Meet Milton Charles, organist of silent movies

The following article first appeared in the Wednesday, February 15, 1978 edition of the “Ojai Valley News” on Page A-9. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Meet Milton Charles, organist of silent movies
by
Brenda Loree


“Critics consider him one of the greatest organists in America,” says Arthur Eddy of his friend Milton Charles, who is now retired in Ojai.

Charles was born in San Jose “a long time ago,” and reminisced recently about what it was like playing the organ in the silent movie days of the 20’s among other things.

Milton was taking piano lessons by the time he was seven — he was part of a musical family — and considers that his first lucky break was when well-known San Francisco teacher Benjamin Moore accepted him as an organ student at no fee.

His first paid job was at age 13, when he “got my first church” at $25 a month. He continued with his lessons, too, until he heard that they were using organists in movie theaters. At age 15 he was earning $50 a week playing San Francisco movie theaters, very big money at that time. And no longer took lessons because his teacher highly disapproved of his new job.

MILTON SAYS the musical accompaniment he provided for the silents was strictly improvisation. He never played the same thing twice, although he would occasionally keep using the same musical theme if he hit on one he liked.

He was still a teenager when he got his first “big time” break. “I got a call from Sid Grauman (of Grauman’s Chinese Theater) one night. He offered me a job at the Million Dollar Theater in L.A. at $85 a week.”

Milton took the job and began a friendship with Grauman which ended up spanning decades, many hirings, firings and hirings again, and Milton’s introduction to such Hollywood notables as Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin, both of whom became big fans of his music.

Milton told of being second organist at the Million Dollar Theater, taking turns playing with the lead organist, C Sharp Minor, from 11 in the morning until midnight.

MR. MINOR would occasionally just disappear,” smiles Milton, “and I’d be left playing straight through from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. We always did a concert in those days before the silent movie started. They’d send out to the Owl Drugstore nearby for sandwiches and milk for me. Afterwards, I’d often get a call from Sid Grauman to come over to his house and play for a few of his friends out from New York. Gloria Swanson would sit on the bench with me a lot and sing along. She had a beautiful voice.

“Sid was an eccentric guy,” remembers Milton. Often Grauman would have all of those people wanting to break into show business come to his house to audition in the evening, with Milton accompanying. Some of them were good, says Milton, but he remembers some nights being so bad as to remind him of today’s Gong Show.

As one of only three or four professional organists in the country in the 20’s, Milton came to be in big demand, playing the Tivoli Theater in Chicago — by this time jus solo numbers — and back to the Metropolitan and then Paramount Theaters in L.A. again.

MILTON remembers when the Paramount Theater was about to go up at 6th and Hill in L.A. “They’d just started excavating, and it was just one big hole in the ground. Sid Grauman came around for me and took me to the site. ‘Okay, Milton, you stand here and yell at me when I get to the other side,’ instructed Grauman. ‘Hello, Mr. Grauman,’ I yelled. ‘Okay, kid, I just wanted to check the acoustics,’ Grauman yelled back.”

Milton was, to his knowledge, the first performer to use a microphone (carbon mike) in his act. He came up with the idea accidentally, while trying to solve an acoustics problem in a theater, and just stayed with it.

By this time Milton was touring Europe and the Eastern United States, playing the Mastbaum Theater in Philadelphia with a 200 orchestra. Milton remembers going to Paris to begin an engagement at a theater and having such a good time he never showed up at the theater.

By 1930, sound movies were in, and Milton appeared, playing and singing, in the movies for a while. He then began a long stint playing background music and lead-in music for CBS Radio in Chicago, finally rising to Music Director of CBS. But before he was named director he remembers mad days of playing for five soap operas a day.

THERE WOULD be a sound stage for every show, and I would race — I had 20 seconds — from one studio and organ across the hall to another studio, organ, and another soap,” he said. Milton adds that he would usually get a copy of the story line an hour before going on the air, and he would score the shows as much as he could in that time. Ma Perkins, Road of Life and Amos and Andy Shows were some of the ones he did.

Missing California, he signed on with CBS Radio in L.A. as a staff musician and played the background music for both the Roy Rogers an Gene Autry radio shows, besides playing with the CBS Orchestra for many years, when he lived in Toluca Lake.

As he approached retirement age, he took on another career. He began playing at a plush new restaurant in L.A., the Kings Arms, as a sideline career, and ended up staying there almost 20 years.

“I really loved doing that, and you have to, since most of the people around you in a lounge like that are feeling their oats,” Milton smiles.

MILTON STARTED coming to the Ojai Valley Inn occasionally in the early 70’s and fell in love with the valley.

He moved to Ojai permanently some five years ago and thinks he has the best of all worlds — 1 1/2 hours from Los Angeles, 45 minutes from Santa Barbara, while living in one of the “most beautiful places in the world.”


MILTON CHARLES scores the wedding march he’s writing for his granddaughter’s upcoming marriage. (Seba photo)

Laugh!!!

The following article first appeared in the Winter 2019 (VOLUME 37 NUMBER 4) issue of the “Ojai Valley Guide” magazine on pages 146 & 147. The magazine was published by the “Ojai Valley News”. The article is reprinted here with their permission.

LOOK BACK IN OJAI
with Drew Mashburn
Contributed on behalf of the
Ojai Valley Museum

LAUGH!!!
Go ahead and laugh! I would have laughed too.

DURING MY 1960’S HIGH SCHOOL DAYS, THERE WERE FEW JOB OPPORTUNITIES FOR TEENS. I TOOK A VARIETY OF JOBS TO MAKE A FEW BUCKS TO KEEP FUEL IN MY LITTLE YAMAHA 80 cc MOTORCYCLE, OCCASIONALLY BUY A NEW PAIR OF LEVIS, SEE A MOVIE, ATTEND A HIGH SCHOOL DANCE, BUY A CONTAINER OF FISHING WORMS, AND SO ON. I’D ALWAYS HEARD THAT THE VALLEY TEENAGE BOYS SMUDGED CITRUS DURING WINTER MONTHS AND MADE SOME DECENT COIN. NOW, IT WAS MY TURN TO DO IT!

Smudging entails lighting smudge pots that emit heat to prevent the citrus from freezing and ruination. A smudge pot has a 2-foot-diameter metal pot with a smokestack that sticks vertically out of it. The stack is about 4 feet high and 6 inches in diameter. A removable stack lid prevents rain from getting inside when not in use. A hinged regulator on the pot’s top sets the temperature. The pot is filled with diesel fuel and a drip-torch is inserted to light the pot.

Hangin’ with the guys was fun, and funny things happened. Both ranches we worked for sent us to local restaurants for breakfast, allowing us to order as much as desired. I could down a ton of grub in those days. Food equaled money to this boy!

The first season, we ate at the Topa Topa Restaurant, which is now the little deli between the theater and library. The second season, we went to the Boots ‘N’ Saddles Restaurant on the corner of Park Road and Ojai Avenue.

In 1967, school chum Richard May and I smudged at a ranch bordering the south side of Ojai Avenue not far from what is now Boccali’s Restaurant. I borrowed my parents’ 1958 Ford station wagon to get there. Had to because riding my motorcycle in near-freezing temperatures would have turned me into a popsicle!

Richard and I were the only teenagers on the crew. We gathered in an equipment storage building. The foreman instructed us how to light the pots, how he wanted the regulators to be adjusted, and what orchard areas to cover. He sent Richard and me out on the east side of the orchard. The foreman instructed us to light every pot down the row until we got to a narrow dirt road, then flip a “U,” come back down the next aisle and continue.

I took the aisle running parallel to Ojai Avenue and Richard took the next. I lit pots until I realized I was near the foot of the Dennison Grade, having overshot the dirt road. It’s dark out there and the dirt roads look quite similar to the dirt aisles. I quickly hoofed it back, located Richard, and informed him of my goof-up. Being behind time, we left the pots burning, hoping the neighboring rancher was happy for the free labor!

We kept lighting all the pots and moving toward the low mountains on the southern side of the orchard. At the mountain’s foot were several avocado trees. Richard and I linked up there, noticing a huge avocado tree with limbs so high we could easily walk under it. There was a pot 2 feet away from the tree’s trunk. I don’t recall which one of us lit that pot, but we both agreed it needed to be lit. The foreman drilled into us to “light every pot.”

Soon, Richard and I plunked down on a filthy old couch in the storage building. The entire crew was there when in charged the foreman. He was livid! He shouted something like, “Which one of you boneheads burned down my avocado tree?” Richard and I hunkered down even lower into that broken-down old couch as if it could offer us refuge and feigned being asleep. We fretted losing our jobs. Nobody copped to it, but I’m sure the foreman knew it involved the two youngest guys.

In 1968, the second season I smudged, I should have known better, but accidents happen, and it happened like this: About 1 a.m. on a 28-degree night, I was in the orchard. I got hot in my heavy jacket from all the exercise. I removed it and set it in a place I would remember. I was down to a T-shirt.

I moved down the rows lighting pots. Eventually, I lit a pot, but it didn’t seem like it was lit. So, I bent way down low to the base. I flipped open the regulator to see if the pot was burning. Flames leapt out of the hole into my face. It was quite dark outside. Those bright flames blinded me! I started to panic in my blindness. Had I damaged my eyes? As I stood there blinded, I began to get cold without a jacket. I feared going hypothermic. I knew nobody was anywhere around me and I was not familiar with the rugged terrain. I calmed myself.

After a few shivering minutes, my sight returned. I felt my face. I was okay! I finished lighting pots … unknowingly without eyebrows and eyelashes, and a lot less hair drooping down over my forehead. I was the last of the crew to return to our warm little shack at the ranch at the corner of Carne Road and East Ojai Avenue. Thankfully, I didn’t have any upcoming dates!

Man who knows everyone in Ojai

The following article was first seen in the Monday, May 21, 1962 edition of “THE OJAI VALLEY NEWS” on the front page in the “Who’s Who” section. The article is reprinted here with the permission of “THE OJAI VALLEY NEWS”. The author is unknown.

Man who knows everyone in Ojai

Here is a man who really needs no introduction . . .

He seems to know every body in Ojai and everybody seems to know him.

He’ll shout a greeting to you from across the street or from a car in which he happens to be driving by.

You mark him by that butch haircut, sprinkled with gray, those heavy dark-framed glasses, his penchant for knit ties, his flair for natty combinations in sports coats and slacks.

And a penchant also for kidding and a practical joke . . .

But police work for Jim Alcorn is no joke.

Here is a man with nearly 30 years of police work behind him. A cop (he doesn’t mind the word if it’s used in a friendly way) who has dealt with just about everything there is in the way of crime and criminals. A product of a tough, hard school who knows the value of discipline.

And he exacts it from his force . . .

But still he retains his sense of humor.

Jim came to Ojai from Beverly Hills to take over the job of Ojai’s chief of police May 1, 1952.

Years on the Beverly Hills department, one of them as a uniformed patrolman, three as a detective, five as a detective sergeant and the rest of the time as detective lieutenant, winding up as chief of detectives, Jim decided he’d had enough of a big town.

“I was born right in the middle of Los Angeles,” he said, “I decided I’d like to try life in a small town.”

They were giving an examination for police chief here. Jim came up an took it — along with 50 other aspirants. He came out second in the written test but ended up in first place after the oral exam.

So Ojai got the man at the top of the heap for its chief of police.

When Jim took over there was no bureau of records. There were four men on the force. Jim applied his experience to a reorganization of the department. He started a record department. The first new man he hired was A.A. Quijada — known to the whole valley as Chumo — who is still on the department and its specialist in juvenile delinquency.

The new men coming on tended to be younger. Alcorn now heads a police force of seven men whose average age is 31. In addition the force has two policewomen.

In the accent on youth Ojai’s department is following a national trend. It is also in step with national trend in another respect — scientific police training. All members of the force, including the policewomen, hold certificates from Ventura college in police administration. One, Tom Marshall, has his from Citrus College. A number of the officers have taken several courses. Policewoman Lou Reitzel took an advanced course in traffic safety. Said the chief: “We had to buy her a slide rule so she could figure the problems.”

Belonging to both the earlier era of policework: “when all you had to be was big and be able to push people around” and to the new scientific era, Jim says the modern police methods are far superior, attract better men and are much more effective.

He himself has attended law enforcement schools and is a graduate of a course in police administration and science at UCLA.

As far as crimes go, Ojai isn’t a Beverly Hills. Here, Jim says, the whole police operation is different, more personal. The city boundaries mean little. People from all over the valley think of the Ojai police department as “theirs” and call in with their troubles. And many, many a time Jim has played the role of mediator in domestic disputes — almost that of a father confessor at times.

On emergency calls from outside the city limits Jim has one strict rule: Send what personnel are needed to handle the situation. Call the sheriff or the state highway patrol and wait until they arrive. But NEVER leave Ojai unprotected.

Looking back over his years in police work, Jim thinks there’s little difference between the amount of juvenile crime then and now.

But as to juvenile delinquency — by which he means acts not serious enough to be classed as crimes — he thinks there’s a lot more nowadays. He blames two things — the easy availability of cars and liquor.

And note this, citizens. Your chief of police thinks that as motorists you are a bit careless of the rights of pedestrians in crosswalks. Also, the time is drawing near, he feels, when we are going to need traffic signals to control traffic.

Alcorn has a scrapbook fat with clippings of cases in which he played a part while on the Beverly Hills force. He was the first detective on the scene after Benny (Bugsy) Siegal, underworld overlord, was shot gangland style in a Beverly Hills mansion. He participated in the capture of one Gerald Graham Dennis, one of the most notorious burglars in modern criminal annals who stripped homes of movie stars and other famous persons of a million in jewels and furs. Acting alone, he ran to earth a bandit who held up the California bank using a child as a shield. Alcorn traced the bandit and his girl friend through a license number jotted down by the child’s mother. As he burst into a hotel room the bandit reached for his gun but Jim made a flying leap for the bed on which the bandit was lying and overpowered him.

He’s had his picture in Life magazine. He’s known many a famous person in connection with his police activities — John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Jimmy Durante (“a wonderful guy”), the late Jerry Geisler, the lawyer, Howard Huges . . .

But policework isn’t quite as glamorous as on TV. “It’s wearing out shoe leather, asking questions — just plain hard work,” Jim says, who ought to know.

He thinks “Dragnet” was the most realistic police drama on TV. “It was so realistic it wasn’t even interesting.”

Perry Mason? “He must be God. In real life you never, never can get anyone to confess like that” says Jim, rubbing his chin. (He needed a shave).


CHIEF ALCORN

CAMPING OUT AT PINE MOUNTAIN — IN 1887 STYLE

This article was run in the JUNE 2019 issue of “THE SESPE WILD” (the newsletter of the Keep the Sespe Wild Committee). It is reprinted here with their permission. It was placed in the newsletter by Alasdair Coyne.

CAMPING OUT AT PINE MOUNTAIN — IN 1887 STYLE


In an article first published in March 1887 in The Century, a popular quarterly publication of the time, “In these pages,” writes John Hassard, “I propose telling how we lived without hardship on a remote mountain, hunting, fishing, exploring the wild places, and idling in the shade of the pines.” Excerpts follow, from this lengthy story of two months’ camping —

“We were five comrades, including one lady, and we were served by a guide, Soper, and a Chinese cook.” And, as well as their horses, they took along a cow for fresh milk!

“Our point of departure and base of supplies was the little hamlet of Nordhoff” [now Ojai].

Their route went through Matilija Canyon and thereby up to near the summit of what is now Hwy. 33, before heading up to the Pine Mountain ridge. They enjoyed a leisurely two weeks camping out in Matilija Canyon.

“The Dolly Varden trout, which is caught in these California brooks, is named from the brilliant and varied colors of its sides and belly. No special art is needed to take it; worms, flies, grasshoppers, bits of bread or of meat — it swallows them all. I think with a few accidental exceptions we had trout with every meal as long as we remained in this camp.

Farther up we afterward found still finer fishing. There was a spot on the left fork of the Matilija where the doctor and the Chinaman, resting a day on the march to the mountain, hooked trout almost as fast as they could throw their lines. Here Ah Hing performed his great exploit of catching forty-eight fish with one worm, which has always seemed to me the most remarkable illustration of Chinese thrift in my experience.”

“We spent a week on the road from our first camp to the mountain. Once we set up our tabernacle in a group of bay-trees, and made our beds of the fragrant branches. Again we halted in a copse by the Sespe River, where we caught trout of prodigious fatness.”

Arriving at Pine Mountain, they “had no water; that had to be brought from the glen, about a mile distant, the trail comprising a breakneck ascent of five hundred feet which was much worse than anything we had passed on the journey. If we had realized the full extent of the water difficulty before starting, we should have directed our expedition elsewhere; and indeed I must confess that, in many respects, Pine Mountain, as a camping place, is open to objections. I will not rehearse them all, for I am more concerned to show how one can live comfortably in camp.” They let loose their horses, which fended for themselves during their six week stay.

At their camps, their set-up was magnificent: “In the midst of our grove we set up a capacious table, which not only served us for the meals but marked a place for social gatherings. We leveled a broad platform, raised a stout awning-frame, made benches of split logs, and built on the north, or windward side, a thick screen of wattled hemlock branches, which we hung with sundry housekeeping articles, and decorated, after a while, with deer-skins, and other trophies of the chase. At one side was suspended a vessel of drinking-water; at the other was a little covered fireplace; with a flue running so far back into the hillside that smoke would not annoy us. Here we made the coffee and kept the dishes hot, while Ah Hing held undisturbed possession of the kitchen.

That department was about [10 yards] distant, in a clump of fine trees, and was nearly surrounded by a wind-screen of hemlock boughs and odd pieces of canvas. With poles, and lengths of split pine, and a few empty boxes, the cook made a dresser and a set of shelves. We had and excellent stove of sheet-iron, highly effective and easily transported. It was about three feet long, eighteen inches high, eighteen inches wide; it had no bottom, no legs, nothing that would break; the pipe telescoped and went inside; the weight of the whole was eight pounds, and the shape was convenient for packing.”

“The greatest affliction of this savage existence is dirt, and the greatest comfort is a basin of water.”

“Our party hunted [deer] in moderation. Two of them took to the woods for the benefit of their health, and those who were better able to carry a gun did not depend upon shooting for their daily amusement. They read, they sketched, they strolled about the mountain in search of the picturesque, they made excursions on horseback to various parts of the long ridge and to the valley below, they lounged and chatted in the shade. The ordinary work of the camp and construction of chairs, tables, washstands, and innumerable little conveniences gave everybody some occupation. We had a few carpenter’s tools, and they were never out of use.”

Regular pack animals came up from Ojai — “rawhide bags which hung from the pack-tree were filled with parcels of tea, coffee, sugar, small groceries, powder, shot, nails, flour, and meal, can of honey, a ham, a pail of fresh butter, a peck of potatoes, onions and whatever young vegetables could be got, and on the load were a few young fowls in a sack, a box of eggs, a box of apricots, pears, and apples and a plethoric mail-bag.”

Their camp menu is worthy of description:
“Breakfast: Oatmeal porridge of cream; deer’s liver and bacon; broiled kidneys; hot biscuits; coffee and tea.
Luncheon: Lamb chops; canned salmon; honey and cream.
Dinner: Soup; haunch of venison; mashed potatoes; pudding.” The lamb was bought from herders in the valley a few miles below.

“We paid the cook $1 a day. We paid the guide $3 a day for his own services and the use of his two horses. Reckoning supplies, wages, and the rent of the cow, the living expenses of the whole party of seven, with the 8 animals, amounted for sixty-eight days, to $562.31, which, divided among five, gives a cost of $112.46 a head. Or $2 a day. As we lived like gourmets, and made no great effort to economize, this, we thought, was doing pretty well.”

Their full adventure is at this link: httlps://yankeebabbareno.com/2012/04/18/camping-out-in california-pine-mountain-narrative-1887/

“No action” critics challenged

The following article first appeared in the Sunday, February 19, 1978 edition of the “Ojai Valley News” on Page 16. It is reprinted here with their permission.


“No action” critics challenged
————————
Our
environment
———————–
by
John E. Nelson, M.D.

This columnist is pleased to note that the Our Environment column has again stimulated a community dialogue on the crucial issue of overdevelopment in our valley.

This time the dialogue has taken the form of letters-to-the-editor from two city councilpersons who chose to speak in rebuttal of last week’s column. That column chided the council for it’s lack of activism which led to the federal government’s seizing the initiative in demanding a halt to increasing air pollution which inevitably follows overdevelopment.

Surprisingly, the author of the letter which most vigorously defended the present council’s inadequate posturings has been its most active force in the struggle to keep The Ojai’s environment both rural and healthy. He has often waged solitary battles against urbanization of Ojai’s streets and the council’s penchant for granting untimely exemptions to the building moratorium. On numerous environmental votes he has found himself to be in a minority of one.

For this reason it is difficult to understand his defense of a council which has been anything but “activist” in pursuit of environmental quality. Other towns with far less to preserve than ours have elected councils who themselves have taken the initiative in improving their environment rather than simply slowing its destruction. They have brought their imaginations to the fore in initiating such measures as litter cleanups, firm population ceiling reinforced by downsizing, tree-planting projects, container laws, bicycle path construction and limitations on driving during smoggy days.

A SECOND LETTER quoted rather dubious statistics which seem to show that the City of Ojai has grown in population by only 400 persons since 1970. Yet during the past seven years there have been 381 single-family dwellings, 113 condominium units and 135 multiple family units built here for a total of 629 new dwellings. Although a few of these are still in construction, it does seem unreasonable to assume that there have been more dwellings constructed than new arrivals to occupy them.

Based on a conservative estimate of 2.5 persons per dwelling, a more realistic figure for this town’s population increase would be 1, 572 persons in the past seven years. Too many by any standards.

From the time Socrates debated his adversaries in the streets of Athens, an unfortunate technique of argument has contaminated political discourse. Later labeled “ad hominum” by the Romans, it is a method of attacking the person who makes a point rather than answering the point itself. Experts in debate consider it a desperation maneuver with little heuristic merit.

Sadly, ad hominum agruments seem to be infiltrating the exchange of legitimate views in our town. The crucial challenge of preserving a healthy and livable environment deserves better.

FOR INSTANCE, this columnist was criticized for not regularly attending city council meetings and thereby missing the opportunities to “get the true facts.” This criticism presupposes that such facts have been available during generally obfuscatory council meetings, a questionable assertion at best. Each of us must arrange our priorities according to our talents and available time, and the four to five hours per week spent on research and preparation of this column leaves little remaining time for attendance of lengthy meetings.

This column has been virtually the only medium to offer any criticism of the city council during the past year on any issue. Yet the community response which has been generated clearly indicates that these views represent those of the majority of environmentally concerned and oft-frustrated valley residents. To remain viable, the democratic process requires vigorous and regular criticism of the humanly imperfect persons who govern us.

The entire issue once more underscores the importance of the upcoming March 7 election in which Ojai voters will have an opportunity to seat a majority of environmental activists who will aggressively pursue the public health interests of this community. This column again calls upon all concerned to keep the ongoing debate high-toned and issue oriented.

DR, JOHN NELSON

Santa will visit homes Xmas eve

The following article first appeared in the Wednesday, December 6, 1967 edition of the “OJAI VALLEY NEWS” on page A1. The article is reprinted here with their permission.

Santa will visit homes Xmas eve

Santa Claus will be making personal visits in the Ojai Valley on Christmas Eve, according to the Ojai Valley Jaycees.

Once again, as for the past 19 years, the Ojai Valley Jaycees have persuaded Santa to visit homes in the valley between 6 and 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Entry blanks have been sent to the elementary schools and any school child, seven years of age or younger, can have Santa visit his home.

Santa will visit areas as follows: Ojai, Meiners Oaks, Ojai Highlands, Mira Monte, Skyline and Oak View.

Applications or notes to Santa must include: child’s name, age, sex, parent’s name, address and phone number, names of pets or other information that may help Santa on his visit. Send to: Santa, c / o Jaycees, P.O. Box 1057, Ojai, Calif. 93023 no later than 12:00 midnight, December 18th.

Santa will deliver gifts that parents have placed outside the front door and will present each child with a candy cane, courtesy of the Ojai Valley Jaycees.

Anyone who has a child not yet in school may obtain an entry from one of the following stations: In Ojai – Fitgerald’s, Van Dyke Travel Service, The Yellow Door, Rains, Callender’s, Cole’s Mens Shop or Hammond’s Union Service; for Mira Monte – Trudi’s Dress shop and in Oak View – Dickinson’s Family Kitchen.

Anyone wishing more information may contact Project Chairman Jim Michalopoulos at 646-2783 or Jaycee President Orville Kiso at 646-3397.

Familiar face, old recollections

The following article was first printed in the Friday, September 12, 2008 edition of the “OJAI VALLEY NEWS” on page B4. It his reprinted here with their permission.

Familiar face, old recollections
Mashburn’s life has been a “Bee” movie

Nao Braverman
nao@ojaivalleynews.com

If your ever see a flash of yellow go by on Ojai Avenue it might be Barbara Mashburn.

The lifetime Ojai resident has frequently been seen driving a bright yellow electric vehicle around Ojai. It’s yellow now, but freshly decorated every season. On Christmas it has splashes of red and green, and on the Fourth of July it’s patriotic.

“For Halloween it’s going to have autumn leaves and pumpkin lights,” she said.

“It was just an old yellow thing when I got it,” she adds dryly, “But people were about to run me over, so I decorated it for safety.”

She says all this with a smirk that suggests she might know something that you don’t, but she isn’t about to tell you just yet.

If we’re lucky Mashburn will get dressed up as a bee for the holiday. But if not, her electric vehicle, dubbed “Barbara’s Hummer” as if says on her license plate, has its fair share of black-and-yellow bumble bee accessories. The contraption has a built in heater, powered by solar energy, and is always lt with solar powered lights that she put in herself.

“There are probably a lot of people wondering who’s driving around town in this little yellow hot rod, but don’t have the nerve to ask,” she said. “Of course the kids always do.”

Up until this year when the school district had to make budget cuts, the school bus would stop right in front of Mashburn’s house and the children getting off would stop to marvel at her eye-catching front yard display. The lawn is crowded with porcelain bees, stuffed bees, plastic bees of all shapes and sizes. There’s even a wrought iron bench covered in toy bees, and a wreath that says “bee happy”. Sometimes her manx cat, Bee Bee, wanders in and out.

“I used to hide in the carport and listen to the kids making comments about my yard,” she said. “But it don’t bother me.” The front yard is nothing according to Mashburn, “You should see the back yard and the inside of the house,” she said.

People have been giving her bee toys ever since she acquired the nickname, “Bar-bee.” In high school there were seven Barbaras in every class, so they called her “Bobby Bean Pole” because of her tall wiry frame. Then there were too many Bobbys. So when she started to tend bar, Bar-Bee just stuck, she said. After getting so many bee gifts, she decided to add to the collection herself.

For those who have seen the Signal Street home that belongs to the “Duck Lady,” with an impressive toy duck collection in the front yard, strikingly similar to Mashburn’s bee garden, that’s one of Mashburn’s best friends. She was the one that Mashburn called on after suffering a heart attack several years ago, Mashburn said. And, of course, they shop together.

Mashburn says she’s lived in only two places her whole life. The first house in Mira Monte had a farm with pigs, cows, and old mule, and one of Ojai’s first organic gardens. As a young girl she climbed Mount Whitney with the Suphur Mountain Girl Scouts and helped found the Frazier Park Girl Scout Camp. At 27, she moved out of that house into the home where she has been living for about 40 years. That was when Ojai was known for having a church, a bar and a gas station on every corner, she said.

Mashburn, who served Ojai’s oil rig workers at two of the valley’s oldest bars, The Hut and The Hub, claims to have worked her way down the streets of Ojai as a bartender and waitress years ago. Back then there was only one cop and he wasn’t even a cop, really, just a constable, she said. “He drove an old Ford Model T pickup. And he didn’t look like a cop but more like the Lone Ranger with a white hat and all those guns on his belt.”

Since then a number of establishments have changed names or closed down but Mashburn served plenty of drinks at the Elbow Room bar in the Arcade, which was next door to the Mighty Bite hamburger joint with a card room in the back, and she also had shifts at the Hitching Post. She later waited tables at Boots and Saddles, a bar and grill where the Golden Moon restaurant now stands.

After so many gigs, Mashburn designed a float for the Independence Day parade dedicated to Ojai’s veteran waitresses, called “Old Waitressess Never Die, They Just Lose Their Tips.”

Only waitresses who had served tables for 25 years in Ojai were given place on that float which was adorned with T-bone steaks made of Styrofoam. Little kids would throw change onto the float as tips.

“We never planned it that way, but by the end of the day there was enough money for each of us to ge a drink at the Elbow Room,” she said.

By the time Mashburn was managing the snack bar at the Soule Park Golf Course, she was raising her two kids, Icy and Kevin Mashburn. Icy is now a teacher at Mira Monte School and Kevin manages a Carrows in Camarillo. Icy’s real name is Isaline, she added, but since her grandmother was Isa for short, they had to give her daughter a different nickname so there was no confusion.

“I went into labor on my mother’s birthday,” said Mashburn. “I was supposed to have my daughter by midnight. But I didn’t, so to get out of the doghouse I named her after my mother.”

Mashburn also had a stint at the O-Hi Frostie. “I went to City Hall more than once to protest when the owner got run out,” she said. She knew owner, Rick Henderson when he was just a busboy at The Oaks at Ojai and she was a waitress. “I was his first boss,” she said.

The Frostie was one of the last remnants of the old Ojai that Mashburn remembers as clear as day. Back then, few people had fences and you could pick an orange or an apricot form their trees because they could get a peach from your yard, it didn’t matter, she said. You could also swim an day in the Ventura River because it never dried up. There was more for the kids to do back then, she said, with the bowling alley still thriving and a miniature golf course across the street where the fire station is now. When she first got a job at The Hub, it was owned by old-time Hollywood actor Rory Calhoun and his friend, Specks Edde.

Edde left the bar to his ex wife, Verna. Verna’s ghost was later blamed for anything in the bar that was missing or wasn’t put where it was supposed to go. “But she also bought you drinks on your birthday,” Mashburn adds. Those were the days when almost every bar was owned by a woman, she said. Mashburn claims to have known everyone in town and said the only real celebrity visits, aside from Calhoun, were from actresses Loretta Young and Ann Miller.

For her last working years, Mashburn was an occasioanl care giver. She also done a lot of plumbing around the valley. As a single mother she laid the shingles on her own roof, and did all the handiwork herself.

“I’m also know around town as Josephine Plumber,” she said. “That’s my other nickname.”

Now it’s just her, her miniature cat, and a vegetable garden she tends out back.

“How are you going to get almost 70 years in that little space in the corner of the newspaper?” she asked.




Barbara Mashburn pauses in front of The Hub, just one of many places she has worked in nearly 70 years of living in the Ojai Valley. (Photo by Nao Braverman)