Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
Dec. 29, 1957
Isn't this building cool, in its weird 1950s Space Age way? This is a wonderful detail from a Times ad for the opening of a Van Nuys Savings and Loan office at 8201 Van Nuys Blvd. The building is still there, but unfortunately, it doesn't look anything like this anymore. I'll try to get out to Panorama City for a shot in the near future. And here's a shout-out to the Van Nuys Boomers blog. Thanks for reading!
Update: It's unclear to me just how much the building has changed since 1957. Before I wrote the post, I found one online image that indicated the building had been fairly compromised by later remodeling. Richard Hultman sent me some satellite images that make it appear to be more intact. A field is definitely in order. Stay tuned!
You may be wondering why you are looking at a poster of the 1973 film "Bad Charleston Charlie." (And what a poster: the hair... the bloated lettering... the hearts... that suit! If this doesn't say "lousy 1970s movie" I don't know what does).
I can explain.
You see, I had planned to use the last days of the year to get caught up on a few stories that slipped through the cracks before we rolled over into 1958. (Yes, that's what we're going to do at the Daily Mirror).
Today, I was going to write about the introduction of videotape. Except that the subject of videotape, though it revolutionized broadcasting, is about as interesting as staring at a Betamax cartridge for an hour. (Hey, Grandpa, what's a Betamax? Oh, you kids).
In researching a post on videotape (which is about as much fun as it sounds) I came across the name of Kelly Thordsen, a former LAPD motorcycle officer who became an actor. Thordsen turns up in many films and TV shows from the 1950s into the 1970s, including 1957's "Fuzzy Pink Nightgown." He often played a police officer in contemporary films or a lawman in period pieces.
Thordsen was never the subject of a Times profile, but as a character actor he often ended up in three-bullet items at the bottom of a column, working regularly in projects such as "The Ugly Dachshund" and "Texas Across the River." And, five years before his death in 1978, "Bad Charleston Charlie."
So here's to you, Kelly Thordsen, actor and police officer. The Daily Mirror salutes you for capturing three robbers single-handedly in 1953--with only one pair of handcuffs.
As for videotape, NBC President Robert W. Sarnoff said in 1957 that the new recording medium would free television from the clunky technology of the day: kinescopes. NBC built what it called the Western Tape Center at its Color City in Burbank to house 11 videotape recorders, The Times said. NBC planned to go to videotape for the switch to Daylight Saving Time in 1958 to contend with the challenges of broadcasting shows in different time zones across the country.
Did I mention that "Bad Charleston Charlie" is out on videotape (but not DVD)? See, I knew I could pull this together if I thought about it.
Bonus factoid: As several people have noted, "Bad Charleston Charlie" was directed by Ivan "Izzy Sleeze's Casting Couch Cuties" Nagy, remembered today for his role in the case of Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss. Of course there are many claimants to the title "Hollywood Madam," including Madam Alex, and much earlier, Ronnie Quillan and Brenda Allen.
Aug. 13, 2001
They told me Ted Thackrey was dead, and I said yeah, sure, right. They said he had written his last 1,000 words with the kind of blazing speed that characterized his kamikaze style, and when he'd finished, he just closed his eyes and died. I said tell me another one and went back to work.
But then, as it happened, I discovered this Thackrey story was true. There was an obit in the small weekly newspaper where he once worked and then a memorial service. Even Thackrey wouldn't have gone that far, pretending to be dead, then popping up somewhere after all the tears and rituals were over.
It would be hard even for Ted to fake his own cremation. He was dead all right.
When I became convinced of it, I began thinking back to the guy who, if you'll forgive the arrogance of my conclusion, was newspapering's last great rewrite man. A hard drinker, a storyteller of the Baron Munchausen school and a man who wrote faster than a hurricane in hell, he defined a breed of journalists that no longer exists.
They were the ones who rarely left the office and whose bylines you didn't often see. They took notes over the phone from reporters in the field, shaped them into tight, readable stories in the chaotic final seconds before deadline, then went back to smoking and complaining until the phone rang again.
They were right out of "Front Page."
Thack worked here for a lot of years, terrifying young reporters even as he tutored them, demanding no less from himself than he did from them. He was known to simply hang up on lazy beginners who came to him with incomplete information and quietly praise those he couldn't intimidate. He was part of a rewrite row that included guys like Jack Jones, Dick West, Jerry Cohen and acid-tongued Jerry Belcher, the quickest wit south of San Francisco. I was part of the crew until I drifted off to other pursuits, leaving the frantic last-minute stuff to the guys who loved it.
"They wrote with grace and language," a former editor says of them. "They were fast, but they were literate. A Ted Thackrey doesn't exist anymore."
Thack and I shared the same desk for years. I'd use it during the day and he'd take over at night. We wrote, in those pre-computer days, on Remingtons that were old when I got there in '72 and broke down when you needed them most. After everyone had gone home at night, Ted would cannibalize other typewriters in the office and steal their parts in order to make ours the fastest, loosest and most efficient machine of all.
Stories about the man, a big, bald, wry kind of guy, are the stuff of make-believe. One has Ted contributing to the creation of a fictitious character they named Victor Frisbee in the old L.A. Examiner. An inside joke, Frisbee would pop up in stories as the eternal bystander, sometimes a sportsman, sometimes a philanthropist. When the Ex folded, a brief, front-page piece said simply, "Victor Frisbee, sportsman and philanthropist, died today."
Rewrite guys were a different breed. They yelled a lot and drank a lot and had bursts of temper that were legendary. Thackrey could slam-dunk a typewriter into a wastebasket in a fight with an editor and roar at slow or clumsy reporters in a voice that rattled windows. West, built like a bull, could, and occasionally did, express himself by knocking someone on his can when the mood took him, as fast with his fists as he was with a typewriter. Belcher could attack editors with the fury of a tiger shark, leaving them emotionally dead, then go back to writing the cleanest stories I've ever read in a newspaper.
When he wasn't setting a Remington afire with his awesome writing speed or teaching lessons in newspaper prose, Thack was a storyteller with a soaring imagination. According to him, he'd been a pilot with the Royal Air Force in World War II, a soldier in both the Korean and Biafran wars, a government agent in Vienna and an airline pilot in Southeast Asia.
In between, or so he always said, he'd been Ernest Hemingway's secretary and sparring partner, a phone psychic, a kind of ghost-buster and a pastor. He also wrote novels, short stories and may, or may not, have written one of the best science-fiction pieces ever, called "Arena." He churned out 1,000 words a day on his own, right up until two days before he died of cancer at age 82. Or maybe 84.
We never knew which of his many lives were real, concluding somewhere along the way that no one person could have lived them all. His widow, Diana, says she knew that most of his stories were true but wasn't sure about some of the others.
We'll have to settle for that, I guess. Sometimes his penchant for fiction crept into his news stuff, and it was ultimately the reason for his leaving The Times. He tried to create another Victor Frisbee at the wrong time, in the wrong place. As we said goodbye, this giant of rewrite row, humbled by his own deed, said simply, "It's a lousy way to end a career."
The program at Thack's memorial service listed his name as Thedor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Thackera Olwyn von Refrau und zu Holsten. Maybe there were two Thackreys, one of them Ted, who loved newspapering and reigned over rewrite as its once and future king, and the long-named guy who, like Baron Munchausen, told one story too many. It doesn't matter. Not really. The Thack I knew was unique to an era of journalism that exists only in the memories of those of us who were there.
Ted Thackrey is truly dead, but the legend lives. He is survived by us all.
In 1986, bedridden, frail and slowly dying in a Silver Lake convalescent home, 89-year-old Leonard Ewing Scott agreed to see a visitor, Times reporter David Johnston. Scott had been freed from San Quentin in 1978 after serving 20 years, released without supervision because the prisoner--one of the oldest in the state's penal system--refused to agree to parole as it would imply that he had truly killed his wife, Evelyn, in 1955.
Johnston was running down details for a story about new book. It seemed that where all the investigators had failed, a young writer named Diane Wagner had gotten a tape-recorded confession in 1984 for a manuscript she was writing, "Corpus Delecti." Scott told her that he killed his wife by striking on the head with a rubber mallet, wrapped the body in a tarp and buried it near Las Vegas.
The reporter asked Scott if he knew Wagner. Of course, said Scott, who was sometimes disoriented and edging toward senility, she was his third wife. In fact, he told another reporter, they went on a honeymoon to South America.
Had he seen the book, Johnston asked. No.
Johnston read the transcript of the confession as the convicted killer lay in bed, eyes fixed on his guest. Scott started to say something, then stopped.
"What do you want?" Scott asked.
What made him acknowledge the killing after all these years?
"Acknowledge it? I'd be a damn fool to acknowledge it--they never found the body."
As far as the California Department of Corrections was concerned, Scott was freed in 1978, but he remained in a prison of his own--a prison of denial--for the rest of his life.
Officials had tried to release him in 1974, but he wouldn't leave. Not that he didn't want to get out, for he spent most of his days in his 4 1/2-foot by 9-foot cell typing letters and legal appeals. They never found the body, he insisted, as he had since first fell under suspicion in his wife's disappearance.
More important, during the trial, prosecutor J. Miller Leavy hammered away at Scott for failing to testify. It was proof, Leavy insisted again and again, that Scott was guilty and afraid to take the stand. In a 1965 ruling in the case of Griffin vs. California, the U.S. Supreme Court found that such remarks violated the 5th Amendment. But the court did not make the ruling apply retroactively to cases such as Scott's. As far as the state was concerned, he had no grounds for an appeal. He continued his legal fight, but without success.
Then, in the fall of 1974, when he was 78, the state attempted to parole him for the first time.
"They pulled out a piece of paper and said, 'Here, sign this,' " he said. "I read it over and said, 'From just what in the hell do you propose to parole me? You know I'm being held here illegally, without a valid conviction.' Well, they were flabbergasted. They're all used to guys saying, 'Yes sir, no sir, whatever you say, sir.' But I won't do that."
The state made a second attempt to parole him in early 1978. Again, he turned it down.
A few weeks later, he sent a letter to Times reporter Gene Blake, who covered the trial in 1957.
"I told you some time ago that you would be the first to be given information when I leave this hellhole. I always try to abide by my promises," Scott wrote.
After refusing to be "suckered into accepting a parole," Scott said, prison officials told him he was being released. He slowly cleaned out his cell, which was filled with 500 pounds of legal files.
On March 17, 1978, 81-year-old Leonard Ewing Scott limped out of San Quentin, leaning on a cane after breaking his hip in a fall, and still wearing his prison denims with $200 from the state in his pocket. As he was released to some friends who ran a mobile ministry for truck drivers, Scott said his first act of freedom would be to sue his wife for divorce. She was still alive, he insisted, and had been arrested twice in Mexico for drunk driving. His first meal after being freed was a Big Mac, The Times said.
Two years later, Blake found him living on Social Security at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, having moved from Santa Monica because the rent "got too stiff."
"That's what I'm getting by on," he said of his Social Security payments. "It's not a hell of a lot. That's the reason I moved down here." And at 83, he was continuing to fight his conviction. "There was no legal reason for it," he said.
When Wagner began working on her book in 1983, she found Scott living in a seedy mid-Wilshire apartment, The Times said. She interviewed him repeatedly and he always told her the same story--he didn't kill his wife.
On Aug. 5, 1984, he called and asked to see her one more time, Johnston said. She went there the next day and he told her:
"Well," he said suddenly, "I arrived in Las Vegas about dusk.... I hit her in the head with a mallet, a hard rubber mallet. Just once. On the head, right on top."
According to Johnston's story, Scott said he wrapped his wife's body in a tarp, put it in the trunk of a 1940 Ford and drove to the desert six miles east of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He dug a grave, dumped the body, drove around to cover his tracks, then "went to sleep the car for a while. Then I drove back to Los Angeles."
As his health declined, Scott moved into the Skyline Convalescent Home in Silver Lake.* Reporters dropped in now and then, hoping that he would finally admit the killing. Tom Towers, who covered the trial for the Examiner, was a regular.
"I always felt that he did it, but I was just unable to bring all the pieces together to finalize my own conviction because there was no body," Towers said. "I visited him repeatedly because, like a lot of newspapermen, I felt if he is going to cop out he'd cop out to me."
Not that anyone believed his confession. Leavy, Towers and Arthur Alarcon, a federal judge who had been assistant prosecutor in the case, dismissed the idea that Scott could have killed anyone with a single blow from a rubber mallet, Johnston wrote in 1986.
"The important thing is he acknowledged he killed her," Leavy said.
Scott died Aug. 15, 1987, and his body lay unclaimed at the Los Angeles County morgue for more than a week, The Times said. He was 91 and left no survivors. Except for his single conversation with Wagner, Scott adamantly denied killing his wife. Why did he confess to Wagner? He told her it would make a good epilogue to her book.
* According to Scott's 1987 obituary by Ted Thackrey Jr., whose byline should be a red flag for careful researchers.
Early next year, the Huntington Library will open "Smith on Wry: Jack Smith, Columnist for Our Times," drawn from his papers and other materials donated to the San Marino museum. Exhibits will will include "string books," letters, photos, awards and, yes, his columns. I was quite impressed by the large turnout for a 2005 panel discussion at the museum with Curt and Doug Smith, and columnist Al Martinez. Nearly 10 years after his death, Jack Smith still filled the room. Not many columnists can make a claim like that.
"Smith on Wry" will be on display Feb. 15 through May 12 in the Library's West Hall.