In which some in-jokes get outed
Comes now the time to divulge two of the deeper secrets of L.A newspaper lore, which I had forgotten until dinner recently with Carolyn Strickler, former head of The Times History Center.
Their names are Victor Frisbie and Phlange Welder. Mark them well, for although they were not brothers, they were truly kindred spirits. Hidden though they may have been, there is no escape from Proquest.
In deference to age and seniority, I'll take Victor first.
Victor did not emerge from the forehead of Zeus, but rather from the fertile imagination of Los Angeles Examiner reporter Maury Godchaux, assigned to provide color for the paper's coverage of the 1950 Rose Parade, according to a 1962 story by Paul Coates. (And yes, there really was a Maury Godchaux. He even wrote for The Times in the 1940s).
According to Coates, instead of prowling chilly Colorado Boulevard, Godchaux "sat huddled in a telephone booth. At reasonable intervals, he dialed his city desk with a series of 'exclusives.' He never left the booth, pausing between calls only long enough to invent another imaginary person and set of 'facts.' "
On May 25, 1950, Godchaux died after being hit by a car. His wife, Miriam, had just dropped him off at Victory Boulevard and Bellaire and he was struck while crossing the street to the bus stop for the ride downtown to the Examiner.
In a tribute, Godchaux's fellow reporters decided to resurrect Victor Frisbie in their annual stories about the Rose Parade, Coates said. Mostly he was described as a visitor from Bakersfield, although he also put in appearances as a Cumberland, Md., dentist, a Minneapolis mortician and was once Brig. Sir Victor Frisbie of the Royal Australian Artillery.
According to Coates, in January 1962, the front page of the Examiner's final edition carried a boxed item: "BAKERSFIELD--Victor Frisbie, well-known sportsman and traveler, died here today. He was 58."
Victor's career went on hiatus for 15 years before he resurfaced in a 1977 Times story on a Laguna Beach landslide. As far as I can determine, his second and final appearance was in a 1985 Calendar story (above, right) in what was then the section's single-minded obsession with Bruce Springsteen, who was ending a world tour in a concert at the Coliseum.
In contrast, Phlange Welder had a far more illustrious career at The Times. Lore has it that Phlange debuted in a society column listing guests at a party given by Dorothy "Buff" Chandler. But, as is often the case, the lore is wrong. Phlange Welder first appeared in a Nov. 26, 1961, column by Joan Winchell titled "Around Town."
According to Proquest, Phlange was in the paper 32 more times, most recently in 1980. Phlange mostly turns up at the end of a long list of names, sometimes in the society pages, other times in coverage of the broadcasting industry (reporter Don Page was a regular offender).
He also appeared in the TV and radio listings (Phlange Welder was apparently a classical music figure, having composed a waltz, and served as conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra of London).
It was Page, in fact, who concluded a year-end wrap-up for 1961 by saying: Name to watch in '62: Phlange Welder.
And indeed, it was a year to flourish. In 1962, Phlange showed up skiing at Mammoth (Mary Matthew), sending letters to the editor (music critic Albert Goldberg on Stravinsky), writing from his summer home in "Viet-Nam" and spending Thanksgiving with friends in Hyannis Port, Mass., (Virginia Horn).
My favorite find: A bylined Phlange Welder story from 1962 (at right).
A 1964 staff report informs us that Phlange Welder was a UC Berkeley alumnus and he appears in a year-end poem by TV writer Cecil Smith, who rhymed his name (sort of) with Tuesday Weld.
A far more interesting reference appears in 1965 when Phlange attended the Bachelors Ball accompanied by Mary Greene, who became his regular consort. Society Editor Anne Sonne noted that Phlange was in costume as Agent 007 while Greene was dressed as Mata Hari. He also visited Palm Springs before jetting back to Brussels, according to another Sonne column.
Apparently the wags in the features section decided that Phlange needed a trip, because they reported that he left Brussels (where he visited consort Mary Greene) for a golf tour including St. Andrews in Scotland after a stop in England.
After a 10-year hiatus (more about that later), Phlange returned in a column by Pulitzer winner Martin Bernheimer in a satiric piece full of fake names.
And except for occasional memorial donations to The Times Summer Camp Fund, that was it.
According to Times lore (and a privately printed book by Evelyn De Wolfe), one of Phlange's main patrons was Pentagon reporter and columnist Ted Sell. The legend (note: legend) says Otis Chandler eventually learned of the prank and ordered that anyone putting Phlange Welder into a story would be fired.
Sell's Dec. 27, 1967, column, written in response to Chandler's purported order (again, we are dealing with myth), appears below. Pay particular attention to the first letter of every paragraph.
Ps. Michael Connelly's "City of Bones" includes a minor character named Victor Frizbe.