Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Seal Beach Red Car Museum

It wasn’t all that long ago that Southern California had a comprehensive mode of public transportation system known as the Pacific Electric Streetcar, or more commonly, the Red Car. Running for 60 years from 1901 to 1961, the privately-held system connected Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties in one of the nation’s largest network of trolleys, railcars and busses.

Largely running on a standard gauge track powered by overhead electric cables, the sprawling network of tracks ran routes connecting Los Angeles to Covina, Redlands, Corona, Baldwin Park, Torrance, La Habra and Newport Beach. They were efficient and comfortable, giving riders easy access to downtown Los Angeles and neighboring communities.

Photo: The Seal Beach Red Car Museum
The Red Car partnered with another system, the downtown Los Angeles Yellow Car, and met with much success as developers began to construct new communities like Angeleno Heights and Huntington Beach.  Over 900 miles of track made up the network in its heyday in 1920, and everyone used the Red Car.  The history of expansion, ownership and partnering companies is complex, yet amazingly, it all worked.

As the Southern California population grew, officials began to realize the lumbering Red Cars (top speed 14.8 MPH) were not going to meet the demands of traffic generated by all these communities. The Automobile club came up with a proposal in 1930 for an “elevated motorway system” that would replace many of the major Red Car routes. As traffic mounted, the street-bound Red Cars were often delayed.

Sections of the line that were least travelled began to be closed.  The Whittier/Fullerton area lost their line in 1938; in 1940 more closures hit Redondo Beach, Newport Beach, Sawtelle, and Riverside. The freeway system began construction, and when the San Bernardino Freeway began construction to connect to the Santa Ana, the junction area near Union Station in Los Angeles became nearly impassable for the Red Car.

The Red Car’s fate was sealed, and the system steadily declined as it became obsolete. Under new ownership by the MTA, the last car ran the Long Beach run in 1961.

A truncated homage to the Red Car’s is paid at Disney’s California Adventure sporting a streetcar designed in a typical Red Car style.  But to see a real Red Car that actually ran on the tracks, take a visit to Seal Beach, where the Red Car Museum resides.
The museum is small and housed in what was once the Red Car system’s maintenance vehicle, the Tower Car, vehicle No. 1734.  You can find it on Electric Avenue near Main Street, next to the Library. You can watch a video that recreates a ride on the rails, see artifacts, and visit with docents who can show you signs, tickets, hats, pictures and other memorabilia.  It is open the second and fourth Saturdays from Noon to 3 p.m Donations are accepted. Call: (562) 683-1874.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Orange County Parrots

photo from 1000Birds.com

In the spring and summer, it is not uncommon for OC’ers to wake up to the call of wild parrots.

Okay. It’s more like a screeching.

In many cities of Orange County, from Garden Grove to Yorba Linda, you are likely to find the non-native birds chasing each other through the non-native eucalyptus trees.  The trees were brought and planted by ranchers hoping to make wind rows from the fast-growing Australian trees. The parrots’ origin is a little less traceable.

Most of the parrots here are red crowned parrots, originally from Mexico. Some speculate that since habitats in Mexico have been lost, the migratory birds headed north. Most people prefer to tell the story of an unnamed Orange County pet shop that caught fire one night in the 1980’s. The story says that the owner, in a panic to save the birds, released them into the streets, and off they flew to live and breed anew.

Others tell more disdainful stories, one blaming the corporate and now defunct Lion Country Safari for releasing the birds when they closed. Still others cite illegal bird smugglers dumping their inventory before being cornered by the law. And we are pretty certain they are not animatronic refugees from Disney’s Tiki room. 

Whatever the source, the birds are here en-masse, at least for the time being. Other species have been spotted, including the red lored parrot, the lilac-crowned, the yellow headed, and a couple of species of parakeets, the mitered and the rose-ringed.  In addition, there are rarer sightings of blue macaws, which are most certainly the descendants of an individual-owned bird that got loose.

We ourselves rescued a small budgie parakeet from starvation in the Orchard Hills Shopping center in Irvine.  We named him Chico, because that’s the store nearest him when we found him.  Winestyles was closer, but it didn’t seem to be a very bird-like a name.

Sometimes loved, sometimes hated, the birds are doing well here, which is good for the species. Many ornithologists consider the parrots to be endangered in other parts of the world.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Marconi Automotive Museum

If there was one lesson John Marconi wanted to pass on to his children, it was this: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”  John began working in a steel mill in Ohio when he was just 17 years of age making $7.50 a week.  He married and raised a family of four children: two daughters, and two sons. John steadily rose in the company, eventually becoming supervisor over several hundred people, demonstrating his work ethic to his children.

It was a lesson son Dick Marconi never forgot.  When Dick got married in the 1950’s, he and his wife brought their daughter to California with just $500 in Dick’s pocket.  He immediately sent out hundreds of letters to various companies in search of work.  He eventually landed a sales position with a pharmaceutical company and began his quest to find his own fortune.

But Dick began to have some misgivings about his career.  “How come,” he pondered, “Do people wait until they are sick to seek health?”  Shortly after starting to work for another company, Dick ran into a young man who was very charismatic but had a troubled past. Mark Hughes was only 17 but had an idea that appealed to Marconi. He asked Dick if he would help him start a company that promoted healthy living. 

Dick was never one to put in half of an effort. He remembered well one of his mother’s sayings: “Coming in second means you are first in a long line of losers.” Dick threw all his energy into the young company, and that little company became Herbalife, the world’s largest manufacturer of vitamins, food supplements and weight-loss products.

With his success, Dick began indulging his love of cars.  His brother Ray had won the family car in a contest when he was young, and Dick developed a taste for muscle cars.  When he found a classic, Dick bought it. That led to an interest in open wheel racecars, and eventually Dick wanted to try racing for himself.  In 1994 he joined the SCCA and entered the Long Beach Grand Prix.  He came in 8th.  Dick was the oldest driver to ever qualify and finish in the top 10.

John Marconi had another philosophy he lived by: “Learn, Earn and Return,” and Dick felt it was time to do something to return to the world some of the benefit of his success.  Dick and wife Bo hit upon an idea of taking his car collection and creating a museum showcasing it.  They began the Marconi Automotive Museum and Foundation for Kids, and if you are an auto buff, prepare to be impressed. They say they hold the largest collection of Ferrari’s in the US.

Located in Tustin near the 55 Freeway, you can visit the Marconi Museum on most weekdays unless an event is being prepared (they are closed on most weekends) and browse through over 70 cars at your leisure (a $5 donation is suggested).  Money donated goes toward children’s charities, such as CHOC, Childhelp, Olive Crest and the Orange County Rescue Mission. 

The museum is available to hold special events (especially charitably oriented events), weddings, and hosts several events of their own, including a Fight Night Dinner (yes… real boxing), and their Open House Meet the Founder event, this year on August 11, 2019. 

Visit the Marconi Museum at 1302 Industrial Drive in Tustin. Call first to confirm if they are opened that day (714) 258-3001, or for more information regarding events.  
Photo by Brian Paradis

Monday, July 8, 2019

Mooning the Amtrak

This is it.  Saturday July 13.

For the past 40 years, people have been mooning the passing Amtrak train as it grinds past a little dive bar in Laguna Niguel named Mugs Away Saloon.  The bar sits across the street from the railroad tracks, and if you go on the second Saturday in July, everyone elbows for a spot along the chain link fence for the honor of dropping their drawers.
Photo Credit Chuck Coker, Flicker

While the story origin varies depending on who is talking, tradition say that on July 14, 1979 a crusty regular of the dive bar offered to buy a beer for anyone who dared bare their backside to the next passing train.  Ever since then, people have been flocking to Mugs Away for the annual event. So Steeped in tradition, the Amtrak actually slows down on that day as it passes by.

For a while, the spectacle was getting quite raunchy.  What started out as a little prank grew into a full-blown, frat party-like atmosphere.  People brought their RV’s to park in some of the nearby parking lots in order to reserve a spot, tailgate, and watch the fun.

Mugs Away Saloon is a small, stifling little room with insufficient air conditioning, and on the day of the event they hire a really bad nostalgia band.  No matter. No one comes for the music.  They barely come for the beer anymore.  They just want to watch the debauchery unfold.

A few years ago, the Laguna Niguel police department “cracked down” on the mooning, as too many people were showing much more than a brief flash of butt.  The following year, things were much more subdued, but as time has passed people continue the push the envelope.  Skimpy (but legal) attire is often on display, as passengers on the train cheer and give thumbs up to the crowd.

If you want to take part, plan to arrive early, and stay late: Planning on doing a drive-by isn’t suggested. Some years people are required to demonstrate they have business along the route in order to pass. These days, most of the local shops just shut down. 

The address for Mugs Away Saloon is 27324 Camino Capistrano, Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Pirates of Dana Point

When you think of pirates and Orange County, you probably start hearing a song in your head about “A pirate’s life for me.”  For the most part, a pirate’s life wasn’t very long.  Once they started a life of pillaging, plundering, and not giving a hoot, a pirate soon became known as a criminal, and was headed for either the gallows or Davy Jones’ locker within two or three years.
From The Bowers Museum
One such pirate managed to outlive the average, and as it would happen, Hippolyte Bouchard spent many days hoping to get a foothold along the California Coast in order to claim it for his home, Argentina.
More a privateer than a buccaneer (meaning he did pirate-like things on behalf of a country), Bouchard was one of the first people to circumnavigate the globe seeking adventure and riches.  He fought in scores of conflicts, each one bloodier and crueler than the previous.  He sailed to the Hawaiian Islands where Bouchard met with Kamehameha I.  Mutineers has seized control of one of Argentina’s ships named the Santa Rosa and tried to sell it to the Kamehameha. 
Bouchard recognized some of the mutineers during his investigation and realized their treachery.  Through complex negotiations with the Hawaiian Ruler, (Kamehameha expected to be repaid for the ship), Bouchard gave the king his sword and Commander’s hat in exchange for the now largely dismantled Santa Rosa.  He had it refitted, pursued the mutineers to Kauai, where he had them savagely whipped and executed.
Next stop: California, to exploit the Spanish trade.
They took their ship and the Santa Rosa and headed east toward the Monterey Peninsula. Bouchard seized control of Monterey, raised the Argentinian flag, and claimed the peninsula. They stormed the fort, raided the armory, stole the cattle and burned the Governor’s mansion and Spanish residences to the ground. The locals were left alone. The Spanish reclaimed what was left of the fort six days later as Bouchard headed south.  
More pillaging north of Santa Barbara, more hostage negotiations.  And then on December 16th, 1818, Bouchard sailed down into Dana Point Harbor.
The Argentinian Captain’s reputation preceded him.  Knowing the bloodthirsty pirate was on his way, the people of San Juan Capistrano hid what valuables they could, especially the artifacts made of gold in the mission chapel.
The Spanish soldiers based there went to meet the pirates as they arrived telling them a large garrison was about to descend on them. But you can’t bluff a pirate. Bouchard ordered his men to pillage the town and take what they could.  “But keep a weather eye especially for rum!”
As far as pirate raids go, it was not the best. What the crew mostly discovered was the local wine, which they carted off to the ship.  There they drank their fill until they were too drunk to fight.  Some even had to be carried back to the ship. When they sobered up, they travelled on to Mexico. The OC got off light.
Bouchard lived long after the OC raid. He served Argentina, Peru, and Chile, finally retiring in a fine residence given to him by the Governor of Chile.  He lived for 58 years and may have lived longer if he had not died at the hand of one of his servants. He never knew his daughter from a period before his world travels began. 
Legend has it that there is still treasure hidden in the nearby hills that the drunken pirates never found. The monks are long gone, and as they say, “Dead men tell no tales.”  But should you live in the hills off Oso parkway, and you come across treasure, you might want to give the Mission San Juan Capistrano a call. 

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