News, notes and follow-ups

Category: local history

Garfield High plans tribute to Jaime Escalante

Garfield High will pay tribute to prominent former math teacher Jaime Escalante early Thursday morning at the East L.A. campus with a gathering of the school's ROTC, leadership students, band and drill team, administrators, staff and current and former students.

The school's memorial service is planned for 7:00 to 7:20 a.m. at 5101 E. 6th St.

Escalante, 79, died Tuesday at his son Jaime Jr.'s home in Roseville, Calif. Click here to read The Times' obituary that appeared in Wednesday's paper. More coverage is here.

-- Claire Noland

Jaime Escalante and great teachers: born or made?

Getprev The death this week of Jaime Escalante stirred memories of my first encounter with the famous teacher in 1988, when I was covering education for The Times. The issue of teacher quality was much in the news then, and I thought it would be interesting to examine the question of what separates the virtuoso from the average teacher.

So, of course, one of my first stops was Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, where Escalante had gained national acclaim for making calculus appealing to low-income Latino students and coaching them to unprecedented success on the rigorous Advanced Placement exam. His story was spread around the world in the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver," which starred Edward James Olmos as Escalante. (You can read about his career and the scandal that pushed him into the national spotlight in Wednesday's obituary.

I found Escalante behind a cluttered desk in a small office that adjoined his classroom. He was far from glamorous, dressed in a well-worn sweater and dark pants; his beret was the sole touch of style. The phone rang constantly, and students darted in and out, calling him by the nickname “Kimo,” as he shuffled through the papers on his desk that included a stack of phone messages a couple of inches thick. He seemed quite distracted, and I worried that I might never get my interview.

Then the bell rang, and the master was on. He had his shtick, which included an actual bag of tricks, out of which he pulled a variety of objects. Some served purely comic purposes, such as a series of funny hats, while others had more academic applications, such as a stick with a retracting string that he used to illustrate the mathematical concept of slope.

Yes, he was corny, but his approach was laced with such affection for his students that they forgave him. More important, they listened. And when they listened, they discovered that this short, balding Bolivian immigrant possessed a deep understanding of his subject, an essential element of great teaching. The funny hats hooked them, and his ability to explain the most abstract ideas in math kept them in thrall. For many students, the success they experienced in his classroom gave them the confidence to conquer an often hostile outside world.

Angel Navarro, a Los Angeles attorney who was one of those students, wrote to me Wednesday. He said, “Mr. Escalante was my AP Calculus teacher … and to this day he remains the single most influential person in my life. What I learned during the 10 months in his classroom 28 years ago continues to be the basis of everything that I do. Although he is gone, he lives through me and countless other ‘burros’ on a daily basis.”

Another former student recalled, “I was one of his Calculus students in my senior year in 1991. I remember how he caught me in class one day imitating him. I thought I was in for it. Instead, he made me do his impressions again and said, ‘Not bad, but you could do better.’ He was always pushing you to improve. He will be missed.”

My Escalante was a journalism teacher at Alhambra High School named Ted Tajima, who believed in me (Thanks, Mr. T!) and over the decades inspired hundreds of students with his reverence for the facts and insistence on simple, clear language. He was passionate as well as compassionate, a trait that may have come in part from his experience as a Japanese American interned during World War II.

Did you have a teacher who made a subject come alive for you? Do you think the qualities that make a teacher great are inherent, or can they be learned? I hope you’ll share your thoughts below.

-- Elaine Woo

Photo: Jaime Escalante in 1998. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Down the rabbit hole of paid obits

Some readers of the obituary page make it a daily stop as they cruise through the newspaper or the website. Judging by the feedback we receive, they peruse the offerings for different reasons. Some want to see who is the latest famous person to die; others are looking for a neighbor or loved one; still others know that even if they hadn't heard of the deceased before they may learn something new or simply enjoy a good story.

In this department we cover people who were newsmakers during their lifetime. Alongside the news obituaries are the paid obituaries, or death notices, placed by family members or close friends. Because they are not news stories, these accounts can include whatever information the deceased's loved ones wish to include and they can exclude whatever they like. It's how the family wants the person to be remembered. I have clipped and saved several newspaper paid obits about my family members, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

And even if the subject of a paid obit is not someone near and dear to you, the thumbnail sketches of lives lived can be fascinating and turn into daily required reading.

Santa Rosa Press Democrat columnist Gaye Lebaron is a devoted reader of paid obits, as Lebaron explains in this recent column:

As a habitual reader of obituaries — even those that announce the passing of strangers — I have found that the traditional death notice, wherever it appears, is almost always a window into history.

It’s not always local history. Part of being a dedicated newspaper junkie is reading the obit page in the dailies (and weeklies) we buy wherever our travels take us. If you’re staying a day or two, you can probably discern some east-to-west migration patterns.

These patterns are becoming less distinct as a younger, vastly more mobile population churns in all directions from the home base established by their elders.

You can read the rest of the column here. Ignore the tired old dig at L.A.

-- Claire Noland

L.A. modeling agent Nina Blanchard's rise to the top


Nina Blanchard, the founder of an internationally known Hollywood modeling agency who died Feb. 7 at age 81, borrowed $300 and a tiny office from a friend to launch the Nina Blanchard Agency in 1961. 

Most of the $300 was spent on a brochure featuring her models, which Blanchard mailed to photographers and advertisers.  But most of the few models she started with had no professional experience, Blanchard recalled in a 1986 interview with The Times, and she was in a panic when photographers soon began calling to book her models: "I thought, 'Oh, my God, they can't! These girls don't know what they're doing.'"

To buy time, Blanchard told the photographers that the models they wanted were unavailable.  

"Suddenly, the word was going around town that all my models were booked," she recalled with a laugh. "Then I started getting calls from other models, who said, 'We hear you're the hot new agent in town.' And they started coming to me."

One was top model Dolores Hawkins, who introduced Blanchard to Eileen Ford, whose New York modeling agency was deemed the largest in the country. "Eileen couldn't have been nicer," Blanchard said. "I would call her and ask, 'What do I do about this?' She gave me lots of advice. Then she started sending models to me here in California." Ford quickly became a close friend, and over the years many of Blanchard's models would work with Ford when they had New York assignments and vice versa.

By the 1980s, Blanchard's current and past models included well-known names such as Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Shari Belafonte, Rene Russo, Cristina Ferrare and Catherine Oxenberg.

The complete obituary of Nina Blanchard is here.

-- Dennis McLellan

Photo: Nina Blanchard in 1995, the year she sold her modeling agency to Eileen Ford. Credit: Carol Cheetham / For The Times

Claire L. Walters told men at war how to fly a B-24 bomber. They were not amused.

Claire Walters Reader Bill Warnock followed up his e-mail regarding my obituary of pilot and flight instructor Claire L. Walters with another recollection: “When I went through the sheriff’s academy back in 1970 (Hamilton County, Ohio), our psychology instructor told us, ‘Men hear, women listen.’ Valerie, that is so true.”

Here’s what Warnock had to say about some choice Walters advice to World War II-era pilots:

While stationed at Andersen AFB, Guam, I was told by my boss that Walters flew B-24 when Army Air Corps pilots were terrified of it because of numerous fatal accidents.

According to my boss, a former B-24 pilot, Walters advised: “You have to listen to the aircraft, it will tell you what’s going on. Treat it like a woman and listen to her.” Needless to say it made her as popular as a skunk at a tea party.

Remember when the first all-female Air Force Reserve crew flew a C-5 to Germany nonstop? There was not a single hitch. There was a lot of jeering prior to takeoff, none upon landing or upon return.

Warm regards,

Bill Warnock
Haymarket, Va.

-- Valerie J. Nelson

Photo: Claire L. Walters ran a flight school in Santa Monica and co-founded the annual Palms to Pines air race for women.

Century 21 co-founder Art Bartlett dies at 76

Art_bartlett_kvqyawnc Arthur E. Bartlett, a consummate salesman and co-founder of the real estate behemoth Century 21, died New Year’s Eve at his Coronado home after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter Stacy Bartlett Renshaw said. He was 76.

A firm believer in the power of the large, corporate brand, Bartlett pioneered the concept of conversion franchising, in which he convinced independent real estate agents across the country to don the signature mustard-colored jacket and market themselves as Century 21 salespersons.

The formula worked. Seven years after starting the company with Marshall Fisher, he sold the Irvine-based firm to Trans World Corp. for $89 million in cash and stock. These days Century 21, based in Parsippany, N.J., is a global firm with 7,700 independently owned offices in 67 countries and territories.

After selling Century 21, Bartlett tried the home repair business, founding Mr. Build International, which sold remodeling franchises to contractors.

A full obituary will appear later at

--Alejandro Lazo

Photo: Los Angeles Times

Al Martinez on the Mayor of 2nd Street


Fans and loyal readers of former Times columnist Al Martinez, who for decades chronicled the lives of Angelenos who were all special in their own way, will want to read his 1981 profile of Milt Wagenheim, also called the Mayor of 2nd Street.

Wagenheim, who died Dec. 29 at 91, was a friendly jokester who operated a downtown dry-cleaning business on 2nd Street between Broadway and Hill Street, adjacent to the popular Redwood Saloon (a more recent incarnation of the Redwood has a spot on 2nd Street, but that's another story).

Click here to read Al Martinez's story on Wagenheim.

-- Claire Noland

Photo: Milt Wagenheim at Civic Cleaners in 1981. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

Bit by bit, more on the lives of Soviet spies in L.A.


Three months after The Times ran a brief news obituary on a former Soviet spy who worked undercover with her husband in L.A. in the 1930s and '40s, we learn more about the stories of Yelizaveta and Mikhail Mukasey, otherwise known as Elza and Zefir.

Megan K. Stack, The Times' Moscow bureau chief, spins a yarn about how modern-day Russians are learning the fascinating details of the lives of these and other Soviet spies now that authorities are releasing more information about their work. She centers her story on Anatoly Mukasey, the son of the L.A. couple.

"I don't know much about their work, and most likely I will never know," Anatoly Mukasey said, sipping tea in a crammed Starbucks near his Moscow flat. He paused. "I don't think I'd like to know all of it."

During the long years of their parents' undercover operation after they left Los Angeles in 1943, he and his sister Ella grew up without them in Moscow. They were told nothing of their parents' whereabouts, only that they were abroad, and very busy. Meanwhile, the children lived under the care and tutelage of the Soviet system.


Like good Soviet children, he and his sister sensed that it was better not to ask too many questions.

"We began to understand because we received typewritten letters from Mom and Dad, and every year or three, a parcel would arrive in which our parents would send us some gifts," Mukasey said. "And we understood that these were foreign things, and that they can't write a letter in their own hand, and that this is part of the work. The work is dangerous."

It's a marvelous story worth reading to the end. And in case you are wondering, the different spellings can be attributed to different transliterations from Russian to English. I'm told by our excellent copy editing staff that the spellings in Stack's story are The Times' preferred usages.

Also, you can see more photos here.

-- Claire Noland

Photo: Mikhail and Yelizaveta Mukasey with their children Ella and Anatoly in front of their home in Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Credit: Mukasey's family archive.

Virginia McKinney gave homeless 'Joe' a last name -- and a family

McKinney “Her life could be a movie,” a colleague enthused of Virginia McKinney after copy editing her news obituary. When an allergic reaction to a flu shot left her hard of hearing as an adult, she founded a Los Angeles center in 1965 to help the deaf community’s hardest-to-reach cases -- the poor, the homeless, immigrants and people who had no language skills   -- and ran it until her death.

The story took a true big-screen turn when a teenager, deaf and homeless, showed up at the center with everything he owned packed in a string-wrapped paper bag. Unable to speak, he laboriously wrote out his name on a card: “J-o-e.”

The “Deaf Wanderer,” as a 1982 headline in The Times called him, could only outline his life in broad gestures: “Father die. How old? Four, maybe. Home. Afraid. Cry. Mother leave. Look for her. I don’t know. Cry. Look for her. Look for her.”

As his communication skills grew, McKinney realized that Joe had spent most of his life as a homeless drifter, including about seven years in Los Angeles sleeping in drainpipes and abandoned cars.

“He talks about ‘Walk, walk, walk, walk. Starving and hungry and sick and the whole world a question mark,' ” McKinney said in the 1982 article. “And that’s the story of his life. Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk.”

"At Last, 'Joe' Is Somebody, the Court Decides," The Times reported in December 1982 when in a single day, Joe was given a birthplace (Los Angeles), a birthdate (April 1, 1963) and a last name when McKinney adopted him.

Today, Joe McKinney is enrolled at the West Valley Occupational Center, said his older brother, Walter, whom McKinney adopted as a young child in 1962.

-- Valerie J. Nelson

Photo: Virgina McKinney started the Communicative Development Center in her Los Feliz home.

Steve Meltzer: Readers remember a puppeteer who 'brought joy to everyone he met'

Meltzer pic

My colleagues and I get e-mail -- boatloads of it -- especially when we’ve written an obituary about someone who seems to have truly connected with the community. Often, readers seem to have a need to share how a person touched their lives. Case in point: Steve Meltzer, a 56-year-old puppeteer who had a stroke hours after permanently closing his Santa Monica Puppetry Center. Here’s a sampling of the e-mails that have rolled in since Monday:

Ms. Nelson,

I want to thank you for your wonderful coverage of Steve Meltzer's life. I had the pleasure of working with Steve in the long-running production of "The Bar off Melrose" at the Melrose Theatre in Hollywood in the mid-1980s. This warm, gentle and talented man brought joy to everyone he met. Years later, when I had my son, my husband and I took him to Steve's puppet theater. He put on a special show just for the three of us.
Strangely enough, I was going through a closet this morning and came across a photo with Steve from the production ... just seeing his big grin made me smile. Less than an hour later my husband opened the Times and saw his obituary.
Thank you for an excellent job and for capturing the spirit of this lovely man.

Continued Success,
Joan Roberts Hickman
Los Angeles


Hi Valerie,

I read your article today about the passing of Steve Meltzer. Is there a way we can get a letter to the family? He meant a lot in our household. My father was a ventriloquist that Steve admired very much. They got to meet recently, and he also made a huge impression on my daughter, who now wants to be a ventriloquist and had seen his show numerous times.
Thank you!

Amy Langer Schwartz
Toluca Woods

(Schwartz's request to be put in touch with the family was forwarded to a friend who acted as the family spokesman.)



I have amazing memories of Steve since my daughter's 4th b'day party (9 years ago!) and most recently (this past June) spent a morning with him in his studio while he educated me on my ventriloquist puppet, Humphrey from the '40s!

Jan Haagen
Beverly Hills

-- Valerie J. Nelson

Photo:  In June, Steve Meltzer and a marionette paraded before the City Council to lobby for historic landmark status for the Bob Baker Marionette Theater.  Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Marc Christian and the story behind the obit

Christian Usually, when a noteworthy person dies, someone tells us -- a family member, a friend, a colleague, the mortuary acting on behalf of the family. In the case of Marc Christian, who earned notoriety in the 1980s after he sued former lover Rock Hudson for not telling him he had AIDS, all we had was an unconfirmed report published on a Village Voice blog. I was skeptical because a report of his death several years ago turned out to be a hoax. I wrote a blog item about the difficulties of tracking down Christian, and the clues started floating in.

I had noted that Christian's full name could be Marc Christian MacGinnis. Several readers pointed me to the Social Security Death Index. Sure enough, it had a record of the June 2 death of a Marc Christian MacGinnis, who was 56 years old. Based on 1985 news reports that gave Christian's age as 31, he would be 55 or 56 this year. But that wasn't enough upon which to base a news article. How could I be sure that these weren't two different people? I didn't have Marc Christian's birth date to compare to MacGinnis'.

I also had mentioned that the Village Voice offered the name of Susan Dahl as Christian's sister. A number of readers pointed me to the California Birth Index and the California Marriage Index, which showed a Susan MacGinnis whose mother's maiden name was Christian and whose married name was Dahl. A real estate record linked Dahl and Marc MacGinnis to shared property in Orange County, where Marc Christian had grown up. These were intriguing links that, as one genealogy buff who e-mailed me said, strongly suggested Marc Christian and Marc Christian MacGinnis were the same person. But no one could say with 100% certainty that they were.

Another lead was that Christian lived in a house on Knoll Drive in the Hollywood Hills. I then heard from a reader who said he had met Christian walking his dog in the neighborhood, and another who said he had attended an estate sale at the house and met Susan Dahl there. A property record gave phone numbers for Dahl, but when I tried them they didn't work.

Distracted by other assignments, I had forgotten that I had the name of the sales agent on the Knoll Drive house until I saw a comment from another reader, Robert Young, who said he had been a prospective buyer.

"You should reach out to the Realtor ... Tom Otero," Young wrote.

Friday morning, I called Otero, explained what I was doing and asked if he could help me contact Christian's sister. A few minutes later, my phone rang: It was Susan Dahl.

Thank you, Tom Otero and Robert Young!

Dahl said she almost didn't call me. She told me her brother hadn't wanted any "hoopla" over his death. But she liked my name, explaining that she had a friend with the same name as mine. So she dialed my number.

After I reported here that I had spoken to Dahl, a reader named Jerry asked a question: How I could be sure she was legit?

Jerry, are you trying to keep me up at night?

Seriously, though, he asks a good question. Reporters need facts, but we also are always operating on a certain degree of faith. We can ask questions to help establish the credibility of  a source, but we can't run background checks on everyone we speak to. In this case, Dahl had enough details that jibed with what I already knew to convince me that she really was Marc Christian's sister. I also subsequently spoke to three of her brother's friends, who provided further corroboration.

Only one mystery remains: What about the phony report of his death several years ago? Dahl had no answer. I guess I'll never know.

-- Elaine Woo

Photo: Marc Christian in 1989. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Avery Clayton memorial to be held Dec. 19

Averyclayton A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Dec. 19 for Avery Clayton, who established a library and   museum to showcase his mother’s major collection of African American artifacts. The service will be held at Agape International Spiritual Center, 5700 Buckingham Parkway, in Culver City.
Instead of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, 4130 Overland Ave., Culver City, CA 90230.

-- Valerie J. Nelson

Photo: Avery Clayton in a recent picture taken with a few of the pieces from his mother's collection that are part of an exhibit, "Central Avenue and Beyond: The Harlem Renaissance in Los Angeles," at the Huntington Library in San Marino through Feb. 8. Credit: Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times


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