Monday, April 29, 2019
Ralph C. Smedley was a quiet fellow; quite unassuming. Few people would have known him but for one amazing accomplishment, which happened at the Santa Ana YMCA.
Smedley began working for the YMCA immediately after he graduated from Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL. The local chapter was looking for a new education director, and so the young man took the job enthusiastically. The year was 1903 and he had a desire to help people do their best.
Smedley noticed that several of the young men at the gym had difficulty expressing their thoughts clearly. They lacked sophistication, and the college boy decided what they needed was a speaking club. But few had interest in attending a classroom club. They were there for sports.
Smedley changed jobs. He moved to nearby Freeport. Again, he tried to start his speaking club. Again, no success.
Then in 1924, Ralph Smedley, who was still working for the YMCA, took a job in California, at a new YMCA in a little town called Santa Ana. He tried one more time, this time making the class a little less classroom oriented, and more like a banquet. Each banquet chose a member to act as master of ceremonies for the evening, introducing each of the evening’s speakers.
Smedley made it a game. When people would unconsciously slip an “um” in when gathering their thoughts, attendees would take a fork and ding their water glass. Profanity was never allowed. And soon, people were flocking to the Santa Ana YMCA to join Smedley’s banquet club.
And Smedley dubbed it “Toastmasters.”
Soon people were asking him if they could start their own Toastmaster’s club, and Ralph happily obliged. He created learning materials and helped organize the new chapters. By 1941, Toastmasters had become their own organization, and hired Ralph full-time. He devised set rules for teaching effective speech and came up with inventive new games to foster the skill. But his main point was this; whenever you speak, whether to a group or an individual, make each listener feel as if you are talking to them alone. Speak as if you are just talking to one person.
Smedley built his philosophy from watching great speakers of his time. Will Rogers and Franklin D. Roosevelt were favorites of his, because they were masters of his “audience of one” delivery style.
The Santa Ana YMCA that once stood on Alton in Santa Ana was closed in the 1960’s and remained boarded up for many years. But Smedley was grateful that his beloved Toastmasters got its start in the basement of that old building. He credited the area for its optimism and energy for making Toastmasters possible.
Ralph Smedley continued to live in Orange County and passed away in 1965.
Monday, April 22, 2019
Allen Parkinson was always looking for a great idea.
Parkinson had an entrepreneurial spirit that led him to many successes, as well as a few bumps in the road. But he kept on trying new ideas.
Born in 1919, Parkinson was destined to create some of the most iconic attractions in Orange County. Born in Rexford Idaho, the young dreamer grew up in Salt Lake City during the Depression. Like so many others who turned to the movies for inexpensive entertainment, Parkinson fell in love with the glamour and pizazz Hollywood brought to his local theater.
Those movies fired his imagination, and so he hit the road and sought his fortune out west, where he first became a salesman of Native American wares. He came to California and joined the merchant marine in 1939. Following the second world war, he landed a job working for Mercury Records as their international sales representative. And then he represented a wine company.
But dreamers are seldom satisfied, and they are always looking for a great idea. Suffering from insomnia, Parkinson heard an ad for a sleeping aid from Canada with a not-so catchy name called Persomnia. He was certain he could come up with a better name than that, so he worked with a few chemists and developed a little pill he called Sleep-Eez. The product became well known, and by the time he sold the business in 1959, it was his first million-dollar idea.
He travelled to London, and it was there where he visited Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum, filled with heroes and villains throughout British history. Parkinson got a new idea: People would probably pay good money to see wax figurines of famous movie stars.
He returned to Orange County, now booming with growth and tourist dollars. Just down the street from a famous boysenberry farm, he began building his ambitious wax museum. His original plan was to include more than just movie stars. Hoping to cash in on the creepy reputation wax museums held, at one time he even considered creating a wax replica of the most horrifying image he could imagine: a concentration camp.
Fortunately, several of the local Temples and Jewish grammar schools got wind of the idea and began a letter writing campaign that convinced Parkinson to back off the idea. So he went with just the Hollywood stars, and on May 4, 1962, complete with a ribbon cutting ceremony that included scores of movie stars, Movieland Wax Museum opened for business in Buena Park.
It was a hit, and soon became the most popular wax museum in the United States, if not the world. With over 300 sculptures and dozens of recreated sets, the museum was a highlight of many a tourist’s trip to California. When attendance started to wane, Parkinson added the Palace of Living Art that recreated several famous paintings in three dimensions, as well as such famous sculptures as Michelangelo’s David and The Pieta from St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
But a true entrepreneur, Parkinson soon became bored, and looked for a new idea. He sold the wax museum to Six Flags, (who duplicated it in Florida) and found a new dream. He visited a tranquil park in Nara Japan, and he thought this would be his next adventure. And it looked for a while it might be another hit.
In 1968, Parkinson opened The Japanese Village and Deer Park, where visitors could escape the hustle and bustle outside the gate, and walk the quiet grounds populated with over 300 deer. They could feed them biscuits and send pearl divers down in a pool to see if their chosen oyster contained a pearl.
But the deer park was doomed. The deer did not thrive in the park just a few hundred feet off the Santa Ana Freeway, and five years later over 200 of them were diagnosed with tuberculosis. They desperately searched for other animals that could fill the void, but ten years after it opened, the park land was too valuable, and the maintenance of a zoo was just too expensive for declining visitors. Tourists now wanted bigger thrills, not warm, fuzzy coughing livestock.
Allen Parkinson died at age 83 in 2002, nearly penniless from bad investments, but never broken. His granddaughter said that even to his dying day, he was always asking “What would you think of…?” But Parkinson will be remembered for his many contributions to the OC. Though the Wax Museum was leveled, for many years the sign remained on Beach Blvd, next to the razed building and the former gift shop, which was converted to a bright yellow, circular Starbucks, across from the watchful gaze of several knights from Medieval Times.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Looking for a unique spot for a vacation? There is a place in OC that may be one of the most visible secrets you will find here at the OC You Don’t See.
Take a drive down Pacific Coast Highway from Long Beach toward Seal Beach, and just as you get to a curve in the road at Sunset Beach, you will see the famous Water Tower Home on the ocean side of the street. The tower was originally built in the early 1900’s to supply water to the steam locomotives that traveled up and down the coast. Those trains were long forgotten by the 1980’s, and the city was considering tearing down the 85 foot structure.
Developer George Armstrong had another idea. Partnering with his son, Dan, and anesthesiologist Robert Odel, Armstrong bought the structure (which was completely infested with termites) and began a long restoration project to turn the tower into the most unique home along the California coastline. Replicating the look of a water tower, the team removed the tank that once held 75,000 gallons of water and set to rebuild the enormous supports.
When they replaced the tank, they converted the structure into a three-story home with vista windows looking in every direction. Set high above the busy PCH below, you can view the entire coastline from Palos Verdes down to Dana Point, on a clear day.
An amazing home with a completely windowed third story, the developers sold the tower in 1995 to Gerald Wallace, who tried selling it several years later… and then again, and again. Seems no one wanted to buy a converted water tower with terrible street access. There is an elevator, but it is small, so most large pieces of furniture must be brought up the towering stairways.
Finally, some new developers bought the property, and now for the secret: You can reserve it for your very own water tower vacation. Yes, the Sunset Beach Water Tower House can be yours for a night or a week, and as of this writing, the cost is slightly less than $1000 per night… plus a $300 cleaning fee. You can book it today on Trip Advisor!
Monday, April 8, 2019
It was 1955, and Orange County looked to have a lot of tourist potential, provided all things went according to plan. Sure, there were many who scoffed at the idea of an amusement park based on Mickey Mouse, but there were many who doubted Walt Disney before, and regretted it.
So, just down Harbor Boulevard from where Disneyland was being constructed, Harvey and Charlotte found a piece of land where they could build a restaurant. The building was not that large, and sat about 35 people, but everyone knew about it for two reasons. First, Belisle’s was hard to miss. It was a bright pink landmark on the corner of Harbor and Chapman Avenue in Garden Grove. Harvey chose pink because he liked the way it drew your attention, just as it did for the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.
But Belisle’s Restaurant had one other famous caloric feature: the servings of everything on the menu were enormous. No, not just big, or generous. They were enormous. They served catfish, and hush puppies, beef ribs and meatloaf. They served stacks of pancakes and plates full of bacon. But these were not your average restaurant portions. The Los Angeles Times once described the meatloaf “about the size of the crankcase,” and the generous portions extended to desserts too, in the unlikely event you felt like more food. They had a banana split that looked like a mountain, and an enormous strawberry pie covered in whipped cream.
The place was open 24 hours a day and attracted people from all walks of life. Many will say that Belisle’s was built to feed the crews who built Disneyland, but Disneyland and Belisle’s opened just months apart. Still, there were hotels that sprang up along Harbor, and construction workers were regulars. And many notables stopped in as well, such as Ronald Reagan, Architect Phillip Johnson (Architect of the Crystal Cathedral, just east on Chapman), and even Cesar Chavez, who, as you might expect, requested that there would be no lettuce or grapes in his meal.
Belisle’s started out small, but it grew over time. The place was always packed, with lines waiting for the gluttonous portions of pancakes on Sunday Mornings. For a while, a large man dressed in a chef’s hat would stand on the corner flagging cars to stop by… a novelty back then, but as the novelty wore off, Belisle’s upped the game by adding a little person also dressed as a chef. They added wing on to the pink building, and a towering sign with a circus motif and changeable message board… though it almost always carried the same message: “5 out of 4 eat here.”
But all good things come to an end, and after 40 years, Belisle’s was closed and razed in 1995. The city of Garden Grove was in constant search of something to lure tourist dollars to venture south and tried several times to come up with something… anything… that might work. Their plan for the Belisle’s property was to build a world class hotel adjacent to a new “Riverwalk” shopping district, though the adjacent “river” was nothing more than a small wash. Through eminent domain, Garden Grove seized the Belisle’s place… and then nothing happened.
Maybe developers got cold feet. Maybe the land was not fit for a large complex. But for whatever the reason, Orange County mourned the loss of their beloved Belisle’s. Little did Garden Grove realize they just destroyed one of the best attractions they ever could hope for. Today there is a Red Robin on the corner where Fresh Pies were “daked baily,” and even though you can order bottomless steak fries, they pale in comparison to the load of potatoes you could get at the mighty little pink diner that once sat at the corner of Harbor and Chapman.
Monday, April 1, 2019
Today it seems unthinkable that any society would condone Jim Crow laws, but California had them, and not so long ago. Back in the early 20th century, shoreline areas in California that allowed African Americans access to a beach were extremely limited. In fact, of the 75 miles of California coastline in Los Angeles County, there were only two beaches available. Santa Monica had an area called the “Ink Well,” while Manhattan beach had, for a brief time, “Bruce’s Beach,” until local merchants more interested in segregation than a steady supply of customers forced the city to reclaim Bruce’s Beach in an eminent domain seizure.
In the 1920’s a group of black businessmen came up with an idea: they would create a resort; a private club for black residents of Los Angeles, but build it along the shores of Orange County, which as yet did not have as oppressive segregation laws as Los Angeles since the area was far less populated. After some searching, they were able to find and secure property in Huntington Beach, about a mile’s walk from the Beach Blvd Red Line drop-off.
The organization’s Board members were well-credentialed. It included Frederick Roberts who was the first black state legislator in California. Joseph B. Bass, was the editor of the California Eagle, and one of the founders of the Los Angeles NAACP, E. Burton Ceruti, acted as a legal advisor to the group.
The resort they designed was impressive. The Pacific Beach Club they developed included a club house and amenities for 1500 to 2000 people, a bath house, a dance hall, amusement areas, concessions, and even tent housing for camping. To many, the amenities were far superior to beach resorts found anywhere.
What few people know is that the Pacific Beach Club was built, and advertising in the California Eagle promoting the club touted it as "the beginning of the very foremost step of progress that the colored people have ever attempted." Membership was $50, (lifetime membership as $75) and it was set to open On February 12 (Abraham Lincoln’s birthday), 1926.
But there is no accounting for cowardly hatred. Huntington Beach was in the throes of an oil boom, and many of the wildcatters who came to work the fields had come from the south. Huntington Beach already had factions of the Ku Klux Klan in residence… right down to two baseball teams.
As Orange County grew, it fell prey to the same racism that plagued the rest of our nation. The city fought the club, making it difficult to get power and water lines installed. It took a legal fight to get the right of way across the railroad.
But the worst was yet to come. Two weeks before it opened, The Pacific Beach Club was burnt to the ground. A security guard saw the arsonist and later identified the culprit, but no one was ever prosecuted. The Pacific Beach Club was destroyed before it even began.
For the next six months, the California Eagle tried to spearhead a nationwide movement to rebuild The Pacific Beach Club, but they were unsuccessful, and efforts were abandoned the following November.
Today Huntington Beach sports a brand-new recreation area along PCH that includes several major hotels, restaurants, and a beautiful shopping center that welcomes all. Southern California has come a very long way in the years between.
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