone in the past did have the brilliant idea of eliminating the parking meters, which keep me (and probably others) away from Carlisle and Harrisburg, but that's not enough.  The post office seems to be the only storefront that will probably not go blank suddenly.

A pair of shops further up the street have housed so many six-month enterprises it's hard to recall them.  Diners do well around the area and seem to last for decades, but the 24-hour one at Fourth Street seemed closed today as we drove by.  I knew the ramshackle building they opened in had been for sale for $450,000 -- I hoped they didn't pay near that; you can't pay that kind of mortgage off with $2 breakfasts.  Maybe they found that out the hard way.

I know of a few businesses operated as a hobby by ladies with husbands who came with high incomes, an inherited building or family money.  For those trying to make a living at it all on their own, though...good luck. 

The sale prices of these old buildings, and the rents, are nowhere in line with the condition they're in.  One has a wet, slipping foundation so bad it won't sell, and poor slobs (at least six I can think of over recent years) pay, most likely, far too much rent which bails out the owner but does who knows how much damage to their own futures.  Even the former home of Dingeldein's bakery (now a deli, which seems to be hanging in there), has really deficient electrical service in the front of the store where refrigeration units are usually placed.  Heating and cooling these spaces, especially at commercial rates, is eventually an unsupportable expense (as one former business lady explained to me).  And there is insurance of all kinds, as well as permits, fees and licenses.

A higher-end men's resale clothing shop opened a while ago, and we've bought some very good things there for very little.  There is no competition, but the demographic around here is just old, and neither retired white-collar or still-working blue-collar older men buy nice clothes.  The former have closets full they won't wear out, and the latter get replacements at Wal-Mart.  A pilates and a yoga studio have opened on either side; time will tell whether that kind of service business can last.

No one has any answers.  A half-dozen malls have failed in Richmond, VA, and that is a bigger, richer and more vibrant market than we'll ever have here.  And they have tried everything, at huge expense, to bring back their downtown, which used to have everything.  Now, it's like:


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Barely There

Barely there??  I might be misleading you a little, unless you would enjoy this (fictional) cable access show:

A Sheldon Cooper Production

because we're talking geopolitical oddities, not Miami Beach swimwear.  I understand if you're disappointed.

There are over 200 sovereign states in the world, but it's not easy to establish one.  Any number of them have almost, but not quite, come into being or have and lasted as little as seven hours.  You're curious about that one, mmm?  Some of these declared nations have pretty amusing stories behind them, but this one does not.  During the Nigerian civil war of 1967 - 1970, the southeastern region of Biafra tried to secede, due to extreme ethnic differences, from Nigeria, and set up a buffer puppet state next door named the Republic of Benin on September 19, 1967 during a pause in the advance of the Federal forces.  Biafra itself was recognized by some other states worldwide, but there was little time for that in the case of Benin.

The second shortest life for a country was 24 hours, in the case of Carpatho-Ukraine, which was once the far eastern end of Czechoslovakia.  It and Slovakia were autonomous after the Munich Agreement of September 1938, but soon each region lost their southern thirds to Hungary.  On March 14 and 15, Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine declared their independence but Hungary invaded knowing it had the full support of the Axis powers; both were quickly conquered and annexed.  Carpatho-Ukraine surprisingly did have a short constitution, a president and a cabinet in that day; they fled to Romania when the cause was lost.  The Soviets took the Carpatho region from Hungary and attached it to its Ukraine in early 1945, where it stays.

American history students learn of the short-lived Vermont, Texas and California republics, and the proposed one of Franklin, but who has ever heard of the Republic of Madawaska of that of Indian Stream?  They did exist, and the former's flag still flies in the Edmunston (New Brunswick) city hall.  Gone, but not forgotten.

The woodsy Republic's flag

The name means "porcupine place" in a local Algonquin language, and Madawaska consisted of parts of New Brunswick, Maine and Quebec.  The border between the new United States and still-British Canada weas a little vague in backwoods areas after the Treaty of Paris (1783), allowing locals to do things like declaring their own countries, which one John Baker did in 1827.  The authorities to the north didn't much appreciate that, and arrested, fined and jailed him for the cheekiness.  Not really organized as a country, it nonetheless lasted until 1842, when a treaty settled the border and put and end to Madawaska and the Republic of Indian Stream also.

Indian Stream is located in the north of New Hampshire on the border with Quebec, and was home to 300 people in their own 291-square-mile country from 1832 until 1835.  It was more of a state than its neighbor in that it had an elected government and constitution; President: Luther Parker.  The reason for declaring its independence was the annoyance of both British and U.S. officials coming by to collect taxes.  A plague on both your houses, the backwoodsmen (and women) said!  But after a big dustup over its expedition into Canada to free one of their brethern imprisoned there over debt, the Indian Stream citizens elected to join the United States and cease their contrariness.  But it took a long time for the Census and maps to catch up with the Republic's formal end.

The Sahrawi people and flag

There are many more, like declared island nations (one on a WWII North Sea gun platform sort of serving as an island) no one recognizes but no one bothers about; an area of 800 square miles between Egypt and Sudan (Bir Tawil) that is unpopulated and claimed by neither country (you can bet it would be if there were oil present), and a partially recognized country that's a slice of the former Spanish Sahara bordering Algeria in northwest Africa (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), whose governmental business is conducted from a refugee camp.  It does have a wonderfully titled national anthem that could have come from one of those early 20th century films and operas set in exotic lands:  "O Sons of the Sahara." 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Finding The Osage Orange

This long winter nap thing is getting old.  Winter and discontent, as Shakespeare observed, are closely linked.  What to do?  Weekday getaway, that's what.

To the far northeast corner of Maryland we go.

Nancy found Elk Forge, a 250-year old manse turned B&B, and we lit out during a little break in the relentless waves of frozen precipitation coming from north, west and south.  As we expected, hardly any guests were there and the wind chill and mud on the walking trail kept outdoor activities to a minimum (except for a dip in the hot tub the first evening; feet almost froze to the deck but a Sonoma Cabernet made things much better).  We were lodged on the third floor, directly below the attic, where the ghosts hang out in Colonial-era buildings.
The Osage Orange, not a great choice for your yard

There is a large water feature behind the wedding reception hall, valiantly flowing through mounds of ice, and many signs of deer.  We asked the handyman what the piles of tropical-looking rotting fruits were, and he pointed to the witchy tree centered on the rear lawn, identifying it as an Osage Orange.  The fruits, it turns out, though produced in abundance, are useless.  I recall the wood is a beautiful orange-flame color, but anything that has lived this long deserves not to become a dining table just yet.

We had a few nearby places to visit on our list; first was the ghost town of Frenchtown, to the south and by the Elk River.  It had been a small but busy port and depot before being burned by a British Admiral named Cockburn in 1813.  The C&D Canal and the railroads made its comeback a non-starter.  Today the road to it is lined with homes, all of the white, but a gate where the pavement gives way to dirt and gravel keeps curious folk like us out.  A large tavern lived on after the town disappeared, and was said to have been particularly ghost-ridden, but it burned down in the 1960s.

The woods are full of abandoned farm buildings and homes

We proceeded on to a charming town we had never heard of, Chesapeake City, on said C&D Canal, and reached over a bridge so tall (so shippng can clear it) anyone who dislikes heights would have been shaking.  It resembled our recent discovery of Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada: water and wineries nearby, more Victorian architecture than you can take in, and several alluring dining and watering holes.  The single-digit wind chill, despite a brilliant sun, kept our tour a short one; in fact, we didn't see one other person out.  I found a summertime picture on the internet of where we parked alone, and it was jammed with cars everywhere, as you would expect.  We'll be back -- it's only two hours away -- to spend a full day in the Spring before the summer crowds arrive.  I almost hate to publicize it!

Cecil County (that far northeastern corner of Maryland) has an impressive industrial history, but it's mostly expressed now in stone ruins and the hundreds of simple worker homes that remain, as it is history by now, dying out after 1930.  Famous for mills of all types (saw, textile, flax, paper and more), the county's glory was the iron industry, particularly the Principio furnace and specialized offshoots such as a nail factory.  In the 19th century, slave labor replaced that of the indentured servants who had moved on to be landowners and farmers.  Old atlases show hundreds of dwellings and farms that are lost in the woods today.

Charmer on the C&D Canal

You can almost hear the echoes of a vitally busy past, like the footsteps of the entire Continental Army going down the Old Post Road south to Yorktown in Virginia and...into history.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Sold by the Golden Rule"

Like some others in the 60s and 70s, I had a dream of building a DIY home to be mortgage-free, starting off with a small cabin-like core, and I thought I'd found a way to do that without learning all there is to know about construction from foundation to chimney when I came across a start-up called Shelter Kit from New Hampshire.  Founded in 1970, it looks like it would have been a good choice after all, as they have survived and today have models far in advance of their original simple bolt-together cubes (www.Shelter-kit.com).
Never did find any land though; looked at a few sites that were priced low enough to be possibly acquired, and they were all unbuildable or hard to get to and get to work from -- even I could see that having about a half-dozen springs under the squishy grass was a sucker deal.  Real estate agents back then weren't constrained by many truth-telling rules, and the buyer had better be pretty aware.
I was aware of the Jim Walter plan, whose only attractive quality was price and the choice to finish as much of the interior by yourself, in time, as you desired.  They were bone ugly, though, and I had serious doubts about the quality of materials.  The only other kit home I knew of was Sears, but they had ceased production in 1942!  It still probably wouldn't have come together, but it's a shame I'd never heard of Aladdin Homes until this week.
Founded in Bay City, Michigan, in 1906, the company started with kit boat houses, cabins and garages.  They moved up to what they termed "Knocked Down Dwelling Houses" and had almost 2 1/2 % of the housing starts in 1918, after enjoying success with U.S. government contracts during World War I.  Dupont bought hundreds of their kits to house workers for their dynamite and gunpowder plants in Hopewell and Sandston, VA during the war.  Although many have been torn down, Hopewell still has many remaining (although mis-identified as Sears homes on the historical marker!).  Their quality (they guaranteed no knots in the lumber) and architectural charm -- especially in the Craftsman, rustic and bungalow styles -- still stand out a century after being constructed.
Whats not to love? The Aladdin Brentwood as seen in the 1919 catalog. What a house!
Before the Depression knocked them back, the company was devastated by the pop of the Florida real estate bubble in 1926.  In a bold move, they had bought enough land in Dade County, 20 miles south of Miami, for a planned community of 10,000 in 1925.  As a publicity stunt, the first home in Aladdin City -- the community was to be in "the Persian style," with a center called Ali Baba Circle -- was built in one day.  There was a big problem before the boom went bust, however:  Florida's rail and road infrastructure couldn't handle the hundreds of boxcars of materials that were to be shipped from the company's plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, and to the railroad, shipment of perishables came first anyway.  Aladdin, after building a few homes, had to sell the large amount of land at a loss over the succeeding years. 
Hurricane Andrew destroyed the remaining structures in 1992; some streets with their quaint names are all that remains.
After building some company towns (even one in England) and structures under government contracts during WWII, Aladdin's classic designs didn't suit buyers in the midcentury and they moved to almost all ranch styles, with the postwar tagline "Readi-Cut" replacing "Knocked Down."  Ahead of their time, they also offered pre-assembled exterior and interior walls and doorframes in the 1970s.  But the end was in sight when inflation and the high mortgage interest rates priced people out of new construction.  The last catalog came out in 1980, and all operations came to an end in 1987.  The company sold 50,000 home kits during its three-quarters of a century existence, and was always family owned.
But don't put your hammer down yet.  Last year, the old trademark's new owner launched Aladdin again on the internet (www.thealaddincompany.com).  Take a look -- imagine building an early 20th century Craftsman with a modern interior and insulation.  My tastes have gotten a little more expensive since the bolt-together cube days, and I really hope someone does it.