The Daily Mirror

Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

Category: April 2007

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Death in La Mirada

 

1957_0501_electrocute

May 1, 1957
Los Angeles

1957_0501_thompson All he wanted to do was keep their dog, Roxy, out of the flowers.

Two weeks ago, aeronautical engineer Neil Thompson, 30, rigged up an electric wire to shock the boxer if it got near the flowerbed of the home he shared with his wife, Mary Lynn, and their young daughter, Pamela, at 14342 Figueras in La Mirada.

He plugged the system into an outlet in the garage and staked a wire around the flowerbed. But he didn't have the right kind of fuse, so he improvised one, assuming that a 40-watt light bulb would provide enough resistance to reduce the current so it wasn't lethal.

When Thompson came home from work that night at 6:30, he went into the garage and noticed that the system's warning light was on.

Instead of finding the dog, he discovered his wife lying face-down on the ground in a pool of water with the her chest across the wire and a bump on her head. She had been watering her flowers with a hose when she received an electric shock.

 

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He called the Fire Department, but it was too late. When she was declared dead at Carobil Hospital,  Thompson became hysterical and was placed under sedation. They had been married three years. Until their daughter was born, Mary Lynn Thompson had tutored deaf children at the John Tracy Clinic.

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Follow the dots

More dots, on sale at Robinson's.

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A little elegance

I always enjoy looking at the fashion ads in old newspapers. The drawings give the pages a stylish, classic look that is impossible with photographs. (I swear, 1957 must have been the year of the dots in women's fashions).

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Now playing at the Wiggle Room

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April 30, 1957
Los Angeles

Some anonymous Times writer had fun with this story about the Exotic Dancers League. There are all sorts of gags about baring grievances, making motions and getting things off their chests.

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The story says the "gals" wanted to "bump" their weekly pay to $100 a week ($716.53 USD 2006), then they began "grinding" out complaints.  And of course they were outnumbered by the press: nine dancers and 20 reporters.

The Times said the organization, headed by Jennie "The Bazoom Girl" Lee, wanted heaters in the dressing rooms. The group was also trying to impose rules on mixing with patrons of strip clubs and sought to limit dancers' performances to three a night. And to raise money? A strip-a-thon.

Here's an ad from the Mirror that was considered too racy for The Times. Look who's appearing at Strip City, Western and Pico: Redd Foxx.

Here's a clip from "Sanford and Son."

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Matt Weinstock

April 29, 1957
Los Angeles

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A bus driver who hauls a cargo of housemaids to the Beverly Hills area daily on his early morning run heard a conversation the other day that made him realize life isn't always as orderly and legal as people might think.

Two women of about 50 got on his bus downtown and greeted each other warmly.

"I haven't seen you for about a year!" said one. "Where have you been?"

"Oh, I just work once in a while now," said the other. "I've got a baby."

"A baby? You?"

"Oh, someone gave it to me. She couldn't take care of it so she just gave it to me. I got it when it was a week old."

"Well, where is it now?"

"I leave it with the woman across the street when I work."

"Well, is it yours? Have you adopted it?"

"Oh, we didn't bother about that. The mother didn't want it so we just took it over. And it's such a pleasure. My husband and I just love it."

A knight on the town

       

1957_ad_queens

April 29, 1957
Los Angeles

When I saw this ad, my first reaction was: "You have GOT to be kidding me."

My next reaction was: "Maybe it's still there!"

Alas, no. The Queens Arms at 16325 Ventura Blvd. has been replaced by a Ralphs grocery store. And not even a Medieval-themed grocery store. What fun is that?

The Queens Arms was built by John and Chris Skoby, who also operated the Kings Arms in Toluca Lake. The restaurant was designed by Martin Obzina, the art director on "House of Dracula" and "House of Frankenstein." (OK, to be fair, he received Oscar nominations for "The Flame of New Orleans" and "First Love.")

Here's restaurant columnist Ken Tichenor's description from the Mirror: "Obzina built them a castle with turrets and spirals and huge doors and towering flaming torches outside. Also plenty of parking space.

"Inside, he placed heavy wooden beams overhead and stained wood pickets separating the three dining rooms and a wine cellar behind the bar and fireplaces scattered about."

Chris Skoby died in 1998 at the age of 75. As far as I can tell, the Skoby family's last restaurant in Los Angeles, at 20419 Devonshire in Chatsworth, is now a Denny's.

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Rigoletto Village

April 29, 1957
Los Angeles

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1957_ad_rigoletto02 One of my favorite adventures while working on the 1947project was revisiting old neighborhoods that I found in The Times real estate sections from 1907, a feature I called "Architectural Ramblings." Exploring the city, I discovered street after street of 100-year-old homes in the Adams district, Monrovia, Sierra Madre (which is celebrating its centennial this year) and Angeleno Heights.

But since I grew up up in a 1956 split-level tract home, the ubiquitous and banal 1950s developments held no allure for me. Then I ran across ads for Rigoletto Village, which offered the prospect of comic relief from true crime. Did the "Gilda model" have a pool? Did the "Duke model" have an attached garage? (A close second was Rebecca Park at San Fernando Mission Boulevard and Haskell Avenue. Did the "Manderley model" have a boathouse? I suspect not).

First of all, Rigoletto Village is way out in the West Valley, 26 miles from the Times Building. That means it's past Tampa, past Winnetka, past De Soto, past Canoga and past Topanga Canyon. And because the Ventura Freeway was still under construction, that meant commuting by car on surface streets.

Let's stroll see if we can learn anything.

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As for architectural significance, here's proof that you can gut a 1950s tract home and no one will care. If this were a Craftsman bungalow, preservationists would be linking arms around the building and singing "We Shall Overcome." But since it's by architects Bert Ameche (yes, that Don Ameche's brother) and Donal Engen, nobody is going to make a fuss. The owner is adding 1,146 square feet, just about doubling the size of the home.

 

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As you'd imagine, some houses are in better shape than others. Many of the garages have been converted to living space. These houses (in a choice of "Contemporary" or "Hawaiian" design) originally cost $19,950 ($142,947.41 USD 2006) and range today from the low $600,000s to the mid-$700,000, according to Zillow, although the home at 22861 Calabash sold in January for $371,500. That's Southern California real estate for you.

 

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And then, in the middle of all these 1950s tract homes, there's this. Would I want to live here? No, but at least it's not anonymous.

 

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This is what happens when you plant a palm tree too close to the garage.

As I get back on the Ventura Freeway for the drive home, I think about another aspect to the distance offered by the West Valley, for if Rigoletto Village is far from downtown Los Angeles, it's even farther from communities like Compton, Inglewood and Leimert Park, which were slowly being integrated in the 1950s. Recall that when Mayor Tom Bradley and his wife bought their first home in Leimert Park, they had to use a white intermediary because of deed restrictions.

ps. Today, even here in the West Valley, you can find day laborers gathered on corners at undercrossings beneath the Ventura Freeway.

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Reprieve


1957_0428_train_2


April 28, 1957
Los Angeles

A boy (and how anyone knows it was a boy is never explained) came across a stalled car on the Southern Pacific right of way near Valley Boulevard and Boca Avenue in Alhambra.  He  ran along the tracks to Farnsworth Avenue and flagged down the oncoming Sunset Limited, The Times says. 

The boy's actions saved the life of the driver, William Frasie McKeehan, 21, who was booked at the City Jail for being drunk.

 

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Rather like the Lone Ranger, the boy left before giving police his name. As for McKeehan, he died Aug. 20, 1989, at the age of 53, 22 more years than he would have had if  he hadn't been  spared that night.  Let's hope he made use of them.

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A shot in the dark

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1957_513_elm

April 28, 1957
Los Angeles

Let's park here and sit in the car for a minute. It's late, sometime between 11 p.m. on Jan. 3 and dawn on Jan. 4, 1957. The lights are on as if someone's home. Hear the music? That's the record player. Let me warn you before we go in that none of this will make any sense at all. Just a dumb little murder.

1957_0429_smasonMany streets in Alhambra are named for trees, like Poplar, Birch and this one: South Elm. There's a pair of these little, boxy duplexes, both 3 years old, that look like they were built at the same time by the same developer. In the picture above, 513 S. Elm St. is the front unit of the first duplex, and 517 S. Elm St. is the front unit of the second duplex. The matching duplex on the end, 521 S. Elm St., was built in 1958. The Times says she was murdered around the back in 515.

OK, come on in. Keep your hands in your pockets and don't move anything. Someone has already rummaged around.

That's her sitting in the hallway, leaning against the wall next to the telephone. Notice that it's off the hook. Her name is Susan Miller Mason. She's 28 and worked in Alhambra as a receptionist in the office of Dr. H. Lee Berry, a physician and surgeon. Her husband is named Raymond and he's a lineman. He's 30. I don't think they have any kids.

She's got a couple old injection marks on her butt and one that's fresh, which is from the shot that killed her. The medical examiner will call it acute morphine poisoning and says that based on the location, it's almost impossible that she gave herself the injection. She had asthma and the combination of morphine and asthma might have been what killed her.

About 6 p.m. on Jan. 3, she went to a doctor's office out in the Valley for a shot of cold vaccine in her left arm. When she got home, she and her husband had an argument and she threw a flowerpot and her beaded key case.  He left about 9:30  p.m., hit a few bars, spent the night in his car and went to work the next morning.

Berry, who lives at 1208 S. Garfield Ave.,  will testify that she called him about 1 a.m. and said she felt itchy all over. According to Berry, she said "Just a minute," then her voice trailed off and all he could hear was the music from the record player. He figured she was drunk again.

According to The Times, he says that because her phone was off the hook, he couldn't break the connection, so he had to go across the street to a hospital and call one of her neighbors to check on her. The Mirror says that Berry got a busy signal because her phone was off the hook so he went across the street to use a phone.

Either way, Mrs. Lena Talercio, 519 S. Elm, will say that Berry called at 1:15 a.m. and asked her go over to Mason's home. Talercio will say the lights were on and music was playing but Mason wouldn't come to the door.

1957_0429_hlberry In a few hours, according to The Times, Berry is going to call the Alhambra Police Department to check on Mason because she hasn't shown up for work, and Detectives Edmund Chappell and Carl Hoffman will come out to investigate. The Mirror, meanwhile, says Mason hadn't shown up at work for two weeks.

I warned you it was complicated.

The medical examiner will say Mason died about 11 p.m.--flat on her back.  That means someone came along and propped her against the wall. Notice there's no sign of the flowerpot or the key case. They're missing. And there's no hypodermic needle anywhere. If she gave herself the shot, there should be a syringe someplace.

About 1:50 a.m. this morning, Jack Case, 517 S. Elm, will hear a man say: "Susie! Susie! Let me in!" And a woman is going to say: "Be quiet or you'll wake the neighbors."  The record player is going to keep going until about 4:30 a.m., when someone will turn it down, according to Case.

At the inquest, Berry will say he had been treating her for about six or eight weeks and had given her several shots in the buttocks, but hadn't kept any records.  He will say that he bought 10 syringes of morphine from two Arizona men two years ago and turned over six of them to his attorney. He says he used two on an injured horse. He will claim that he asked Mason to clean out his medical bag a couple weeks ago and that when she was done, the two remaining morphine syringes were missing.

According to the April 28, 1957, edition of The Times, Mason was a hypochondriac and often hired a cabdriver to take her to doctors' offices all over Los Angeles, including the Valley, Pasadena, West Los  Angeles and Beverly Hills.

Berry's housekeeper, Elsie Otto, an immigrant from Brazil, is also going to testify. Otto will say that at the time of the murder, Berry's wife was out of town with one of their four children. She'll say that Berry went to his office for 10 minutes between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., got a phone call from Mrs. Berry about 10:30 p.m. and went to bed about 11 p.m.

Mason's husband is going to testify that after police left, he found the missing flowerpot behind the garage and his wife's key case in a kitchen drawer, although the detectives are certain neither of those items was there when they searched the house. The police will give him a polygraph test and he'll come back clean.

Notice that Berry's housekeeper hasn't said anything about a 1 a.m. phone call from Mason. Notice that we don't find out why Berry had Talercio's phone number. Maybe none of it came up at the inquest. Maybe The Times didn't think any of it was important. Notice that Berry had a neighbor check on Mason and that he called the police, who found the body. He could have gone over to the house either time. It's only three miles away. Notice that Berry's housekeeper is a Brazilian immigrant.   Just speculating, mind you, but if she weren't here legally she might be reluctant to rat out her boss.

Berry will also refuse to sign the death certificate, although we don't know why. 

All we we know for sure is that somebody moved her after she died. And we know none of the stories add up.

According to the Medical Board of California, Herbert Lee Berry graduated from the University of Maryland Medical School in 1943. He died in 1997.

We better get going. The police will be here soon.

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Head hunters

1957_0427_floristas06

April 27, 1957
Los Angeles

  I have somehow managed to miss out on coverage of the "Headdress Ball" staged every year by Las Floristas in which women wear the equivalent of Rose Parade floats on their heads in a fundraiser for children's charities.

Here's how they looked in 1957 in the newly renovated Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel.

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Above, Times society columnist Christy Fox, left, has a demure tiara while serving as TV announcer while Mrs. John M. Foley Jr. (recall that in the 1950s, married women had no first names), center, wears  "Love Is Crown Jewel" and Mrs. James Powell displays "The Imperial Jewel."

 

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And yes, they're still being given. Here's the link to coverage of this year's event.

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Locos

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April 27, 1957
Los Angeles

1957_0427c_2 Although the term "drive-by shooting" didn't appear in The Times until two decades later, what happened near 107th Street and Juniper has all the tragic characteristics that are so familiar today.

The victim was Fred Gallegos, 16, 10221 S. Broadway, whom The Times called a member of the "Quarters Gang" or "Little Quarters Gang," although Gallegos told police he was not a gang member.

The driver was Gilbert Rivera, 17, 8129 Santa Fe. Ave., a member of the "Florence Gang." His passengers were Richard Juliana, 16, 8021 Croesus Ave., and Henry Rodriguez, 18, 8127 Lou Dillon St. Police recovered two .22-caliber rifles at Rodriguez's house and two zip guns and some Molotov cocktails at Juliana's house.

According to police, Rivera's car circled the block before shots were fired into a crowd gathered at a traffic accident. Gallegos was hit in the abdomen and was taken to the Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, then transferred to what is now Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

Achiello Ernest Lopez, 18, 127 E. 85th St., chased Rivera's car and got the license plate number, even though three shots were fired at him, police said.

Soon after, teenagers in a car fired shots at another auto as they went west on 66th Street between Avalon Boulevard and San Pedro Street., The Times said. (A neat trick since 66th doesn't connect to San Pedro).  One bullet hit the auto of Henry R. Elias, 19, 8125 Marbrisa Ave., who told police he was not a gang member.

Police arrested Valentino Renteria, 3280 Compton Ave.,  Henry A. Mangaser,  17,  8620 1/2  Makee Ave.,  and Joe Louis Martinez,  17,  1408  E. 59th.  and  found a shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle in the car.

Unfortunately, The Times never followed up on this story. But the violence continued. On Sept. 1, 1957, members of the "Little Quarters" standing outside 10216 Lou Dillon St. fired at a passing car in the mistaken belief that it was carrying rival gang members. They killed Emily Guzman, 18, 3238 E. 120th St., another Quarters member.

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Again, The Times didn't follow up on the story.

The next year, Florence Gang member Richard Vasquez, 17, 243 E. 119th St., was shot to death as he sat at the bus stop at 119th and San Pedro streets after he threw a bottle at a car driven by George Guerena, 244 W. 61st., a Quarters member.

And again, The Times didn't follow up on the story.

On May 12, 1959, two members of the Peewees set of the Florence Gang were shot by Quarters members near 8315 Maie Ave. The Times identified the victims as Victor Maza, 16, 347 E. 84th St., who was hit in the chest while walking along the streetcar tracks, and  Raymond Velasquez,  16,  2040  E. 76th St.,  who was  struck in the arm.

And no, The Times didn't follow up on the story.

First use of "vato loco" in The Times: 1974.

First use of the gang term "home boy" in The Times: 1975.

First use of "drive-by shooting" in The Times: 1977.

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He was no Cupid

1957_0426_hed

April 26, 1957
Los Angeles
 

Albert Duarte, 20, was tired of hearing the noise made by the wrecking crews day after day as they demolished a building at 1st and Hope streets.

So he got a 5-foot bow and shot an arrow at them.

Charles Ousley, 25, of 11610 S. San Pedro told police he was standing in the bed of a dump truck when the arrow whistled past him.

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The foreman of the crew, John Trott, 30, of 1215 S. Server Ave., in Montebello, looked up at the apartment building and saw a figure in the window at 700 W. 1st St. "This work is dangerous enough without somebody shooting arrows at my men," he said.

Duarte had fled by the time police arrived. But they confiscated his bow and arrows, The Times said.

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