The following article first appeared on the front page of “THE OJAI” in the Thursday, March 14, 1957 edition. “THE OJAI” is now the “Ojai Valley News”. The article appears here with their permission. The author is unknown.
–Auto Club Report– PARKING IN OJAI A GROWING PROBLEM
A meager handful of Ojai citizens, including only four or five local businessmen and merchants, showed up at the Ojai Elementary school auditorium Tuesday evening for a town-hall type forum on the city’s parking problems and an extensive parking survey report compiled by the Auto Club of Southern California.
The survey, prepared after careful study of parking facilities and related problems in Ojai’s business district, was presented by Auto Club engineering and technical services director Joseph Havenner, and in brief brought out the following points:
1. Ojai, in Havenner’s opinion, is not yet ready for a parking district, such as proposed by a Chamber of Commerce Committee. 2. Ojai has an exceptionally poor street and traffic circulation setup and this must be corrected through a master plan for streets and a similar plan for installing curbs, gutters, and sidewalks in the shopping area before any actual parking program is undertaken. 3. Ojai should have a plan for controlled development of its business district, primarily to the north, and should not deviate from it. 4. Parking meters, in Havenner’s opinion, would not be practical in Ojai. 5. The rear of the Arcade district offers the best opportunities for expanded parking areas. 6. Two hour parking limits should be established in the city parking lot. 7. All possible off-street parking areas should be preserved and improved. 8. A parking committee should be established. 9. Businessmen should help police themselves and their employees on better parking habits. 10. New business buildings should be required by city law to provide certain amounts of off-street parking space.
The Auto Club survey was conducted at no charge to the city at the request of city manager J. Julien Baget last December when the question arose as to whether or not the city should participate in the C of C parking district plans.
The study was deliberately made during the pre-Christmas rush when parking facilities would be taxed to peak loads.
Careful records were made of daily usage of parking spaces, origin of cars as to whether they were local or out of town, number of parking violations, and the overall flow of traffic in the business area.
In the central shopping regions, Auto Club surveyists tabulated a total of 281 parking spaces — 198 at the curb and 83 off-street lots. Most of these were kept in use during the two day count, reaching the peak occupancy about 11 a.m. each day, and the primary demand was found to be for a short time (one hour or less) parking spaces rather than all-day or part day usage.
It was found that 67 per cent of the cars parked in the business district were registered residents of the city; 19 per cent to be Valley and county areas, and 14 per cent to outside visitors.
To the city council and planning commission officials and about 15 citizens present, Havenner emphasized that proper street alignment, continuous traffic circulation, and adequate curbs, sidewalks, and gutters were problems Ojai must solve before it tackles the actual parking situation.
“The longer you delay, the more severe the problem will get and the more its solution will cost you “, Havenner pointed out. “Your present system could not serve a greatly expanded business area because the streets are not properly aligned to handle traffic circulation.”
Illustrating the report with colored slides of Ojai traffic and various parking locations, he noted that a large potential parking area behind the Arcade buildings is not being put to use.
Havenner said he did not think Ojai would ever experience the development of major shopping centers but that business places to accommodate local needs would be ever increasing.
Asked by Lynn Rains about the parking district plans, he said that such districts are not easy to form because often the property owner is not the same person who operates a business but merely leases the site. “It can be a fair and equitable solution in some cities but I don’t think Ojai is quite ready for that kind of operation now,” Havenner added.
Summing up before a brief question and answer period. Havenner, told the small audience, “The factual findings of the study indicate that the parking problem in Ojai is not so difficult to alleviate as outward appearance would lend one to believe. The problem appears to be one of traffic management which has not kept pace with the growth of the area and the changing character of parking demand and traffic movement.
“To improve the efficiency of off-street space will require the understanding of the problems by businessmen and citizens and calls for the formation of organized leadership.
“It must be recognized that off-street facilities to be attractive to customers must be located within the block of the customer’s designation and on the same side of the street.
“Appearance is an important factor in the successful operation of off-street parking facilities. Paving and marking , cleanliness, and improvement of store access by attractive rear entrances are most important considerations.
“An immediate halt should be placed upon the establishment of new businesses without adequate provision for off-street parking needs generated by them. For the present all-day parking demand special study and local leadership must be given to locate adequate parking both off-street and at the curb in areas where this type of parking will cause a minimum blight upon the area.
“The physical obstructions caused by the arches and high curbs on the north side of Ojai avenue in the Arcade compel motorists to egress from their cars from the left side into the street, causing a traffic hazard.
“Angle parking is not advised at the curb and should be used only in low speed urban areas where parking requirements take precedence over smooth operation of through traffic.”
Havenner concluded, “Ojai’s growth had had and will continue to have serious impact on the traffic and parking problems and on the general economy of its established business district.”
During the course of the meeting he also praised Ojai’s police department for its excellent enforcement of traffic and parking regulations and commended the city for its cooperation in assisting with the survey.
A limited number of copies of the published survey in book form will be available at the city hall for merchants or others interested in the parking situation.
This article first appeared in the August 24, 2001 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. The photo of the Surf Shop was added by the Ojai Valley Museum.
Ojai Valley Neighbors
Ojai runs thick in Neal Mashburn’s veins. The third-generation native has called this valley his home for all of his 31 years. And he’s been under the watchful eye of the community thanks to his well-known mom, Arlou.
His mom was named Ojai’s Woman of the Year in 1989, was the grand marshal of the Fourth of July parade and ran the Youth Employment Service for a number of years. But since his father Harold’s death about three years ago his mom has been less active in the community.
“Now she just lays low, clips coupons and keeps out of sight,” he says.
When he’s not working at his Oak View business, Beatched, he helps her with yard work and has often thought of writing a book. He’ll call it, “Thoughts of Pop While Riding the Lawn Mower.”
“His most enjoyable time was taking care of the yard,” Neal says.
Neal’s grandmother moved to Ojai from Indiana. She worked at Rains for about 30 years, he says, and saved her money. When she died each of the half-dozen kids got a little inheritance. Since he didn’t want to work for anyone else, he decided the best way he could honor Grandma’s legacy was to start a retail shop, Beatched was born more than six years ago, and has grown each year.
“I make a living,” he says.
Neal admits that he’s a natural-born salesman. And he says that he can read his customers within seconds of waltzing through the door. He has built his successful reputation by offering what customers ask for. There’s T-shirts, grass skirts, skate and surf boards, stickers, sandals, posters, wet suits and vinyl record albums. And that’s a partial list of the inventory. Recently he’s begun offering one-on-one surf lessons. And he opens the parking lot to a free concert party every Memorial Day weekend.
Neal too, proudly confesses his true love for Summer. Not only the season, but the adorable blonde who’s served at the Ojai Brew Pub since opening day and graces a lingerie ad that shows up regularly in the Ojai-Ventura Voice newspaper. They’ve been together for nearly five years.
“She’s made me better,” he says.
So with Beatched, Summer, surfing, skating, and a love for the warmth of the valley, it’s no wonder that Neal says, “Ojai has just been all about friends.”
The following article was written by Howard Bald and appeared in the March 14, 1973 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. The photo was added by the Ojai Valley Museum. Bald titled his many articles with the same title. So, this article has “(No. 6)” added by the Ojai Valley Museum.
Reminiscences of Early Ojai (No. 6)
Clark, Thompson and Bracken were the Upper Ojai winery people. All were Irish immigrants. Nick Walnut was an Italian immigrant who cleared the land and planted his vineyard near what is now east Reeves road. Nick dug his own grave in his dooryard and was buried there at about the turn of the century. Now I am amused at rumors that a fortune was buried with him. He had left a family in the old country, but he willed the property to Will Thompson, then a boy of about ten years.
The wine mostly was hauled to the depot, either to Santa Paula or Nordhoff, in fifty gallon barrels with team and wagon and shipped to Los Angeles.
The last of the product was shipped to L.A. as vinegar and brought 15 cents a gallon. People used to quip that it was so strong it would burn a hole in the table cloth if a drop fell on it. We had linen table cloths in those days.
I mentioned the Italians who came to the winery to purchase wine. They mostly were wood choppers from off of Sulphur Mountain, for at that time cutting and shipping firewood to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara was quite an industry, and several fortunes, to my knowledge, were made. One of them was Huero Obioles, an old Spanish family. There are still descendants in Ventura county.
For a short period about that time Tom Clark and John Hobson, uncle of Mr. Fred Smith, had a wood camp where Perls Nursery stood and Clapp’s now is. Their operation extended from Villanova school to beyond the present Gourmet restaurant and over through Mira Monte to Rice road. [The Gourmet restaurant was located at 11432 Ventura. Boarded up now, it’s located between McDonald’s and Subway.] Fortunately, Meiners Oaks was never touched and neither was the arbolada, though Austin Pierpont recently told me that certain interests were negotiating for the wood rights to the Arbolada. He said that J.J. Burke, uncle of Bill Burke, learned of it and persuaded Foster and Hubby to buy the property. They were among builders of the Foothills hotel. They later sold it to Mr. Libbey. I believe they donated the land for Nordhoff high school that was built in 1911.
Practically all of the oaks in the area from Villanova to the Gourmet restaurant is second growth, as well as all of the north side of Sulphur mountain.
The heavy wagons that transported wood from Sulphur mountain to Nordhoff for shipment to L.A. and the loads of grain played havoc with the grade from the upper to the lower valleys. It was a shorter and steeper grade than the present Dennison grade.
As a great deal of braking was necessary, the brake shoe quickly wore thin and became ineffective. So the teamsters would run one rear wagon wheel onto an iron shoe that was attached to the bed of the wagon. The wheel was rendered immobile as the shoe slid on the rocky dirt road. It, of course, was a very effective brake, but it gouged a deep rut in the dirt road, and the dust was almost intolerable.
In addition to that, the heat generated by the friction could cause sparks to start a fire should one land in the dry grass. Naturally those teamsters were not popular with the ordinary horse and buggy people.
I have in recent years hunted unsuccessfully through the scrap heaps of Upper Ojai farms in quest of one of those “brake shoes.” It would make a real addition to our historical museum. I doubt that there are many today who have ever seen one. The last one that I saw was at the Knott’s Berry Farm Historical Museum.
The following story was printed in the book “Portrait of a Community (Ojai – Yesterdays and Todays)” by Ellen Malino James in 1984. It is reprinted here with the permission of publisher Ojai Valley News.
WHAT’S NEW DOWNTOWN [in 1984]?
By Ellen Malino James
When Edward Drummond Libbey started the Arcade in 1917, he agreed to share the cost of upgrading the front footage with Ojai merchants. Nobody considered the rear of the Arcade. While the street fronts of the Ojai Avenue stores were united by the Mission style of architects Mead and Requa’s original plan, the back doors stood for fifty years in a haphazard jumble of old wood shacks, some dating back to the original 1870’s town of Nordhoff. The front arches continued to grace the picture postcards, the Arcade having become a kind of façade, like a Hollywood set. Behind it, lay a deteriorating shambles of old Western clapboard buildings.
Architect Zelma Wilson and others foresaw that, with imagination and planning, the rear of the Arcade could become a “focal point of community life” – a village where residents and tourists alike could shop and socialize. The original plans of the Downtown Business Committee in 1971 called for plazas, fountains, covered walkways, and new shops and offices, all blending into a relaxed village atmosphere spanning the block from Signal to Montgomery Street behind the Arcade. Now, a decade later , the Arcade Plaza is a local project, paid for without state or federal money. An ingenious application of the state law allowed for increased tax revenues within the redevelopment area to go exclusively for the benefit of this project.
When John Johnston came to Ojai as city manager in 1971, he recalls, “my great concern at that time was to prevent Ojai from turning into another San Fernando Valley.” Johnston, then in his late twenties, had just completed a term as City Manager of Artesia and Cerritos, where uncontrolled growth had transformed dairy farms into what was then the world’s largest indoor shopping mall.
“In Ojai,” says Johnston, “I ran into a city council that stopped this sort of development on its heels.” With Councilman Hal Mitrany and others, Johnston met with Ojai’s downtown merchants to explore ways to redevelop a “shambles” of old structures. In the back alley behind the Arcade, buildings were collapsing, Johnston recalls, “but what could we do? The city was too poor to do it on their own.”
AS A FIRST step, Johnston urged the city to form a parking and improvement district. The merchants then went to Architect Zelma Wilson, A.I.A. to design an expanded Arcade. Johnston then, in early 1972, asked Robert Hill of the California Department of Housing and Community Development to visit Ojai and to outline for the city council how the state redevelopment law could be applied specifically to Ojai’s needs.
Plans were laid for upgrading the downtown core and putting in public improvements with money from tax increments. Each time a property owner increased the value of his land and buildings within the 135-acre boundary of the agency, local tax money flowed into the coffers of the new redevelopment agency.
“So the project came out as originally hoped for,” said Johnston. “It just took a lot longer.” Ten years, in fact, from the original conception in 1972 to the dedication in April, 1982.
OJAI REMAINS one of the few towns to apply the state law on redevelopment in this novel and constructive way to its downtown area. The amount of money available to the redevelopment agency proved to be more than originally hoped for, because property values increased during the past decade beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. Yet with Proposition 13 and the inevitable decline in real estate values, the redevelopment agency idea is not as desirable as a tool as it once was.
Crucial to the redevelopment plan was the timing and local leadership in Ojai. “It is unlikely that the project would have taken place,” says Johnston, “if the interest and support were not there.”
Johnston particularly recalls the role of Clifford Hey and James Loebl: “When things got tough, they didn’t back down.” But there were many others. “Hundreds of people from all walks of life made this happen.” Just one example: Alan Rains invested in sidewalks outside his store long before the plans for the surrounding area took shape. What the redevelopment agency did was to create confidence in the community.
Behind the Arcade: Before
Behind the Arcade: After
Merchant Alan Rains recalls: “Our concern was that we did not want to see Ojai follow the same route as the San Fernando Valley with shops starting at Woodland Hills and running fifteen miles to wherever. Ojai had not been growing in a healthy pattern for several years and it was felt something needed to be done to revitalize the original shopping area.”
No more false fronts, no more shambles at the rear.
This article was published a few years ago in the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Bill Baker’s Bakery Known Near and Far for ‘Made in Ojai’
by David Mason
“Do not buy in Ventura or elsewhere what you can buy at Nordhoff, especially when you can get equal value for equal price. You can get the best phonograph in the world and the best records to use with it right here in Nordhoff – The Ojai Bakery.” The Ojai – May 27, 1909
Wilhelm Koch had the normal childhood feeling of most boys being raised in Germany. He was born in Marburg on May 4, 1873, and, undoubtedly, grew up with the hopes of attending the university in his home town. The Phillips University in Marburg was founded in 1527 and was the first Protestant university in Europe.
With the mandatory military draft in Germany, young Wilhelm’s father felt it was in the boy’s best interest to have him leave the country. His father, inspired with the ideals of democracy, sent him to America.
As a child, Wilhelm had shown exceptional talent as a sculptor, so a life career as an artist was to be his destiny. His artistic ability in America was brought out in the catering departments of some of America’s finest hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia, the Arlington in Washington, the St. Charles in New Orleans and the Huntington in Pasadena.
With the United States entry into the first World War in 1917, the government offered a prize of $500 to the baker who produced the best wheatless bread. Wilhelm decided to enter this contest with high hopes of receiving the prize money for the sole purpose of changing his name. Not only did he win the competition, he won first and second prizes and the sweepstakes, and promptly change his name to William Cook Baker.
It was while working in Pasadena that William Baker would discover the charming seaside town of Ventura. His success was already becoming quite apparent by his being named assistant food administrator for Southern California under Herbert Hoover. So he decided to open his own bakery in Ventura and, being patriotic, it was only natural that he would name it The American Bakery.
Baker would operate the bakery for six years until the lure of the beautiful Ojai Valley attracted him. In 1923 Baker bought out the Ojai Bakery. Emile Gerstenmeyer had operated the Ojai Bakery for many years and he carried a large assortment of merchandise: candles, soft drinks, phonographs and records, books, magazines, picture postcards and, of course, fresh bread, cakes and table delicacies were on hand at all times.
Under the new ownership, the bakery changed its name to Bill Baker’s Ojai Bakery. The bakery was set to become world famous.
In 1927 Bill Baker hired the well-known Santa Paula architect Roy C. Wilson to design a new building for the bakery. Construction was to be of brick and stucco and the architecture was to be of the Spanish style, to compliment the newly built school across the street. The architect had earlier designed the San Antonio School and the Nordhoff Grammar School, along with some of the valley’s most spectacular homes.
The new bakery was very modern, the structure was actually two buildings with a drive between them. One building was used as a salesroom and the other for equipment. George Noble was in charge of the construction and Frank Harrow did the concrete work. The beautiful new building added the needed architectural enjoyment for the tourist entering the town from the east. Through all the construction, the ovens of the bakery continued to turn out their regular quota of loaves of bread and pastries with little interference.
The first of Bill Baker’s many elaborate presidential cakes was sent to President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in 1927. The large fruitcake was decorated with a small village in the snow and a detailed Santa and sleigh – the first of the many famous cakes produced by Bill Baker’s bakery.
On Feb. 2, 1928, Bill Baker was called to Santa Barbara for a meeting with Dr. W. D. Sansum of the Sansum Clinic. The doctor was interested in finding a baker who could produce a bread to meet his rigid qualifications. Baker had been experimenting with lima bean products successfully and the American Institute of Baking in Chicago had tested his product and proclaimed it to be the best. Dr. Sansum encouraged the use of this lima bean bread in an article written for the Chicago Tribune. The popularity of this new bread grew and it was shipped to many parts of the United States, even as far as Alaska and Hawaii.
By June of 1928, a formal wedding in Seattle, Wash. would have at the reception an elaborate wedding cake made by the bakery in Ojai. The Lions’ convention in the east would also receive one of Bill Baker’s 30-pound fruitcakes. The Lions’ Club cake was decorated with a replica of the Ojai Valley in sugar and surrounding a miniature of the Ojai Catholic Church (now the Ojai Valley Museum).
The 1930’s would see an extensive increase in development of the bakery. The lima bean products, including the lima bean bread, wafers and the new lima bean toast, were in demand from everywhere. Baker decided to advertise the bakery and the Ojai Valley by having a new label designed for his waxed paper wrappers. The labels were silver with “Made in Ojai, California” in blue. There were 550 loaves of bread being shipped each day, advertising the news that Ojai was the center of Bill Baker’s lima bean baking industry.
With the success of the lima bean products, Baker decided to try his hand at developing a soybean bread. Doctors had long suggested the use of soybean as a health food, using it in soups, muffins, etc., but for commercial baking. It wasn’t long before Bill Baker’s Bakery had created a popular and palatable product.
As if all the new bakery items weren’t enough to keep Bill Baker busy, he decided to enter the Elks’ charity event, the “American Horned Toad Derby” being held at the Ventura Bathhouse. His entry was called “Lima Bean”, and Baker put out a press release stating: “I am keeping my Horned Toad on a strict diet of lima bean bread and toast as it has been proven that this will keep down high blood pressure and prevent acidosis. I am betting heavily on ‘Lima Bean’ to win and advise my friends to keep an eye on this contender, for he is a sure winner.” Win or lose, it didn’t matter, it’s how he played the game that was the true sport.
By the end of the year 1930, Bill Baker’s Bakery had added another truck to their delivery system and the bakery was now up to 1,600 loaves of lima bean bread a day – quite an increase from the 500 loaves a day that he was producing at the beginning of the year
The President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover received a Bill Baker’s cake in 1931, a 50-pound fruitcake made entirely with California fruits and nuts. On the top was a scene of Ventura with a Christmas angel flying overhead.
In 1936, President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt received a Bill Baker masterpiece. The Christmas cake was a 200-pound affair, a fruitcake decorated with star-spangled pillars with red, white and blue bars. In each section was set a green Christmas wreath with a pink bell and bow. The edge of the top was encircled by 200 beautifully made red poinsettias. The top was covered with a green sugar lawn and sugar shrubs, trees and the sugary path that led to the center where the White House glistened, topped by “Old Glory.” On the lawn was written “Merry Christmas to President and Mrs. Roosevelt.”
With the anticipation of the people of California in 1939 toward the San Francisco World Exposition, it was only proper that Bill Baker would have to be part of this important event. What he spent a year in designing and building was a cake weighting 1,000 pounds, which measured 5 feet across the base, 3 feet high and 3 feet across the top layer.
The base of the cake was decorated with an arched colonnade with a red tile roof. Upon the bottom layer were replicas of all the California missions in exact detail with the mountain ranges behind them. On the side of the second layer were numerous towers, replicas of the beautiful tower that dominated the exposition. Between the towers were palm trees and pink roses connecting the towers to each other.
The top of the cake was a miniature San Francisco Bay, with the three famous bridges connecting the islands to the shore. Even the bay cities were shown in their harbor districts. The most exquisite piece of icing on the cake was a miniature of Treasure Island with numerous ships sailing across the top. The cake instantly became one of the great wonders of the exposition.
In 1942, Baker contacted poison oak in the back yard of his home in Lake Sherwood and was rushed to the hospital in Ventura. He did not make it through the ordeal and died. The story of Bill Baker comes to an end, but the famous bakery that carries his name was just starting a new chapter.
Longtime faithful employees of the bakery, Harmon and Helen Vaughn, continued to keep the plant running. They saw to it that everything was operated as Bill Baker had desired — top quality and fair practice.
The Vaughns had arrived in Ojai on March 31, 1936 from Arkansas. They liked what they saw and decided to make a life for themselves in the small valley. They were hired by Bill Baker to work for his bakery on their second day in town.
In 1946, the Vaughns bought the bakery from Bill Baker’s widow and continued the service, retaining the Bill Baker’s Ojai Bakery name. The Vaughns ran a most successful operation, keeping up the high standard that had been set many years before and finally retired in February 1974.
The famous bakery, one of the oldest continually running businesses in Ojai, is still a success today. The building has been modified somewhat, but still retains the beauty and charm from 70 years ago.
The famous bakery was located at 457 E. Ojai Avenue. Today the building houses AZU Restaurant.
The Age of Reformation: Ethel Andrus and the Founding of AARP
by Craig Walker and Bret Bradigan
from The Ojai Quarterly
As Jack Fay remembers it, it was just a quiet business dinner with six people in a small meeting room at the Ojai Valley Inn. The air wasn’t charged with the momentous changes about to take place. Instead, they discussed legal incorporation issues and health insurance premiums.
Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus organized the meeting. She represented the Grey Gables in Ojai on behalf of the National Retired Teachers Association, and Fay was her lawyer. The others at the meeting were Ruth Lana, Andrus’ long-time lieutenant; Dorothy Crippen, Andrus’ cousin; Leonard Fialco, the assistant to the sixth person present, Leonard Davis, an ambitious if yet only modestly successful insurance broker from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
During that Ojai evening in 1958, the American Association of Retired Persons was born. And what it meant to grow old in this country changed dramatically. At first, the AARP was structured as a mechanism by which the National Retired Teachers Association, founded in 1947 by Andrus, could sell health insurance to the general public. The NRTA had been selling policies to retired teachers since 1956, and it had proven both profitable and popular. Insurance companies had turned Andrus down 40 times in the past 11 years. Yet in those pre-Medicare days she knew that people over 65 deserved the security and dignity that comes from knowing that they could rely on a doctor’s care.
When Andrus started the NRTA in 1947, 75 percent of people over the age of 65 lived with their relatives and 55 percent lived below the poverty line, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 1940, life expectancy was 60.8 years for men, 65.2 for females. In 2007, life expectancy figures were 75.4 and 80.4 respectively.
Some of the increase in lifespan can be attributed to medical advances, which the AARP has advocated and funded. Some could also be plausibly attributed to the dynamic lifestyle that Dr. Andrus pioneered and of which she was a living example: a lifestyle based on exercise, travel, lifetime learning, second careers, political and social activism, volunteering and community service.
Despite its modest origins in Ojai, the AARP now has 40 million members and is considered one of the most powerful nonprofit organizations in the United States. Its magazine has the largest circulation of any periodical. Its lobbying arm in Washington, D.C, is considered the most formidable. The organization extends into every area of aging, from leading-edge research to group travel discounts.
Fay, a former Ojai mayor and city councilman, is still practicing law. He is the sole survivor of that meeting since the death of Davis in 2001.
“As the meeting broke up, Davis took me by the shoulder and whispered to me, “You’ll never get anywhere in life if you don’t think big,” Fay recalls. “And I thought that was a heck of a good idea. So, I started thinking big. It didn’t work for me, but it did work for Davis.”
Leonard Davis convinced Continental Casualty to start up a pilot program for selling policies to everyone over the age of 65, not just retired teachers. It proved an immediate success. It went nationwide, with Davis as the sole broker. “He had the whole country as a fertile field to sell his health insurance,” Fay says. “So he made the best of it.”
Davis put up $50,000 in startup money. Dr. Andrus founded Modern Maturity magazine, now AARP Magazine, which lobbied for the interests of the elderly and, perhaps not coincidentally, served as an excellent marketing vehicle for the health insurance policies in those pre- Medicare years.
Within a year, the number of policies written went from 5,000 to 15,000. Within a few decades, Forbes magazine listed Davis as one of its 400 wealthiest Americans, with a personal fortune estimated at $230 million at the time he sold his Philadelphia-based Colonial Penn Group in 1984.
“I remember that evening vividly,” Fay says, “But I don’t think any one of us realized the import. Who could have predicted it?”
If anyone could have predicted it, it would likely have been Dr. Andrus, who founded the NRTA in 1947 before moving to Ojai from Glendale in 1954 to open a revolutionary new retirement home for teachers at Grey Gables.
A daughter of the progressive movement
She was born in San Francisco in 1884, the daughter of what she described as “a struggling young attorney” and “his proud and admiring helpmate.” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1903 and began her long and storied teaching career at the Lewis Institute, the first junior college in the country, now the Illinois Institute of Technology.
She volunteered regularly at the nearby Hull House, founded by prominent reformer Jane Addams, who in 1930 became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. At the time of Andrus’ volunteer service, however, the Hull House, founded just a few years earlier in 1897, was still an open experiment in social democracy, providing spiritual and educational uplift for its neighborhood of newly arrived immigrants in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Each week, as many as 2,000 people came to the settlement house for night school classes, kindergarten classes, its famed public kitchen, its art gallery, gym, bookbindery, drama groups and library.
Dr. Andrus might be seen as a product of the Progressive Movement, which arose in the late 19th century as a socially responsible response to the abject poverty in which many of the new wave of immigrants lived, as well as against the greed of the Gilded Age of robber barons and growing economic inequality. Crusading journalists like Ida Tarbell and Frank Norris brought attention to the dangers and humiliations faced by factory workers and farmers. In 1906, during Dr. Andrus’ service at the Hull House, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about Chicago’s meatpacking plants and stockyards, was published. With its nauseating descriptions of filthy practices and labor abuse, it led to such reforms as the Pure Food and Drug Act. The story of a Lithuanian immigrant and his family living in squalor and abuse, The Jungle intimately described many of the people for whom Addams, and Andrus, sought to provide a ladder out of poverty.
“I learned there to know life intimately and to value folks of different races and creeds,” Dr. Andrus wrote. “I saw there wonderful examples, not only of rehabilitation but of resurrection as well.”
Return to California
Her father’s failing health and eyesight brought her back to California. She took a teaching position at Santa Paula High School, which may have been her first exposure to Ojai, though she is said to have selected Ojai for her endeavors after giving a talk at Nordhoff High School in 1953.
In 1916, she was offered the assistant principal position at East Los Angeles High School. The following year, the principal retired and she was offered the job. At age 32, Ethel Percy Andrus had become the first female principal of a large, urban high school in the state of California.
With her flaming red hair and intense purpose, Andrus cut a memorable figure. One of her students, the actor Robert Preston of The Music Man fame, said, “The big iron scroll at Abraham Lincoln High School through which we passed said “Opportunity.” Isn’t it amazing that we didn’t know until we walked out: Opportunity had red hair!”
The lessons Ethel Percy Andrus learned at Hull House would serve her well over the next 28 years.
The school was notorious for its high rates of social dysfunction and juvenile delinquency. Despite the grand homes on the bluff overlooking the Los Angeles River, the district was also crowded with coldwater flats and tarpaper shacks from immigrant influxes: Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Mexican families particularly.
Lincoln Heights, considered the oldest neighborhood in Los Angeles, was always ethnically diverse, and racial clashes were common. It was the setting for the infamous Zoot Suit Riots, which began in 1942 because a Hispanic youth named Jose Diaz was allegedly murdered in Sleepy Lagoon in nearby Williams Ranch.
Asians, Latinos and Italians mixed with affluent founding families as well as Russian refugees from a Christian sect. Andrus wrote, “They lived in the flats near City Hall. They were an interesting people, led by an epileptic and financed by the elder Leo Tolstoi.”
Dr. Andrus’ first task was to find some concepts to unify these immigrants and starchy patricians into a community. “Our faith became an obsession,” she wrote. “We must keep our many nationalities conscious and proud of their racial and national background, of the contributions made to the American dream, and to the insistent obligation they, the youngsters, must themselves accept in raising their own coming families with a double loyalty; respecting their own roots and the traditions alike of America and the land and faith of their forefathers.”
Every school day, at auditorium call, the students repeated these words: “I hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. God hath made of one blood all races of men, and we are his children, brothers and sisters all.”
Her father’s hero was Abraham Lincoln. Her nephew was named Lincoln. Lincoln was also the hero of her mentor, Jane Addams, whose father was one of the founders of the Republican Party and a personal friend of the Great Emancipator. In 1919, Dr. Andrus was instrumental in having the neighborhood renamed from East Los Angeles to Lincoln Heights, and the 2,000-student school renamed Abraham Lincoln High School.
One of the anecdotes told about Lincoln was that after he gave a conciliatory speech about the Confederacy, a woman in the audience said, “But Mr. President, we must destroy our enemies!” Lincoln replied, “Yes, ma’am. But do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Dr. Andrus took that story to heart, always working to defuse tensions in the multiethnic community and build a shared sense of purpose. She forged strong connections. She worked with Los Angeles County Community Hospital to train nurses at the school. She encouraged civic associations like the Optimists to sponsor education awards and scholarships. Former athletes came back as coaches. Standout students went to college and came back as teachers. Besides Robert Preston, among her renowned alumni were actor Robert Young (who played Marcus Welby, M.D.) and Cardinal Robert Mahoney.
It didn’t take long before Dr. Andrus’ reforming zeal stirred up controversy, and delivered results. For example, she dropped Latin and Greek, and added vocational courses. “The discipline and faith routinely ingrained by the school reduced juvenile delinquency and brought a citation from the Superior Court,” wrote Scott Hart in “The Power of Years,” an Andrus biography commissioned by the NRTA and the AARP.
Among her proudest achievements was founding the Opportunity School with but one other certificated teacher, but with a staff of vital teachers: engineers, salesmen, preachers and the like. It later became the Lincoln Heights Adult Evening School,” she wrote. It served as a focal point for a community fractured along ethnic and economic lines.
Dr. Andrus said, “It was not a revolutionary idea–except in practice–to realize that the sons and daughters of folk pouring in from every corner of the globe had now some kind of common background, something to hold them together, a community pride.”
A lifelong learner, Dr. Andrus received her M.A. in 1928, and, in 1930, became one of the first women to receive her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.
She also brought her faculty together into a tight-knit team. Ed Wenig, her drama teacher, moved to Ojai after his retirement to help her with the NRTA. Wenig became an esteemed local historian as well as a columnist for Modern Maturity magazine.
Wenig’s daughter, Patty Atkinson, was five in 1956 when the family moved to Ojai. “She was an imposing woman–she commanded a lot of authority,” Atkinson says of Andrus. Atkinson says her father adored Dr. Andrus, serving on many boards with her, including the NRTA, and helping with her many writing and publishing ventures after moving to Ojai.
Atkinson remembers her father, who had quite a peripatetic career including a stint teaching in the Philippines before joining forces with Dr. Andrus, talking about the day in 1942 that the Japanese students were rounded up to go to internment camps. “As the buses passed the school, the entire student body stood outside and waved,” she recalls. That measure of human respect was directly due to Andrus’ influence.
She also says her father would herd the students into assemblies and stage radio plays while the faculty held meetings. Often, Wenig would have to frisk students for weapons as they filed into the auditorium.
Even as Lincoln High School became nationally recognized for excellence, Dr. Andrus’ methods were studied and encouraged by the National Educational Association, her priorities changed to the very local near the end of the school year in 1944.
“My resignation came to Lincoln and myself as a sudden surprise,” she said. That morning the nurse attending my mother told me of her belief that my mother was to be a hopeless invalid. On the way to school, I determined that I could give to her the loving care she had given to my father during his blindness.”
Dr. Andrus was 60 years old, with a full life of significant achievements. But it was while caring for her mother that she became acutely aware of the problems faced by aging people. And so she launched the second, and most enduring, role of her career.
The Chicken Coop
In the AARP’s current television ads, the camera lens takes in a decrepit chicken coop, with the narration: “The unlikely birth place of a fundamental idea… Ethel couldn’t ignore the clear need for health and financial security, and it inspired her to found AARP.”
The chicken coop incident came not long after her retirement. While she was caring for her mother, Dr. Andrus kept busy with professional associations. She was named director of welfare for the Southern Section of the California Teachers Association, charged with seeing to the material needs of thousands of retirees.
It was a job she took personally, having learned that her pension, after 40 years in education, was $61.49 a month plus another $23.93 a month in an annuity, barely even a living wage. While she could rely on family money and other sources of income, she realized that very few teachers had such privileges waiting for them after their careers were over. Most retired teachers in those days were women, who were left especially destitute when widowed.
One day a local grocer asked Dr. Andrus if she would check on an old woman he hadn’t seen in several days. He gave Ethel the woman’s address. The people who lived there didn’t recognize the name, but then said, “Oh, you must mean the old woman living out back.” That’s when Andrus discovered that one of her retired teachers was living in a chicken coop. The woman was gravely ill, but had no money to visit a doctor. It was a moment that would charge Ethel Percy Andrus’ life with a new purpose.
She set about this new mission with great deliberation. The first step was to organize teachers nationwide in an effort to boost their collective clout. On Oct. 13, 1947, the 125 members of the California Retired Teachers Association present in Berkeley voted unanimously to form the National Retired Teachers Association.
That long journey eventually led to Ojai. Dr. Andrus began stumping the country, giving talks about the issues of aging, about the great gifts that elderly people could contribute to society, and about the means and mechanisms by which that pent-up potential would be realized. She brought an evangelical zeal to the task, repudiating the well-meaning social workers, retirement home activity directors, and even retirees themselves who fill the days of retired people with recreational activities like bingo or shuffleboard.
Older people need purpose in their life, meaningful and productive work, Dr. Andrus said. She objected to the term ‘senior citizen’ as isolating and demeaning. “We wouldn’t call 45-year-olds junior citizens,” she would say.
Friends and associates noticed a marked difference in Dr. Andrus. “She might talk with nostalgia of
the halls of ivy, and hours later with iron firmness about a business matter. Her ability to listen equaled her gift for quick brisk speech, everyone left her company feeling good about themselves,” according to The Power of Years.
Fay says that being in her presence “was an amazing feeling. She was an idealist and a visionary, and her lieutenants, Dorothy and Ruth, did the nuts and bolts work, and I did the legal work. She was a leader in the true sense of the word. She had great charisma, very articulate, although soft-spoken. She had such an aura about her, that I’ve been with her on several occasions when as soon as she walked into a room, silence came over it, and they looked at her in awe.”
One of the goals she set for the NRTA was to provide a model facility for active retirement. As she began casting about for a location, she might have remembered Ojai for its warm, dry air and bright sunshine from her days as a teacher in nearby Santa Paula; or she might have had conversations with local residents about the idea after giving a talk at Nordhoff High School, then located on El Paseo Drive.
Quiet Town, Big Changes
The morning after her Nordhoff talk in 1953, she saw two buildings for sale; a house on the corner of Montgomery Street and Grand Avenue, and a three-story building behind it. The property, Grey Gables, already had several small apartments, common living areas, a library and a large music hall. The NRTA put in an offer.
She had a grander vision of what retirement living could be than anything that had come before. Dr. Andrus foresaw a nursing home where the elderly might receive 24-hour care, and where they would actively work, volunteer and participate in the life of their community.
The city was skeptical. There were two other applicants for the site: Sam Sklar, who had recently bought Wheeler Hot Springs, and planned to operate the Gables in conjunction with his resort; and Alcoholics Anonymous, looking for a rest home for people in recovery. “The City was also not eager for us, grudgingly granting us the license which was essential to the sale only after being forced to decide between the claims of Alcohol[ics] Anonymous, a resort of uncertain moral standards and a retirement home. Finally, at long last, the City Council felt our institution was the least worst, and Grey Gables was in the forming,” Andrus wrote. Obstacles loomed, however.
The previous owners proved difficult. “The Sanfords were unpredictable; they wanted badly to sell, but
they hated the necessity of foregoing their dream,” Andrus wrote.
But the sale was a necessity. The Sanfords were about to be foreclosed on, owing $80,000 on the property. (Alee Sanford had her own, parallel vision for the property when she built it in the late 1940s, as a resident teachers’ club and library, with subsidized housing for local teachers.)
The first five years were a whirlwind of activity. Dr. Andrus brought Lana to Ojai as her trusted advisor, and they set to work “often substituting sheer energy for cash, and nervous energy for cash,” she later wrote. They created the menus, arranged the activities and attended the phones 24 hours a day.
The first resident, Emma McRedie Turner, from Chicago, arrived on July 17, 1954. “I was absolutely alone here, but the patrol car came by regularly,” she was quoted as saying in The Power of Years. Within 10 years, it had 85 residents.
“We of Grey Gables are certain that this project will be a pilot one, the first perhaps of many to prove to the world that retirement can be a dynamic adventure in gracious living,” Andrus wrote.
Jack Fay remembers his initial encounter with the red-haired dynamo. “In 1955, I first met Dr. Andrus at a City Council meeting, where I was representing an applicant for a land-use proposition, and she was there with her attorney, opposing my client, and it was a very contentious hearing, but not with her. I was just fine with her. I lost that case. She won it. Within a week, Andrus called me and said, ‘I wish you’d be my attorney.’ So I said, ‘Fine!'”
Little did I know what I was getting into. Dr. Andrus brought a large crew of people with her to Ojai from her former home in Glendale, including Ruth Lana, herself a former teacher. Ruth’s daughter, Lora, spent several years in Ojai, first as a student at Happy Valley School, then as an employee of the NRTA and AARP. “I remember opening these countless envelopes and shaking out the $2 [AARP membership fees] inside,” she said. The AARP grew from its first member in 1958 to about 400,000 in 1962, when the membership office was moved to Long Beach. The organization continued to be headquartered in Ojai until 1965, when the entire operation was moved first to Long Beach, then to Washington D.C.
Early residents of Grey Gables were attracted by Ethel’s vision of an active life of service, and so the Gables soon became an important asset to the community. Its residents served on local boards, tutored in the schools, taught classes at the Art Center and volunteered throughout the valley.
In 1959 the Ojai City Council, which had originally balked at the project, awarded Ethel Andrus and her Grey Gables residents a city proclamation honoring their many contributions to the community.
While she was busy lobbying politicians in Washington, D.C. (Lora Lana remembers her mother and Andrus living out of suitcases for weeks at a time), she also kept close touch with her people in Ojai. When a Nordhoff teacher, Herb Smith, and his wife were stricken with polio, Ethel spearheaded the fund-raising effort that paid for their house to be retrofitted for the wheelchair-bound couple.
Andrus cut quite a figure around town, says Anne Friend Thacher, who began working for both the NRTA and the AARP maintaining membership files. “No one called her Ethel. She had this striking red hair and was a very smart person.”
Dr. Andrus also brought her nephew, Lincoln Service, along with his young daughters, Barbara and Suzanne (Sandy) Andrus Service, to Ojai in 1954. The girls were seven and eight. Dr. Service served as the Gables’ medical staff. “We just loved Ojai,” Barbara says. “It was rural, and very beautiful, and very different from Glendale.” Even with Ojai’s laid-back country feel, Dr. Andrus insisted on proper decorum in dress and bearing. “One time she drove me down to Long Beach to go clothes shopping,” Sandy Service says. “We went into several stores where I would sit on the sofa and they brought out clothes for me to try. She would always pick these fancy silk suits. I said, ‘Nana, people in Ojai don’t dress like that.” She said, “A lady is a lady no matter where she lives.”
Thacher was a student at Happy Valley School at the time. Lora Lana was a year ahead of her. Thacher was promoted to secretary and continued to work for both organizations while a student at Berkeley. “They employed a lot of local people. The pay was pretty terrible,” she says. “One of my jobs was to correspond with people who had questions. One of the questions was, “How do you pronounce Ojai?”
Dr. Andrus was known for hiring young people. both to keep the former teachers in touch with youth, and also to allow the residents to use their wisdom and experience to guide young people. “Youth can and should be courted,” she wrote. “Youth will, in dividends of gratitude, pay high for the investment of the oldster’s time, interest and thoughtful attention.”
As the NRTA and AARP grew into national powerhouses, the local offices expanded. In 1954, the NRTA purchased Sycamore Lodge, a motel next to Grey Gables that fronted Grand Avenue; later, several apartments were added on the back and west side of the property. The Acacias nursing home was built in 1959.
Dr. Andrus set out the vision for the Acacias in an article for Modern Maturity in 1959, shortly after its purchase:
“The Acacias hopes to be more than a nursing facility, more than a convalescent home; it is a health center that will demonstrate the potency of helping older people discover the basis of their trouble and through care, friendly concern, and expert service find the right channels to recovery. The Acacias in its freshness and beauty of building and setting is in itself a strong factor in the attainment of this goal; its lines are restful; its colors refreshing; its furnishing modern and effective.”
Though she was instrumental in many causes of the day–working to end mandatory retirement and age-related discrimination, and to establish the now ubiquitous senior discounts–Dr. Andrus did so in an entirely non-adversarial manner. She didn’t lead marches, sit-ins, political campaigns, etc. It was all done through education, research, advocacy and programs by her own membership organizations.
Through the research arm of AARP, she exploded many commonly held myths, stereotypes and assumptions about aging. She used this new knowledge about aging to promote a new image of growing older and retirement … from the end of one’s creative life to the beginning, from isolation to involvement, from deterioration to continued growth, from a time to be feared to a time of opportunity and renewed productivity.
Leonard Davis and Dr. Andrus made a formidable team, lobbying tirelessly for the passage of Medicare in 1965.
Davis died at age 76 in 2001. Despite a few scrapes with regulators and Congressional investigative arms (he lost his lock on being the sole insurance broker for the AARP during the 1970s), he was a generous benefactor to many causes. In addition to the many millions he and his wife Sophie gave to universities, museums and cultural centers, he endowed the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, the first center in the country devoted to training medical staff to treat elderly patients.
Dr. Andrus died July 13, 1967, active to the end, mourned by many and replaced by none. Though she had unlocked the vast wealth held by retired people as they were brought out of isolation and into the mainstream of America, her personal fortune, according to Fay, was valued at less than $100,000.
She was eulogized by President Lyndon Johnson as well as by Ojai friends and neighbors. “In Ethel Percy Andrus,” he wrote, “humanity had a trusted and untiring friend. She has left us all poorer by her death. But by her enduring accomplishments, she has enriched not only us, but all succeeding generations of Americans.”
Clyde Stewart opened a store at the center of the village of Nordhoff in 1910, and his business was listed in the telephone book that year. An advertisement, carried in The Ojai newspaper in 1917 read:
We carry a full line of
and solicit your business,
C.A. Stewart, Grocer.
6 Years in Business
In this photograph, we see Stewart with his staff of clerks. The array of goods on display is typical of most of the grocery and general merchandise stores of the day. Packets of seeds rest in racks on the floor to the left of the aisle. Pots and pans are on the shelves above. At the rear, a large clock hangs on the wall.
Note the sky lights at the center of the ceiling. Those same sky lights can be seen today at Vesta Home & Hearth (previously Tottingham Court).
Howard Bald wrote of an incident that occurred at Clyde Stewart’s store about 1910:
About this time, “one smart aleck rode into Clyde Stewart’s grocery store (on a horse) and roped a fellow and dragged him over the counter…that smart aleck…was myself.”
Howard was only eighteen years old at the time. His behavior must have created quite a stir.
Clyde Stewart ran for and won the office of City Clerk for the newly incorporated City of Ojai in 1921, becoming the first in the city to hold that office. He was later active in theÂ Ojai Orange Association and was secretary of the Association in 1934. He owned a ranch on McNell Road.
The Isis–isn’t this an exotic sounding name? How about Bijou, Rialto, Majestic, Palace, or Regency? What images do these names bring to mind?
Movie theater owners in the 1910s thru the ’20s wished to evoke the mystery of the exotic or the pomp and privilege of royalty in both the name and design of their theaters. Names such as “Bijou”, the French word for jewel; “Granada”, a city in Spain; or “Rialto”, an Italian island, stimulated the imagination, convincing the public that when they passed through those theater doors, they were embarking on a thrilling adventure. Movie theaters became garish, dazzling and grand palaces.
Those were exciting times for the fledgling film industry. Americans fell in love with moving pictures right from the start. But the earliest cinemas, in a period from about 1905 to 1912, were small neighborhood store fronts. A movie theater opened in Pittsburgh in 1905 that was cleverly called The Nickelodeon. The name is a combination of nickel (the amount charged to get in) and “odeon”, the Greek word for theater. By 1907, about 4,000 of these small nickelodeon cinemas were scattered around the U.S. The shows were a series of individual movies each only several minutes long, cobbled together to fill a half hour program accompanied by music. People flocked to these shows, almost in a frenzy. From eight in the morning until midnight visitors streamed in and out as nickels filled the box office coffers. Viewers were spellbound.
Isis was the name give to the mission-style, single-screen theater built on the southwest corner of Ojai Avenue and Signal Street in the town of Nordhoff in 1914 (Nordhoff’s name was changed to Ojai in 1917.) Isis is an Egyptian goddess, and for reasons unknown her name became a popular one for movie theaters in the United States. Cinema Treasures, a non-profit group dedicated to recording the history of American theaters and providing a forum for their preservation, lists on their website over 20 theaters named Isis in the United States built during this period. However, most are now closed or demolished. Others, like Ojai’s, may have undergone a name change. A newspaper ad indicates there was an Isis Theatre in Ventura.
During World War I, the U. S. film industry began to dominate as European countries were preoccupied with war. The development of the studio system in California, with its center in Hollywood, and the promotion of actors and actresses as movie stars further propelled the United States into the lead in the 1920s. Silent film era stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks became known around the world. With the advent of “talkies”, Hollywood entered into the “golden era” of film-making during the 1930s and ’40s.
Every town in America had to have a movie theater and the towns of Ventura County were no different. Oxnard, Santa Paula, and Ventura had quite a few over the years – most of them now long gone. The oldest remaining theater in Ventura is the downtown Majestic Ventura Theatre that opened to great fanfare in 1928 and now is a concert venue. Ojai and Fillmore today have the oldest movie theaters in the county. The single-screen Fillmore Towne Theatre opened as the Barnes in 1916 and is now owned by the City of Fillmore.
The Isis Theatre was built by John Joseph (known as J.J.) Burke on the corner occupied for twenty years by The Ojai newspaper office and print shop. Houk’s ice plant and butcher shop were also on this corner. The newspaper building was moved a short distance south on Signal Street (across from where the post office parking lot is today) to make room for the new theater. According to an article in The Ojai of May 1, 1914, the redevelopment of the corner was considered a remodeling of the entire building, though in fact the building was practically new and enlarged. Walter Houk also built a new ice plant at this time. According to the article, a large oak tree at the site was cut down to make room for the expanded project.
The finished building contained the new theater and Houk’s meat market and ice plant. The Ojai of May 29, 1914 describes the project, “The new building will be 32 feet on Ojai Avenue and 75 feet long on Signal Street. The style of architecture is to be Mission. A big Mission front will cover this and W.E. Houk’s meat market. The outside of the walls will be plastered, and the interior finish will be pressed tin–very ornamental and attractive, and will make the building practically fire proof. A polished maple floor has been decided upon, so that with moveable chairs, the place will make an ideal hall for dances.” The theater was built for vaudeville shows, dances, lectures and to show movies.
Ojai’s 1914 Isis edges out the Fillmore Towne Theatre in age by two years. The Isis wasn’t grand but for this small, rural village it was a triumph. The first film shown was The Valley of the Moon on August 19, 1914 based on the Jack London novel. The Ojai, August 14, describes the event, “This will be the first showing of this photoplay in any small town in California, and being one of the most expensive productions, our people should congratulate themselves upon being able to see it. All the scenes in this picture are taken in California, around San Francisco Bay and beautiful Carmel by the Sea.” Admission prices were: adults 20 cents and children 10 cents.
E.A. Runkle managed the theater in the early years and presented two regular shows a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. After the Saturday show the chairs were moved aside for dancing. Claude Munger cranked the primitive projector while the impromptu piano player kept pace by watching the film. The piano players were E.A Runkle’s wife Ethel and Claude’s sister Marion Munger. Movie ads in the local paper were profuse and filled a half page at times.
The Isis quickly became the happening spot in town. The headlines for an article in The Ojai dated April 1, 1921 exclaim “Yama Yama Dance Attracts Large Crowd”. The first paragraph reads, “For unadulterated terpsichorean pleasures and harmless hilarity, the Yama Yama Yum Yum dance given Tuesday evening by the Runkles, the musical wizards of the Isis Theatre, was a replica of the recent hard-times dance of pleasant memory given by the same management, under similar inspiring conditions and surroundings–faultless music, a big crowd and entrancing decorative effects.”
Fred and Lidie Hart bought the Isis from J.J. Burke in 1926 and reopened it as the Ojai Theatre.
The Hart’s renovated the building inside and out. The Ojai on May 7, 1926 describes the changes: “The walls have been redecorated and now present a beautiful and harmonious appearance. Soft shades of pink have been used on the walls, attractive boxes decorated with designs of flowers and ferns have been made for the indirect lights and additional side light with soft shades. For the greater comfort of guests Mr. Hart has installed 42 of the finest divans obtainable. There are three rows of them and they have been installed on raised platforms to give entirely unobstructed vision. The two new projecting machines are giving great satisfaction and will add considerably to the enjoyment of patrons.” Shows were given on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with Mrs. McCaleb providing the music. Prices were: divans 50 cents, other seats: adults 30 cents and children 15 cents.
Talkies came to Ojai in 1930. “Ojai turned out in force Saturday night to greet the talkies just installed in the Ojai Theatre and indications were that the innovation will be popular with the film fans,” reports The Ojai on Feb. 14, 1930. In October of 1930, Fred Hart leased the theater to Oliver Prickett and George Damon, Jr., owners and operators of the Alcazar Theatre in Carpinteria. Prickett and Damon installed new lamps in the projection room making it possible to change reels without interruption on the screen.
It is fortunate for Ojai that over these many years, theater owners sold the building only to buyers who were committed to keeping it as a movie theater. When theater manager William Swanson bought the building from Hart in 1935 an article in The Ojai dated July 23, 1935 reports, “The sale was made to Mr. Swanson in preference to other prospective purchasers who wanted the property, in order to make possible continuance of the theater which Mr. Swanson has operated so successfully for two years, and to prevent any other line of business–possibly of a nature which would compete with established concerns–getting possession of the corner.”
At this time the property included the theatre, Dr. King’s offices and the Busch grocery that were part of the property sale. Swanson proceeded to renovate the theater which included a new floor with a slope of five feet from back to front so better visibility is assured. The stage was removed making room for more seats, and a new enlarged screen of an improved beaded material was installed, along with rest rooms and a new box office. The first film shown in the newly renovated theater was Shirley Temple’s newest film, Curly Top.
The Flesher Family bought the Ojai Theatre from Swanson in 1949 and owned it for several decades with the Lawrences. Also in 1949, it was reported in the local paper that Wilbur Jerger presented a series of silent films he called the Great Films Series but the attendance was low. He endeavored to get an annual film festival started in the valley that he wanted to call the Great Film Festival. It is unknown what became of Jerger’s idea but in 1988, a group of locals formed the Ojai Film Society that has now been showing independent and foreign films on Sunday for over twenty years. In 2000 the group launched the Ojai Film Festival, which after several years became its own entity and celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2009.
Through the years new owners upgraded and renovated the Ojai gem. One of the most dramatic renovations took place in 1966 when Wayne Glasgow took over the closed theater, changing the name to the Glasgow Playhouse and completely renovating the inside and out in an elaborate Scottish motif. Glasgow’s wife Anne traveled all the way to Scotland to acquire Scottish antiques. Billed as a theater that would only show movies for adults, the Glasgow Playhouse opened on June 15 and 16 with a premiere screening of Shakespeare Wallah–four months before its West Coast debut in Los Angeles. The first night’s screening was followed by a sumptuous champagne buffet supper served in the gardens of the historic Oaks Hotel (now the Oaks at Ojai.).
Glasgow’s grand plans soon faltered. By June of 1967 the theater was already closed and didn’t reopen until January of 1970, according to the Ojai Valley News. The theater, not entirely out of Glasgow’s hands, opened under the management of Ted and Ruth Morris, owners and operators of the Los Robles Theatre on Maricopa Highway (open from 1964-1972, now Rabobank) and the Fox Theatre in Santa Paula. Ted Morris comments in the Ojai Valley News of January 28, 1970, “This is the most extravagant theater I’ve ever seen in a town this size.” Morris pointed out the handsome cabinets and soft reclining seats.
Glasgow can best be described as a character and was dubbed Ojai’s “bad boy” in the 1970s, though friends considered him smart and entertaining. He was often in the newspaper for one reason or another. Glasgow eventually retired in Hawaii and died there in 2005.
After a number of defaults, Glasgow eventually gained title to the theater. Ventura County records show a deed transfer from Ted and Betty Flesher to Wayne Glasgow in 1975. His troubles continued, however, and with numerous liens on the property, Glasgow was under court order in the 1980s to sell the property. The financially troubled Glasgow era ended in 1983 when Khaled Al-Awar, who weathered long and difficult negotiations with Glasgow, finally succeeded in purchasing the theater. In spite of his shaky reputation, Glasgow demonstrated his love for the theater by making sure it sold to someone committed to running the movie theater, something Al-Awar promised to do. Al-Awar, owner of the Primavera Gallery in Ojai, made repairs and improvements to the building and changed the name to the Ojai Playhouse. He also worked hard to get first-run films in to town as the theater’s reputation had been badly damaged. Al-Awar was also one of the founders of the Ojai Film Society.
The Al-Awar family successfully operated the Ojai Playhouse until 2007 when Mark and Kathy Hartley took over the historic place and financed a major renovation, restoring the Isis to the glory of its early years in what they call an “early Hollywood” style. During the renovations the false ceiling in the lobby was removed and the original ceiling of ornate tin was uncovered. This may be the same ornamental tin mentioned in the May 29, 1914 article (paragraph 8 above.) The Hartleys changed the name back to the Ojai Theatre though the marquee still says Ojai Playhouse.
What you see today as the theater lobby may not have existed in the early years and there are few around to remember. Old newspaper articles mention two other businesses occupying spaces in the same building. Helen Peterson, who worked at the theater from 1945 to 1950, describes a ticket booth that jutted out from the face of the building with double entrance doors on either side. The entrance was further east than today. Inside was a hall area with curtained doors to the right and left that entered the theater proper. Off to the right were restrooms and the Flesher’s theater office. She sold candy from the booth and there was no popcorn concession. Local historian, Terry Hill remembers in the 1950s a ticket window to the right of two double doors (see the post card photo from 1954.) He recalls a popcorn concession that was directly behind the seats on the other side of a wall. The Flesher & Lawrence Insurance business and Roy Roberts, Realtor were both listed in the Ojai Directory of 1954 as being located next door at 139 E Ojai Avenue (where The Jester is today.) Historian David Mason remembers that there was a waiting room with chairs inside to the right of the entrance. According to Hill, Wayne Glasgow constructed the new entrance and big lobby during his1966 renovation.
Americans love for movies has only grown over the decades and thanks to the Hartley’s, and all the previous owners, Ojai residents have a unique opportunity to view first-run films in one of the oldest single-screen theaters in the country. And though the theater was closed for periods, it has been continuously run as a movie theater for close to 100 years. Kathy Hartley comments in the Ojai Valley News in May of 2008, “One-screen movie theaters are dying all over the United States. The only way we can make it is with the help of the community. I’m hoping they’ll come back and support us.” Support our Ojai treasure–see a movie in Ojai. Keep the Isis alive!
Note: Old photos of the Ojai Theatre are rare so if you have any please contact the Ojai Valley Museum at 646-1390. You can either donate the photos to the museum or loan them for scanning.
Elise DePuydt is the Office Manager of the Ojai Film Society and author of A Photo Guide to Fountains and Sculptures of Ojai: Art, History & Architecture.
Elise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in the Ojai Valley Visitors Guide, Spring 2010
Update: June 2011
The Ojai Theatre reverted to Khaled Al-Awar in 2010. He returned the name of the theater to the Ojai Playhouse.
The city-owned Fillmore Towne Theatre is currently closed.
The first general store in Ojai Valley was opened by Mr. and Mrs. L.R. Herbert in 1874 on the north side of Ojai Avenue across from the present Civic Center Park [now, Libbey Park]. Ojai pioneers recall it as a small one-story building with one room that carried everything the early settlers needed.
Hattie Waite Cota, in an article on Ojai Valley’s first store, described the amazing variety of goods it displayed. She said: “The shelves were divided into sections in which goods were placed, each item in its respective department. There was a drug, a dry goods, a boot and shoe counter, and near the entrance a small glass showcase that contained, among other things, several varieties of candy, such as peppermint, horehound, gum drops, stick candy and licorice strips, very strong and very black.”
A cherished memory of Mrs. Cota: “Some time later a millinery section was added, stocked only with children’s hats. My choice was a broad-brimmed, plain-black straw [hat] with band and streamers of corn-colored ribbon.”
Mrs. Thad Timms read a paper before the Pioneer section of the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club in 1938 and is here quoted: “Prior to the year 1874, all incoming and outgoing mail was carried by some one of the residents of the valley who happened to be riding or driving to Ventura to the post office. On March 11, 1874, the Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. appointed LaFayette R. Herbert as the first postmaster of Nordhoff [now Ojai]—an office was established.”
The Nordhoff store, as with most general stores, had a little section in the front for the distribution of mail. This addition, of course, drew many into the store who, in winter especially, lingered around the wood-burning stove in the middle of the room. Here the cracker-barrel philosophers settled the problems of the world, lent their ears for local news and gossip.
Early settlers remember the blending aroma of cheese, coffee, spices, sausages and new leather. Of course, nothing was packaged, and the storekeeper measured the amount wanted from barrels, sacks and other volume containers.
Farmers, with their wagons hauling hams, chickens in small coops or with legs tied, cases or boxes of eggs, tied their horses to hitching racks or trees and proceeded to trade their produce for coal oil, flour, sugar, harness and other needs.
Barter between the farmer and the storekeeper was the general rule. This put an extra load on the Nordhoff storekeeper, who had to take all the farm produce to Ventura and bring back goods for sale. With dusty roads in summer and deep mud in winter, this was quite a burden for heavy-laden wagons.
Through the years the little store was sold to A.A. Garland and son. Later, Thomas Gilbert bought it. Finding that he needed help in the store, he sent for his bride-to-be from Michigan and announced publicly that he was going to be married. He invited all the residents of the valley to the wedding, which was held on the hotel grounds [at the front of what is now Libbey Park] with music furnished by the Ventura band. Some years later, the Thomas Gilbert family moved to Santa Barbara.
A Mr. Brown and his wife then took over the store for a brief period, but Frank P. Barrows bought it and changed it to a hardware store. Finally, Mr. G.H. Hickey and two brothers bought it and rebuilt it. The Rains Department Store, now operating on the same site, is a successor to Hickey Brothers and is operated by Alan Rains, grandson of Mr. G.H. Hickey.
“Everything sold in Ojai’s first store,”Ojai Valley News, Nov. 5, 1969